24 Feb 2019


Akram Dost recently sent me a video of a Baloch musician jamming on a tanbourag (a delicate long-necked Balochi string instrument), with a very young tabla nawaz, in a village carpenter’s tiny workshop. The musicians sat on a dusty floor, light streaming in through the door, as the magic of music entered my space from theirs.

Aamir Mughal suggests Baloch musicians are descendants of the Osta — a community that offered their services to tribes to sing of their history and achievements. The Manganhars of Thar, who gifted us Mai Bhagi and Allan Fakir, and the Banjaras of Rajasthan — the community of the famous folk singer Reshma — played a similar role. Pathanay Khan, the Seraiki folk singer, collected firewood for a living. Alam Lohar of Punjab, a blacksmith by profession, and Faiz Muhammad Baloch, a labourer by day, kept Sufi literature and folklore alive.

Every region of Pakistan has its folk music, song and dance, performed on occasions of celebration or loss, or at social gatherings. Fear of reprisals by religious extremists sent many folk musicians underground. It was feared that, since most musicians start their passion from childhood, the transmission of musical traditions may have suffered. Yet, under the radar, folk music survived, finding urban platforms to return to the public eye.

Music in public spaces has a long tradition in every part of the world. Embedded in cultural rituals, its continuity is ensured, from informal performances to sophisticated classical forms.

Music in public spaces has a long tradition in every part of the world.

Urban folk emerged with folk singers such as Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and the Gypsy Kings entering, and influencing mainstream music of the 1960s and ’70s. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin performed regularly in public spaces. “A Happening” by Joplin combined music, art and poetry in extraordinary public events.

Street musicians date back to antiquity in all civilisations. The wandering minstrels of mediaeval Europe — or troubadours, derived from the Arabic tariba — the Flamenco performers of Spain, the Mariachi musicians of Mexico accompanied by guitars adapted from the Arabic qitara, are just some well known ones .

The English term ‘busking’, from the Spanish ‘buscar’ — used for street musicians who perform for tips — was introduced by the Romani or gypsies in the 19th century. Playing music for money became so popular for the unemployed poor in Victorian England that Charles Dickens wrote of being “daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied and driven nearly mad by street musicians.” Laws were formulated to ban street musicians, which remained in place in London till 2001, when the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber became London Underground’s first official busker.

Buskers are a common site on streets and plazas of most cities. Many well-known musicians started their careers as buskers, including Ed Sheeran, Tracy Chapman, Rod Stewart and B. B. King. Occasionally, musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Bono will surprise their fans by playing in public.

For the artwork ‘Play Me, I’m Yours,’ the British artist Luke Jerram placed 1,900 street pianos in 60 cities across the world, inspiring an estimated 10 million people. A viral video of a homeless man, Donald Gould, playing a street piano, changed his life, leading to the release of his first album.

Music in public places is uplifting and brings people together. Lawrence Gardens in Lahore had held free theatre and music events for years. Karachi has a number of great public venues for music — Frere Hall, Kothari Parade, Bagh Ibne Qasim, the newly cleared surroundings of Empress Market, Jehangir Park, Boat Basin and the many Sunday markets. For a nation of music lovers, melody in the urban soundscape would counterbalance the despair of shrieking sirens and the cacophony of traffic.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi


Published in Dawn, EOS, February 24th, 2019