Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Friday, 24 December 2010

Tony Blair, Imran Khan, Sunglasses & That Guitar Sound.

If the myth is true (or it may just be me imagining things, very likely), and Jinnah did want to make Pakistan a new Britain, he might not be too happy with the way things were going. I don’t think he was expecting people to draw parallels between Britpop and the local Bandbaja, but I guess it’s a start.

Pakistani musicians, along with the rest of the country, have been through multiple identity crises. The press, quick to give them labels, often as either ‘patriotic’ or even just ‘burgers’, is quick to have them typecast and ready for some short shelf life. Unless of course you’re labeled a ‘big gun’, beyond which you are likely to stay afloat with a concert here or there and an album reflecting (or reposing) old glory. With the entrance of Bollywood as a possible market, the old question of keeping the music ‘Pakistani’ is forefront again. Perhaps it was more intellectual a query a few years ago, and for the most part people might no longer even care. Unless of course they’re doling out praise for the very Pakistani Coke Studio.

The 90s had seen a similar chain of thought in Britain, where musicians formed the short lived but exciting Britpop movement as a response to America’s newly popular grunge craze. As British identity muddled itself in the larger pop culture scene of popular English music, many 90s bands tried to hold on to their British heritage, writing lyrics about British life, connecting with the golden age of late 60s British rock and even trying to let go of that American accent.

Britpop at its peak formed an important part of the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement, joining hands with the Tony Blair and his ‘New Labour’ package. While the quick end of the Britpop craze was to coincide with the death of Princess Diana, what was interesting was the Britpop’s rallying behind the new Britain of Tony Blair as they chose to preserve past glory. Perhaps even more interesting was Tony Blair’s embracing of the Britpop culture. Finally a PM who was a guitarist.

Britpop gave us Wonderwall & Parklife, but the music also addressed deeper concerns such as class differences & perception issues, as presented in Pulp’s Common People.


At around the same time, the Vital Signs were popularizing Pink Floydian soft rock on a wave of democratic euphoria with the arrival of Benazir Bhutto. They were only to be upstaged by Junoon, whose claim to fame was being banned by the governments of Benazir Bhutto & Nawaz Sharif, first after the release of Ehtesaab, an open call for political accountability, and later after their campaigns in India and Pakistan against nuclear weapons. Junoon, or more specifically Salman Ahmed, chose to rally behind cricket-hero turned champion-social-worker turned not-so-successful politician Imran Khan.


The Musharraf coup meant good news for the media, and the 2002 elections brought in a new era for private TV. Musharraf’s enlightened moderation was never really a popular phrase, for Musharraf was after all, a dictator, but for the industry, the vibe seemed to make sense. Music channels came with the TV revolution, especially after former Vital Signs member Rohail Hyatt’s Battle of the Bands sponsored by Pepsi also became popular. Some say the Battle of the Bands killed the underground scene with its lip synching gimmickery, but it also gave the world Entity Paradigm (eP), who would go on to release perhaps the best rock concept album produced in the country. A number of other acts emerged: Noori gained hype over the internet, Jal (with former lineup that included Atif Aslam) rode off the success of Aadat and popularized themselves by showing up to open at every concert, and Strings established their place with their strong comeback hit, Duur.

This post Junoon wave didn’t really have a political icon they could tag behind, for the only person in some sort of control was a military dictator, and for all the success that he had early in his tenure, he was to remain a military dictator. Instead they chose to push forward a feel-good, we-believe-in-ourselves spirit. This was spearheaded by Noori and eP. eP managed to do this despite the dark undertones of their music, which was a direction Noori too would take with their second album, but the rock anthems of Noori’s first album and eP’s burst onto the Battle of the Bands would become the soundtracks for a generation of self starters, especially for a new underground wave of musicians.


Come the late 2000s, and the progress of the industry had stagnated. Critics began to label the post Junoon wave as ‘bubble-gum rock’, and the happy spirit was old. Imran Khan’s failure continued and he was soon to boycott the elections that everybody agreed to boycott, and then didn’t, leaving him the lone ranger if you may in what he would portray as a joke for a democracy. With Musharraf’s craziness and the return of feudal politicians to parliament, the music crowd finally lost its connection, minor though it was, with the ruling force. Out goes the we-shall-be-great vibe, and in comes the we-should-do-something vibe, which by 2010 is to be replaced by the we-must-do-something-because-things-are-bad vibe. By now big guns Strings and Atif Aslam team up to sing Ab Khud Kuch Karna Parey Ga.


It was natural for one end of the spectrum to go into an almost apologetic recovery mode, and Pakistani musicians look to salvage the Pakistani identity, presenting the other side of Pakistan. The western media continues to portray this as a fighting cause in ‘the heart of the Taliban’ as they put it, evoking some proud emotion and some snide commentary about western ignorance from Pakistani commentators.

There’s then the other end of the spectrum, which takes on a strikingly Britpop like aesthetic. A dense guitar sound dominates the music, there’s some humour involved, especially in the image extraneous of the music, and talk about social issues is prominent, but not in your face. An array of pop icons and some emerging rock stars have embraced a cool vibe that doesn’t need to be making a political statement. This stemming from the fact that there really isn’t a political statement they can make. Instead they choose to embrace social initiatives, working with NGOs or even corporate sponsors that are willing to embrace some social responsibility.

Most of all however, is a genuine spirit that’s willing to have some fun because things are so screwed anyway. It is at this point that the comedy that comes from observing Pakistani politics and general failures migrates from outside satirical news shows and into the music and film world.

Some of this new wave retains some involvement with the growing fashion scene, which continues to remain at a complete disconnect with most of Pakistan. Shehzad Roy and Hadiqa Kiyani walk the ramp every now and then, and Strings will be the eternal good guys, strengthening relationships by performing on runways. But even for the not so suave guys, they maintain a similar cool controlled aesthetic, that tries to create a connection with past Pakistani music, most obviously inspired by Junoon but even with the Signs, and more recent acts like eP, Noori & Strings. While Shehzad Roy would achieve mainstream success with Laga Reh, a satirical and light hearted look at the problems of modern Pakistan, they Aunty Disco Project, or ADP is beginning to make a reputation out of their spunky live performances. After releasing an independent live album they’re in the studio now working on their first commercial release, building on a repertoire of impressive rock songs about power (Sultanat), love (many including Raat Jaagi) and friendship (Hum Naa Rahay). This is aside from a list of strong covers of western and Pakistani greats.


(Video promo & the entire song, Hum Na Rahay below:)



(Update 9:53 AM Pakistan Time: turns out the video for Hum Naa Rahay was just released last night. Embedded below:)


Britpop’s abrupt end brought Britain’s audience to the ‘default setting’ of any music scene as it’s said, pop music. Robbie Williams would take the mantle left open by Blur & Oasis, among others, and an era to talk about British problems in British ways was over.

Pakistan’s Britpop parallel is alive and well at this moment, and is being supported with similar humor from other social wellness initiatives such as Uth Oye. The music continues to talk about very Pakistani issues, at least if not in the lyrics then in radio and newspaper interviews. The TV channels that helped spark the post Junoon explosion are now at loggerheads with the musicians, this post by Omar Bilal Akhtar from ADP possibly reflecting general sentiment against a near shameless television generation.

The music maintains a western rock feel, but with the wide acceptance of Coke Studio 2, and the stage created by Junoon, a fusion with eastern elements is always welcome and often done well. The market continues to struggle to find a way to package and sell eastern classical music, but for now fusion is the preferred form. But what is the Pakistani way to tell these stories? That’s the question that continues to shape Pakistani music. The lack of a definitive answer is perhaps what makes the new music scene so great. Rohail Hyatt’s mastermind at Coke Studio continues to produce a steady stream of brilliantly recorded music, a new underground scene is emerging with success spearheaded by Aunty Disco Project and Strings leads the way in maintaining a favorable outlook no matter what they do.


Salman Ahmed of Junoon is alienated from the local media; his criticism of former bandmates and his current residence in the US has not gone down well. Meanwhile a new bunch of rockers is trying to master balancing an international outlook with a local one.