29-year-old identical twins Haroon and Sharoon might have audiences swooning to reinterpretations of the most popular music today (think Calm Down and the iconic qawwali Sanson ki Mala) but their journey is steeped in spirituality and deeply influenced by raga music.
Early years and spiritual roots
Part of the Christian community in Rawalpindi, Pakistan – a minority, to be sure, but with a robust network of internal connections – they began by playing church music and being part of the choir.
In their family life, their brother – older than the twins – played a pivotal role in igniting their love for music. “My elder brother Asher Sidhu (Ceo of Sidhu's Gallery of Art and Music) introduced us to music,” shares violinist Sharoon, whose first violin was also a gift by brother Asher “...and Haroon played the tabla before I started. We grew up watching Asher and surrounded by art.”
And what they experienced at home was further amplified by their religious upbringing.
“You’ve got to remember, the West has carols, psalms and hymns [in English] but in the subcontinent, we worship in our mother tongue. Gospel music for us was in Punjabi and Urdu,” explains Sharoon.
The experience fostered a desire deep within them to reinterpret and conceive the genre of subcontinental Christian devotional music by injecting new vigour, unexpected instruments and purity of sound.
“By playing those hymns and tunes in church, we got to know about classical ragas,” explains Sharoon. It stirred something inside their soul at the mere age of 16, and the two famously sold their cellphones to make a down payment and purchase a guitar.
Soon, a world of learning presented itself, and their passion was not limited to classical instruments alone. Taught by Ustad Idrees Ahmad Khan, they underwent what they believe is ‘the necessary rigour’ of an ustad-shagird (student and teacher) to learn swiftly, diligently and effectively.
“Our influence was gospel and classical [music],” Sharoon explains, “While the rest of our social circle was listening to bands like Strings and Call (very well-recognised Pakistai bands), we listened to pandits and ustads.”
Entrenched in tradition, they would soon take the lessons imbibed from this classical and spiritual world to create their own path.
An imperfect storm
It wasn’t easy. To say that the stars aligned and Heaven smiled to bring the Leo Twins where they are today would be disingenuous. Their progress has been neither linear nor easy, and the triumphs have been hard-won.
Unfortunately, the prevalent attitude in Pakistan did not encourage their career choice initially. “It’s a bitter truth that in Pakistan, when you tell people you’re a musician, they often ask, ‘Well, what’s your real job?’ We made a decision early on to dedicate our entire lives to music, because that’s the stereotype we wanted to break,” shares Sharoon.
Money was tight, and when Haroon started earning within three months, his middle-class family started appreciating the pragmatic and financial potential of music as a career choice. Sharoon, also, played anywhere and everywhere possible. “I played in PC (a chain of hotels called Pearl Continental), everything from hi-tea events to birthdays and weddings.”
“Around two years after we began playing, I got a call to do my first violin recording,” says Sharoon. “I went in, did the track and the studio producer was very happy. But that experience didn’t end there. It was my first exposure to this new world of big mixers, microphones and headphones. I was hooked. I didn’t sleep that night.”
For the young and technologically-inclined twins, this was a new vista of opportunity. And so, the seed of desire was planted, an earnest wish to record their own instrumental song – and therein, the trouble began.
With sheer candour and a dose of vulnerability, Sharoon relates the story: “We found a studio closer to our home, and were told that we could work it off [to avoid paying hefty fees]. We were young and naïve, and thought we’d trade [labour] for the recording deal.”
Taking a deep breath, he continued: “For two years, we cleaned that studio, served tea, accommodated people – we were essentially the office boys – but nothing materialised as a result. It was the project file that never got opened.”
Smarting from the unscrupulous and corrupt recording studio stringing them along for so long, the brothers vowed to never rely on an outside platform. “We decided, then, that we want to be our own brand. Build our own identity. We wanted to do our own thing.”
The bright side
In spite of a rocky start, though, there was a silver lining to the recording studio scam.
In those two years of unpaid labour, “We learned the techniques of recording,” they share, “We knew how to operate the system, what software worked best and the kind of equipment that was required.”
Approaching a family friend for a loan, they set up their own studio approximately 10 years ago. It was exhilarating. “We started ordering equipment from Singapore. It was just amazing.” In many ways, it was a homecoming.
They decided the first recording out of their own studio would be a gospel – both to honour the circularity of their journey and early years in the church – and also, frankly, because of the absence of copyright restrictions.
The first psalms they uploaded were a reimagining – redolent with sounds of the guitar and violin – distilling ancient sentiments reframed to resonate with a younger audience. Through their music, the dynamic duo was building bridges – both stretching forward to connect with new audiences craving their ancestral devotional songs presented in relevant and contemporary ways – and stretching back, to their grandparents, great-grand parents and forefathers to forge deep connections within the subcontinent. “It was a fusion,” they share.
And it was one of the early psalms they uploaded on Facebook that caught the eye of Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan (commonly known as Xulfi and a key player in the Pakistani music industry), the producer of Nescafe Basement, a popular Pakistani music television series featuring studio recorded performances by emerging artists.
Finally, the stars aligned – not out of cosmic chance, but as a result of grit, gruelling determination and unflagging resolve. What began with a Nescafe Basement season soon became a multiple season journey, and the twins worked with multiple artists along the way. Sharoon has accompanied the likes of Atif Aslam, but always gravitated back to building his personal brand with his twin. One of the ways they have established themselves and built meaningful relationships is by offering to produce music for other artists as well.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. Like many musicians, the pandemic brought the harsh realities of an entertainment industry grinding to a standstill. “We thought to ourselves – we have a skill. How do we entertain people and bring that to use when we’re at home?”
They pivoted, and soon, the Quarantine Sessions were born. As always, they started with a psalm, and their second production – Sanson ki Mala – became a viral sensation. They skyrocketed to fame when they covered the Ertugrul Ghazi soundtrack.
“It was during Ramadan I believe, and Pakistan was infatuated with the Turkish drama serial,” shares Sharoon, “Our YouTube viewers asked. And we delivered. We decided to keep it very folk – yet classical – and retained tihai and palta at the end in keeping with our training. That was what really became viral all over the world, helping us reach from 50 to 500k and reach 35 million views organically. We never thought it was possible.”
Needless to say, they are both firm believers in the power of social media when it is harnessed effectively. From a self-produced Facebook video to stunning shows and a loyal digital audience, their story heralds the new era of success in music via such platforms, rather than waiting to be picked up by a major record label.
Genre? What genre?
Today, Haroon plays the guitar as his primary instrument, while Sharoon plays the violin. But as their scope and expertise broadened, the duo began playing the violin, guitar, ukulele, mandolin and rabaab as their main instruments, and roughly 20 instruments total.
As such, classifying their craft, genre or area of expertise is difficult. “We do everything from progressive rock, qawwali, folk, world and classical music. The main genre is an...Eastern classical fusion kind of thing – if that exists,” Sharoon laughs, “But whatever the genre, we like to put our own twist and make it our own.”
And perhaps that very quality – that their art defies pigeonholing and classification, that they can cover a song and retain its essence while making it firmly their own – is what makes them special.
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