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How South Asian music helped my identity formation as a British-Pakistani

Updated November 10, 2017

Working in Karachi with family back home in the UK, my mind is constantly in two places. I am forever grappling with understanding my hybrid identity of being a British Muslim of Pakistani origin, and of late, I am beginning to think more about where I belong and what connects me to a particular place.

What I find is that I am forever missing something wherever I am, whether it’s people who are part of my life, the most important thing, or places that I like to visit, food, transport, weather. The list goes on.

When I am in Birmingham, my hometown, I miss the weather in Karachi and when I’m in Karachi, I miss the milder climate of Britain. I miss Karachi’s vibrancy in Birmingham and when in Karachi, I miss walks in the park in England.

One thing, however, that I have access to all the time no matter where I am on the globe, is music that I have a connection with. I’ve noticed that over the years whilst I was growing up, the South Asian music which my family used to listen to, in a purer form, comprising South Asian instruments or at least sounds particular to that region, has changed to a more hybrid music which resonates with my identity and fuses Western and Eastern cultures both linguistically and musically.

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If I reflect upon growing up in the UK, my mother and father instilled Muslim values through our faith and its observances. However, on the broader, cultural South Asian side, the closest we had to our Pakistani roots with regards to entertainment was Bollywood films, their soundtracks and live concerts by Asian artists - which were few and far between.

In the 80’s, there was also the emergence of early modern bhangra groups such as Alaap, Heera, Malkit Singh, DCS, who made TV appearances and performed concerts. As I was very young at that time, I can’t recall what these songs would have meant to me other than they resonated with the Punjabi we spoke at home.

Growing up in Birmingham, these bhangra groups were also often to be seen performing at weddings and I remember seeing live performances after food, the most important part of attending Asian weddings for most!

However, growing up in the 90's was an exciting time. We subscribed to channels such as TV Asia and later Zee TV.

These brought with them a new dimension to entertainment for South Asian diasporic communities in the UK. I remember a tagline that Amitabh Bachchan used to say in the promotional advertisements for Zee TV:

“Home away from Home”

This hinted at the fact that Zee TV was bringing South Asia to those diasporic communities living away from home, and indeed it did. I remember sitting down to watch South Asian films and TV shows for the first time which was a unique experience.

In terms of music, which was what appealed to me the most, this brought to our screens and lives — and indeed exposed to my generation living in diasporas — a fusion of Eastern and Western music by talented South Asian artists based both in the subcontinent and in diasporas elsewhere.

So, Pakistani pop and rock music from bands such as Junoon, Vital Signs, Awaaz were loved as much by Pakistani diasporic communities in the UK as they were in Pakistan, with songs such as Sayonee making it to playlists where earlier Pakistani artists were unheard of.

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For someone who was raised in the UK, I was suddenly enjoying new genres of music such as Sufi rock! On the Hindi pop scene too, we could enjoy both new and older tracks that were being remixed by new artists such as Shaan and Sonu Nigam along with artists such as Rabbi Shergill and Lucky Ali who gave the music scene a more contemporary feel.

I remember listening to Rabbi Shergill’s version of Bulleh Shah’s kafi, Bullah ki Janna Main Kaun, and not only being blown away by the poetry of Bulleh Shah but the way the kafi had been produced with a cool video encompassing all strands of society along with Shergill’s vocals and the accompanying music.

Hence, this fusion music became popular both among youth in the home countries and with youth of my generation growing up in the UK and elsewhere. The trend of fusing Western and Eastern sounds and re-mixing music was something which became very popular and artists continued to do this in the British domain as well, both in the East London Asian electronic scene and the hip-hop bhangra scene.

The former emerged in East London as youths were mixing South Asian sounds, often sampling lyrics and merging with electronic sounds. Musicians such as Joi, Badmarsh, TJ Rehmi are but a few from that era. Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney are also notable Asian electronic artists who found a niche for themselves.

The music of electronic artists was arguably more vibrant on the London club scene and was inaccessible to some youths such as myself, who being young Muslim girls, were not allowed to go to clubs and only knew about them through the odd interview or video on television and through my older brother who DJ’d as a hobby and dabbled in producing music himself.

Bhangra artists started being featured on our screens more, with artists and groups such as Johnny Zee now known as Taz, B21, and Punjabi MC amongst many others. From what I can remember, vocals for these groups were still purely Punjabi but the music was arranged around Western sounds.

Johnny Zee in the earlier days was a South Asian Michael Jackson. Punjabi MC produced a hit song Mundeyan tho Bach ke Rahi, featuring a sample from the soundtrack of the television series, Knight Rider.

Again, I remember this song being played at weddings and everyone dancing away with the craziest of moves! Another catchy tune belonging to Punjabi MC which was really popular was one featuring a sample from Billie Jean.

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It was around this time too that Bally Sagoo, a British Indian, collaborated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to produce an album Magic Touch (1992), which were essentially qawwalis, the music for which was mixed and produced by Bally Sagoo.

It was followed by other successful albums and singles, such as Bollywood Flashback (1994), which rejuvenated classic Bollywood soundtracks such as Noorie, the title track to the film of the same name, starring Farooq Sheikh and Poonam Dhillon.

This fusion was bringing about a more palatable version of older songs for the younger generation too. It was more appealing for youngsters like me who also listened to regular British and American pop culture but who could now relate to South Asia.

The Punjabi lyrics that resonated with me as the spoken Punjabi was the same as what I had grown up speaking. I almost felt as if this hybrid music was much like me, a fusion of two cultures.

At around this time we also saw the rise to fame of British Pakistani Muslim artist Aki Nawaz, of Fun-da-mental, who brought to the fore political rap, in a fusion of music genres ranging from hip-hop, techno to world music. This effectively created a space and voice for youths of not just British Muslim origin but other minorities too.

I remember the single Countryman and how that was an early insight into political rap, rapped in English with a blend of both Asian and Western sounds. Known for sometimes being controversial, Nawaz told me in a recent conversation that what he had said in the past was time sensitive.

Hence, new identities were appearing through the British South Asian music scene where these youths were finding a voice and representing their communities.

Moving on to the 2000s, I remember seeing groups evolve, as well as new ones forming. Johnny Zee’s conversion from a solo artist into a group brought about Stereo Nation.

Dr Zeus was collaborating with many other artists as he continues to do so, including Snoop Dogg, which brings about a direct fusion of Asian and Western mainstream artists.

The Rishi Rich project, the brainchild of Rishpal Singh Rekhi, a British Asian, launched Jay Sean and Juggy D and what culminated was the track, Dance with you, merging English and Punjabi vocals amongst others.

It was this period that brought about bilingual lyrics and a combination of singing which was in the South Asian language, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi with English rap interspersed.

With an increasing number of streaming channels at our fingertips, we are now able to access music from anywhere around the globe and this has really enriched my playlists which are an eclectic mix of a range of musical genres.

Here, I have jogged down memory lane and focused on British South Asian artists who have appeared primarily on South Asian channels, both in the British context and elsewhere, but there are many others in other diasporic contexts that are creating a space for South Asian voices in both an entertaining socio-cultural way and politically.

Artists who come to mind are Riz Ahmed, a British Pakistani actor and rapper who raps in a solo capacity as well as part of a rap duo, Swet Shop Boys.

Also read: From punk to rap: Explore the desi sounds of South Asia

Imran Khan, a Dutch Pakistani rapper whose Amplifier was very popular continues to rap bilingually. He performed recently at the Birmingham Mela over the Summer where he was one of the most awaited acts highlighting his popularity amongst British South Asians.

Moving Stateside there are a number of South Asian artists who are producing again bilingual, hybrid music with Punjabi lyrics. Two artists that come to mind amongst a whole host of others are Bohemia and Jasmine Sandlas.

Ali Qazi, also known as AQ, is an American artist with a Pashtun background who brings to the music scene an interesting mix of Pashtun culture fused with Western beats merging musical genres from electronica to hip hop, R&B to name but a few.

His track Supplication amongst others that he has produced combines the soulfulness of the rabab with Western beats, carving a space for a new musical genre. AQ also raps in both Pashto and English which highlights yet more cultural diversity and an insight into more identities amongst South Asian diasporic artists.

In the context of the music scene, South Asian diasporic communities seem to have come a long way from being represented in their traditional cultural ways. This is thanks to those who are bringing a voice in popular culture through their music.

A spectrum of cultures are highlighted in a range of languages, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and fusion music using an array of musical instruments. This in itself brings forward greater insights into the wide spectrum of diasporic identities and their contributions, be it British Pakistani, British Muslim, British Indian, American Indian, American Pakistani or American Pashtun.

We’re lucky to be witnessing such superdiversity on the music scene from talented artists emanating from these diasporic communities and can only expect more exciting fusion music in the future.


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