Indie musicians in metropolitan Pakistan sing predominantly in English, a choice that is often scoffed at by flagbearers of patriotism and egalitarianism, who tend to dump this music under the category of ‘English speaking elites singing for English speaking elites’. An undertone of levity permeates conversations surrounding Indie musicians with the persistent question of why they don’t sing in Urdu; the local language of the masses, the language other musicians in Pakistan use to climb out of obscurity and into commercial profit-making. A prominent indie musician counters these questions by asking ‘why is the national anthem of a predominantly Urdu speaking population in Persian? Or why is the official language of this predominantly Urdu-speaking population English (alongside Urdu)? The majority prays in Arabic. All our street signs are bilingual. Does anybody ever feel surprised by the fact that so many of our best newspapers are in English? English, as far as things stand is a local language. If it isn’t, well, then neither is Urdu.’
The Westernization of music under Zia
Previously, music sung completely in English was rare in Pakistan. Although the country was an entirely different (and exceedingly glittery) realm in the early ’70s, with an East-meets-West cultural wave sweeping the land, its musicians weren’t necessarily inclined towards the English language, even if they sang covers for already existing Western music. Ironically, it was under Zia’s era, that the country saw its first generation of western-inspired music; from Nazia-Zoheb’s Abba-esque Disco Deewanay to Junaid Jamshed’s Pink Floyd influenced Vital Signs. Even if it is inaccurate to trace Pakistani pop’s genealogy to the recent ’80s, its popularity, inarguably, saw the greatest rise in this era.
It is peculiar, because the dictator who seemed to hate Western culture with a fierce passion, had the biggest Western movement under his regime. Perhaps it was outright rebellion. Or a collective effort by the country to spite the self-imposed President. But this was the era when Al-Hamra also hosted its first-ever Battle of the Bands, scooping out obscure, somewhat indie but largely genre-fluid underground bands and musicians.
2000s: The birth and death of underground musicians
Political situations and the inevitable social and cultural shifts that follow, greatly alter musical landscapes in Pakistan. When Musharraf came to power, the country’s media industry was thriving, with a sudden boom in music and news channels. Musicians had several avenues for distribution and commercialization with the existence of record labels, such as Fire Records, EMI, and a growing number of music channels like Indus Music, Aaj TV, The Musik, and Play TV. This was the time when underground, independent musicians too were invigorated by this ‘freedom of media’. Gigs and concerts would be held on weekends and school nights, with (then) small bands like Bumbu Sauce and Rungg finding their audiences among enthusiastic, urban Pakistanis.
Suddenly, the recent wave of underground gigs and live concerts that had blanketed Pakistan in the early 2000s disappeared amidst the great turmoil Pakistan found itself in, throughout 2007. Terrorism grew, becoming more frequent and threatening and the lawyers’ movement; a hard-hitting response to Musharraf’s undemocratic actions, created a political rift on a scale not witnessed in Pakistan in almost a decade.
In a state where basic human life was threatened, the music scene became secondary. Underground, relatively obscure bands and artists that could once perform freely had no other platform now. Everybody in Pakistan remembers the post-2007 era as the time when bombs would go off almost every day. The frequency of this desensitized the population so much that news bulletins without reports of explosions would be regarded with suspicion. Record companies and labels that once served as the gateway to success for musicians permanently shut down, just like the several entertainment channels that had propped up not too long ago.
The ban on Youtube
Consequently, artists soon evolved to produce music on a relatively small scale, with a more ‘private’ audience. With little to no record labels and music channels, and in a country where the smallest congregation generated a bomb blast threat, musicians turned to digital platforms like Youtube. Youtube provided artists with instant ‘hits’, and musicians in Pakistan began curating their audience through this virtual space.
Then in 2012, the state decided that Youtube was ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘blasphemous’, blocking musicians’ access to the space they had grown to love. Although 2008 did witness a rise in ‘branded music’ like Coke Studio, Nescafe Basement, Uth Records, and Cornetto music, several independent musicians didn’t want the cold claws of corporate motive tugging them behind. In this context, Youtube was important to small, ‘lowkey’ musicians and their niche audiences.
Artists soon began to make music only for themselves amid a lack of viable avenues. Most independent musicians discarded the idea of pursuing a career in music, well aware of the quagmire they’d find themselves in. Because most of these ‘obscure’ singers belonged to Pakistan’s urban elite, they would sing in the language they were most comfortable with; English. This transition would further impede their chances of commercialization in a country where Urdu is the predominant language. But music had already become an act unto itself for such musicians.
Umer Khan of Poor Rich Boy, an indie band that some regard as ‘Lahore’s answer to The Smiths’, talks about the politics of indie music and why it tends to remain relatively obscure in Pakistan.
“Indie musicians are by nature obscure and lowkey compared to mainstream musicians. That’s just the nature of the beast. Not necessarily out of a desire to die in poverty. And, as far as I know, they either choose to not be commercial because they feel the quality of their work would be compromised if they start taking notes from corporations whose entire purpose is to turn your work into an ad campaign for whatever poison they’re peddling.”
“Is it hard to go commercial?,” he asks incredulously. “I’m surprised you think musicians have a say in any of this. It’s not like we all get a memo from Coke or Velo. Musicians aren’t asked to apply to perform at Coke/Velo/Nescafe events. These are ad campaigns. Corporations hire the most marketable performer they can. Or you might get a chance if you know the producer.”
“These programs are ad and image campaigns for international corporations that sort of add music to the mix to make it seem like the whole thing is ‘cultural’. They’re not music programs, in essence. I mean you can look up the human rights violations and environmental disasters brought on by these corporations. And then you can put on their program and try to forget who the biggest polluter for the year 2020 was!”
“It’s kind of horrifying when you think about it. But, it is what it is. Personally, I don’t judge struggling artists for accepting corporate blood-money. They don’t really have a choice. “
“The last record company died about a decade ago,” he adds. “There is no music industry. All we have now are ad campaigns by various corporations. There are no record companies. There is no surefire way of distributing your work at all, except uploading it onto YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and hoping for the best. So, for instance, the only song of ours that actually managed to get a significant audience was Kaghazi. And I think that happened mainly because Mooroo happened to share the song with his massive following. In the absence of a label or a distributor, the only thing that can work is word of mouth, or the kindness of individuals with a large online following. But that’s it.”
Ali Suhail is a singer and songwriter, heavily influenced by bands like Metallica and Nirvana. He says “he’s his main audience”.
“I don’t think about what anyone else would like to hear when I’m making music. But I’m also a part of many different acts and then they’re also my main audience because I care about what they think about what I’m doing to our music. But once I’m done with a song, it’s available across all platforms, Bandcamp, Spotify, Youtube, Soundcloud, etc. Although I think Soundcloud is a little frowned upon now so maybe not Soundcloud? Only time will tell. I also use Instagram to do musical things sometimes, that’s another platform I use to be musical I suppose.”
“Indie musicians since they’re independent, don’t have to adhere to the sometimes stringent stipulations of the mainstream, which oftentimes is in the shape of a non-musical, very opinionated client,” he says.
“Their job is to explore and experiment and be adventurous with their craft and their sound. Sometimes they’re onto something and a lot of people agree with what they’re doing and they become mainstream and most of the time, they’re lowkey and obscure, broody types that nobody gets. But a couple of indie artists have started breaking through to the mainstream recently, after which point they can become commercial because then it’s okay to invest in them. I don’t think sponsors would invest in music that doesn’t do well or hasn’t been tested.”
Suhail believes the music scene is becoming increasingly ‘objective’.
“There are things being created now that are on par with anything you’d hear from any other part of the world, with no disclaimer about ‘it’s good for where it’s from’ necessary. I’m not considering the mainstream in this, but in terms of independent artists, my mind is blown every day by the likes Abdullah Siddique, Maanu, Hassan Raheem, Peachfuzz, Towers to name a few. I think the music scene is becoming objective and it appreciates merit, which is a great thing for hard-working musicians.”
Wisdom Salad describes itself as ‘genre-fluid’ band, which doesn’t know what its making until they make it.
“With the kind of songs we make, which are a mixture of every genre, who would want to take us on? There’s a very small audience that really likes us. Who cares about the rest? It’s mostly for us. So 10 years down the road, when we’re doing whatever we’re doing, we look back and say ‘that was a cool thing we did.”
“We don’t even have a sound or a vision. We just want to have fun together without any pressure,” they say.
“Everybody is trying to do something original. It’s not going to lead to anything commercial but we just do our thing, make each other happy. It’s a very selfish hobby. Nobody else cares about our music.”
“This music we’re trying to make is like an inside joke anyway.”
Despite the inclination towards an art form that seems to lean only inward, Indie musicians are making up an increasing chunk of Pakistan’s music scene. Although most know better than to turn their passion into a profession, their music easily checks all the boxes required to transition from the former to the latter. Perhaps their independence alone is what warrants nuanced, eclectic performances, free from the shackles of pressure that comes with commercialization. But the art form is not ‘lowkey and small-scale’ by nature. It has been forced to evolve into this category to fit the mould years of chaos and uncertainty have created. Indie musicians might enjoy large-scale acclaim or they might despise it. But without a choice, conditions remain inequitable.