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Soundcheck: Everything is better live

March 10, 2013

Rock isn't dead with Ali Azmat.

You’re at a concert and everyone is moving, shaking, jumping, dancing. Despite the numerous examples of terrible and awkward muscular coordination around, you join in the fun… and you yell along. You don’t know all the words, but you’re beginning to get the hang of it because every time the front man seems like he’s delivering the punch line, his face contorts, his hands threaten to strangle the mike, and he begins the process of ‘punching the line’ again and again and again… and again so that the crowd gets rowdier and rowdier.

Until at the exact moment when the music takes over from the lyrics, you witness what every person who has watched videos of live concerts wants to see: hands. Everywhere. Moving rapidly in unison in the air as if they were choreographed with the light show happening in the background. And everyone seems to know exactly what to yell — wooo!!

Nothing beats live music

Across the world, from Glastonbury to Austin City Limits, The Burning Man to Bonnaroo, people of all kinds pay exorbitant amounts of money, cramp into cars, drive halfway across known geography to watch their favourite bands drive them nuts in a night of revelry, music and light shows.

Live music is a tradition as old as music itself and it is only unfortunate that our part of the world doesn’t seem to cater to fans of the experience, as it should. As the New York Times said last year, even India is beginning to see the merit in live music — backed by magazines such as NH7 and Rolling Stone India, sponsors are moving on from Bollywood and cricket into music and inviting artists such as Lady Gaga and David Guetta to headline multi-day events across the country.

Pakistan unfortunately doesn’t have a culture of music festivals yet — coupled with the dearth of studio albums, the lack of live performances has led many to proclaim the demise of the music industry (wrongly). But over the last couple of weeks, folks in Karachi have been treated to musical experiences which, according to legend, haven’t happened since the golden age over a half decade ago, when concerts dominated social calendars and kicked off after-parties all across the country. It isn’t shocking to hear of underground bands still trying to break through the scene with small performances at shoddy venues, but the last two weeks have seen juggernauts take centre stage and deliver concert experiences that featured prominently on many a Facebook Timeline.

Two weeks ago, audiences thronged the DHA Beach Club in Karachi to watch Ali Azmat and crew prove why rock isn’t dead at Rock Karachi ‘13. With the crowd shouting along “Mun mera bolay meri pyaas bujha” to the tune of Mera Mahi Aagaya, Azmat went on to stake his claim to why he is Pakistan’s biggest rocker, yet and ever. And it wouldn’t be Pakistan if no one fell off the stage or stepped on to the wires, prompting Ali Azmat to walk off the stage, annoyed. But as soon as he returned, the crowd was up and jumping again.

Zoe Viccaji: more than a few punches of passion.

Azmat had backing him some of Pakistan’s most prodigious talent, including Omran Shafique on lead guitar and Kamran Zaffar aka Mannu on bass. Shafique’s manic playing was echoed in the peals of delight that came from the audience as they watched his curls fall on his face and his body contort as he stretched to pull the high notes — out of this world! By the time the band got to Khudi many in the audience were already soaring.

Before all this, Azmat and crew were built up by performances from the youthful Ashes and Ali Gul Pir, while Karavan showed why they aren’t done yet. Even Zoe Viccaji was there, singing Eye of the Tiger remarkably well and punctuating her verses with more than a few punches of passion. Hopefully, there will be more of Ms Viccaji touring the circuit this year.

Then last weekend, aficionados, those aiming to be aficionados, and connoisseurs of qawwali were treated to a night of halka halka suroor by none other than Amjad Sabri at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture. In full mood to jest, the qawwal enthralled the audience which was clapping and swaying as he explained his verses and punch lines with all the confidence of a maestro.

However, two important details will forever be etched in the memory of anyone who attended the concert: ask anyone in the 18-30 age group who attended, and they will tell you that the crowd was the most attractive in Karachi in recent memory — the audience was murmuring “Sub teri nazar ka qusoor hai” long before Amjad Sabri launched into the chorus.

The other highlight was right after singing Lal Meri Path, Amjad Sabri’s band launched into a dhamaal that had many of us wondering if we had somehow transcended the space time continuum and emerged at an electronic music concert. Can a dhol even make a sound like that? No one can tell for sure, except maybe the percussionist (or the phantom DJ.)

The next night, the MAD School held its own jam with Omran Shafique, Shahi Hassan and Hamza Jafferi leading a troupe of musicians into a session that packed more party than a venue of that size should. That the night was held at the cramped quarters of the school was the only grievance — but hey, isn’t that how all great music venues started out? A good band can make any venue feel like home, and that is exactly what happened.

There were probably at least a few other performances in our very own Big Apple over the last two weeks. But the fact that headline artists could deliver such performances in an age of tight security and tight budgets means live music has a lot of potential to grow in Pakistan — and audiences don’t seem averse to paying money to see live artists, even if the proceeds from the ticket are going to fund a class trip to Istanbul, Turkey (as the Amjad Sabri concert was reported to benefit). There might be a dearth of studio albums, but if live music can continue to grow, albums might be playing second fiddle to the actual experience of watching a real person play you your favourite song. It is after all a very apt saying: “Everything is better live.”