The years between 1987 and 1999 constitute the golden age of Pakistani pop and rock music.

In these 12 years more pop/rock artistes emerged, albums were recorded and released, and concerts were held than in any other period of the country’s topsy-turvy history.

  Ahmed Rushdi.
Ahmed Rushdi.

The trend peaked in the early and mid-1990s, and according to three of Pakistan’s largest record labels at the time, EMI-Pakistan, Sonic and Sound Master, some 25 million cassettes and CDs of Pakistani pop bands and solo acts were sold between 1993 and 1995 in the country’s four main music markets: Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi.

Also, over a hundred concerts were held between 1993 and 1996.

The question is, even though just like anywhere in the world, the 1970s in Pakistan too, were a ‘swinging’ and liberal decade, why did Pakistan experience a ‘pop explosion’ in the 1990s? Why wasn’t there a similar explosion in the more accommodating 1970s?

There was. But pop in Pakistan in the 1970s was almost entirely associated with and tied to the country’s film industry that was peaking in that decade (before collapsing and withering away from the 1980s onwards).

Tastes in fashion, lifestyle and music among the general public were largely informed by Pakistani films of the era.

Films were the platform from where actors, directors and musicians incorporated new fashions and sounds arriving from the West and fused them with the social and creative dynamics of traditional Pakistani art-forms, and in the process developing various creative and effusive synthases that became Pakistani in essence.

A majority of the period’s musicians were all associated with the film industry as ‘playback singers,’ composers, instrumentalists, etc. Here was where all the fame (and fortune) was.

There was nothing called Pakistani pop, though. But since composers scoring songs for Pakistani films had increasingly begun to sprinkle their songs with influences, references and sonic allusions from western pop music, certain young ‘playback singers’ began to be highlighted as specialists.

Every time a composer would mould a song (for a film) that bore heavy western pop dynamics and influences, he would usually invite Ahmad Rushdi or Runa Laila to sing it.

The drifter: Alamgir in 1973.
The drifter: Alamgir in 1973.

Rushdi had been singing bouncy songs for Pakistani films since the 1960s, but he became a pop specialist among composers in the 1970s. Runa Laila, a young trendy vocalist, became Rushdi’s female contemporary.

Their voices became common in songs composed for films that were directly targeted to attract young urban middle-class Pakistanis. Both became so popular among the youth that a film producer picked up a guitar-wilding, hippie drifter from Karachi’s Hill Park and asked him to try his luck singing songs for films targeted at young audiences.

Before he managed to sing his first song for films (in 1974), Alamgir was a 21-year-old hippie, who could often be seen singing songs and playing his old acoustic guitar at Karachi’s Hill Park. Sometimes he would do it for cup of tea, sometimes for a cigarette and sometimes for food (when he remembered that he had to eat too to survive).

Runa, Ahmed and Alamgir became pop specialists in the film industry.

Video | Runa Laila performing on PTV in 1972:

Video | Ahmed Rushdi scored one of his biggest hits, ‘Dil Koh Jalana’ in 1975 (for the film ‘Mohabbat Zindagi Hai’). Famous actor, Waheed Murad lip-synched the song in the film:

Pakistani film songs influenced by basic 1970s western pop music genres hit a peak in the mid-1970s, so much so, that two of the period’s most prolific film playback singers, Mehdi Hassan and Nayara Noor, too (for a while), agreed to venture into the new expanse with surprisingly successful results.

As this genre of Pakistani pop (later labelled by some as ‘filmi-pop’) began to expand, composer Robin Ghosh became its leading exponent when he began to use the melodicism of the time’s famous western pop acts, the Bee Gees and The Carpenters, in his songs.

But to make the songs sound distinctively Pakistani he used conventional playback singers like Mehdi Hassan and Nayara Noor. The only overtly pop singer that he used for his compositions was Alamgir.

This saw the influence of Rushdi and Laila decline.

Video | Mehdi Hassan scored a quasi-pop hit with ‘Kabhi Mein Socta Hoon’ composed by Robin Ghosh (for 1977’s film Aaina):

At the same time, Alamgir began to write and compose his own songs. In 1977 he was given the task to score the songs for the film ‘Bobby & Julie.’ Though the film was a flop, its soundtrack was a commercial success. One of the songs of the film, ‘Daikha Na Tha,’ turned him into becoming perhaps the country’s first bonafied pop star when he performed it on TV (PTV) along with a visiting Turkish pop singer.

Daikha Na Tha’ was composed entirely on the basics of the time’s disco music mixed with elements from 1970’s ‘glam-rock.’

Video | Alamgir performing ‘Daikha Na Tha’ on PTV in 1977:

Alamgir’s success in this regard inspired a number of young aspirants to bypass the film industry and write, record and release their own songs. For example, Mohammed Ali Sheikhi, though first appearing in 1978 on PTV, recorded an album of his own Urdu pop songs without banking on the film industry’s influence and muscle.

Sheikhi, who eventually did go on to sing a few songs for films, was soon followed by pop vocalists such as Khalid Waleed and Tehseen Javed.

But another reason why men like Alamgir and Sheikhi were breaking away from films was the fact that after the July 1977 reactionary military coup of General Ziaul Haq, the Pakistani film industry had begun its steady commercial and creative decline.

It would almost completely collapse after 1979, burdened by the weight of stricter censor policies, the retreat of the industry’s main paying audiences (the urban middle-classes), the arrival of the VCR, and the creeping creative corrosion within the industry itself.

Many playback singers failed to survive the collapse, and pop singers like Alamgir and Sheikhi had to now bank on TV and consequential album sales to survive.

Obscured by clouds

In a 2012 interview that he gave to a local English daily, Alamgir lamented the compromises that he (and other pop musicians) had to make during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship (in the 1980s) to be able to continue appearing on state-owned television and radio.

It was important for these musicians to keep appearing on television because even though they were paid very little money, TV appearances were vital in those days for them to bag new audiences and fans whom they could sell their albums to and attract offers from to play at parties and other celebratory events.

Alamgir said that in 1982 he wasn’t allowed to appear on TV in jeans and was asked to ‘not move around so much while singing.’

At the time Alamgir and Sheikhi were the country’s top pop acts entirely depended on the sales of their albums and appearances on TV since the film industry had collapsed.

  Mohammad Ali Sheikhi (1979).
Mohammad Ali Sheikhi (1979).

But ironically the restrictive Zia era is the period that contains the seeds of what would (a decade later) sprout Pakistan’s golden age of pop music.

The Zia regime was a highly contradictory affair. It is also considered by many to have sowed the seeds of a peculiar kind of moral hypocrisy that can still be found across vast sections of Pakistan’s polity.

For example, on a cultural level, though the regime’s policies were myopic and sometimes outright reactionary figuring in the banning of various arts (such as dance), literary works (poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz and Habib Jalib), and political concepts (such as socialism and democracy) on TV and radio, it was during Zia’s regime that the use of the VCR and watching Indian films at home reached new heights.

The contradictory nature of Zia’s dictatorship can also be detected in the fact that while ‘80s pop idols like Alamgir and Muhammad Ali Sheikhi were being given ample space on TV (albeit, only if they were ‘properly attired’), the Zia regime (in 1981) ‘advised’ the state-owned PTV and Radio Pakistan to stop playing songs by the country’s newest pop sensations, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan.

Nazia and Zoheb had exploded onto the scene with the country’s first ever Urdu disco album, ‘Disco Dewane,’ (1980). Recorded by the teenaged sister and brother duo in London under the supervision of famous producer, Biddu, the album was studded with classic late ‘70s disco beats and dynamics fused with Pakistani/Indian film sensibilities and lyricism.

Released in Pakistan by EMI-Pakistan, within days it became the music label’s biggest selling album. Young Pakistanis constantly called Radio Pakistan to play songs from the album and even the sombre PTV ran a crude video or two. But when a ‘religious advisor’ of the Zia regime (in Karachi) saw the video of the album’s title song on PTV, he complained to Zia that PTV – by running such songs – was undermining and mocking the regime’s ‘Islamic credentials’.

Video | Nazia and Zoheb performing Disco Dewane on PTV in 1981. The song was soon banned by the government:

Though both PTV and Radio Pakistan immediately stopped playing Nazia and Zoheb’s songs, their album was always available in music stores. But since, in those days, local musicians had to bank a lot on the coverage they got from state-owned media (to generate album sales, and more so, to tap into the large ‘private functions’ market), the duo’s parents went into overdrive in trying to set up a meeting with the then Information Minister, Raja Zafarul Haq.

After many tries, the Minister finally managed to get Nazia and Zoheb to bag an audience with the dictator himself.

The teens were summoned to the palatial President House in Islamabad and were sat in front of the grinning general (in full view of PTV’s news team and cameras), and given a long lecture on what it means to be Muslim and Pakistani. Soon after the meeting, the ban on them was lifted. The duo went on to record and release four more albums.

  Ziaul Haq.
Ziaul Haq.

Pop music (as long as it was presented within the parameters allowed by the censors), continued to be played alongside the regime’s crude political propaganda and the increasing number of religious programming on PTV.

These parameters included little or no dancing while singing, no physical contact between male and female singers, and it was preferable if the singers avoided wearing western clothes.

Also hidden somewhere in such advisories was a distaste for what had started to develop as ‘Sufi-Pop’ (a fusion of Sufi folk music and pop).

Pakistan’s indigenous and populist ‘folk Islam’, although popular among the majority of Pakistanis, was scorned at by the puritan minority, many of whom were being backed by the Saudi monarchy and Zia.

Not only did Zia disapprove of it on doctrinal bases, his dislike of it also stemmed from the fact that his late adversary, Z A. Bhutto’s 1970s populism was closely related to the innovative and anti-puritan dynamics and politics of the country’s folk culture, and that during the 1983 PPP-led ‘MRD movement’ against Zia, a number of Sufi shrines in Sindh had become sanctuaries for many young anti-Zia activists.

So it took some convincing by actress-turned-director, Saira Kazmi, when she pitched a unique concept to PTV. She wanted to record and direct a video featuring pop star, Muhammad Ali Shehki, and legendary Sindhi Sufi folk singer, Allan Faqeer.

This was one of the first examples of a modern Pakistan fusion music genre that would become ‘Sufi Rock’ in the 1990s.

Video | ‘Sufi-Pop’: M. Ali Sheikhi performing ‘Huma Huma’ with Sufi folk singer, Allan Fakir on PTV in 1986:

Anomalies in this respect kept propping up throughout the repressive dictatorship. Even during what was perhaps the most chaotic and reactionary period of the Zia regime (1986-87) – when the military dictator, after dismissing his own handpicked prime minister, began imposing a second round of harsh and convoluted ‘Islamic’ legislation – viewers were suddenly treated to a song and video that would trigger the first big wave of urban pop music in the country.

The song was the otherwise harmless, ‘Dil, Dil Pakistan,’ but played and sung by the very western-attired group of middle-class youngsters called the Vital Signs.

Director of the video, Shoaib Mansoor, had to struggle to get it played on PTV.

In 1988, when Zia was assassinated and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came back into power (through elections), the Vital Signs led a swift wave of modern pop acts up the charts. The golden age of Pakistani pop music had begun.

Street dancing years: The golden age

I was just four years old during the 1970 general election in Pakistan so I really don’t remember much about the event. But over the years, I was constantly told how colourful and boisterous the campaigning (by political parties and their supporters) was during that election.

Nevertheless, I was 21 when the campaigning for the 1988 election kicked off. And those who were old enough to remember will tell you how it turned into becoming one big street party.

For example in Karachi, ‘car rallies’ (especially of young supporters of the PPP and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement [MQM]), became common sights in which young people and families would set out in their cars, jeeps, on motorbikes and even donkey-carts, with their favourite party’s flags in their hands or on their respective transports, and drive all around the city in convoys, blasting songs from car stereos and chanting slogans.

At times such rallies of different parties would converge and instead of shouting slogans against each other, they would join forces and start to chant pro-democracy slogans.

Many-a-time young men on motorbikes would pass by cops and taunt them by placing beer cans and vodka bottles on their heads and dancing, or blowing hashish smoke in the cops’ faces.

The boisterous and celebratory nature of the rallies was such that the cops (who had turned tyrannical during the Zia regime), would either just stand there doing nothing, or some would actually join the ravers and start dancing with them.

There was no serious violence between supporters of different parties or between the supporters and the cops.

This sudden celebratory outpouring of the youth onto the streets was an instinctive expression of a feeling – that of a weight being lifted from the collective consciousness of young Pakistanis who had been constantly herded by the departed dictatorship to shed political and creative passions for enforced piety and penance.

  Benazir Bhutto at a rally just before the 1988 elections.
Benazir Bhutto at a rally just before the 1988 elections.

Many observers suggest that the wave of pop music acts that exploded onto the scene in Pakistan from 1988 onwards was a direct outcome of the above-mentioned feeling.

It is true that the outbreak of many pop acts at the time was at least one expression of the feeling of being liberated from the clutches of obscurantism and state-sanctioned ideas of morality, but there was an economic reason behind this phenomenon as well.

During the Zia dictatorship, even though the country was covered in a thick, smoggy façade of strict conservatism and awkward moralistic pretence, its urban underbelly was clogged with raising ethnic tensions, gang violence, corruption and state-sponsored terror partaken by Zia’s various intelligence agencies to suppress dissent against the dictatorship.

Ironically, it were these political and economic tensions and pretensions, power plays and freak economic prosperity (triggered by a ‘black economy’ run on the unprecedented inflow of aid coming in from the US and Saudi Arabia for the ‘Afghan Jihad’), that also propelled the gradual expansion of the country’s urban middle and lower-middle-classes.

And it is the youth cultures that emerged from these classes that fired the first shots of the kind of pop culture, scene and music we now call, Pakistani pop.

Change was in the air. Tensions were running high and something had to give. This was the underlining feeling among the time’s youth. They could not pin-point exactly what or how this change would happen, but the moment Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in 1986 and led a mammoth rally in Lahore, the country’s major urban centres saw a quiet but certain outpouring of brand new pop bands who wanted to sound somewhat different from the time’s pop scions.

Most of the new acts that began appearing after 1986 played at private parties and weddings and at college functions. The Vital Signs by early 1987 were firm favourites in the period’s college function circuit.

The band never took itself seriously, though. Music was just a hobby. But all that changed when they were discovered by ace PTV producer and director, Shoaib Mansoor, a shy, introverted bohemian and a keen music lover.

Wanting to cash-in on the charisma he found in the way the band looked and sounded, Shoaib asked them to record a national song he had written and wanted to air (as a video) on PTV. The song, of course, was “Dil, Dil Pakistan.”

It was released in the summer of 1987 as a video (directed by Shoaib), in which the Signs were shown singing the song over what looked to be a ‘hill station’ near Islamabad.

It was an instant hit. The new generation loved it as it was the first time – since the Zia regime had restricted the wearing of western dress on TV (in 1982-83) – that young men in denims, leather jackets and wielding guitars were seen (and allowed) on PTV.

Video | Vital Signs Dil, Dil Pakistan video that was aired on PTV in 1987:

Shoaib had pulled off a smart coup. And then Zia died,allegedly assassinated by a bomb that was placed in the C130 plane he was traveling on (August 17, 1988).

In early 1989, the Signs recorded its debut album (for EMI-Pakistan) and also appeared in a teleplay on PTV written and directed by Shoaib Mansoor. The album was an immediate hit.

But what really got the pop wave going was another Shaoaib Manoor gem. He directed an indoor concert (at PTV’s studios in Rawalpindi) that not only included performances from the Vital Signs and a number of new pop acts but also by Nazia and Zoheb Hassan.

After PTV aired the concert (calling the show ‘Music ‘89’), a PR firm in Karachi got the idea of holding what would become the country’s first ever open-air music festival.

The festival was held in February 1989 at Karachi’s widespread Funland amusement park and was attended by over ten thousand young Karachiites. Famous philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi, was invited as a guest and he made a rip-roaring speech against the mullahs.

The bands playing at the festival were the hard-rocking Final Cut and the Barbarians and a very young and still unknown, Ali Haider.

After the success of Music ’89 and the Karachi festival, the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI) held a demonstration in Karachi, in which its leaders accused the new Benazir Bhutto government of promoting obscenity and secularism in the name of art.

But the damage had been done.

Between 1989 and 1990, EMI-Pakistan, apart from releasing the Vital Signs debut album, also released albums by another set of emerging pop stars such as Ali Haider and The Strings.

 Vital Signs (1989).
Vital Signs (1989).

However, on the political scene, the euphoria that had cut across the nation after the arrival of democracy in 1988 had begun to corrode.

Tensions between the PPP government and the right-wing opposition (the Islami Jamhoori Ittihad led by Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif), and between the PPP and the MQM in Sindh, began to express itself in the shape of deadly clashes between the student-wings of the involved parties.

Video | In 1989 PTV ran a serial ‘Tapish’ that recounted the students struggle against the Zia regime. The song also popularised Faiz’s ‘Bol Kay Lab Azad’ among a new generation (sung by Tina Sani). Faiz’s poetry had been banned by Zia. Most of the scenes were shot at the Karachi University that had been a hotbed of various anti-Zia movements:

Ethnic violence began to raise its ugly head again and the young 36-year-old Benazir Bhutto was left lashing out in a chaotic manner at the obvious intrigues engineered by the remnants of the Zia regime within the country’s intelligence agencies, business community and right-wing political parties.

She also struggled to keep a check on corruption and mismanagement related to many of her ministers.

Her government was dismissed by the President, and Nawaz Sharif’s right-wing IJI was handed a cosmetic mandate to rule through a largely rigged election in 1990.

Nawaz’s IJI had promised to restore ‘Ziaism’ and rid the country of the ‘moral and economic corruption’ of the fallen PPP regime.

As Prime Minister he ordered PTV to make sure that that all women who appear on the state-owned channel wore dupattas over their heads.

He also banned pop music from the channel. This could have effectively retracted the momentum of the emerging pop music scene in the country. But in 1990 the Benazir regime had green-lighted the launch of a semi-private TV channel, Shalimar Television Network (STN).

Programming (between 5 pm and 12 am) on this channel was outsourced to National Television Marketing (NTM), a private content-generating company formed by advertising tycoon, Tahir Khan.

In turn, NTM outsourced the creation of entertainment programming (teleplays, music shows, etc.) to freelance directors and producers and then offered advertising slots to multinationals on NTM.

The experiment was an immediate success. PTV was right away put under pressure by NTM’s superior entertainment programming and began to lose its monopoly over the viewers and advertisers.

Also, Nawaz’s restrictions on PTV did not apply to NTM. Apart from big-budgeted teleplays and serials, NTM also began to produce and run the country’s first ever pop shows on TV.

The two most popular among these were Pepsi Top of the Pops and Music Channel Charts (MCC).

Pepsi had begun to invest heavily in Pakistan in the 1980s, side-lining Coca-Cola. It was also the first major company to begin using cricketing stars in its advertising and in 1991 it moved in to occupy the space and market created by the emerging new pop scene in the country when it signed up the Vital Signs.

Whereas NTM’s Pepsi Top of the Pops largely concentrated on promoting pop acts on the corporate payroll of Pepsi, MCC unleashed a plethora of brand new acts that (through their videos on the show), experienced almost overnight successes.

In 1993 when the Nawaz regime too was dismissed by the trigger-happy President (Ishaq Khan) on corruption charges, Benazir’s PPP won a narrow victory in the year’s election and formed a new government at the centre.

Aptly, 1993 was a massive year for the local pop scene. Large multi-band festivals returned and the scene saw the release of a number of new albums.

Vital Signs released its third album, Junoon released its second, Fakhar-e-Alam his first, Strings its second, Ali Haider his second, Sajjad Ali his second …

According to EMI-Pakistan, it sold over 7 million cassettes and CDs of pop acts in 1993. By now, two more record labels had also emerged, Sonic and Sound Master. Apart from Pepsi, the makers of Pakistani soft-drink, Pakola, also entered the field, signing up Ali Haider whose second album, ‘Qarar’ had sold over a million copies within weeks!

Video | Ali Haider’s ‘Purani Jeans’ (1992) turned him into a star:

Another big seller was the compilation albums, containing songs that had been hits on NTM’s MCC.

The success of MCC and its compilation albums gave bands like Junoon, Collage, Nadeem Abbasi, Arid Zone, Milestones, Sequencers and Fringe Benefits enough recognition to attract offers from concert organisers.

On the festival front, the largest in 1993 took place at Karachi’s KMC Stadium on Kashmir Road where over 10 thousand young men and women saw Vital Signs, Milestones and Awaz play for over five hours.

Video | The Strings tasted their first major hit, ‘Sar Kee Hai Yeh Pahar’, through MCC in 1992:

The widening of the scene resulted in outcomes that further advanced the phenomenon.

Corporate interest in pop musicians grew two-fold as more multinationals began investing in signing pop acts for advertising purposes. This, and the fact that recording labels now began paying larger chunks of money (as compared to fixed royalties) to the performers (to buy their albums), saw a number of musicians manage to turn their art into a profession.

Event management companies specialising in organising pop concerts mushroomed as well, and so did high-tech recording studios with quality producers and engineers at the helm.

The second Benazir government also pitched in when as a policy it began to organise entourages of pop musicians, fashion designers and models that were regularly sent on tours abroad so they could attract foreign investment for Pakistani arts.

Acts like Vital Signs, Junoon, Awaz, Ali Haider, Saleem Javed and Hassan Jahangir were already veterans of foreign tours, playing in the US, UK and India.

Video | By their second album, Vital Signs had begun to explore more multifaceted themes and music. This song, ‘Ajnabi’ is from their second (darker) album (1991).

With a growth in the number of concerts, pop shows on TV and of performers, also came aesthetic and stylistic diversifications.

Whereas light pop acts such as Vital Signs matured and incorporated more musical complexities into their compositions to explore more multifaceted themes and music, bands like Awaz, Sequencers and Fringe Benefits took off from where the Signs had left.

Junoon arrived with the agenda to introduce the mainstream market with a fusion of riff-friendly hard-rock, Qawali and Sufi folk music, giving birth to what came to be known as ‘Sufi-Rock.’

The band also introduced an element of direct social and political commentary in their songs, even though bands like the Final Cut and the Barbarians were the first to do so back in 1989.

Yattagan/Fakhar-e-Alam introduced ‘Bhangra-Rap’ into the scene, and Jazba adopted postures and elements from politically-attuned radical hip-hop acts such as the Public Enemy.

Video | Jazba’s ‘militant’ Jago first appeared on MCC in 1993.

In 1994, when the scene became larger than the market, a string of musicians who failed to break into the mainstream (because that now required corporate backing, or support of TV channels and large record labels), they formed a parallel scene.

Bands emerged in Lahore and Karachi who were largely inspired by the Grunge Rock outbreak in the US (in the early 1990s), and began to play and record their songs in basements, garages or in front of small gatherings of fans who could not relate to the dynamics and aesthetics of the mainstream scene.

  One of the early Lahore-based parallel bands was The Trip (in 1995). The group disbanded after its lead singer Babar Khan (right) was shot dead in 1997.
One of the early Lahore-based parallel bands was The Trip (in 1995). The group disbanded after its lead singer Babar Khan (right) was shot dead in 1997.

The mainstream did not take the parallel scene as a threat at first, but when a large ‘underground’ concert was held at Lahore’s Al-Hamra Theatre in 1995, the English press began to give space to bands like The Trip, Mind Riot, The Anonymous, Coven, Brain Masala, etc.

Though, hardly any of these bands were able to release an album in the mainstream market and usually distributed their songs on cassettes at concerts, in their interviews they began to badmouth the mainstream scene and acts, sometimes calling them ‘corporate w@^&*#’ that would be wiped out ‘through an underground music revolution!’

Video | Junoon scored its first hit in 1993 with the rip-roaring Talaash. It became an inspirational band for the ‘parallel music scene’ that had emerged in 1994-95. This video first appeared on MCC in 1993:

Of course, this was sheer muscle-flexing and rhetorical posturing, but somehow it did manage to leave Pepsi and some mainstream acts feeling concerned and even offended.

For example, Pepsi Top of the Pops tried to co-opt some of the parallel acts by covering an ‘underground’ concert in Lahore. But the show only ended up editing out most of the interviews that the show’s VJs conducted of the musicians that were playing there.

In 1995 Vital Signs vocalist, Junaid Jamhed, wrote two articles (one for Dawn and one for The News International), accusing the so-called underground bands of being ‘druggies’ and ‘devil worshippers’(!).

But the commotion was short-lived. The parallel scene eventually withered away at the start of yet another wave of pop acts in 1996, this time through the new NTM show called VJ (hosted by comedians Faisal Qureshi, Ahmed Parvez, Ahsan Rahim and female pop star, Hadiqa Kiani).

Whereas a number of performers who had arrived during the first (1988-92) and second (1993-96) waves, had become established stars. But there were also those who simply vanished, some due to the way they were mismanaged by record labels and some losing their way due to alcohol and drugs.

The third wave unleashed by VJ turned Hadiqa into a star. Acts like Abrarul Haq, Sharique Rumi, Ali Zafar, Javad Ahmed and Dr. Aur Billa also came in.

Video | Sharique Rumi found fame with ‘Fikar Na Faka’ in 1996:

In late 1996 the second Benazir Bhutto government fell, this time dismissed by its own handpicked President (Farooq Laghari). The charges were the same, mismanagement, corruption and a failure to halt ethnic violence in Sindh.

Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) returned to power after the early 1997 election. Complaining that the Benazir government had turned Pakistan into a den of decadence, he once again clamped a ban on pop music and musicians on PTV and discouraged his ministers to allow official permission to organisers to hold pop concerts.

But in his new moral crusade, Nawaz lost the plot completely. If the second Benazir government was corrupt, his was even more suspect. When the press began to highlight this deviousness, he decided to muzzle it through intelligence agencies, threats and various other acts of coercion.

On the cultural front, apart from ordering a blanket ban on pop musicians on PTV, he responded to NTM’s continued support to local pop music by imposing a ban on Junoon (to perform in Pakistan).

Junoon had been critical of the Nawaz regime. In 1997 it had broken big in India. The Nawaz regime painted the band as being ‘Indian stooges’ and ‘anti-Pakistan.’

But the truth was Pakistan’s pop scene had already reached its nadir. Instead of levelling out, it began to peter off. Two main reasons contributed the most in factoring its eventual slow-burn, one economic and the other social.

By 1997 the local pop market that had expended much in the early 1990s, had been stretched and explored to the limit and consequently it eventually suffered a tear.

New acts like Abrarul Haq, Ali Zafar, Hadiqa, Javad Ahmed and a few more who had come in on the third wave via VJ (in 1996-97), could not create a new market but were successful in cannibalising the market of the various acts that had come in on the second wave in 1994.

Falling sales and influence of certain established pop stars in this respect saw them moving towards a peculiar social phenomenon that had begun to emerge amidst urban middle-class Pakistanis; a phenomenon that was the opposite of the cultural zeitgeist of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A number of Islamist outfits had already made in-roads in the politics and sociology of Pakistan by riding on the 1980s’ ‘Islamisation’ process.

But as most of them were highly militant, it was the evangelical movements that managed to reap the most success within the country’s chaotic and uncertain social and cultural milieu.

The largest of them was also the oldest. The ranks of the Tableeghi Jamat (TJ), a highly ritualistic Deobandi evangelical movement, swelled. But since the TJ was more a collection of petty-bourgeoisie cohorts and fellow travellers, newer evangelical outfits emerged with the idea of almost exclusively catering to the growing ‘born again’ trend that began to mushroom within the county’s middle and upper-middle classes from the mid-1990s.

Three of the most prominent organisations in this context were Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda, Zakir Naik’s ‘Islamic Research Foundation’ and Babar R. Chaudhry’s Arrahman Araheem (AA).

All three also benefited by another unprecedented trend that began emerging within the urban middle-class youth of Pakistan: Never before did young Pakistanis exhibit so much interest in religiosity as did the generations that grew up in much of the 1990s and (and almost all of the 2000s).

This show of religiosity also began to influence the showbiz and sporting circles. As many of Pakistan’s once flamboyant cricketers began joining the TJ, in the late 1990s Arrahman Araheem (AA) became an attraction for a number of pop starts and TV personalities (actors, models, etc.).

Naik, Hashmi and Chaudhry were all constructing feel-good narratives and apologias for the educated urbanites so that these urbanites could feel at home with religious ritualism, myth, attire and rhetoric, while at the same time continue to enjoy the fruits of amoral modern economic materialism and frequent interaction with (Western and Indian) cultures that were otherwise described as being ‘anti-Islam.’

Of course, the whole question of such narratives smacking of contradiction went out the window as young middle-class Pakistanis admiringly saw pop stars like Junaid Jamshed (who joined TJ) and Najam Shiraz (AA) ‘rediscover God’ – but not without the things that kept them materially satisfied.

In this respect, especially the AA became a magnet for the ‘trendies.’ Following Najam into the AA fold were TV actors like Farhan Ali Agha and former supermodel, Atiya Khan.

Junoon’s vocalist, Ali Azmat, could also be found attending AA lectures, but he held himself back from joining it, only to ultimately plunge head-on into the lap of Zaid Hamid’s ultra-rightist Takmeel-e-Pakistan Movement a decade later.

  Junaid Jamshed became the poster-boy of the Tableeghi Jamat.
Junaid Jamshed became the poster-boy of the Tableeghi Jamat.

As happens in any ‘moderate’ religious discourse, if one is drawn and attracted towards having a re-look at religion with the help of modernity-friendly approach, that person is always likely to ultimately reach a point where his/her new-found liking of religious ideas and ritualism are bound to begin clashing with the ideas and ways of modern-day lifestyles.

Some bail out at this point, some continue to ignore such contradictions, while some have also been known to eventually graduate towards becoming religiously extreme.

That’s what happened to a lot of young men and women in TJ, Al-Huda, AA and in Naik’s organisation. Many of the young Pakistanis, who had joined these in the late 1990s, began to bail out, while others self-stunted their religious evolution, stopping at that precise moment when contradictions between religious dogma and amoral modernity begin to become starker and harder to ignore.

By the late 1990s, the pop scene had almost completely lost steam. A majority of major bands broke-up and many promising acts and groups who had rode in on the largest of the waves (the second), simply withered away.

As the scene (and the country’s economy went into a tail-spin in 1998), multinationals began to pull back their money from the scene and a lot of studios and record labels closed shop.

Junoon was the only major act of the early 1990s along with Ali Haider who managed to continue recording and playing, with Junoon peaking with its 1998 album, ‘Parvaz’ before dramatically declining and eventually breaking up in 2004.

Video | Junoon reached its peak with its fourth album, Parvaaz (1998). The song ‘Ghoom’ on it was an excellent example.

An effort was made in 2000-1 by former Vital Signs member Rohail Hayat to kick in a new wave of pop musicians when he persuaded Pepsi to invest in a platform called ‘Battle of the Bands.’ The ploy did not work.

Though Nawaz was toppled in a military coup in late 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, who presented himself as a liberal and a patron of the arts, the post-9/11 scenario in Pakistan turned extremely violent.

The growing violence from militant Islamist groups made it almost impossible for pop concerts to be held, so much so that 14 years after the golden age of pop music in Pakistan folded, we now have a generation that has very little or even no memory of a time when the country actually had a vibrant pop scene and large music concerts were a norm for young Pakistanis.

Some talented acts (such as Fuzon, Noorie, Jal, Atif Aslam, etc.) did crop up after the folding of the golden age, but unfortunately, many of them found a scene that had lost most of what kept it and its patrons intact, appreciated and going.

A majority of today’s top acts, Ali Zafar, Atif Aslam and Fuzon, have all had to look towards India to help them sustain their talent as a worthy profession.

Early birds (1970-77)

• Ahmed Rushdie
• Runa Laila
• Naheed Akhtar

Video | Naheed Akhtar singing her first major ‘filmi-pop’ hit, 'Tu turu turu tara tara’ at a concert in Lahore that was covered live by PTV in 1975:

Pioneers (1977-87)

• Alamgir
• Mohammad Ali Sheikhi
• Nazia and Zoheb
• Tehseen Javed
• Khalid Waheed
• Benjamin Sisters
• Scratch
• Hassan Jahangir

Video | ‘Hawa Hawa’ by Hassan Jahangir (1986):

The Golden Age | First Wave (1988-92)

• Vital Signs
• Barbarians
• Final Cut
• Junoon
• Ali Haider
• Aamir Saleem
• Aamir Zaki
• Bunny
• Saleem Javed

Video | Vital Signs (1990):

Second Wave (1992-96)

• Sajad Ali
• Komal Rizvi
• Yattagan/Fakhr-e-Alam
• Fringe Benefits
• Awaz
• Sequencers
• Arid Zone
• Nadeem Jaffary
• Collage
• Jazba
• Milestones
• Mind Riot
• The Trip
• The Anonymous
• Brain Masala
• Coven
• Midnight Madness
• Dog Tag
• The Strings
• Shahzad Roy
• Najam Shiraz
• Fareeha Rizvi
• Karavan
• Arsh

Video | Soni Mahiwal by Collage (1993):

Third (and last) Wave (1996-2001)

• Dr. Aur Billa
• Sharique Rumi
• Abrarul Haq
• Junaid Jamshed (former Vital Signs)
• ET
• Noorie
• Fuzon
• Jal
• Atif Aslam
• Mizraab
• Mekal Hassan Band
• Javad Ahmed
• Aarroh
• Overload
• Ali Zafar

Video | Ali Zafar ‘Channo’:

The author extensively covered the Pakistani pop scene for The News International from 1989 till 1998. The article is based on the reports, features and interviews that he conducted during this period.



Chilas bus attack
Updated 05 Dec, 2023

Chilas bus attack

Locals, particularly in Diamer and Kohistan, need to be on board to ensure that militants have no place to hide.
State’s insecurities
05 Dec, 2023

State’s insecurities

ONE hopes that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor’s recent remarks regarding the ‘less-than-ideal’ security...
Underage driving
05 Dec, 2023

Underage driving

SIX lives — all members of a single family — were recently lost in Lahore to the unabated menace of underage...
Electable politics
Updated 04 Dec, 2023

Electable politics

With the PTI still on the wrong side of the political equation, the prospects will be bright for whoever takes the lead.
War of narratives
04 Dec, 2023

War of narratives

MILITARILY, there is no match between the Israeli war machine, and the defenceless people of Gaza. On one side is a...
Returns on deposits
04 Dec, 2023

Returns on deposits

DESPITE the deceleration of deposit mobilisation, bank deposits have jumped to a record high of Rs25.6tr in FY23. ...