The song of the soul

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The 30-year long career of brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant has been built on passion, perseverance and determination, and that was evident on the day of our shoot, because as soon as Salim entered the studio where we were shooting and saw a piano, he couldn’t resist and immediately sat down to play a tune. A minute or so into it, he looks at me and exclaims “yeh toh out of tune hain.”

The brothers grew up in a family where music was tradition. “It has been quite a journey,” they tell me. “Our father was a composer and a multi-instrumentalist. He worked in the south Indian film industry. After that he come to Mumbai and did three movies which did not do well at the box office, so he started manufacturing musical instruments, but, he also on the side was composing music. So, when we grew up, we never had toys, we had musical instruments as our toys and that was a great start for us. We were just born in the world of music starting at the age of 6. I mastered the piano at the Trinity College of Music in London and Sulaiman took up tabla training with legends such as Taufiq Qureshi and Ustad Zakir Hussain. We started producing music in 1992,” said Salim.

The brothers may have been cast in the time-honoured tradition of musical jodis in Bollywood and though their hyphenated stage name might be a default, they tell me, that there have been no fights and they creatively shape music. “I do a lot of drum programming and rhythmic elements, Salim starts with the composition and melodic elements and then we merge together. So we work as a team and we cross bleed into each other, yet stay away from each other, says Sulaiman. “There are arguments ofcorse, creative arguments which get resolved by the way of talking, but we’ve been now working together for more than 30 years so we understand each other’s zones and spaces and we have a common goal- being innovative everytime we make music,” says Salim. Music in Bollywood has evolved over the years and so have the love songs, so when I asked the brothers about how we no more hear timeless love songs like kabhie kabhie mere dil mein khayal aata hain or pal pal dil ke paas, they explain that the tone, rhythm and depth of the lyrics have changed with each decade. “Our music has evolved because our movies have also evolved. The movies were reflective of that time, but now things have changed, society has changed, culture has changed and so has the music. The music today is reflective of the films that we make. But I have always noticed that whenever you have done an old world kind of a song, it always becomes a timeless classic. Songs that are trendy and have that cool element sort of diffuses. What made kabhie kabhie mere dil mein stand apart was the lovely lyrics and the timeless melody. It didn’t matter what kind of instrument that was. Even today, there are songs that work really well. So, after 20 years you will see that the songs like that, Ishq Wala Love, O Re Piya and Shukhran Allah, among others, which have a timeless melody, will go on and on,” says Salim.

when we grew up, we never had toys, we had musical instruments as our toys and that was a great start for us. We were just born in the world of music.

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However, according to Sulaiman, when one looks at the younger generation today, everlasting love is not really a thing right now, it’s more casual and relationships develop after a certain point so the music is in tune with today’s time.

The duo says that music is all about change and change is the only constant. In the 30-odd years, they have reinvented themselves overtime to produce quality music. “We started our journey in 1992, but it wasn’t a deliberate thing to change. We have just been up to date with what’s going on and made music that reflected that time. But as we grew as human beings and experienced changes around us, we were inspired and that brought change to our personality. Today, we are nurturing new talent, thereby also learning newer things,” says Salim.

The Merchant men are committed to moulding their own legacy and making it unique. Their music derives influences from folk, sufi. “Legacy is my foremost thought always. But, there is one thing I know for sure is that our songs especially sufi, folk and devotional songs have a strong melody that make them timeless. So automatically you start thinking that you either make fast food (music) or you produce something that is everlasting. It might take some time for it grow and build, but there are songs like Noor-e-Ilahi which we did a few years ago, it is still the most popular song on our youtube channel, it’s something that has stuck with a select crowd and they come back and listen to it every day. After a point you realise that there is a certain expectation from Salim-Sulaiman, they come in listening to Noor-e-Ilahi or Shukran Allah or Ali Maula and they want to hear those kinds of songs. They want the feeling of divinity and devotion and it is something that they look for and for us it is almost like a responsibility to be able to cater to the audience that we have,” says Sulaiman.

So what draws the Merchants of melody towards Urdu or Arabic words which are often used in their songs? “I think it was our childhood, we grew up as Ismaili Muslims and knowing about our faith, culture, traditions and language drew us to use those words in our songs. We both have always been drawn towards culture and tradition, and putting that into poetry and pushing it to mainstream music gives us happiness. Bringing in knowledge through your art is a great vehicle and when people listen to our songs they wonder what certain words mean, thus we help them gain knowledge too,” says Salim.

Their music has really touched the chord with the audiences, and Sulaiman feels that it is their responsibility as composers to be able to educate people, give them peace, divinity and pass on the knowledge of their culture and religion. “If you are looking at a song as a quick hit, that’s where you miss out on imparting your knowledge and who you are. Your music is a reflection of your personality and that is what you have to be able to give out through your work.”

The duo however, did not let the pandemic and lockdown affect their creativity and morale as they have been making music from their home studio and also launched their recording label ‘Merchant records’, which has been a part of their long-term plan to chart a career independent of the Hindi film industry.

Legacy is my foremost thought always. But, there is one thing I know for sure is that our songs especially sufi, folk and devotional songs have a strong melody that make them timeless.

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We envisioned our passion-project, which is the record label for a long time now. We have been releasing independent music outside of the film industry- be in devotional songs or singles. But during the lockdown, we finally decided to structure it properly so that the aspiring musicians and undiscovered talent can come under an artistic umbrella. It is a tool that empowers other singers, composers and lyricists to release their music through us. We had a massive album called Bhoomi 2020 and we felt that it would be great to have a proper label that distributes music to all the platforms. The label does not have a creative ceiling whatsoever. From electronica to classical, there is no genre that isn’t welcome. Having said that, it does not mean that film music will not happen; that will keep going on. We have always been courageous and bold about doing things out of the box. Currently, the music of our film Power has been released and we have also produced music for an indo-american film called skater girl. But we have been very selective about our films, because after a point you have to just choose your projects and that gives us more time to produce music that we would like to make,” says Salim.

Sulaiman said, “Without the label it becomes such a chaotic world because you have a certain amount of things that goes into releasing a song or a music video and making sure it is delivered to the right people and is heard on the right platforms. When you have a music label, it gives that whole chaos a very beautiful structure and it becomes a process. I think we were also chaotic at one time and we like the structured system now.”

The duo feels that there is a need to create good music without getting worried about its fame “Since the multiple composers system started in Bollywood, everybody wants to prove a point- my song is the biggest hit. It’s a formula they follow, like the mukhda should be this, or the baseline should be that, or there should be a hook which will be nice if it has a thumka or a cheap word which has swag. What happens with these kinds of formulas is that they might work, it will rise on the music charts, but will also fall very quickly, then it’s just forgotten,” says Salim.

“It is more to do with the record label asking for a particular song, it’s not about the composer, he may have the capability and even the desire to do something more long term, but when a record label turns around and says, I don’t like this song, I want this to be a short term hit, a quick rise up and then I don’t care if it dies down, it needs to be a machinery for me, I want to release a song that does more than 100 million hits, it kills the joy of music,” says Sulaiman.

“If you look at it, music consumption has changed, today you go to any OTT platforms it is generating content for you on basis of what you have liked. The AI is playing a part here. Earlier there used to be friction between the producers and composers but it was good friction. Now, the whole process of discussion and disagreements has been eliminated. So the faith of working with somebody that is trying to push quality music, artistic stuff is gone. It’s a big bad world, but I am hoping things will change, after a point the audience will start picking the good music,” says Salim.

We envisioned our passion-project- Merchant Records for a long time. But during the lockdown, we decided to structure it so that musicians can come under an artistic umbrella.

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The spirit of creating music will continue forever, they tell me. So when I asked them about the most defying moment in their career, Sulaiman is quick to respond, “Performing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Africa for an audience of 86,000 people was amazing.” “For me it was the release of the Chak de India title track in 2007, which actually changed the landscape for us and also a string of collaborations with international icons like Lady GaGa and Enrique Iglesias,” says Salim.

Driven by a pure passion for music, are the Merchant brothers making the music they always wanted to make? “We loved what we did for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, or Fashion or Kurbaan. It’s not like we made the music for those films under pressure. I remember there was Aaja Nachle, it was Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film. We didn’t even have a story, we did O Re Piya without a story, it was just a structure that was given to us, where there is this girl who is studied in America and has come back to India to save her guru’s theatre, but we had to make this song,” says Salim.

Sulaiman quips, “You know, initially O Re Piya didn’t have many takers, it was only later that when people understood that it was a masterpiece, it started to pick up. So we have had many films that failed, but the music has always flown out. It didn’t wait for a film to give it their support and if you look at Kurbaan, it was not such a great hit, neither was Kaal, but Tauba Tauba is still one of the most popular songs that we’ve made. Ofcorse when you do a film like Band Baja Barat which is a hit, then a song like Ainvayi Ainvayi becomes a super hit. So a film does help for the song to take off, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you have a good song in a not so good film then it’s not going to take off, because songs have a life of their own.”

Having worked on more than 100 films, the duo have earned their stripes as mentors, giving the aspiring artists some advice, Salim says, “It is important to have a dream, and you need to follow that dream with a lot of passion. Failures are bound to happen if you are not ready for failure, then there is no fun. Failures only make you stronger and make you learn life better. The only advice I would like to give any upcoming musician, is that, it is important to learn a musical instrument. You may be blessed, but it is still good to get a structure in your head.”

With this remix era in the industry, it has been harder for the duo to find creative freedom in the movie milieu. For them the finish line is far away and it is all about creating a journey that leaves a lyrical legacy with timeless music and a platform for upcoming talents to explore their creativity without any restriction.