20 years of Dusk: the story of Pakistan’s first metal band
In the early 1990s, while the city of Karachi was experiencing spells of chronic violence interspersed with cultural transformations in music, arts and television, bands used to jam in the basement of a colonial-era mansion.
The pop scene had recently exploded in the country’s urban centres as the decade long, conservative military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq came to an end in 1988. The jam sessions in this dilapidated, partly abandoned mansion festooned with cobwebs, had become a default hang-out space for several aspiring musicians.
One was a teenager named Babar Sheikh, who was both fascinated by the wildly experimental styles of local bands as well as drawn to the international sounds of metal.
The birth of Pakistan’s metal scene is explained to me by Sheikh himself, two decades after it all began. Today, he works mainly as an advertising filmmaker and university lecturer. But to many people, he remains the face of Pakistan’s metal scene.
Late last year, Sheikh marked the 20-year anniversary of his band, Dusk – the legendary Pakistani metal act. Over the past 20 years, Dusk has featured some of the country’s most renowned musicians and has garnered international acclaim and awards. Even more significantly, the genesis of the band captures how the local music scene developed in the city.
“Back then, you could probably count the number of long-haired people wearing jeans on your fingertips,” he tells me. “That’s how rare rock ‘n’ roll was back when I was in my teenage years. It was such a precious and good thing because ... everyone into the music scene was really sincere and straightforward.”
To really understand what he means, one must consider the political and economic situation in Karachi at that time. This was an era in which the country had one TV channel, which was state-run and very conservative. A single telephone line would be shared by entire households, while the internet wasn’t even a word yet. The instability and increasing violence of the 1980s left the city isolated from the rest of the world, and as such, dressing in torn jeans and having long hair barely carried any cultural cachet, even among the youth.
Young kids like Sheikh had to work a lot harder to keep their interest in music alive. Weekends were often spent nursing self-inflicted papercuts at the vast used-book stalls in the city’s old markets, where hawkers would sell piles of old, foreign magazines. Here, one would find the odd metal magazine among back issues of Cosmopolitan. One of Sheikh’s bandmates, a guy named Roger, who he befriended at a bus stop after noticing his long hair, took to stuffing sofa cushions with paper to act as drums. As Sheikh puts it: “If you make it thick enough, it sounds just like a snare.”
The difficulty of access fostered a spirit of camaraderie and community, as well as the ability to explore and appreciate whatever music one came across. As Sheikh describes it, “one of the best things about growing up in Pakistan back in the day was ... that you just learnt to treasure all these rare kinds of music”.
After performing with several bands, Sheikh put together what became the first demo of Dusk’s career, Casketize, in 1995. The recording was made in the spirit of this DIY scene, using a cassette player with two decks and a unidirectional microphone and rigged by a bandmate and friend whose father would soon forbid him from hanging out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” influence like Sheikh.
Recalling the amateur set-up, Sheikh can’t help but laugh. But the demo put Dusk on the map, partly thanks to his prolific penmanship.
“I was heavily into writing letters to different people around the world – people like magazine editors, demo collectors, other bands, music writers, etc. I just made lots of copies of my demo and traded them with people around the world.”
In what was essentially a Napster for the analogue world, Babar managed to get Dusk noticed in the international metal circuits and made enough of a scene back home to start gigging.
When I ask him why he chose to play metal, his answer is quite visceral, describing the raw excitement when he first heard the music form as a 12- or 13-year-old, and how much he enjoyed exploring these styles with a small group of friends with similar tastes.
This was one of the many cultural manifestations of a generation of Pakistanis who had no living memory of the colonial era, of being part of India or the partition of Bangladesh – this was a new generation seeking to find its own identity.
It has always piqued my interest that the rise of metal followed a decade of extremely violent student politics and the consequent depoliticisation of young people in the city. Perhaps metal and rock music were ways of expressing disenchantment and frustration in a society with few outlets for them. But while Dusk were gaining critical acclaim, it wasn’t enough to be gigging regularly and it took a year before anything else happened. At that time, Sheikh was working as a graphic designer and drew the logo for a pop band. Instead of asking for a fee, he asked the band to book him a session at a studio. It was a long shot, but it worked and Dusk were given eight hours of the cheapest studio time – the graveyard shift.
Sheikh got together with his new bandmates including Faraz Anwar, who would go on to become one of the most famous guitarists in the country. As he tells it, it was “one of the greatest nights of my life. We went into that studio in the middle of the night and by the morning we came out holding a chrome tape of our music in our hands”.
This release was a promo tape, Where Dreams Bleed in 1996. Within three years, Dusk achieved a significant milestone when the Portuguese label Hibernia Productions released their first full-length album, the iconic My Infinite Nature Alone.
Crucially, this meant that if local metal bands managed to achieve a degree of technical sound quality, they could find audiences and labels abroad – if not Pakistan.
The dawn of the new century had already seen a renaissance in Pakistan’s music scene in general and the metal scene continued to thrive with Dusk at the forefront. In 2003, they released the album Jahilia and followed it up with a third album, Contrary Beliefs in 2005 and in 2006, Babar put out Dead Heart Dawning, an EP with new members on a Pakistani label.
But while Dusk continued to be major influence, they suffered from the same problem that affected all other Pakistani musicians. While there had been enough talent and enthusiasm to create a “scene”, a combination of poor copyright laws and a shrinking cultural and economic space for music meant that the music scene would never become a bona fide industry.
The situation deteriorated around 2007, when urban cultural changes were confronted by terrorist bombs and attacks, as the post 9/11 conflict in the border areas spilt onto the mainland. As the country descended into a terrorism-fuelled crisis, the “golden era” of Pakistani music went with it. Members of Dusk came and went, and despite some new releases, by 2010 Sheikh had become far more involved in his professional commitments, alongside other music projects.
But perhaps more significantly for someone used to the sweat and tears route, the advent of MP3s also had an impact.
“I think that by the late 90s, it really felt like [the metal scene in Pakistan] was [going somewhere] but unfortunately at that time the MP3 culture arrived which I believe washed everything away. [Music] went from being something tangible, something you held in your hands, to something disposable.”
However, the digitisation of music also led to it reaching a wider audience than ever before. Borne largely out of the passion and enthusiasm of its members, Dusk gained an international reputation, all while recording using the barest means available.
Over 20 years, the band has continued to feature some of the country’s most celebrated musicians, still plays at metal events such as the annual Hellfest and remains a cult legend.
Last year, Sheikh was joined by Omran Shafique, another of Pakistan’s most celebrated musicians, as Dusk’s latest iteration released its 20th Anniversary Special, a single called Architect of the Fifth Dimension.
Today, when many talented musicians despair at the influx of computer manipulation and relentless gimmickry, the story of Dusk and Pakistan’s metal scene is a reminder of the value of passion and joy in the face of adversity to create something lasting and authentic.
Ahmer Naqvi is a writer on music and sport and is based in Islamabad.
Updated: April 20, 2016 04:00 AM