They’re one of the most underrated music acts of Pakistan. However, they have a strong cult following — mostly from among their own peers of professional musicians, music aficionados and practitioners.

There wasn’t a clear ‘moment’ when Poor Rich Boys and the Toothless Winos broke on to the music scene. Formed sometime in 2008, the band had been releasing crude, but compelling, recordings of their music online and performing at smaller venues to a slowly growing number of people before, finally, partnering up with Mekaal Hasan, who ended up producing a majority of the songs from their albums.

The band started out with Danish Khawaja, Shehzad Noor Butt and Zain Ahsan. Danish Khawaja exited the scene soon after and Shehzad and Zain carried the band forward, performing as a duo for the first couple of years of the band’s existence. I met them sometime around that time, heard them perform — was completely mesmerised — and got a CD of the rough cut of their first album. To this day I prefer that rough cut to the slicker, ‘professionally produced’ version that came out later. There was a rawness to their acoustic sound that lent an authenticity to it.

Eventually they incorporated other members — Zain Moulvi on bass, Raavail Sattar on drums and Umer Khan on vocals. Since then, they’ve released three albums, performed both domestically and abroad, and are a well-known and loved name in the Lahore underground music circuit.

Shorba Noor’s Prelude to a Murder is a soft, beautiful acoustic number that harks back to Shahzad Noor’s work with the Poor Rich Boys

Their brand of music: absolutely beautiful, acoustic, alternative unplugged sound, coupled with wizardry with poetry and expression that leaves the interpretation up to the listener.

“Emotionally, we’re poor,” said Shehzad Noor Butt in an interview with Public Radio International in the United States a few years ago. “My sister called me a ‘poor little rich boy’ once because I was complaining about something,” he continues, remembering one of the references to the band’s name. “I thought it was hilarious and quite apt, considering the music.”

Shorba Noor is Shehzad Noor Butt’s own solo (mis)adventures. His latest offering, Prelude to a Murder, which references the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film, harks back to his work with the Poor Rich Boys. It’s a soft, beautiful acoustic number that shows off Ali Suhail’s virtuosity on the guitars. The percussions seem to be programmed into the song. Towards the second half of the two minute 35 second song, there is a brass section that adds a richness to the song without overpowering it.

Prelude to a Murder opens with these lyrics: “And now you’re in my home/ Your eyes like burning embers/ I hear them sizzle through the phone/ But I doubt you’d remember/ You tell me that I’m stupid/ But you’re not any smarter/ You say you never loved me/ I say: neither did your father”

The song, it seems, is about complicated relationships. The complications of forming an attachment, the agony of post-attachments and re-attachments in its many forms. It’s the vivid songwriting that presents the contents of the lyrics, almost visually, in your mind while you are listening to them.

With all of this talent, I feel like the only thing truly holding Poor Rich Boys and Shorba Noor back is the simple fact that their language of choice is English. It automatically puts them in a niche and they seem quite comfortable staying there. Until that changes, they’ll remain the music industry’s (unintentionally) best kept secret.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 18th, 2021

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