Retro pop has been taking the world by storm for the past couple of years.
This is evidenced by the fact that, this year, the legendary Norwegian pop band A-ha became the only other act from the 1980s to have a video reach one billion views on YouTube — for a song they released almost 35 years ago: Take On Me.
The only other video from the 1980s to reach one billion is Guns N’Roses’ Sweet Child O’Mine. According to reports, Take On Me, which won over six MTV music awards in 1986, was averaging 480,000 hits per day.
And then you have artists like The Weekend (Blinding Lights) and Lady Gaga (Stupid Love) getting on the retro pop bandwagon. It’s no surprise that the current trend has caught on in Pakistan as well with, most notably, Shamoon Ismail (Rung) and Abdullah Siddiqui (Telescope Heart) taking to it with enthusiasm.
We can now add two more songs to that list and just in time for the festive holiday and wedding season — although I doubt there will be much of getting together and making merry during corona times, but perhaps one can party over Zoom with friends.
There is Kyun Chal Diye by newcomer Zoha Zuberi which has a very strong retro pop vibe, but the artist experiments with it in her own way. And then there’s a rich-sounding traditional straight-out-of-the-1980s retro pop track The One by Saba Jaswal. Both songs make you want to take out your dancing shoes.
Kyun Chal Diye is an electro-pop bilingual track with only the chorus in Urdu. The singer sings Urdu in a kind of affected accent which a lot of underground acts that started off covering western pop rock music sing in; when they [try to] switch to Urdu. It’s low-key cringe-inducing, especially considering these are desis giving a ‘gora’ spin to their own local language. Na idhar ke rahay, na udhar ke.
That aside, Kyun Chal Diye is a well-produced, danceable track that plays on the retro-pop vibe but gives it a modern electronic twist, making the sound very on-trend. The song deals with romantic abandonment issues, quite evident from it’s title. The pre-chorus is when the song dramatically picks up pace, only to slow down just as quickly.
“And I keep falling down/ This rainbow-coloured ground/ All these voices around/ I wonder if I’ll drown,” the pre-chorus goes.
While the main chorus is “Kyun chal diye/ Yun chhorr ke mujhey/ Kyun chal diye/ Mun morr ke mujhse/ Kyun chal diye/ Saanson ko loot ke/ Kyun chal diye/ You make me keep on losing hope/ Kyun chal diye”
Kyun Chal Diye gives a fresh new sound to the electro-pop music genre in Pakistan. In a music scene that is even today dominated by men, Zoha Zuberi is a voice and an artist to watch out for.
On the other hand, Saba Jaswal’s The One sounds like a song right out of the 1980s. She comes from a family of popular creative music and video personalities. She’s married to the video director and producer Yasir Jaswal and both of her brother-in-laws, Umair and Uzair Jaswal, are well-known artists in the music industry.
So it’s no surprise that The One is also an impeccably produced track. Former bandmates with Umair Jaswal in the rock outfit Qayaas, Sarmad Ghafoor — who produced Umair Jaswal’s recently-released soulful track Rabba — has also produced The One.
The One is reminiscent of synth-pop bands from the 80s when they first started experimenting with sequenced drums and pre-programmed beats. And of course Sarmad Ghafoor would get the sound of the 80s right, he’s from the generation that came-of-age during that era.
The song has that punchy drum sound and gated reverb of the era its channelling. The main synth riff and overall sound, however, sounds oddly similar to another 80s-inspired song, Kaun Hai Woh, by RockLite, another Islamabad-based band. While they both play up the retro pop vibe, one is more rock, while the other is more of an electronic version of the same opening and main riffs in the song.
In The One, Saba’s deep throaty vocals describe the anxieties of an on-again, off-again romantic relationship. The pre-chorus and chorus go: “Would you be a star and stay tonight/ Let me make your favourite drink all right/ Dim the lights and play your dearest game / But can I be the one [x3]/ To say goodbye this time.”
Compared to Kyun Chal Diye, the overall sound in The One is richer and stays true to its roots. This is retro pop done right.
This story was first published in Dawn, ICON, November 15th, 2020