Pakistan’s Been Rocking for Years

September 27, 2009

Source: Guardian

The title of a recent Guardian article, “Never mind the Taliban – Pakistan’s youth put their faith in rock”, makes it sound as if rock’n’roll has emerged as the saviour of distressed Pakistani youth. But while recent reports would have us believe that Pakistan’s rock scene is enjoying a renaissance, it is actually suffering heavily in the current climate of insecurity.

Contrary to popular belief, rock music in Pakistan has been around longer than the Taliban and the mujahideen put together. In the 1960s Pakistani cities had a hip and swinging jazz/rock scene, fuelled by the wide availability of alcohol and a surfeit of venues, with bands such as the Panthers, the Fore Thoughts, the Keynotes and the Wanderers, which came largely from the Christian community.

This rock’n’roll honeymoon was short-lived, though. In the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto buckled under pressure from the religious right to ban alcohol and other vices. If that wasn’t enough to dampen the music scene, General Zia’s military abolished all “un-Islamic” social gatherings with a swing of the baton.

In Lahore, the battered music scene was kept rolling in the 1980s, largely through bootlegged audio/video cassettes of rock albums and concert footage as well as Top of the Pops. Newly formed groups began to gather at Hall no 1 of the Alhamra Arts Council, the last standing rock venue, where they regularly staged a “Battle of the Bands”.

“The threat of one of these religious groups showing up and disrupting things was always there,” recalls Asim, an active member of the 1980s live rock music scene. “It rarely materialised into an actual confrontation, but the threat was always looming.” Things got worse when the government found leftist activity in a debauched college music scene.

An anomaly of sorts, the Vital Signs (1987-95) managed to seep through the cracks and were quickly signed up by Pepsi to bring pop/rock into the mainstream. They were followed by a string of boyish pop acts, which set the stage for Junoon’s mass success.

On the sidelines, a whole urban youth subculture was reacting to this bubblegum fantasy. Shahzad Hameed, who was active in the live music scene during the 1990s, recalls attending a Vital Signs show and being disgusted by the sight of the band lip-synching to studio recordings with unplugged instruments. “That wasn’t the kind of music I was used to listening to,” he said. It gave him another reason to belt out some of his own rock’n’roll tunes to express all the angst that had accumulated inside him.

Although largely confined to an affluent English-speaking bubble, the 1990s scene became populated by independent acts like the Trip, Mind Riot, and Dog Tag, frequently covering the likes of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, while also performing some original compositions. Forming a band and gigging, for these kids, was more than just about looking cool and getting with the girls. Hameed says he didn’t relate to any of the music that was being commercially produced in the 1990s: “I didn’t listen to any of that because it didn’t relate to anything I had seen around me, I listened to bands like Black Sabbath because they sang about real issues like nuclear holocaust and war.”

This independent DIY music scene attracted a lot of media attention. All of a sudden, bands were cool – and being in a band was even cooler. Television shows such as VJ and Pepsi Top of the Pops began creating a new image of the music scene on the newly freed airwaves. The final blow to this scene was possibly the Pepsi Battle of the Bands, a televised talent hunt which had bands lip-synching to studio recordings and being judged solely on image. A conglomerate band called Entity-Paradigm won the competition, but failed to make any quality music afterwards. A flurry of television music channels along the lines of MTV hasn’t helped the cause of live rock in Pakistan either, taking the tradition of commercialised image production to an extreme.

Corporate interests aside, the live music scene since 2001 has come under threat of terrorist attacks on large gatherings. Bands have been complaining for years that they are unable to put up shows because lack of funding, and that revenue from ticket sales is inadequate due to security concerns.

It is true that rock has served as an emotional outlet for youth in Pakistan over the decades. And while kids these days seem up to the challenge of using their instruments to express themselves, a lack of venues and limited public access is shutting them out of the cultural space.

With only a couple of record labels, and prohibitively expensive recording studios, rock music doesn’t enjoy much support. A band’s only real hope of hitting it big is corporate endorsement, and we all know marketing money usually goes on safe bets, rather than unruly, politically charged and opinionated youngsters. The double whammy of the recession and security concerns has further stifled the growth of such creative movements.