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Songs of the subterranean

Updated February 16, 2014

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Light my fire: Chinese lanterns nearly steal the show.
Light my fire: Chinese lanterns nearly steal the show.
Talha.
Talha.
Nothing like a good sound system to liven things up!
Nothing like a good sound system to liven things up!
Danny performs at the music festival.
Danny performs at the music festival.
Mudassir Sheik Of Lower Sindhi Swing Orchestra
Mudassir Sheik Of Lower Sindhi Swing Orchestra

During a recent trip to Lahore, I had a very disconcerting experience. One Saturday night, I decided to visit a new coffee shop and ended up at one consciously decorated with Pakistanica; its walls festooned with pictures of cultural and artistic heroes, its bathrooms painted with ribald truck poetry. Midway through my coffee, I noticed a palpable excitement amongst the other patrons, and overheard several people loudly proclaiming someone to be a hero. When I got up to look, I realised that the ‘hero’ was, as one caustic critic put it, “Urdu media’s top polymath” — a man whose current claim to fame is being chosen by the TTP to be part of their negotiation team.

The irony of the situation just wouldn’t escape me — like some sort of grotesque reflection of history, a radical from the reactionary right was holding fort in a café, seeking to mimic the hotbeds of progressive thought from the past. Instead of passionate students and activists, his impromptu audience consisted of wealthy, privileged men who were insistent on seeing themselves as victims of a global conspiracy. I realised that if such men are to be our heroes, then perhaps it’s time to search out the anti-heroes in our midst. Thankfully, in a testament to Lahore’s diversity, I found them the very next morning.

“Hamara band Karachi ka sub se barra band hai — magar mere baqi band members yeh baat mantay nahin hain.” (We are the biggest band in Karachi, but my band members don’t believe that). This is how Storm in a Teacup — a day-long music festival held at Peeru’s Café this January — was kicked off by Mudassir Sheikh, the gawky frontman of the opening act, Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra.

The claim was delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, since Lower Sindh!’s dreamy, left-field psychedelica is the sort of music which makes aficionados drool while boring the more dishkum-dishkum, David Guetta-minded crowds. And since the latter far outnumber the former, this boast was being made to a crowd that had barely nudged the double figure count.

Of course, that was also because this concert was starting at noon (!) in Lahore, which was eventually delayed till 1.30pm. Even then, it was several hours in before the crowd really swelled, and a lot of them seemed to be far more interested in lining up for the Sunday Snaps photographers milling the area (full disclosure: I was pictured in one of these and captioned “… and friend”). There were snacks and chai, and later in the evening Chinese lanterns which were distributed to great delight amongst the crowd (and the impassioned lighting of which threatened to take away from the music itself). Eventually, punctuated by several azaan breaks, the concert ran till almost nine at night, two hours over its scheduled run. Yet throughout all the brouhaha and distractions, the number of people sitting close up to the stage never really changed from the time Mudassir had opened the show earlier that day.

For this festival was a rare, cross-Pakistan coming together of various musicians whose presence, proliferation and popularity had all revolved around the internet, and for their core group of cultish fans, this festival represented a rare chance to see them perform in the flesh.

The who’s-who-of-the-Pakistani-underground style lineup featured Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra, Shajie, Jumbo Jutt, //orangenoise, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Sikandar ka Mandr, Ali Suhail, Poor Rich Boys & the Toothless Winos and Red Blood Cat. This particular festival was also the third leg of a cross-country tour called Khayaban-i-Lussun (which featured all but the last two bands in the line-up) and which was organised by a web-based music show/artist collective outfit known as Lussun TV.

The story of Lussun TV epitomises the situation young (and ridiculously talented) musicians find themselves in Pakistan these days. In the summer of 2011, an Indus Valley School graduate by the name of Nadir Shehzad was approached by a local music channel to develop a sketch-comedy/music show for them. Unfortunately, halfway through the show’s production, the channel bankrolling it went bust.

However Nadir, who is also the lead vocalist for the band Sikandar Ka Mandr, realised the potential of what he had in his hands. Karachi was erupting at the time with a host of exciting new bands playing daring, boldly original music. These bands ranged from ambient and drone heavy post-rock to densely layered chappalgazing; from post-metal Sindhi folk to electronic jazz dance music. Many of these acts had already been recorded and interviewed, and so his team decided to go on with the show. He eventually posted all the videos online, and the various fans of these bands began to further discover the greater scene through Lussun TV.

In 2013, Lussun TV posted its third season of episodes on the internet. The comedy sketches never returned after the first season, but the quality and range of musicians featured on the show continued to increase. In the time in between, Nadir found several companies willing to sponsor the show, but there was a snag. Instead of featuring the artists, they wanted competitions with viewers sending in SMSes to decide who got kicked off each week. Others asked them to do covers of famous songs. But Nadir, and just about every musician I spoke to in this scene, were determined to “keep the music pure”, and so they decided to keep on keepin’ on.

What that meant was putting up money to hold occasional gigs, but mostly working hard and releasing albums, EPs and singles online. In the absence of record labels or concerts (consequences of the law & order and weak economy vicious cycle) the internet had become the only viable place for underground music in Pakistan for the past few years. Yet that ease of access and level of interaction — particularly between musicians — has been extremely fruitful in a creative sense.

Consequently, from Peshawar to Islamabad to Lahore to Karachi (and elsewhere in between) a host of various subcultures and cult followings have emerged in a range of different genres. Storm in a Teacup was the meeting of Karachi’s psychedelic-post grunge-folk-pop-chappalgazing scene with Lahore’s poet-philosopher-supergroup by way of Islamabad’s jazz-rock-savants.

And the moment which best captured the night, the festival, the occasion, occurred during Poor Rich Boy & the Toothless Wino’s concert-closing set. At precisely 9 pm, midway through the band’s rendition of their song, The Man I Love is Dying, the lights went out, killing all sound. The front few rows — those that had never been empty since the start — continued to belt out the lyrics, while the band continued to play its guitars and percussions even though the amps were off. Within minutes, the generators kicked in and the lights and sound returned, but that no longer mattered. Those few moments of watching a band rush up to the edge of a stage; lit up by a phalanx of mobile phone flashlights; singing loudly while the crowd provided a rousing chorus was the perfect expression of this scene.

Despite a lack of resources and a collapsing system, nothing seems to stop the music.