Knock him down, Maanu gets back up again

After talking to Maanu for about an hour, an uninterrupted block of time spent discussing music and the Pakistani indie scene, I realise what I’ve enjoyed so much about the conversation: his enthusiasm. It’s been about 4 years that I’ve been running this blog, and that’s about 4 years of interviewing cynics and ironists. For good reason too, these artists have had their enthusiasm stamped out over the years. Lack of funding and appreciation will do that to a person.

But with Maanu, there’s a resilience that bleeds through. He tells me a story about when he showed his music to a very very famous Pakistani musician. “I was just 16 at the time,” he says, “and this famous musician listens to it and says ‘tum ne toh maa behn aik kardia hai gaane ka'”. Maanu, sitting with his friend and manager Sikki, both burst into laughter. It’s funny now, he says, but at the time he was just 16. “You should sing more like a Jutt”. That was the advice the musician had given him at the time. “I don’t mind criticism, but that kind is not really constructive”.

Later, Maanu would meet another famous Pakistani musician, in the most unusual circumstances. “I met Ali Hamza when he was a Careem Captain as part of a promotional campaign”. Maanu played his music, and they drove around Lahore listening to his rough tracks. “He was super sweet and encouraging”, says Maanu, and the experience was another reason to be enthusiastic.

Maanu at his home in Lahore. Picture: Mosiki

Now Maanu, aka Rehman Afshar, is releasing each track from his new album ‘Yain City’. The album seeks to give Lahore a new musical identity, with the yain representing both the excitement and the chaos of the city. Afshar depicts this dichotomy by splitting himself into an alter ego: on these songs there’s Maanu -- the more mature young adult -- and then there’s Chotus, an angsty chaotic force, brimming with discontent.

The album so far has been a cocktail of genres and styles, and although it documents Lahore as a geographical entity, the songs also serve as a kind of time capsule, charting Afshar’s varying interests and influences. His first song, Baad Ki Baatein, was a teenage bop, but the production from Jamal Rahman was uncharacteristically thin and anaemic, and the flows were still a work in progress. Maanu himself admits these shortcomings in his early tracks, and his discography so far shows remarkable growth and willingness to experiment.

My favourite song of the album so far, Aik Khata, is as diametrically opposed to Baad Ki Baatein as possible. Featuring a gorgeously melancholic warbling guitar loop produced by Zahra Paracha, Maanu laments over the top about his mistakes. ‘Meray sab gham ho teray’, he sings. This is meant to be toxic, it’s meant to show my flaws, he explains. This album is supposed to be ‘more confessional, more personal’, and that comes across most clearly in Aik Khata, while also showcasing Afshar’s incredible ear for melody. Khwaab‘s earworm chorus is a testament to that.

I ask him about the ‘F word’. For most rappers in the independent Pakistani hip hop scene, Faris Shafi is a shadow that looms over everyone. His flows seem to trickle down, his debased humour and political venom are much emulated but rarely surpassed. “I’m a huge Faris fan,”, Maanu says. When he was younger, a few of Maanu’s rough hip-hop songs were met with a ‘acha hai, but bohot Faris hai’. So Afshar began digging his own trench, focussing more on personal and confessional rhymes, digging inward rather that seething outward. “I’m a flawed guy”, he says, “and that’s what I want to show”. He used to be embarrassed writing cheesy, heart-eyed love songs, but now he celebrates it. “Cheesy is fine!”. Taranay is probably the best example of this; a sweet romantic acoustic love song. It’s cheesy, but in the best way.

With the release of Yain City, Maanu has shown himself to be a versatile and diverse artist, working with some of the most promising producers and collaborators including Zahra Paracha, Talal Qureshi, Abdullah Siddiqui and more. He’s already thinking about the future. This album has been a work in progress for a while, and he’s itching to get his new songs out there.

As we finish up, I’m struck by his lack of ego, and his excitement and enthusiasm about the music scene. I sometimes fall into cynicism, wondering the point of any of this, and if we’re all just circling the drain, waiting to be flushed away at a moment’s notice. With Maanu, the resilience that our artists need is on obvious display, as is the talent.

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