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Soundcheck: The crescent and the Lone Star

March 29, 2015

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Khumariyaan band members in Austin
Khumariyaan band members in Austin

For the first time in its history, South by Southwest (known simply by its acronym SWSX) — a 10-day set of film, interactive and music festival in Austin, Texas — featured its first full Pakistani showcase. Six musical acts from Pakistan were invited to perform during the musical portion — the largest music festival of its kind in the world — potentially opening up a whole new fan base for the musicians.

The Pakistani singers and bands performing at this year’s SXSW were Haroon, Khumariyaan, Mai Dhai, Mekaal Hasan Band, Poor Rich Boys and the Sain Tanveer Brothers. Each performed brief sets at the historic landmark Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin to enthusiastic crowds.

“We had one artist from Pakistan in 2013, and a couple of bands over the years originally from Pakistan, but no longer living there,” said SXSW music festival programmer Todd Puckhaber. “This was the first full Pakistani showcase at SXSW.”

Haroon (C) on the way to the concert venue for the soundcheck
Haroon (C) on the way to the concert venue for the soundcheck

Outside of its environs, music from Pakistan is largely unknown to the rest of the world. Only the truly cognoscenti in the world of music are admirers of the rich complexity of the country’s musical offerings — running the gamut from Pashto entrancement and driving percussion to pop-influenced melodies and jazz-influenced musical measures.

Until now, the music of Pakistan has been a well-kept secret and little known outside its borders. The Pakistani showcase at SXSW may just have changed that.

Puckhaber himself acknowledged not having been overly familiar with the breadth of music from Pakistan. He credited Jennifer McAndrew, an Austin resident who works at the State Department with having brought the music to his attention. Having worked at the consulate in Islamabad, McAndrew had been involved in a festival there during the MusicMela conference, designed to boost the fledgling Pakistani music industry

Kami Paul, Danish Khawaja, Ahsan Papu, Mekaal Hasan, Faran Maqsud and Amir Azhar
Kami Paul, Danish Khawaja, Ahsan Papu, Mekaal Hasan, Faran Maqsud and Amir Azhar

“She approached us to attend and speak,” Puckhaber said. “I accepted the invitation and went to Islamabad and Karachi. This led to a discussion on how to get some of the bands performing at MusicMela to SXSW.”

A State Department grant facilitated the travel of each band, along with their assistants. And the rest, as they say, is history. His experience at Music Mela gave Puckhaber a sense of which bands to pick for SXSW, he said.

“Music Mela had three nights of music on one stage,” he recalled. “I saw them all perform. Zeejah Fazli, the organizer of Music Mela, and myself selected six acts we thought would be a broad representation of Pakistani music, with a particular focus on world music. We chose three world/traditional music acts, two fusion bands and a pop star from the ’80s-90s.”

Sain Tanveer Brothers
Sain Tanveer Brothers

Judging from the reception in the Victorian Room of the Driskill, the fans approved of Puckhaber’s hand-picked selections. A wide array of music fans began to line up minutes before the music began — some fellow Pakistanis and other intellectually-curious music mavens wanting to be exposed to music from Pakistan.

In making the SXSW cut, many factors went into consideration, Puckhaber said. “SXSW usually looks at musical talent and quality in conjunction with popularity and strength of fan base,” he explained. “With the Pakistani bands, it was solely based on musical quality and since most of the artists are relatively or completely unknown, particularly to the world outside of Pakistan.”

Among the six, one act was particularly obscure but chosen due to the complex architecture of the music, he added: “Mai Dhai, for example, has never been outside of Pakistan and rarely plays outside of her home region. But her music is so unique and special, we had to invite her and were honoured to have her grace SXSW with her presence and share her music with the world.”

Poor Rich Boys
Poor Rich Boys

The flight to reach Austin is a long one, and the distance is great — some 8,157 miles from home. But the exposure to their music to untapped markets made the sacrifice worthwhile, said members of Khumariyaan.

“Most people back home don’t know what SXSW is,” said Sparlay Rawail, who plays lead guitar and dhol. “The idea is to get Pakistani music out there. I don’t know about the rest of Texas, but we found people in Austin very open to world music.”

Fellow band member Aamer Shafiq agreed: “Austin is very accepting; very open and liberal. We have made many friends.”

Minutes before the band’s set began, Rawail and Shafiq sat down for an interview for Images on Sunday alongside fellow band members Shiraz Khan and Farhan Bogra. The four sat on steps leading up to the historic hotel’s second floor as other bands conducted their sound check, while outside the huge crowds of SXSW passed by like slow-moving herds.

Mai Dhai and her band members
Mai Dhai and her band members

“This will have a domino effect,” Rawail said of the potential upsurge in his band’s popularity in other markets. The acclimatisation of native audiences to Khumariyaan’s fusion of traditional Pakistani music to more modern musical elements will serve the band well on the world stage: “Pashtuns don’t take too much to change, but we need to be able to compete on a world stage.”

The journey to Austin was not an easy one as band members were separated from friends and family back home during their stay. Bogra, the married family man of the group, said he learned during a telephone call to his wife that their one-year-old daughter, Zahwa, had taken her first steps in his absence that he missed.

“It’s a sacrifice,” he said ruefully before agreeing the baby’s initial steps should be viewed as a positive omen.

Shafiq broke the silence following the poignancy of Bogra’s family anecdote, employing humour in furthering the idea that Zahwa’s first steps while her father was away should be viewed as a good omen: “One small step for a little girl, one giant leap for a band.”

Once their set began, Khumariyaan made a point to include some of their most recognised songs, including Bela, Shehnai, Qataghani and Tamasha. Members of Khumariyaaan said they didn’t view the other bands in the lineup as competition, but as fellow ambassadors in bringing the music of Pakistan to the world.

“It’s a showcase,” Rawail said. “If any of us get booked in the future, then our job is done.”

The crowds gathered to hear the music were energised. Arguably the most dramatic performance came from the Sain Tanveer Brothers, who went out on the streets where the crowds milled, using their dhols to full effect as a makeshift lure into the Driskill ballroom where they later entranced those gathered with their signature dhol spinning and psychedelic play.

Shafiq said his band took a decidedly more mellow tone, using the trance-like powers of traditional instruments like the rubab and zerbaghali to live up to their name of musical “intoxicators.”

“We didn’t want the spotlight,” he said. “We did not have that aim. Our goal is just to be happy and have a good time.”

Indeed, a good time was had by all. And Austin will not soon forget the power of Pakistani music.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 29th, 2015

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