Pakistani Music: The Road to Revival?

By Sonya Rehman

While the Pakistani film industry has made quite a comeback thanks to the rise of a new branch of alternative, local cinema, brought on by independent filmmakers keen to break free from typical, formulaic Lollywood, the local music scene also seems to be following in its footsteps.

But wait, we’ll get to the progression of the current music scene in a bit, first, let’s reminisce about the 90s. In Lahore. The early 90s to be precise. Do you remember the innocence of that bygone era; when theatrical productions, vibrant performing arts festivals, and, most importantly, concerts and gigs were regularly held in public spaces? Ah, the good old days…what many have touted as the ‘golden era’ of Pakistani music.

The Trip
The Trip

The underground local music scene was bubbling, overflowing, with heartfelt lyrics on frayed notepads; broken hearts were channeled into meaningful tunes, and the camaraderie, above all, was genuine, unpretentious and plain. No holds barred. What you saw is what you got. Bands were plenty and each was consciously part of this tangible movement, process and path to deliver music with soul.

As a teen, I vividly recall concerts at Alhamra’s expansive Gadaffi Stadium and those brilliant gigs held on the large, red brick rooftop of St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore.

One in particular (at St. Anthony’s), was a concert held by The Trip. Belting out Pink Floyd covers and their own tracks from their EP, Middle of Nowhere, the band’s lead vocalist, Babar Khan, was a sight for sore eyes – tall, unaffected, unapologetically charismatic, and with his closely cropped beard and thick wavy hair, Khan was one of the most well-known musicians part of Lahore’s thriving (underground) music scene.

The late Babar Khan
The late Babar Khan

Bands such as Co-ven, The Trip, Mindriot, Midnight Madness, Entity and Paradigm and more, formed a coalition, a brotherhood, if you will…and the best part? Music was not mainstream, diluted by the demands of plastic multinationals and empty, hollow commercialism.

However things have changed. Now, singers and musicians have found themselves vying for the ‘next big project’ across the border in India, particularly, Bollywood. But hey, that isn’t a bad thing. The fact that our best singing sensations make a name for themselves in Bollywood is a feather in our cap. Yet by the same token, it is slightly heartbreaking, knowing how our artistes stay firmly rooted in Pakistan, amidst the curve balls constantly thrown their way.

Coke Studio revived Pakistani music to an extent, but once the fizz got too strong, the music lost its Pakistaniat, its depth. But then there are other homegrown artistes and bands such as Overload, Noori, Zeb and Haniya, the Mekaal Hasan Band and others who have continued to produce music for the love of the art form, who have truly struggled to keep their kitchens running by not only personally funding their artistic endeavours, but also, doing the odd corporate event here and there. But can you blame them? Security concerns and a heavy duty entertainment tax changed the game, and thus, not only altered the kind of music our musicians were playing, but also, consumer demands.

The Mekaal Hasan Band - Photo by Bilal Sami
The Mekaal Hasan Band – Photo by Bilal Sami

The media boom while positive (thanks, Musharraf), also exposed the average listener to Bollywood and commercial western pop in a big way: our music tastes, and yen for the Lady Gagas and Queen Beys quadrupled. (Side note: commercialism killed off plaid-wearing throaty grunge, too.)

Overload - Photo by Rehan Qureshi
Overload – Photo by Rehan Qureshi

The art of putting together a good song is not only lost on a country where the Taher Shahs become overnight internet ‘sensations,’ but also the world as a whole. Collectively, the music industries of the world continue to suffer in their lack of depth – now, lyrics such as Rihanna’s Work are considered more likeable than, say, a soulful Norah Jones track – while the latter may be popular too, it isn’t as mainstream as: work, work, work, work, work, he said me haffi work, work, work… (What the hell did I just listen to?)

But coming back to Lahore’s music scene, there is however, a glimmer of hope for non-corporate concerts and gigs. It’s picking up.

A recent event put together by LACAS Mein Kuch Khaas saw the performance of a relatively new young artiste, Ali Sethi, well-known in the Lahori social circuit as a journalist and an author.

Unlike some, Sethi didn’t make a loud, grand entrance onto the dais of local music, instead, he quietly, made his presence felt through a number of singles and covers, namely; Dil Jalanay Ki Baat Karte Ho (part of Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Kithay Nain Na Jori (with a video directed by Sarmad Khoosat featuring Adnan Siddiqui and Sania Saeed), his beautiful, earthy Coke Studio (Season 8) performance of Umran Langiyaan, and his collaboration with Pakistani folk artist Jamaldin on Mahi Mera, among others.

“I don’t expect any major changes in the next few years,” states Sethi, when asked about the Pakistani music scene’s current standing, “Here’s the reason for my skepticism: most young musicians are still not interested in the study of music. And the ones who want to study it don’t have the means, or access to good teachers, and are likely to give up.”

But Sethi is one of the lucky, privileged few. Having received training and guidance from the classical vocalist maestro, Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami, in addition to the great Farida Khanum, the young musician’s niche in music is strengthening, slowly gaining momentum.

In the process of writing his second novel (the first being The Wish Maker published in 2009), and eventually releasing his first album, the young artiste is concerned about mainstream, commercial tunes that have begun to infiltrate each and every broadcast medium. These vapid, meaningless, showy numbers, he says, is what one should be concerned about. “Until a decade ago the Urdu ghazal, which is rooted in classical raags and taals, was an extremely lucrative musical form,” he says, “I don’t think we should be wary of commercial success per se. It’s the terrible uniformity of contemporary Indo-Pakistani music that worries me. Let me elaborate: the tinny, flashy, typical, cheesy, cheap stuff that passes nowadays for ‘soulful’ music and infects everything in its vicinity (indie pop, ‘Sufi’ rock, even Qawwali for heaven’s sake!) – that’s what I find worrying. But that too will only be fixed when young musicians go back to the sources, to the meaning and context of their musical traditions. Until then no improvement is possible.”

Ali Sethi at LACAS Mein Kuch Khaas - Photo: Ali Sethi's official Facebook page
Ali Sethi at LACAS Mein Kuch Khaas – Photo: Ali Sethi’s official Facebook page

“Let me clarify, I’m not a purist, not at all,” Sethi emphasizes, “But I don’t think you can have a fusion of musical styles until you are intimate with the strands being fused.”

While unconventional Indie bands such as Red Blood Cat, Basheer & The Pied Pipers, Keeray Makoray and others have carved out little niches for themselves locally, the revival of the magic of the music scene of the 90s is way off the cards for now.

Strings - Photo: Strings' official Facebook page
Strings – Photo: Strings’ official Facebook page

But one must remember, the charm of each era cannot be attributed to one particular aspect – there are many factors at play, the cultural and societal fabric at the time; what kind of literature was being read? What was being spoken about at social engagements? What was society being exposed to in terms of the media at large? What was being taught in the classrooms? What were the holistic socio-political factors which made the thinkers, artists, musicians, teachers and writers who they were? Each bygone era is summoned with some amount of nostalgia and longing – we were younger then, the times were simpler then, we say, looking back. Soon, we’ll look back on this very era of Pakistani music, associating a song, an album and a jingle with some amount of wistfulness.

Last year, I found myself attending a Strings concert held at Global Village in Dubai. The energy was brilliant, and the performance: fresh and incredible. Among a crowd full of life singing along to Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood’s greatest hits, Pakistani music, I realized, would never lose its Pakistaniat and its endearing desi-ness. Like a cup of perfect doodh-patti, scratch the flashy, plastic surface, and it’ll always be there.

Destinations Magazine

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