x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Rocking the political boat

Pakistani rock is proving to be a popular form of protest for Pakistan's alienated young people coming of age in a troubled country.

The established heart-throb Shahzad Roy, right, has topped the charts with a song whose refrain goes: 'The good guy is the one who hasn't had the opportunity [to be corrupt]'.
The established heart-throb Shahzad Roy, right, has topped the charts with a song whose refrain goes: 'The good guy is the one who hasn't had the opportunity [to be corrupt]'.

It is a grey, early spring day in Islamabad, but the crows cannot settle in the leafy branches of the trees lining a street in sector F-7, a residential district of the capital. "He's upstairs doing 'boom, boom'!" says the father of Asfendyar Ahmed, who at age 15 is a typical middle-class teenager railing against the system. But while his impoverished compatriots to the north-west are making their voices heard with improvised explosive devices, Asfendyar prefers a set of Yamaha drums.

Already his talents have been recognised by veterans of Pakistan's rock fusion scene, which sprung up in the 1980s as an antithesis to the social conservatism and religious militancy backed by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the then-military dictator. Asfendyar is well aware of just how indiscriminately murderous the militants have become: two of his schoolmates are the daughters of a politician assassinated in Dec 2007 by the Swat Taliban.

Today, Asfendyar is jamming with Silver Smoke, a five-man act fronted by Umair Jaswal, at 22, the elder statesman of the group and one of three lead vocalist brothers. Taking a perch on whatever is closest in a spare bedroom, the band launches into a Guns n' Roses-style rendition of a sombre Urdu ballad: Badal dalo dushman. Soach: kiya kabhi soach insaan ka jeena hai? Ehsaas do dil mein kabhi mitt jaiyega.

"Change your enemy. Think: has mere thought ever been the purpose of life? One day, the conscience in both hearts will fade away," Umair sings. Like rock groups everywhere, their lyrics touch on the recurrent themes of discontent - a corrupt government, a failing economy and Islamic extremism that is driving their country backwards. "People keep asking us to be less depressing. But we are not happy, so our music will stay in their faces until there is something to be happy about," Umair says.

They are not alone. Atif Aslam, a Karachi pop sensation, recorded the hit Hangami haalaat (Emergency Conditions) amid the late 2007-early 2008 transition from military rule to elected parliament. Around the same time, Shahzad Roy, a Pakistani heartthrob for more than a decade, also topped the charts with Laga Rahe (Keep At It), a hilarious take on abuse of power that concludes: Nayk who hota hai jisse mowka nahin mila

"The good guy is the one who hasn't had the opportunity [to be corrupt]." Modern Pakistani rock and pop music was pioneered by amateur bands in the mid-1980s - under the disapproving glare of the Islamist military regime of Gen Haq - and gained official acceptance with the release of Dil dil Pakistan (Hearts for Pakistan), a patriotic anthem by Vital Signs, a pop group formed by four Islamabad-based medical students. But while generals, housewives and teenyboppers happily sang along to the censor-approved video aired on state television, underground rock bands were spreading an edgy message of conscience at private gigs.

"However half-baked we were, we still knew there was something wrong with this world, and talked in our lyrics about justice, inequality and the lack of civil institutions," said Ali Azmat, who 20 years ago fronted Jupiters, a rock band that emerged from the working class backstreets of Gawal Mandi in Lahore. As is still the case with bands today, economic compulsion made the 1990 break-up of both bands inevitable.

The more determined players, Azmat and Salman Ahmed, lead guitarist of Vital Signs, joined forces with Brian O'Connell, an adventurous American bass player, to form the band Junoon (Obsession). For five years, they lived in poverty in Karachi - Azmat grimaces at the memory of a never-ending menu of lentils - off paltry gig fees, developing what came to be known as Sufi rock. The new fusion of rock with folk music and mystic laments, or qawali - burst into public consciousness with the 1996 release of the album, Jazba e Junoon (Spirit of Obsession).

Its runaway popularity attracted corporate sponsorship and associated marketing support that transformed Junoon into the hottest act in Pakistan. "I remember 1996 because it was the first time I had accumulated a 100,000 rupees [Dh4,600 at current exchange rates]," said Azmat, 40, still Pakistan's top rocker and the only active performer from the pioneer generation. Junoon debuted in India the following year with the album Azadi (Freedom), which went on to become the highest selling album across South Asia and in expatriate communities in the Gulf and the West in 1998 and 1999.

The new genre posed a formidable challenge for producers such as Mekaal Hasan, who in 1995 had set up the Digital Fidelity Studios in Lahore after earning a degree in musical arrangement and composition from the Berkeley College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. "I had to learn how to record music - something I hadn't trained for. I would practice mixing for five to six hours a day. It's only in the last three or four years that I have developed a complete command, but I still get the occasional song that baffles me," he said.

Those latter years coincided with an unprecedented boom in Pakistan's economy, when acts with successful pan-Asian track records, such as Ali Azmat and pop duo Strings, were highly sought after brand ambassadors, commanding 15 million to 20 million rupees a year per sponsor. However, the artists' tendency for social commentary soon brought them into conflict with corporate sponsors and record labels alike.

In late 2007, Azmat finished recording a new album, Kalashnifolk, a powerful critique of post September 11 geopolitics and free market economics in Pakistan and the wider Muslim world. With Pakistan in violent political transition at the time, the corporate sponsor baulked and the label stalled the album's release. "I had to question: if I have never met a terrorist, how come my country is in the eye of the storm?" said Azmat, who defiantly released the album online in Aug 2008 for free upload.

Musicians acknowledge that they are fighting a losing battle in an environment where brand association is a matter of survival. "Music is a calling, an urge to create; the need to market it is what makes a hit. But in Pakistan, hits are being defined by the lowest common denominator," said Mr Hasan. thussain@thenational.ae