Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Review: Pakistan – Folk and Pop Instrumentals

6 Nov 2011

This is a review I wrote over the summer for a blog that still hasn’t materialized. So I thought I’d put it on here before it dies in the depths of my soon to be obsolete file system. I shouldn’t really call it a review as much as my thoughts aloud.

A ghazal-like alaap is interrupted by an excited call of ‘Take over Panthers’, and the rush of a slightly ear-splitting powerful guitar sound very like the 60s rock that the world has heard. The first few seconds of the Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals (1966-1976) LP are a signal of something challenging, perhaps powerful, perhaps revolutionary, but who knows whether it ever got there. It takes only a few more minutes to realize that the interruption is not meant to be a call to reject the East and embrace the West, but a mere reinterpretation of both. It’s quite shocking how little we know about Pakistani rock from the time, and one wonders if it suffered the consequences of being misinterpreted itself; an energetic call to enjoy ourselves being heard as the revolutionary twangs of violence and immorality.

The album is a compilation put together by Stuart Ellis of Radiodiffusion International, and both his blog posts on the Radiodiffusion website and the album itself reflects his fascination with this genre of South Asian experimentation from the ‘swinging 70s’, a title celebrating Karachi’s avid night life before the Zia regime had its ways. As much as the album is a signal to Pakistan’s famed and fabled ‘other side’, it is also a look into the music that film industries from both Pakistan and India did not care about. The Zia regime’s views and the film industries disinterest seem to have completely removed record of this music from our cultural history. As rock re-emerged post Zia, there is little reference to this material, but what is interesting is how similar trends seem to have popped up again. In many ways then, perhaps little has changed from the time.

Fusion goes back farther than Coke Studio and Junoon, and the message hits home with the Panthers’ electric sitar, that is supported by a pronounced bass in a sound that always gives the feeling that it wants to move forwards, expand. The Mods go beyond instrumentation, recording folk melodies with western instrumentation, not without a twist or two. It is suspected that record labels perhaps only let them use limited recording facilities to record folk tunes, not more experimental stuff. The Blue Birds again extend a playful flirtation with folk melodies, and like most modern Pakistani rock, there’s something very local, very obviously desi about their sound even as they take on a ride with less traditional parts to their music. A slightly more hummable electric guitar takes over as you delve into The Bugs.

Interestingly these are not unfamiliar techniques for fusion. Adding an eastern instrument to a guitar, bass and drum sound or playing an eastern melody on western instruments, both have been rediscovered this decade.

Renowned film composers Sohail Rana and Nisar Bazmi are also featured on the album but in a slightly different persona than expected. Sohail Rana’s sound could be an electric rock anthem from Liverpool but happens to be Lahori, and features some truly psychedelic sitar work. An acoustic guitar finally makes its way through courtesy Nisar Bazmi, and it seems like there’s some Zeb and Haniya in there. Perhaps fitting considering his affiliation with new talent. And then there’s some mad bass again. There’s nothing quite like the way the sitar fits in with everything else here.

It’s funny perhaps that we might look at this music in reverse, trying to find references to modern music in sounds from the 60s and 70s, a handicap arguably the result of our cultural ignorance and hysteria. Our lack of connection to any of this music is a signal of the drain the Zia era seems to have given us, and like the songs on this album, have rendered us voiceless, merely instruments of the many battles we face.

Slightly less depressing however, are the songs by The Aay Jays, The Abstract and The Fore Thoughts, that round off the album. There is the slight familiarity of shaadi or ‘function’ music in all three, perhaps because of the powerful organ sound, which is powerful because of its mere presence and the slight drain it might give your ears. The instruments themselves take you back to the PTV days (where in this case, back is forwards), but the function sound masks a strong groove, played on bass and an ensemble of percussion instruments that vary in most songs. It’s a different sort of mood setting sound, a conversation, a suggestion and a celebration all at once.

Many western reviewers have highlighted the bands’ nightclub audiences, but whether they actually played at raving dance parties or as polite entertainment at tamer diner parties is not completely clear. Perhaps both are true. For now however, their sound is conveniently classified into garage rock, surf rock, fusion rock, or folk rock, whichever you may find easier to push into your listening vocabulary.

Hearing the album is bittersweet, in some ways. There is more to us than we thought, more to us than anyone may still think. Yet our voices remain under threat as they were forty years ago, and like the musical traditions that we rediscovered, we’ve rediscovered other, less pleasant things too. Ellis dug up old records and found the original masters that have been featured on this album. He also tracked many of the musicians down, along with many others that seemed to have never recorded at all. The musicians all relocated to the West, leaving what appears as no trail behind.

But, if things haven’t changed much at all, than we can be happy that things haven’t taken as bad a down turn as we think they might have, and there’s less to worry about. Like always, let the shaadi music ensue.