For a nation that is alarmingly agreeable when it comes to denying itself the wealth of the cultural heritage at its disposal — a birthright many other young nations cannot boast of — we just can’t seem to keep music down.
Pakistani music is irresistible. Not just to my countrywomen and men, but also to our neighbours to the East — who are saturated with Bollywood masala mixes — to desis in Englistan, patrons in Europe and the expat diaspora across the pond.
What exactly is the charm and magnetism of Pakistani music? It is this: from teenagers who squirrel away money to secretly buy their first guitar, to the many maestros who grew to be giants in the world of music and every dreamer in between, every day, an artist is born. And no matter how hard we collectively try to suppress and disapprove of these dreamers, those who visualise their dreams into an eventual reality have kept and will keep rising.
But here’s the rub: out of the plethora of channels we get to relish in our ever-multiplying media networks, there is no longer a single one dedicated to Pakistani music.
Entertainment/performance taxes are crippling, organising concerts — which could possibly generate revenue — is a huge and risky undertaking, and government funding or endorsement for music is a fantasy none of us can afford to dwell in.
But I’m not going to elaborate by means of depressing statistics and oh-so-discouraging facts, of which there is no dearth. What I do want to highlight is that we, the Pakistani musicians and producers, are a rare and unique breed. It is our strife and struggle that blossoms into expression — powerful, painful, spiritual but mostly always entertaining. We have legends such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahib and the Sabri Brothers who were born into centuries-old legacies of musical knowledge and gems of poetic, lyrical genius. These were artists born into a life where everyone around them cherished music as if it were the very air that they breathed, the food that they fueled their souls with.
And then we have kids, such as Abid Brohi and SomeWhatSuper of 'The Sibbi Song' fame who, without any teachers, training, facilitation or ‘approval’, grow to discover a passion for creating music that flourishes against all odds.
"Turmoil, pain and insecurity — creative minds have always thrived under these conditions. Add to this the absence of money and you get Pakistani music."
Of all that the showbiz umbrella covers locally, music and theatre have suffered the most. The common denominator for them is the word LIVE. What has worked in music’s favour is, of course, the internet. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for theatre. But no matter the medium musicians explore to channelise and communicate their content, it is the very fact that there is content being produced in the first place that is heartening.
Where does the motivation come from? When the light at the end of the tunnel is so very distant? Turmoil, pain and insecurity — creative minds have always thrived under these conditions. Add to this the absence of money and you get Pakistani music. A phenomena where the creator has nobody to answer to and nothing to lose.
The lack of money being put into the business of music is perhaps our biggest strength. It serves as a quality control filter and has become our saving grace. For musicians, it spells creative liberty. Unlike film and television, which do in fact have money being injected into production but at a price: creative compromise. There is the pressure of commercial success and ratings too. Fortunately or unfortunately (and I will go with the former on this one), we are not playing to the gallery. There are no ratings, royalties or profits and therefore, an air of no compromise.
A lot of music that truly finds its reach and makes an impact is due to its sheer brilliance. And reach it does, far and wide. Across the globe. This I can tell you from personal experience. Last year alone, I performed some 40 concerts around the world. From Toronto to Chandigarh, there were people in the audience who were avid listeners, who had replayed and memorised each and every ghazal, Sufi verse and regional folk tune.
And there were those who had zero understanding of any of the languages I was singing in. Foreigners who wait eagerly to download the latest tracks by Pakistani artists. Doctors and engineers who once dreamt of becoming musicians who can at least live vicariously through our collective musical labour. I have had the privilege of meeting many such fans. Not just my own fans, but diehard fans of our collective music. They range from German scholars to heart surgeons in San Francisco, philanthropists in DC to art curators in Toronto.
One such listener, a chartered accountant in Chicago, who I had the pleasure of meeting after wrapping up my show, said something to me that will resonate with me for a long time to come. He said, “I had dreams of becoming a musician, but somewhere along the way, growing up in a conventional household, I lost my will to pursue my passion — a sacrifice that I regret making to this very day.”
I asked him if now as a parent of two lovely young ladies (who I was happy to see were in attendance that evening) he would react positively to either or both of them expressing a desire to follow their passion for the performing arts, especially music? He looked at them and said with a smile, “That would make my childhood dream come true!”
The magic of our music is undeniable. Thank you for listening.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 22nd, 2017