The Margalla hills are alive... with music

Dec 20 2009

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For bands right now, Islamabad, unlike the rest of Pakistan, seems like a relatively a better place to be practicing your chops in front of an audience. While people have been talking of doomsday scenarios, there are a number of countries in the world that continue to be plagued by terrorism and yet simultaneously maintain an active cultural arts scene (Sri Lanka, Israel, etc). After a long period (2006-2008) where live performances in the capital were few and far between the live scene has once again woken with a number of new venues and new players.

While the Capital city and its twin Rawalpindi can lay claim to the origins of the country's biggest pop band, Vital Signs, the band had to relocate to Karachi to earn their stardom. Islamabad, unlike other urban centres in Pakistan (Karachi and Lahore), has always been relatively quiet with regards to a cultural scene. The live scene in the late '80s and '90s was much quieter except for sporadic performances by bands in hotels and gymnasiums. The most popular rock band in Pakistan, Junoon, only played in the city once between 1996 and 1999. The local Islamabad bands in the late '90s including Scar, Lahu and Soulslide had to be content with the odd performances playing in makeshift stages in restaurants, at the opening of a club or opening for any major pop act that would be passing through the city.

It was in this depressing scene that Cafe Civil Junction (CJ) in 2003 opened its doors to the deprived performing arts scene of Islamabad. It was created with a vision of being a cultural meeting point for musicians and artists. The upper floor was open to performances for plays, gigs or stand-up routines. The rock band Corduroy became the 'house' band for the venue playing there every Saturday.

Suddenly from having the odd concert once every couple of months, the youth of Islamabad could drop by every Saturday to see a band play live. A local resident of Islamabad remembers the experience Me and my friends used to be bored out of our minds on a weekend in Islamabad. There was no place for young people to hang out. When CJ came along it was great because at least you had the option of listening to live music if you wanted to.

The reverberations caused were not just limited to Islamabad. Hashim Haseeb, a drummer from Lahore remembers, All the musicians in Lahore were pretty excited because Lahore had no place where you could just go and play on the weekend. As news spread a lot of artists from all over the country came to CJ to perform. Naqsh from Lahore, Karavan from Karachi and a number of musicians from Peshawar all performed in front of excited audiences in Islamabad. Sadly, in late 2006 CJ closed down its performance space indefinitely.

While it hosted a number of bands over the years another alternate live setup also emerged. Frustrated by the limited capacity, businessman and ace guitar player Zeejah Fazli joined hands with a number of other musicians and enthusiasts and came up with the Sweet Leaf City Jam. Held every couple of months, the Sweet Leaf Jam aimed to bring together all the musicians in Islamabad for a gig that would, in co-founder Zaman Armaghan's words, try to create beauty from chaos. The Sweet Leaf Jams would include performances from Islamabad's home-grown talent including Zeejah, solo tour-de-force Arieb Azhar, pop solo act Hash and bands including Electric March, Lahu and SoulSlide. The venues would differ from time to time starting from performances in Civil Junction, at farmhouses in Chak Shahzad to playing in the mountains at Tent Village Talhaar. And so Sweet Leaf City Jam soldiered on, occurring whenever a farmhouse or makeshift venue could be arranged.

While the period 2006-08 may have seemed like the death knell for the performing arts in Islamabad, 2009 has seen a positive upswing in events and activities. No less than four venues are now available for artists and musicians to perform. A refurbished CJ has opened its doors to performers again and every week young musicians/stand up comedians/actors can be seen practicing and performing their craft.

Zeejah Fazli has taken the Sweet Leaf Jam concept to the next level with the construction of a new performing arts facility. The Rock, located near the Rawal Dam, will consist of an amphitheatre, cafeteria and a state of the art recording studio. It is set to open its gates to music lovers around this month. Another venue that has opened up recently with aims to further the art scene is The Paper Microphone that hosts an open mic night every alternate Saturday. Finally, the Nysa Lounge by Junaid Malik is another great addition to the cultural scene of Islamabad. It has so far hosted many successful events including performances by The Ari Roland Quartet, Arieb Azhar, Rocklite and an enjoyable evening with The Cultures in Harmony String Quartet.

While the venues are available now, one may ask what kind of music is being produced in the capital. Islamabad boasts of an eclectic and interesting music scene that consists of rock bands, rappers, pop and folk artists and blues musicians mostly playing for the love of music rather than for any commercial gains. The veteran drummer, Alan Smith, who has played with possibly every major music act in Pakistan moved to the capital from Karachi in 2007. In his words Islamabad has an exciting bunch of musicians. The venues are now available to play live and there is a real desire in the youngsters to learn and excel at their instruments.

Zeejah sums it up I think it's very important for the development of the music scene that bands should be playing live on a regular basis. Thus, if I can help these musicians by addressing that issue I think I'll have done a worthwhile job. I don't want the current musicians to suffer like all of us did in the '90s.