Renowned artists and composers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant have obtained accolades in the Indian film industry and have performed in a number of prominent spaces including at the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Their memorable songs such as ‘Jubilee Mubarak’, ‘Ali Mawla’, and ‘Shukran Allah’, which were performed on the occasion of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee, still resonate in our minds. To coincide with the upcoming Aga Khan Music Awards, we spoke with the two brothers about their journey.

From Darkhana boys to legendary musical duo, how did the journey begin?

Salim: Music started very early from the Jamatkhana because Sulaiman and I were part of the orchestra group. I am very fortunate to be influenced by music and culture. Fortunately, we had our father’s guidance and the orchestra as the inspiration.

Sulaiman: I was three or four years old, our dad would rehearse with the band. I would go along with dad, pick up an instrument and start playing. So, my fascination with instruments and music started at a very early age too. And from there, I got a formal education in music by learning tabla, piano, and then eventually working in the Indian film industry.

Getting into the Indian film industry is difficult. You had to struggle to break into it?

Salim: Honestly, we didn’t face any such struggle. There was a buzz created in the industry where people spoke about our work. It’s a lesson for all of us. If you have something special and you are talented, people will appreciate it. For us, it was word of mouth that got us recognition.

Sulaiman: I absolutely agree with Salim. If you are good at your craft, no matter what profession you are in, you will always stand out. So, if you work hard and if you excel in what you do, success will follow.

Having a career in music or the entertainment field is often not encouraged. What would you like to say to the youth who want to make a career in music?

Salim: I think it’s a great industry. It gives you the freedom to explore.

Sulaiman: At one point in time it was not encouraged. I remember how our father used to always tell me that I am a musician and it will never be looked at as a white-collar job. But things have changed radically over the past 20 to 30 years. The exposure you have as a musician now is amazing. If you are creative and passionate, things will work out for you.

What does music mean to you?

Salim: Music is my heartbeat. I sleep music, I drink music, I eat music. (Laughs) I find music in quiet places, I can find music in the rumble of an air conditioner or feel music in the jet engines when I am travelling in planes. I live music. It’s certainly hard to explain what it means to me. It’s an extension of my personality.

Sulaiman: Oh, indeed it means everything! I share the same feeling as Salim. Music for me is everywhere.

Does music help you connect spiritually?

Salim: Absolutely. For instance, Sufi and devotional music connect you with positive energy. For me, more importantly, it connects me with myself.

Sulaiman: Songs like ‘Ali Mawla’ wouldn’t have been made if we weren’t connected to the divine force. There is definitely a very strong connection between music and spirituality. Songs like ‘Bismillah’ and ‘Ali Mawla’ came from the fact that there is a connection between music and spirituality.

You started your career together and have been going strong ever since. When you both have creative differences, how do you manage it?

Salim: Creative differences happen in every field. Between Sulaiman and me, ultimately the music wins.

Sulaiman: In fact, creative differences are good and we both encourage that. When two heads combine on a song, you get two different sounds, styles, and ideas. And a song is always a joint, creative effort.

What is more difficult to compose, background score or songs?

Salim: I think both are equally difficult. Sometimes background score is more challenging. Many people know what music to give at that moment, but very few people know where not to give a background sound. That’s where your experience and sensibility for cinema comes in.

Sulaiman: I agree. Both are equally challenging. Background score is basically creating a narrative with music. The actor’s emotion is the subtext for the music. Talking about songs, here you need to imagine what is going to happen in the scene. Nothing is shot. So, it needs our imagination to play a vital role.

How was your experience with the Jubilee Concerts that occurred around the world?

Salim: It was a phenomenal experience. I am very thankful to the Jubilee Concerts. We could connect with so many people across the world. And to celebrate Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee with everyone, it was surreal. One of the moments I remember was when everyone stood up and sang ‘Jubilee Mubarak’ with tears in their eyes. I could witness the devotion everyone has for Mawlana Hazar Imam. I am glad we could perform on various devotional songs like ‘Noor-e-Ilahi’, ‘Ali Mawla’, and ‘Shukhran Allah’.

Sulaiman: This is the first time anybody has done a series of Jubilee Concerts. It was so beautiful to meet our brothers and sisters all over the world. We visited places where we had never performed before like Moscow, Australia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh. It was a great feeling to connect with everybody. The response was phenomenal. Just as Salim said, you could sense the feeling of overwhelming emotion. You could feel the love and passion of the Jamat.

What inspires you every day to create music?

Salim: My experience as a musician, it all inspires me to create music.

Sulaiman: Like day-to-day life. Your ups and downs, your heartbreak, happiness, everything comes together and inspires me.

Every musician has a dream, what is yours?

Salim: I am very fortunate and very thankful for the life I am given. I have a dream of bringing good melodies, good songs back in the music world. Right now, the music industry is a little distorted and is going through a tough time. Songs like ‘Yeh Honsla’ and ‘Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai’ are good melodies but today, such compositions are absent. I hope I can bring it back in the mainstream cinema.

Sulaiman: Also, there are a lot of artists we want to collaborate with. There is a huge list of venues where we want to perform. Musicians are aspirational for love, happiness, for a response from the audience. The instant reaction when we perform live, it's magnificent.

You performed in front of Mawlana Hazar Imam. How was the experience?

Salim: It is a feeling which I cannot put into words. When your Imam is watching you, what would you say? I basically just shut my eyes and was praying that I don’t fumble or choke up or start crying. For me, it was a very, very emotional moment. I never get nervous while performing but in this case I was nervous. It was a difficult moment but extremely rewarding. I will always remember it.

Sulaiman: It was the most difficult performance of our lives. You are performing in front of Hazar Imam. It was a very emotional moment, I almost had tears in my eyes. When you perform in front of him, you are always critical about your performance. You want to excel in front of him. The emotion we felt at that moment is difficult to express.