I am not good at first impressions. My taste has often been steadfastly mainstream and safe, which has meant that while the hipsters of my generation were listening to grunge and reading Russian novelists, I was rocking out to boy bands and praying for Nancy Drew to date Frank Hardy in their crossover adventures.
But I do believe in love at first sight, because that has happened to me, and I can give you two examples to make my point. For one, there was the opening over of the 2009 World T20 final bowled by Mohammad Amir. Another, from around the same time, was the opening page of Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
In both cases, I knew that the exhilaration I felt would resonate for a long while after.
Yet I also realize that the ‘first sight’ was in itself an event that was being built up to for a while. Amir’s over was the crescendo of a fantastic tournament for Pakistan, while Hanif’s book was the culmination of his wonderful non-fiction, reported pieces. Both those moments were built upon the layers of events which preceded them.
Could a relatively unknown underground band be the best thing to happen to Pakistani music? Introducing the genius that is Janoobi Khargosh
I had spent much of the last two years researching and listening to the musicians from Pakistan’s, and in particular, Karachi’s underground music scene. There was an absolutely mindboggling spectrum of genres and styles being made by extremely talented young people.
There were a host of indie bands with lyrics like poems and compositions that had moved beyond the tyranny of the guitar. There were electronic producers who made songs with cascading layers of sounds at once glorious and curious.
There were often no vocals, and if there were, they were often chopped up in intricate processes, and if not, then their lyrics had none of the love-induced insomnia or khaki-induced patriotism that had become entrenched in local pop.
So when I heard 'Pagal Ho Gaya' by Janoobi Khargosh I knew I had fallen in love. From the moment its percussive arrangement begins and evokes a busting-at-its-seams Bolan headed to the beach, the song is impossible to extricate from your head.
“Andhero mei subah Woh kya bol raha Yeh pagal hai to ja ke tu ek Tylenol kha”
A year later, Janoobi Khargosh has released its debut album Billi, Khamba Aur Urran Tashtari and I find myself standing on the roof of an apartment complex on a Karachi night lit up by the floodlights from a poorly-attended National Stadium, talking to Waleed Ahmed, the phenomenon behind Janoobi Khargosh.
I am beside myself with excitement, while the young musician (like almost all his peers in the underground scene that I have met) is confused by, yet appreciative of, my delight.
Then Waleed says something that leaves me confused. “If I ask someone to listen to my music, I am giving them the right to criticise me.”
The statement confuses me because despite the underground scene having fans from all over the world, barely anyone knows of it in Pakistan itself.
Janoobi Khargosh was the band which I felt could change that — it retained the relentless originality of the ‘scene’ and its commitment to refuse the mundane, yet its Urdu lyrics and irreverent style made it far more accessible to mainstream audiences.
So why is Waleed opposed to pushing his music?
“Art is something one makes in one context but can be related to in a completely different context by someone else. I don’t like giving everyone that control, because I am quite possessive about what I learnt in order to make this music … getting to this point where I am making this music involved going through a very difficult period in my life.”
The very nature of my presence highlighted his point. I had come over to meet the maker of some of the most insouciant, effortlessly cool music I had heard.
But Waleed himself had turned towards this sound after getting to a point where he felt the music he was making was no longer inspiring him.
At the time, he had been playing mostly metal and progressive rock music, and has made a lot of well-received music in both genres — his band Dionysus in the former and his work with Waterford in the latter.
Janoobi Khargosh was an escape — an identity where he didn’t have to follow the cerebral requirements of metal and progressive rock. It was a ritual whereby he would make a song and post it online without ever even telling anyone. (Un)fortunately, the music was so good that soon there were people online claiming to be the ‘real’ Janoobi Khargosh, and that was when Waleed had to intervene.
A year later, he had a truly accomplished album. Listening to the songs, 'Aik dou' feels like an acid trip with Mustansar Hussain Tarar; 'Baray Sahab' is a neon-lit drone flying over Karachi; 'Char Paanch Chay' is so laconically cool it should come in sepia with a ‘come hither’ look; 'Char Sawal' is an existential race through the forest at dawn.
The feeling of bewilderment, of an almost matter-of-fact sense of being disoriented is pervasive throughout the lyrics and the vocal performances.
Yet the ease with which the music switches between tempos and moods suggests that it exists as the answer to the questions the lyrics raise.
I ask Waleed why he chose such a bizarre name for his album and his response is in the same vein as before. “If you want to bring change to a culture, you can’t name your album something which people find ‘attractive’.”
He says the last word with air quotes and a condescending tone, and I gain further insight. It’s not that Waleed doesn’t want people to listen to his music; he just wants them to make an effort to ‘find’ it.
And he’s right. People in Pakistan today need a corporate-vetted guest list and a phalanx of Vigo-riding gunmen to attend a concert, they need a company to pay channels to play once-in-a-generation music before they listen to it. Their channels score their news and their breaks between ads with the latest from Bollywood.
No one pays for music, no one cares for its future, and everyone only needs it to have something proud to post on their Facebook statuses on 14th August.
Those who genuinely love music are accustomed to jumping through hoops and proxies in order to access music. They are used to having their virtual archives banned or deleted or seized and for the art to be constantly under threat.
People who love music in Pakistan go to great lengths to seek it. And Janoobi Khargosh’s album, one of the best to come out this century, is decidedly for music lovers.
You can find Billi Khamba And Urran Tashtari at Soundcloud.com/janoobi-khargosh. The album will be available for purchase via downloads and CDs in early January.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 21st, 2014