x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All the rage

Rock 'n' roll is flourishing in Pakistan, despite the unrest and violence, with Lahore's new Guitar School a prime example.

At the Guitar School in Lahore, teachers lead almost 50 students in music classes.
At the Guitar School in Lahore, teachers lead almost 50 students in music classes.

A career in rock 'n' roll might not be a conventional - or easy - choice for young Pakistanis, but despite the militant insurgency and social difficulties, aspiring musicians are finding ways to keep an alternative music scene alive. Even with accelerating Taliban violence, Pakistan's underground music-makers are rocking on. "Our students have started forming bands; the youngest group consists of three seven-year-old boys. All play astonishingly well, and are fast improving every day", says Abid Khan, one of the founders and teachers of Lahore's Guitar School, which opened recently on the back of growing interest in contemporary music, stimulated by satellite television and the increasingly free and diverse broadcast media.

This has given Pakistani rock a contemporary foothold from which many bands have moved on to establish their own methods of promotion through social networking sites, putting their work on MySpace and Facebook. Radio stations across the country are increasingly playing tracks by rising Pakistani bands and now musicians and teachers are encouraging youth participation. At Lahore's Guitar School, for example, almost 50 students attend classes given by established rock 'n' rollers, most often in guitar. Khan says the school, in the city's Defence district, was established in the face of declining demand for musicians in Pakistan, but on the back of popular interest in Pakistani rock.

"All we were focusing on in the beginning was to make money to get by, as work for musicians and opportunities in general were depleting. Teaching and sharing our skills with others was the most logical thing that came to mind," he explains. The school, which also teaches music theory and keeps a library of independent records, quickly became not just a financial venture, but a social and artistic one.

Khan adds: "Now that the school is up and running, we are realising the huge potential that music has for creating a healthy change in society." Eman Faisal Khan, 15, a student, says: "Here you have freedom to do what you want because their motto is 'play it like you feel it'. The atmosphere is modern, very comfortable." A number of students have formed bands and the practice space attracts established artists.

Developing a successful music career in Pakistan can be a long and difficult process, particularly in a country where cultural events have to contend with a growing threat of violence - a major annual arts festival in Lahore faces financial ruin after the event was bombed last year. Despite some bands using terror as inspiration for tracks carrying political comment, Pakistan's instability is not a positive influence.

Arieb Azhar, an internationally recognised Pakistani musician, explains: "There are less and less opportunities for musicians to perform, because of security issues and lack of venues. Even the most popular of our mainstream artists are lucky to perform twice or three times a month, and make much better money playing abroad." A new, independent outdoor rock arena in the capital, Islamabad, should help, but venues like that are scarce.

Many people also find it hard to reconcile western-influenced trends in music with Pakistan's traditionally conservative society, though such resistance is being eroded by television shows such as Coke Studio and imported talent contests, which bring rock music into homes and soften the genre's wild reputation. Hamza Jafri, the frontman for the popular Pakistani band Co-Ven and a founder of the guitar school, where he also teaches, says: "We're on all the music TV channels, we're on the radio, everyone concerned in the industry knows about us."

But he hints at problems: "Because so far we've only sung in English, that is the main factor that separates us from mass audiences in Pakistan." Azhar, too, suggests that a more inclusive approach to making music in schools and colleges might further uncover and foster talent. "At long last, some educational institutes have opened departments for teaching music, but it's only when this happens on the lowest level of society that it can have a meaningful outcome."

Azhar highlights further difficulties within the Pakistani music industry itself, saying that although music might be popular among fans, the country's corporate music structure can be unhelpful to artists. "There is hardly a thriving music scene or venues where new musicians can come and prove their worth, so it is usually the media bosses who promote new talent. Their judgement is not based on objective reality but personal contacts and short-term business plans."

He worries that promoters focus more on easily digestible pop instead of emerging rock. "This is the time where musicians and artists can actually act as the voice of the people, the word on the street - but instead, nearly all the music being promoted through entertainment bosses is 'opium for the masses'." Jafri argues that the system also operates to the disadvantage of musicians trying to make a living.

"There isn't really a music industry here," he says. "No copyright laws are exercised - it can't become a functioning business system until artists are paid royalties. "Co-Ven hasn't really ever fallen in to the category of commercial bands, so the industry hasn't so much affected us. We've just kept going on supporting ourselves and kept doing what we wanted to." Other bands, however, have to rely on corporate sponsorship to get anywhere, he says.

"Even if you have a hit song on the radio or the television, you won't see a penny until a corporation signs you up, and they have nothing to do with music and the arts; they just want to sell their products." To compound the problem, a flourishing pirate music industry also means the latest single is often available at a fraction of the cost of the original in Lahore's many CD stores. On the bright side, radio stations offer a more encouraging outlet for musical talent. Fizza Aslam, an on-air producer, has worked with Lahore's CityFM89 station and says new music has found a place on the airwaves.

"With cable and internet widely available, our audiences are familiar with international music, so new music is always welcomed," he says. Aslam also says the problems that plague artists trying to land record deals and gigs have helped bolster the station's ability to play tracks not being held anywhere else. "It's incredible to see the determination most of these artists have. The financial crunch has brought everything to a halt, record labels aren't signing, concerts aren't taking place with the frequency they used to because of security issues, but music is still being made - great music.

"So for CityFM89 it was, and is, not only easy but a pleasure, to feature artists who haven't had a chance to showcase their music on any other medium." The station also promotes events designed to encourage new talent. For example, says Aslam, "CityFM89 celebrates World Music Day simultaneously in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Faisalabad every year, in an attempt to encourage young talent to perform. Musicians submit their work and the best are asked to perform, with the station handling cost and promotion."

The station also acts as a platform for good local music, with bands asked to perform live on air. Student enthusiasm for the school points to the emergence in time of more musical talent, fostered by its social and academic environment. Twenty-four-year-old Salma says: "It's a collaborative experience, because it's not really a teacher-student relationship. Instead, it's all about making music and learning from reach other. Of course, we do most of the learning."

The Guitar School's ability to inspire is evident. Shaayan Ahmad Khawaja, a seven-year-old student, sums it up: "I'd love to be a rock star."