By Sonya Rehman
Pakistan’s music industry is currently at odds. While some would scoff at the term ‘industry,’ stating that the term ‘scene’ would perhaps make far more sense – given the present state of local music, the fact is that the local music industry/scene – just as Pakistani cinema – has seen its glory days.
But the line between mainstream Pakistani music and the emergence of alternative local tunes has begun to blur. Perhaps one reason is social media. What is ‘mainstream music’ anyway? More airplay on television and radio? And what does ‘alternative music’ really mean – tracks recorded by solitary individuals or hipster bands, making a virtual name for themselves via social media? Is one’s success as a musician and singer in Pakistan measured by creating ripples in industries overseas?
Over the years, speaking with and interviewing many Pakistani musicians and bands, I was told – continuously – how local music’s ‘true’ glory days began in the early 90s, with the emergence of the ‘underground music’ phenomena which truly kick-started a ‘movement’ of sorts in local music: offbeat, alternative to the core, original Pakistani rock and covers of Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath, etc, which brought with it an ‘environment’ if you will, a different flavour to what was being televised and performed back then.
I was a teenager when underground music fast started becoming this powerful, manic, fascinating, thrilling entity in Pakistan. But now, many years later, it was only until recently, when I began thinking about local music prior to the heyday of the 90s. I’d heard many stories from my mother and her friends about the parties, the swinging 60s and 70s in Pakistan, the dancing, the discos (imagine!), the freedom of walking about the city in your bellbottoms, the freedom to ride your bicycle without being harassed or followed. How dreamy. How surreal to think that Pakistan was so carefree back then.
Recently, a friend brought a particular band to my attention. Known as ‘The Panthers,’ the band was founded sometime in the late 60s in Karachi and comprised of Norman Braganza (Lead Guitar and Vocals), Fasahat Husain Syed (Keyboard, Sitar and Tabla), Eric Fernandes (Bass Guitar) and Syed Ahsan Sajjad (Drums and Vocals).
If you listen to the band’s music (via Youtube) online, the tracks will knock your socks off. To think that tracks like that were recorded and played for public consumption back then is pretty unbelievable. Having recorded two albums, namely, ‘Folk Tunes of Pakistan on Electric Sitar and Western Instruments’ and ‘East Goes West,’ released by EMI, The Panthers disbanded in the early 70s when one of the band members left the country to settle overseas. Contacting them over email (after a week of searching for a lead), I finally got through to Ahsan and Fasahat.
What was the music scene like in Pakistan in the 60s/70s?
Ahsan: The music scene was pretty lively. You got known because you played in a band but it was no ‘mob scene.’ There were only a few places to play professionally and the competition was there. Most of the bands played at private parties which were more in vogue. A certain part of Karachi (Saddar and Nursery was a ‘Little Liverpool’ of its own).
What bands and musicians influenced your genre of music at the time?
Ahsan: A majority of the local bands were influenced by Western Bands such as; Shadows, Ventures, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and Chicago.
What was your most memorable gig?
Ahsan: Our most memorable gig has to be Midway House. This was a motel set up by KLM for its staff and for travelers. It was located at the Karachi Airport. We were a house band and played for the New Years Eve dance and some dip and dance parties near the pool. There was only a minority that understood Western music. Not like today where the music is created for the masses and the response is of a different nature, as compared to our time. On a further note, The Panthers were the first band to make an appearance on national television twice. We may have been part of the trendsetters in the music scene, nationally. There were a few records being produced in those days by a pop group. The first one was under the music direction of Sohail Rana and he used ‘The Fore Thoughts’ – their hit tune was ‘Shahbaz Qalander.’ We also put out an EP of four tunes of Pakistani folk songs. ‘The Bugs’ also did a tune directed by Sohail Rana in a movie. But the ‘East Goes West’ EP was strictly a Panthers creation. The record speaks for itself.
Fasahat: I remember playing the whole night at the Metropolitan Hotel at some concert with many groups. I don’t remember the occasion, but I also once played live music at a fashion show at the same hotel.
What was the gig/ party scene like in Karachi at that time? Was society more chilled out, ready to party?
Ahsan: It was an exciting time and the society was definitely more chilled out – without their support we would not have been able to pursue our dreams. I remember one incident, when we were practicing in the evenings; a Maulana came to us and asked if we could pause for the azaan. We all agreed, no problem, and they left us alone.
Could you mention some of the other popular bands in Karachi at the time? Also, what was the local music fraternity like: did everyone get along?
Ahsan: The most popular band was ‘The Bugs.’ We all grew up together, but the Bugs were the first to name themselves as a group and got themselves a left-handed bass player, which made them the local Beatles of our time. After that the kids started forming groups and naming themselves. Instruments were scarce. Because of this, who would play what part and how instruments would be acquired were all things that were seriously discussed. Remember, we were kids and this was a kind of bonding taking place. The other bands were; ‘Fore Thoughts,’ ‘Thunders,’ ‘Moonglows,’ ‘Talismen,’ ‘The Black Pirates,’ etc. Getting along was no problem. The groups hung out with their own because there was a lot of practice taking place to fine tune songs.
A little about where each of you are right now and what career-paths all of you have pursued.
Ahsan: I know for a fact that Fasahat is still playing in a local band in Tennessee called Tulsi. Norman too plays and performs at house parties as a solo act. A few years ago he did some recording of some covers and sent it to friends. Great stuff. I have taken up the guitar; a few years ago my kids bought me a Fender for my birthday and have loved that instrument ever since. I love writing songs and also have played in a local band as a rhythm guitarist. My interest is more in the folk/blues scene style.
Do you follow the music scene back home in Pakistan, if yes, what’s your take on what’s currently being produced?
Ahsan: Not really. But the kids of today are more talented and well-schooled with their instruments. We hear of the local bands when they’re on their US tour. I think the [contemporary] Pakistani bands have developed a great Pak-Rock sound.
The Friday Times