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Dazed and confused

June 02, 2013

— File Photo
— File Photo

If the current elections felt like an epoch-defining moment, it was because for the first time in decades, there was popular political participation. What this meant was that, for once, politics was the reason for politics taking centre stage. For far too long, while large parts of the country have remained politically fractured and apathetic, the discourse of politics has seeped into most aspects of culture — be they mobile phone texts forwards or fashion shows, comedy routines or internet memes.

The lesser developed cultural industries, particularly English literature and ‘independent’ cinema, have suffered the most and have been almost completely dominated by politics. It is rare to encounter a Pakistani novel that does not involve 9/11, or a film or documentary that doesn’t agonize over the effects of terrorism on the country’s image.

Yet that is not the case — not completely at least — for the music industry. Pakistani’s music industry persists despite the country’s socio-political upheavals.

Music after all, is woven inextricably into the local culture. Everyone from banned militant outfits to bland designer outfits make use of songs. Music is woven into worship, into ritual, into both popular and intellectual discourse, into consumer desires and spiritual yearnings.

Yet perhaps calling it an industry might be stretching the definition.

Just about everywhere you look in this so-called industry, the situation appears dire and in great flux. And yet reasons for hope continue to filter through.

Many classical musicians who are part of esteemed gharanas have had to endure extreme poverty and hardship with the end of noble patrons and audiences attuned to their skills.

Similarly in recent times, popular folk musicians have borne the brunt of the militant attacks carried out by those who believe music to be a sin. Inevitably, these musicians are also integral facets of shrine culture, which itself is under violent ideological threat.

Then there is the more media-friendly pop music, which finds itself in a landscape where record labels continue to fail, piracy remains rampant, and concerts are extinct.

And yet if we return to classical music, we have the All Pakistan Music Conference, Sanjan Nagar, Sachal Studios and other institutions that are providing a framework, and a much needed commitment for maintaining the rich tradition of classical music.

Moreover, for all the attacks on music shops and shrines alike, popular music refuses to go away. The advent of regional TV channels and local FM stations has both provided greater space for their performances and distribution. From Kohat to Kashmore, regional languages are being heard and sung on the airwaves, and their classics being revived by newer and younger practitioners.

And the electronic media has been particularly bountiful for Pakistan’s urbane, upper-class pop scene. There are more music and radio channels than ever before, and a need to fill airtime as well as creating content for programmes and jingles has provided a means of employment as well as a source of distribution for musicians.

While concerts have been slowly dying out, musical events in the form of corporate functions continue to blossom. The spectacular success of Coke Studio has also encouraged a return of corporate sponsorship in Pakistani music, with Cornetto, Pepsi, Fanta, Levi’s, Ufone amongst the many brands involved in launching shows.

The advent of Indian films on Pakistani screens has also provided greater access for local stars to sing and even act in Bollywood productions.

And the internet has become the place where the underground scene has migrated to, as new bands and their fans use a slew of social media to launch new careers. Already, many artists and albums have been launched off the backs of YouTube and Facebook.

However, for all this progress, the main problem remains a lack of stability. With no determined or predictable system for ensuring financial security, the art and the artists continue to suffer. Most Pakistani pop bands break up before the second album as the grind becomes too unbearable, sometimes returning later as zombie versions of themselves. Take a look at the heights Aaroh and Entity Paradigm reached with their debut albums, and the tragic fallout since, where their members have turned to making songs for burger chains and acting in soap operas.

Similarly, many old stars return to flog themselves on TV shows and commercials, as they can't retire on the royalties they deserve but don’t get. Alamgir’s wonderful return has been musically welcome, but watching him one realises that even the greatest stars have little security and stability for their golden years.

Already, we have reached the point where certain musicians have begun to distinguish themselves not for their talent in music, but their ability to land deals and contracts.

And for all the corporate patronage, the big bucks from the big firms come with big compromises too. Events become highly protected assets, where the raw, unadulterated joy of underground concerts is replaced with gaudy backdrops and staid audiences who are encouraged to view the sponsoring brand in a new way, rather than have their musical sensibilities being challenged.

And the desire for the corporations to create profitable products means that most of them are happy parading and spotlighting the same old faces, rather than contributing to the creation of quality music. Pepsi Smash’s underwhelming and repetitive run on the airwaves is testament to the fact that pumping in money and signing big names doesn’t necessarily create good music.

In such circumstances, the standards of music, which are uniquely high in Pakistan, will continue to dwindle as talented musicians are forced to give up, and others are left with no choice but to play risk-free music.

The recent proliferation of politicised, social message-based songs in the past few months speaks less of political enlightenment, and more of the fact that patriotic songs are an easy way of getting recognition through some emotional blackmailing. Serving propaganda of some sort has been a good friend to the fortunes of the music industry, but has rarely led to quality music being produced.

Songs like Madam’s from the 1965 war, or the Vital Signs’ Dil Dil Pakistan appear exceptions to this rule, but even these have far more emotional than political value. And for most of the rest, only a rare few of these songs have the genuine political insight and depth their creators pretend they do.

Beyghairat Brigade's catchy yet measured critique in their song Aalu Anday — File Photo
Beyghairat Brigade's catchy yet measured critique in their song Aalu Anday — File Photo

In the present scene, while the politics of the measured-yet-catchy critique of Beghairat Brigade is well thought out, we also have dozens of songs which are content to deal in platitudes and vague notions of change. For example, both Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib have been covered extensively of late, allowing musicians an easy template for politicised material without having to engage with politics. As any avid music fan in Pakistan could tell you, songs like Sajjad Ali’s Chief Saab or Jazba’s classic Jaag, or even Shehzad Roy’s tongue-in-cheek Laga Rahe, has more political value and courage than someone rote-repeating leftist Urdu shairi over guitar riffs.

Such use of clichés exists in part because of the fact that musicians constantly need to compromise their artistic integrity with the need to provide for themselves. Considering both the wealth of talent and the width and depth of the audience, it is a travesty that musicians are still forced to run around and cut deals with the devil in order to survive.

The long and rich history of music in this part of the world is testament to the fact that no matter how catastrophic sociopolitical conditions threaten to become, it will always remain indelibly ours. But is it too much to ask that we cherish this wonderful gift, rather than taking it for granted?

The writer is the Brian Lara of his generation. He’s a genius but his team usually loses. You can follow him on