Owning our music

January 29, 2017

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I was sitting in a restaurant recently when a thought struck me; I had just noticed one of the other customers softly singing along to a Billboard Hot 100 generic song that was playing on the sound system. When later, a fast-paced song played, I heard young people at another table squeal and sing the chorus out loud. 

What struck me was that the restaurant was, just like every other one in the city, playing music that wasn’t from Pakistan and which the patrons were well-versed with. Given my work in the Pakistani music industry, this was on one level a business-minded inquisition. But beyond that, it made me think about the relevance of Pakistani music as a cultural phenomenon these days.

As I sat there eating my food, I wondered why it was that difficult to come across Pakistani music these days. If you heard it, it was probably because at some level you looked for it. Otherwise, you would struggle to randomly come across it even while living in Pakistan.

Take radio for example: it is rare to find any Pakistani music playing on it at any time. Despite the constant railing against India and its ‘nefarious designs’ by the news arms of the media houses that run these radio channels, the airwaves are choked with Bollywood songs. In fact, the same situation persists on television as well, where the news hour would start off with some India-centric conspiracies and the end with the latest gossip item from B-Town.

I began to wonder whether it was a question of taking ownership. It was clear that the restaurants I visited or the radio channels I listened to or the TV channels I watched weren’t interested in taking ownership of local music. So they were instead bombarding their consumers with alternatives that the latter were lapping up. But are listeners really nothing more than passive consumers? Surely they can also take ownership.

Some quarters like to blame the lack of ownership on our ‘religious’-based issues with music, specifically one that sees it as sinful and corrupting. That schism seemed to really break out after the shocking death of Junaid Jamshed late last year. On one end were those mourning the death of the pop star, while on the other were some who wanted the focus to remain on his ‘born-again’ faith.

But even here, the issue seemed to be one of a lack of ownership. On the night of Junaid Jamshed’s death, I had been tweeting links to old songs by him when I noticed that one person would consistently reply to them with a plea to stop doing so. They asked that we remember him the way he had wanted to be known now, which was as a religious figure. I went to that person’s account, and noticed that they had been tweeting this non-stop since the news broke. But when I explored a little deeper, I noticed that earlier on their timeline, this person had been tweeting nasheeds and naats by the Englishman (of Azeri descent, born in Iran) Sami Yousef. Despite being so concerned about Junaid’s legacy that they were interrupting other people’s way of grieving, they weren’t interested in actually sharing Junaid’s Islamic material either.

I feel that such an attitude is prevalent across larger sections of our society too. We have far more opinions about what music means rather than what it sounds like. But then the question is why should anyone take ownership of local music? After all, it doesn’t serve any material function or a market need. Perhaps this is just evolution and we should ‘get with it.’

If that were the case, however, we wouldn’t see both the public and media latch on to viral bursts of musical fame. Any time there is a song that has some narrative of a working-class singer or some larger message, we see a brief flurry of interest. All of the morning shows book the singers for their slots, news shows invite them to sing a few lines and their videos are shared on Facebook.

But that is where the engagement ends. It is almost a mad rush to milk something and then discard it without looking to commit further.

The problem with that is that it creates a more confused, apathetic and disaffected society. Local music — and any other art — is a product of the society we live in and thus communicates something that speaks truest to us. Of course, there are no boundaries to art and music, but if we can’t connect to any of the ones being produced locally, what does it say about us as a society? What does it mean when we can’t tune into what is around us? We might not think that these are important questions to answer, but one day we might find that we are unable to recognize ourselves in any of the music we hear. And when that happens, there won’t be an ‘us’ left to discuss anymore.

Ahmer Naqvi is a writer and the COO of the audio-streaming platform, Patari.

He writes on pop culture and tweets as @karachikhatmal

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine January 29th, 2017