Is Pakistani music losing its identity?

Once known for its rich cultural notes, our music is now veering dangerously towards western styles. Does that matter?
Updated 12 Jun, 2021

Has Pakistani film music lost its uniqueness? Modern day music can't hold a candle to the rich, cultural, and vibrant music of Pakistan of yore.

Innovation is an important part of development, but does that seem to have been progressive for the music industry of today? These are questions I ask myself as a 23-year-old who is in love with the melodies from the 50s up until the golden age of Pakistani cinema. The music industry has witnessed modernisation in plenty of ways and this is one reason why we now see a lot of western influence in Pakistani songs.

There aren’t many film industries where songs are a major part of films, where a film includes at least four to five songs and has lead actors dancing to those tunes. However, Pakistani cinema is one of those industries. This method of filmmaking where a song like 'Ko-Ko Korina' plays and audiences go crazy watching Waheed Murad dance is seen in an industry like ours. And so, this method itself makes our industry unique. The use of traditional instruments blended with our particular style of singing is unique and should be celebrated.

I do not believe that modernisation is wrong but losing the essence of something that we grew up with and something that can’t be found in Europe is definitely concerning.

When songs of the past are mentioned, they reflect emotions and feelings. The reason why they are memorable is that one could actually hear the effort put into arranging the music for each melody. Instruments also played a huge part in making our songs sound rich. Instruments like the sitar, tabla, dholak, sarangi, flute, dafli, tanapura and harmonium represent culture through music. However, many songs produced today are based purely on western compositions. Mind you, I absolutely love the sound of a bass guitar but then again, should that instrument be responsible for eradicating our classical style?

What's missing?

A song doesn't have to be loud to be catchy. Take ‘Roothay Ho Tum' by Nayarra Noor as an example, or 'Jinna Kar Lo Gay Pyaar' by Shehzad Roy, which is completely different from the 'Roothay Ho Tum' generation and represents the early change in our country’s music. The song is fast, catchy, and somewhat loud yet it doesn’t seem to lack cultural essence.

Shamoon Ismail is one of the most popular artists among Pakistan's younger generation today and his work is very interesting. On the other hand, we have Ali Sethi; again an extremely talented artist with interesting melodies. I decided to compare the two after listening to 'Rung' by Sethi and then 'Rung' by Ismail. To me, both songs share the same vibe as far as the music is concerned.

Both seem to have prominent western style beat structure. However, Ismail's 'Rung' follows a beat pattern that is similar to the chill music form in western music. I also sensed a blend of jazz with the prominent use of what seems to be an electric sax throughout the song. His voice has a rather robotic effect that can usually be heard in EDM music. As a result, 'Rung' gives off a western vibe.

Regardless of how it has been composed, Ismail does seem to understand what audiences want and so, he has intelligently given them something that can be played on repeat. One thing, however, that slightly separates the western framework of this song from the tradition one is the use of Punjabi lyrics. Even though the lyrics of 'Rung' consists of English words and phrases as well, most of the song has been sung in Punjabi.

In comparison, Sethi’s 'Rung' has a far more traditional approach. What caught my attention was the poetry of the song. Written purely in Urdu, Sethi has used certain words and phrases that complement the overall semi-classical style of the song. Like in the Antra (the verse) he sings “Bohat dino ki baat nahi hai, aansuon ki raat nahi hai, karte ho kahe takrar?

The song also has a prominent sound of the harmonium and surmandal, which, being traditional instruments, add more value to the style of the song. Other than this, the song has a western beat pattern but Sethi’s use of murki and harkat (a combination of different notes) throughout the song not only showcases his knowledge of classical music but also overpowers the entire beat structure of 'Rung'.

Finally, the song ends with a sargam and alap, which are prominent parts of classical music. At the end, the beat seems to fade out, leaving the sound of the harmonium isolated with Sethi’s ending notes.

When it comes to songs that scream culture, I have to mention Shafqat Amanat Ali's 'Khereyaan De Naal' (originally sung by Tufail Niazi) or Sajjad Ali's 'Har Zulm'. These songs blended in with the modern music but at the same time, each note they hit screamed CULTURE! We all know that both Shafqat Amanat Ali and Sajjad Ali are classically trained singers but what contributed to the beauty of these songs was not only their voice but also the style in which these songs were structured.

Both songs include harkat and murki (combination of different notes) that add value to the compositions. Even though western instruments were used in the songs, none of the instruments seem to overpower the lyrics or the style of singing. Lyrics like "chup chap sahi muslehatan waqt kay haathon, majboor sahi waqt se haara tou nahi hun” remind you of how much Urdu poetry is loved by our people and including it in our music will only do wonders to spread it.

In 'Khereyaan De Naal', we hear the tabla that blends in every time the chorus is sung. In 'Har Zulm' the only prominent instrument is the guitar yet, just like 'Khereyaan De Naal', it also includes 'harkat' and 'murki' that presents a cultural touch. Overall, what stands out the most in both songs is the singer’s ability to flawlessly sing different notes together and the semi classical style of composition that takes us back to our roots.

Music lovers young or old will often criticise the music of this generation. People who witnessed the golden age think modernity in music after the 80s wasn't the best and as a result they often claim that modern pieces do not suit their tastes.

After the decline, Pakistan went through a phase where Indian TV shows, movies, and songs were greatly appreciated. Pakistani dramas were being made but not many paid attention to them. Films were not being made and the only thing that remained were songs.

Many songs were released during this time that were appreciated like 'Billo De Ghar', 'Sohni Lag Di', 'Aadat', 'Purani Jeans', 'Chief Saab', 'Sayonee' and so many more. But at the same time audiences looked for something that would be a constant source of entertainment, and that's where the Indian influence came in. During this time, many Pakistani singers also began collaborating with Indian producers so the change in music India was experiencing crossed the border.

When the industry finally began to rebuild, audiences were so used to that style of content that singers scrambled to keep them entertained with more of the same music. To this day, a portion of our public wishes to completely ignore Pakistani content. The Indian influence is the result of item songs with similar lyrics and style of singing in Pakistani films.

Another reason why old songs sounded richer could also be the absence of technology. Back then, singers recorded their songs in a single take. One tiny mistake and the entire song was sung again from the top. As a result, singers practiced their songs with their composers over and over in order to get every note right. Now, we are blessed with editing software and autotune, which can correct off key notes.

I wonder if technology has made people put less effort into music. Are we using technology as an easy way out?
There are still many singers across the world today who prefer to sing in multiple takes without having their pitch corrected yet there are many still who prefer it.

The beauty of immortal melodies

One might wonder why should we be concerned about this kind of modernisation and why we can’t accept change. I would again say that modernisation is extremely important but not at the cost of the eradication of traditional music from our society.

This generation’s unfamiliarity with traditional music has led to cultural music’s decline. Some of our traditional music has already disappeared. In the future, it’s likely that a large percentage of cultural music might get eliminated from the mainstream altogether.

Now what exactly did composers in the past do that made their songs so memorable and rich? I read a book The Musical People by Sultan Arshad Khan sahab, where he mentions how Khuwaja Khursheed Anwar used “meend” (slowly transitioning from one note to another) in his songs. An excellent example of this would be 'Rim Jhim Rim Jhim Paray Phuaar' and 'Jis Din Se Piya Dil Le Gaye', both sung by Madam Noor Jehan. Apart from this we hear a lot flute, sitar and, violins in his songs.

Similarily, Robin Ghosh used choirs in most of his songs, for example 'Do Pyasay Dil', making his melodies unique. Sohail Rana, on the other hand, seemed to have a softer approach towards his melodies, even his cheerful songs. I also observed a certain beat pattern that makes his work unique and immortal too. Some of his memorable melodies include 'Tujhe Apne Dil Se Main Kaisay Bhula Doon' and 'Akele Na Jana'. Even though these composers had their signature styles of composing, each melody has an individual identity.

What concerns me is whether we are giving the right amount of importance to music in film or whether we have decided we do not want to work the way these legendary composers did.

Is classical music really important?

While having conversations with people about music, I often stress upon the importance of classical music and why it is important for young people to understand it. I am not talking about being classically trained, but to understand the uniqueness that it holds is very important.

Our traditional style of singing is not something you will be able to hear anywhere else in the world except in Bangladesh and India since it all comes back to the roots.

Why is it that a young Pakistani does not know who Nisar Bazmi was? Why can’t a young Pakistani person hum a hit song from the 60s?

Regardless of the kind of music one creates, the way it is created reflects ones knowledge of classical music. 'Dil Dharkay Main Tum Se' had a rather upbeat, cheerful melody, yet it could not have been composed without knowledge of classical music. Each note, each pause and each transition in a song has a reason behind it. A song can only be memorable when meaning is added to it and one cannot do this at random.

This might not seem concerning at the moment but it definitely is. Our music is a legacy that should be taken forward, which is why listening to old music and understanding the importance of classical music is important.

This might seem like an emotional approach to the problem but if we talk about compositions, composing isn’t just about knowing how to use technology. It’s also about being able to come up with tunes, each bearing a different emotion and personality. This is where knowledge of classical music comes in.

Must I say that my generation has to know who originally sang 'Chandni Raatein' and 'Katay Na Katay Re'? They must also understand that the golden age was called the golden age for a reason.

Understanding the repercussions of the decline

During the golden age, Pakistan produced hit after hit. There were also plenty of films being released every year but all this came to a halt in the 80s. The industry collapsed and today, it is still struggling to revive itself. Recently, we saw a huge change with more and more films being produced but then Covid-19 struck and everything came to a screeching halt.

Music is one the most popular sources of entertainment. The decline aside, things are different now — Pakistanis want to watch their own films, they want to listen to their own music and cherish the art of their country just like many other industries in the world do. Pakistanis have faith in their country’s content so keeping them entertained and being unique at the same time is extremely crucial.

Music then and now

Something that I noticed about the music of this generation is that it is fast, it is loud, and it is extremely repetitive. The question here is whether or not the people who are aware of this change are worried. The answer may not be very clear.

Some people, or should I say old souls like me, claim to hate this change outright while some don’t mind it. There could be two reasons for this: one is that the people who seem to not find the modern music as interesting as before might have a passion for music, might have knowledge of music and/or they might have been introduced to old music at a young age. The problem I think remains the same. This generation’s lack of familiarity with traditional music or music from the golden age is why modern music seems perfect to them.

Western influence on our country’s music sounds good when it comes to certain pieces being played in a song but gets problematic when the style of composition also makes us feel like we’re listening to a western tune. Uniqueness gives our industry identity. Our songs too give us an identity and losing this identity could not only be devastating but also disastrous for people who listen to our songs for their cultural richness.

Let’s not forget the true legends of Pakistani film music — Nisar Bazmi, Khuwaja Khursheed Anwar, Khalil Ahmed, Rasheed Attre, Sohail Rana, Baba Chishti, Robin Ghosh and so many more who made memorable songs that will live on forever. It is our duty now to make sure that their songs do live on forever and are carried forward in new music today.

Art: Saad Arifi