It’s not difficult to spot them among the motley group of people out for brunch on a Sunday afternoon. Winter is just making its appearance, and there’s a slight nip in the otherwise balmy air. The two young men I’m looking for are, however, wearing thick woollens. “This sweater isn’t too heavy for the weather, no?” asks rosy-cheeked Syed Aaqib. He is the singer-guitarist of Jammu-based indie rock band MoonDogs; his cousin Syed Hamza is the other singer-guitarist, while their friends Awais Bin Yousf and Shayaan Bhat play bass and percussion respectively.
“We have long names, but we like to keep them short and sweet. So just call us Aaqib and Hamza,” says Hamza. Like most 25-year-olds, they are exuberant, chatty and even a bit flirty. This casual ease is probably why their songs make for such easy listening, for later, when they take to the little corner stage and play an acoustic gig, you’re left with a melting heart and a cocoon of happiness.
Aaqib was about seven years old when he stumbled across his father’s collection of records and cassettes from his days at Hindu College in Delhi. “He had a lot of Abba, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, and that’s how I got introduced to this world of music,” says Aaqib. He started playing the keyboard and harmonica without formal training, and by the time he was 15, he’d graduated to his first guitar.
Aaqib introduced the guitar to his cousin Hamza. “When you’re living in the same house, you tend to pick up the habits – good or bad – of others,” says Hamza. “I was more into sports before, but guitar bajate hue helmet nahi pehenna parta. So it was more convenient. Also, you look way cooler with a guitar than with a bat.”
It was inevitable that Awais and Shayaan would join them. “We’ve all been friends for 25 years; it’s like we came into this world and our parents thrust us into each other’s lives,” says Hamza, fondly. Which is how, four years ago, the MoonDogs came into being.
Don’t stop the music
While many in the conflict-ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir find it difficult to consider music as anything more than a hobby, for the MoonDogs it is different. “Hamza and I are lawyers in our other lives. Shayaan is doing mass communication, and Awais works in a bank,” says Aaqib. “Music may not be our fulltime profession, but it is not just a hobby anymore.”
In the last couple of years, the MoonDogs have played in Delhi, Mumbai and Chandigarh (“Chandigarh is our music home – we record our songs there and have a big following,” says Hamza), performed on the Tour Bus at NH7 Weekender (“That was something else altogether!”), and been featured in an episode of the India edition of Balcony TV, a popular online music show that features bands, musicians and acts playing on balconies around the world.
“The criterion for featuring a band is that they write their own music, and don’t just do covers of already existing songs,” says Kavi Bhansali, chief producer at Balcony TV India. And the MoonDogs, it seems, do a good job of that.
Flowers, Bees, Monkeys
What comes to mind when you think of a band from Kashmir? Dreary songs of violence, lyrics heavy with the tension of the land, sombre tunes resonating with the gloom of insurgency? For the MoonDogs, it’s the opposite. “No political stuff here; TV channels are doing enough of that every day. Our songs are plain, simple. They talk of love,” says Hamza. “And of the occasional heartbreak,” pipes in Aaqib. “All from personal experience, of course,” he adds. “Songwriting is very important to us; it’s the base on which we build our music and our performances.”
Bhansali points out that when you see something as good as the MoonDogs coming out of Kashmir, it is extremely encouraging. “It is super tempting for us,” he says. “It’s a region that is not well represented when it comes to art and culture, because the focus has always been on conflict.” The MoonDogs, on the other hand, are “so distinctly themselves – they’re very comfortable in their own skins,” both in their songs and songwriting.
So you have lyrics like, Never leave me baby, stay by my side… My heart’s been filled with grief and I’m sitting in my briefs or You, me, we walk side by side as the sun comes down. Their sounds are easy, folksy and to some extent, inspired by The Beatles.
On their SoundCloud account, you’ll find songs interspersed with laughter and banter. During their gigs, they’ll single you out in the crowd, and while Aaqib will smile shyly, Hamza, with his characteristic flamboyance, will weave a compliment directed at you into his song.
And just as you begin to settle in the warm glow of their songs, they’ll launch into the peppy, upbeat Peacock Song. “Remember us as the band from Kashmir that sings of birds and animals, of love and heartbreak, of monkeys and peacocks,” says Aaqib.
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From HT Brunch, December 13
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