When we think of pop music, especially in a Pakistani context, we think of the music that started coming out in the early 1980's, which we would see on TV, and hear on cassettes.
The earlier eras of 'film music’ and LPs are not really thought of as a part of Pakistani pop. Yet, a label as flexible as pop only ever needs to apply to what is popular, and in that sense film music was also pop.
The connection is easier to make through listening to film songs from the late 1970's, and noticing how similar they sound to the music that we began to identify as Pakistani pop. Most of the personnel were similar, and this crossover had been in large part happening due to the steady decline of the cinema and the rise of television.
The best example might be the discography of Sohail Rana, who was immeasurably influential on both screens, and provided iconic tracks for cinema as well as television.
By the 90's, pop music came of age in Pakistan, which meant that unlike in the past, the most famous musicians in the country were often self-trained, and rising up through bands playing western music with the occasional, and often amateurish flourish of eastern classical.
Traditional musicians were often turning towards embracing more western sounds, and one reason for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s tremendous popularity was his success in taking qawwali into the modern world. Film music in Pakistan, much like local films themselves, bowed out of the urban, mainstream consciousness.
One way of looking at this story is that while film music was always tied to the service of telling the story of the film, pop music stood for itself, telling its own stories. Musicians could make what they wanted, rather than going with the needs of the film. And for a while, this independence also made financial sense, though for a much smaller pool of musicians.
Two decades later though, it appears that the story has come full circle. As pop music continues to shrink in the mainstream, film (and drama) soundtracks have recently become that rare thing in the industry – a guaranteed paycheck. Without the studios or PTV’s roster of the past, producers and directors often turn to various pop musicians for tracks in their productions. This has resulted in the featuring of many exciting tracks in films, and even the induction of indie musicians who have successfully transitioned to the sound.
At the same time, this also feels like a transitional period, as those with the money try and figure out what they think will give them the most bang for their buck. At the moment, at least in terms of quality, there seem to be several routes to success.
Sahir Ali Bagga, who is perhaps the most cinematic music producer around, has had great success with Zinda Bhaag and Yeh Jawani Phir Nahi Aani. Strings and Zeb Bangash showed with Moor and Ho Mann Jahaan respectively that hiring one of the established pop stars can be a good move. I personally felt that Strings’ effort with Moor was their best work of all time. And with Manto, Jamal Rehman’s eclectic soundtrack showed the value of going with an indie, lesser-known musician.
Unless the local film industry decides to settle on some formula and adheres strictly to it (which can’t be ruled out) it seems like it would offer a lot of opportunities, both creative and financial, for local pop musicians. There are equally lucrative opportunities to be found in drama soundtracks, but creatively they are a dead-end. Most dramas only need a title track, and given how one-track our dramas are, most title songs end up sounding exceedingly familiar. One exception has been the Udaari OST, whose premise of musicians as characters has provided more scope, and the results show in much better, more original songs.
As always, there is a lot of exciting stuff also happening under the radar. I’d highly encourage checking out 'Khanabadosh' by Theneonpk, one of the most compelling Urdu songs I’ve heard in a while. It also has some great vocals, though nothing matches the magic of Zeb Bangash, who is superlative on her new band’s EP. There is also a fabulous reworking of Jimmy Khan’s 'Baarish' recently put out by Tonight, Us which has several of Lahore’s renowned underground musicians.
An even more mainstream sound can be enjoyed in 'Nuttan Boltan', which feels very much like an Indus Music era classic. I’m also hoping that Ali Ashraf decides to put out a more polished recording of 'Chup', which sounds too good to be left in its current rough form. And finally, I was really happy to find Young Stunners/Talha Anjum come back to form with 'Salvo' (WARNING: explicit, NSFW lyrics), with a lot of credit going to the boisterous production of Abdullah Malik.
Lastly, here’s a look at the Patari Top 20 charts for the past fortnight. Udaari’s Hadiqa Kiyani-led OST has run up to top of the charts, while Nescafe Basement continues to find its songs all over the charts, with four entries this week from its current season. Laal’s tribute to Sabeen Mahmud sees them at a high of third, while the Mann Mayal OST also rises to four. Noori has three entries from three different projects, but its their crossborder collaboration 'Yaariyan' (2) that is doing best. Indie darlings Tamashbeens have two of their older songs resurface in the charts, and be sure to check out one of the songs of last year, 'Do Hi Rastay Hain' by Mehdi Maloof at 20.