A few weeks ago, during a music festival in Islamabad which also featured panel discussions, a statement by Ali Noor was tweeted by his band’s official account.
The tweet, since deleted, recorded one of many things being said in a certain context within a wide-ranging discussion, but seen on its own it felt outrageous, and outrage predictably followed. Going by memory, Ali Noor felt that the reason for the slump in Pakistan’s music industry wasn’t musicians, but the fact that “audiences were getting dumber.”
The thought has stayed with me in the days since. If you can can sidestep your offence it's worth questioning why exactly the Noori frontman said that.
For those who might not know, Noori had released their third album, Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh (BGBS) last year and had spent much of their time since touring extensively across Pakistan. Like in Islamabad that week, they had often played to large crowds, but unlike their glory days, these crowds were often sponsored by corporates, colleges or someone of that ilk. And unlike their previous albums, BGBS wasn’t quite a cultural moment in Pakistan.
What had been a cultural moment in Pakistani music was the release of Taher Shah’s viral hit, 'Angel', which had also come out recently. It was without a doubt the most excited people had been by anything in Pakistani music in a long time, and beyond the pointing and laughing, there was also a vocal minority that celebrated his cheesy-yet-all-embracing message, devoid of prejudices.
Given that sort of engagement, it might be unfair to call this audience 'dumb', but you could understand why local musicians might be horrified by what they see as mindless tracks overtaking real creativity and effort. After all, if velvet gowns and blond wigs and large, prosthetic wings are the only way to get attention, what hope is there for anyone?
Indeed, Taher Shah’s success highlights the basic problem for Pakistani musicians – they are unable to make themselves heard amongst the relentless noise generated by the hyper-media of our age.
Food for thought: when both the quality of the music as well as the ease of access align, there is a large audience waiting to be tapped. The problem is that our audience doesn’t stick around to look and wait for the music that comes in between.
The previous two golden-eras of Pakistani pop had occurred in times of relative isolation. Accessing foreign media of any sort was considerably more difficult, and so it was easier for Pakistani music to be heard. In contrast, the era of the Internet has obliterated all previous boundaries to foreign music, leaving a situation where one has to be an Angel to be heard.
To be fair, it isn’t as bad as that either – Atif Aslam’s rendition of 'Tajdar-e-Haram' in the previous Coke Studio season was a sensation. It was also a reminder that when both the quality of the music as well as the ease of access align, there is a large audience waiting to be tapped. The problem is that the audience doesn’t stick around to look and wait for the music that comes in between. They end up ignoring the stuff that is released in between the annual music-as-marketing TV shows.
That is a shame, since there is plenty of excellent music that can’t really create the gimmickry, nor has the resources, to catch the attention of audiences.
A great current example is the release of 'You' by The Sketches, a long awaited album that marries the vibrant tradition of Sindhi and Sufi folk with contemporary blues. The band’s decade long experience of relentlessly touring the big and small towns of Sindh shines through in the album. Saif Samejo, the lead vocalist as well as a talismanic figure for modern Sindh, typifies the range and sincerity of the band’s sound. Go from listening to the haunting 'Nind Nashay Vich' to the melodious Mai Dhai duet called 'Mann Moriya' to get an immediate insight into the spectrum of both his and the band’s abilities.
More than a month after their release, The Sketches remain the fourth most heard artists on Patari this past fortnight, with 'Neend Ki Naiya' their highest ranked track at 10. Nescafe Basement, which has come of age this season, have six tracks in the top 20, while two of their covers have dragged Mizraab and Aaroh’s original tracks to the charts as well. Laal’s tribute to Sabeen Mahmud, 'Intesaab' ft. Arieb Azhar, shot up to no. 3. Noori’s recent collaboration with Coca Cola has them with four entries, which seems to have bumped up their cross-border collaboration 'Yaariyan' to no. 20. Atif Aslam shows off his perennial strength as his track in January’s Ho Mann Jahan OST comes in at no. 4, but even more impressive is Somewhat Super, whose track 'Bandook' has stayed in the top charts for almost a year now!
Personal favourites this week were the new entry 'Khanabadosh' (no. 14) and 'Jegi Jegi Lailijaan' by Zeb Bangash’s new band, Sandaraa (no. 18). And don’t miss out indie darlings Tamashbeens, who have two old tracks recently resurging in the top 20.
Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance journalist, and Director of Content at @patarimusic.