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Chasing the rockstar dream in Pakistan

Updated March 27, 2015

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It is purely love for music that keeps them going – no sales, no audiences and certainly no record label prospects.—Photo courtesy: Kukis Photography
It is purely love for music that keeps them going – no sales, no audiences and certainly no record label prospects.—Photo courtesy: Kukis Photography

“Mama, I want to start an all-girl rock band.”

A statement I made frequently in the early 2000s, when music in Pakistan was still exciting.

What followed were glares of disapproval and a series of explanations by my wannabe-liberal-but-culturally-conservative family, and then eventually a “no”.

That was perhaps the end of my ‘dream’ of becoming a rockstar (unless you count my bedroom) and really, do you know how hard it was to find a female drummer back then?

Smax — Await:

Around a decade later, I am surrounded by musicians who weren’t so quick to give up. The only difference is, it is not the early 2000s anymore.

Today, we live in a time when people would skip the rare gigs we have because halaat kharab hain, yet they’d be the first ones to storm movie theatres when a new movie releases.

We live in a time when a strawberry samosa and cruising for a parking spot to eat for hours is more entertaining than watching a guy play a guitar solo he spent days to create.

We live in a time when long hair and tattoos are mostly associated with militants from Uzbekistan.

So how do you live the dream in the city of lights where music is gasping for air?

The last thing you do is give up

And that’s exactly what most musicians who were on the brink of making it a decade ago (or had actually made it already), ended up doing.

All the bands whose shirts we used to sport got disbanded; solo careers turned into advertisement music, and the music videos on TV channels were reduced to numbers easily forgotten. Many moved abroad as the law and order situation got worse, all this at a time when people really could have used more music.

Tollcrane — Weekend Paycheck:

The cracks in the foundation deepened, and Pakistan's ‘indie’ DIY (Do-It-Yourself) generation of musicians today are trying to fill them endlessly, almost with futility because why pay musicians for their efforts anymore when the internet gives you everything for free?

Ameer logon ka mulk hai yeh bro, I should just give up…” a musician friend said last week, whose two albums have more online clicks than sales.

But it’s the giving up that has left our so-called music ‘industry’ in such an abysmal state in the first place.

Misplaced passions

The musicians who do make up this ‘industry’ have been at it for decades, and watching their passion for music transform into passion for money is immensely depressing.

The veterans refuse to even take notice of the efforts that the indie scene is making; be it hard-rock or metal, folk-rock or electronic, Pakistan has it all.

It is not terrorism or law and order that caused the downfall of Pakistani music, it is ego problems and insecurity.

Talha Asim Wynne of Tollcrane tries to craft his own unique style of electronic music. —Red Bull Content Pool.
Talha Asim Wynne of Tollcrane tries to craft his own unique style of electronic music. —Red Bull Content Pool.

To be fair, there have been attempts to sustain it on life support.

A few years ago a group of musicians from Karachi worked together on LussunTV – webisodes on Facebook and Vimeo with a coke studio-esque format showcasing all the prominent bands from the local scene. The show has had three seasons so far, all DIY.

Rudoh — Bootyfool:

And then there are music festivals like Storm in a Tea Cup in Lahore and Rockfest in Islamabad.

In complete contrast to the musicians that quit the scene, the current ‘underground’ musicians have stuck to their guns (or guitars), because they feel in their hearts that it still means something; that music is the answer they have been searching for, despite being endlessly told by society they are not worth anything.

The musicians I have had the pleasure to meet, some dropped out and did not finish their degrees; some quit well-paying jobs abroad and came back to Pakistan to work on an album; some took up jobs just to be able to support their music since the industry won’t and for some, it is a simply labour of love.

It is purely love for music that keeps them going. It has always been more than just sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll because how much of that is even there? No sky-rocketing ticket sales, not enough audience turnout to have a successful groupie culture, no record label scouts lurking at gigs to sign them.

What they do have is this community, like a family; it’s the same 20 people at every gig showing their support, the thousand hits on various Soundcloud pages of these musicians, and people like me awake at 2am marveling at them and the underrated music which is way ahead of our time.

But it can’t be spoon-fed to people, so I hope someday the people of Pakistan will realise we actually have something to be proud of, even if it is music – something our society refuses to accept as a profession or career or a thing that people choose to do with their lives.

Yet, it is this same music that can play a huge role in improving Pakistan’s image internationally.

'Red Blood Cat' playing in Lahore. —File.
'Red Blood Cat' playing in Lahore. —File.

It is these local musicians that are doing that – not politicians, not bankers, not whatever-else-is-considered-as-an-acceptable-profession-these-days.

Ever heard of 'Dalt Wisney', 'Smax' and 'Tollcrane'? No? They are three Pakistani indie-electronic musicians that got selected at the Redbull Music Academy in 2006, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The academy has thousands of applicants from all over the world every year.

Dalt Wisney — Star Eyes:

Natasha Ejaz and Rudoh, prominent musicians from the indie scene are representing Pakistan in the US right now at Dosti project, a music residency.

Natasha Ejaz — Khwaab:

There are countless more I could mention. A whole separate blog is required to just list all the indie musicians in the country and their contributions to the scene.

I feel strongly about each and every one of them because I feel like I can live through them and their courage to continue to do something I never had the strength to do myself.

Musicians in Pakistan instill a sense of hope in a way that nothing else in this country can. The least we can do is take them seriously and let them have their moment. Let them be rockstars.

PS: If you know any female drummers in Karachi, let me know.


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