Before Youth Culture
In 1987 I had a lot in common with many other fourteen-year-olds. I watched the Brat Pack/John Hughes films, repeatedly; I knew the Top 10 of the UK chart by heart; I cut out pictures of Rob Lowe, Madonna, a-ha from teen magazines and stuck them on my bedroom walls; I regarded the perfect ‘mixed tape’ as a pinnacle of teenaged achievement and gave thanks for not living in the dark days of LPs. But in doing all these things I merely affirmed what every adolescent growing up, like me, in Karachi could tell you – youth culture was Foreign. The privileged among us could visit it, but none of us could live there.
Instead, we lived in the Kalashnikov culture. Through most of the eighties, Karachi’s port served as a conduit for the arms sent by the US and its allies to the Afghan mujahideen, and a great many of those weapons were siphoned off before the trucks with their gun cargo even started the journey from the port to the mountainous north. By the mid-eighties, Karachi, my city, a once-peaceful seaside metropolis, had turned into a battleground for criminal gangs, drug dealers, ethnic groups, religious sects, political parties – all armed. Street kids sold paper masks of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo; East met West in its adulation of the gun and its hatred of the godless Soviets.
In those days, schools were often closed because of ‘trouble in the city’; my school instituted drills to contend with bombs and riots, rather than fire. Even cricket grounds – those rare arenas where exuberance still survived – weren’t unaffected; all through 1986 and for most of 1987, there was hardly any international cricket played at Karachi’s National Stadium because of security concerns. The exception in 1986 was a Pakistan v. West Indies Test match. Still, my parents refused to allow me to attend. They were worried there might be ‘trouble’. This was the refrain of my adolescence. My parents and their friends constantly had to make decisions about how to balance concern for their children’s safety against the desire to allow life to appear as normal for us as possible. Like all teenagers, though, we wanted to go somewhere – and public spaces, other than the beach, held little appeal.
As a result, ‘going for a drive’ became an end unto itself. A group of us would pile into a car and we’d just drive, listening to mixed tapes with music from the UK and the US, singing along to every song. Sometimes these were tapes one of us had recorded straight off the radio while on a summer holiday in London, and we’d soon memorize all the truncated clips of jingles and radio patter as well as the songs. ‘Capital Radio! Playing all over London!’ we’d chant while navigating our way through Karachi’s streets. ‘There are tailbacks on the M25 . . .’ We always travelled in groups. You heard stories about the police stopping cars that had only a boy and girl in them and demanding proof that the pair were married, turning threatening and offering an option of arrest or payment of a bribe when the necessary paperwork wasn’t forthcoming. There weren’t any laws against driving in a car with someone of the opposite gender, but there were laws against adultery – and the police treated ‘sex’ as synonymous with ‘driving’ for the purposes of lining their pockets.
That was life as we knew and accepted it. Then one day in 1987 I turned on the lone, state-run TV channel to find four attractive young Pakistani men, wearing jeans and black leather jackets, strumming guitars, driving through the hills on motorbikes and in an open-top jeep, singing a pop song. And just like that, Youth Culture landed in living rooms all over Pakistan.
It didn’t really happen ‘just like that’, of course. Nothing ever does. There are various contenders for Pakistan’s first pop song, but everyone seems to agree what the first pop video was. It came to our screens in 1981. I was eight when a brother-and-sister duo, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, released the single ‘Disco Deewane’ (‘Disco Crazy’). I was too young then to know that something altogether new had arrived in the form of the ‘Disco Deewane’ video with its dream sequences, dancers in short, white space-age dresses and Nazia’s sensual pout. I do remember being mildly embarrassed that a pair of Pakistanis were trying to ‘do an Abba’. Somewhere I had acquired the notion that pop music belonged to another part of the world; if the term ‘wannabe’ had existed then I would have agreed that it applied to Nazia and Zoheb – and everyone who loved their music; never mind that the song played in my head as incessantly as anything Abba ever produced.
I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t have been so dismissive of the idea of Pakistani pop videos if I had been born just a few years earlier, and could recall the Karachi of the early seventies, which had no shortage of glamour and East–West trendiness: nightclubs; locally made films with beautiful stars and catchy songs; shalwar kameez fashions inspired by Pierre Cardin (who designed the flight attendants’ uniform for Pakistan International Airlines); popular bands who played covers of UK and US hits at fashionable spots in town. It’s true, a good part of this world was known only to a tiny section of Karachi society, but I grew up in that tiny section and yet, even so, by the start of the eighties, stories of that glamorous milieu seemed a million miles away from the reality around me.
The reason for this dissonance was the dramatic shift that took place in Pakistan’s cultural life between the early seventies and early eighties. The shift had a name – ‘Islamization’ – and a face – heavy-lidded, oily-haired, pencil-moustached. That face belonged to Pakistan’s military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, ally of the Saudis and the Americans. As the alliance with the Americans brought guns into Karachi, so the alliance with the Saudis brought a vast increase in the number of Wahhabi mosques and madrasas: these preached a puritanical version of religion at odds with the Sufism that had traditionally been the dominant expression of Islam in much of the subcontinent. Fear of the growing influence of political, Wahhabi-inspired Islam formed a steady thrum through my childhood, and early on I learned that one of the most derogatory and dismissive terms that could be used against another person was ‘fundo’ (as in ‘fundamentalist’).
By the time I was watching Nazia and Zoheb on TV, I already knew Zia ul-Haq stood for almost all that was awful in the world; he had placed my uncle, a pro-democracy politician, under house arrest. What I didn’t know then was that the video of ‘Disco Deewane’, at which I was turning up my nose, was coming under attack by Zia’s allies on the religious right; they had decided it was un-Islamic for a man and woman to dance together, as Nazia and Zoheb did in the video, even if they were siblings.
These were the early days of Islamization, when the censors were confused about what was permissible. A few years later, the process of Islamization was sufficiently advanced that a video such as ‘Disco Deewane’ would have no chance of airing. Although Nazia and Zoheb continued to release albums, the censorship laws and official attitudes towards pop meant they never gave concerts, received limited airtime on PTV, never released another video with the energy and sensuality of ‘Disco Deewane’, and were seen as a leftover from the days before Zia’s soulless rule sucked the life out of Pakistan’s youth culture. or, from the point of view of my historically amnesiac adolescent world, by the mid-eighties, when pop music really started to matter to me, they were already dinosaurs from another era.
BB (Benazir Bhutto; Battle of the Bands)
But I was soon to learn that some dinosaurs can roar their way out of seeming extinction in a single moment. The person who taught me this was thirty-three-year-old Benazir Bhutto. As long as I could remember she had been the pro-democracy politician under arrest, house arrest or exile. Pakistan was Zia ul-Haq to me, after all; how could someone who spoke of replacing not just the man but the entire system ever be of relevance? Imagine then how my world must have turned on its head in April 1986 when Benazir returned to Pakistan a free woman, for the first time in eight years, and a million people took to the streets of Lahore to welcome her home.
Benazir’s triumphant return was one of several watershed political moments that marked my young life. My earliest ever recollection is of my father showing me his thumb, with a black mark on it, and explaining that he’d just been to the polling booth, and that the black mark, indelible ink, was to guard against anyone attempting to cast more than one vote. I was three and a half then, and the start of Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship was just months away. I remember the day Benazir’s father was hanged, the day women’s rights activists marched on Islamabad to protest against misogynistic laws and were set upon by baton-wielding police, the day Zia held a referendum to extend his rule. So, the return of Benazir, after a decade of soul-wearying, dictatorial, oppressive political news was electrifying. For me, this is how it happened: at one moment she was far away, then she was in our midst and nothing was quite the same as before.
It seemed just that way with pop music, too. In the mid-eighties, in Lahore and Karachi (and in other pockets of urban Pakistan), groups of students came together in each other’s homes for jam sessions; the names of some of those students are instantly recognizable to anyone following the rise of Pakistani pop in the eighties and nineties: Aamir Zaki in Karachi, Salman Ahmad in Lahore, Junaid Jamshed in Rawalpindi. In 1986, Lahore’s Al-Hamra auditorium hosted its first ‘Battle of the Bands’, and the underground music scene cast off its subterranean nature. Some of the loudest cheers were reserved for a Rawalpindi-based group called the Vital Signs. But down south, in my home town, we paid little attention to ‘the provinces’ and so the Vital Signs remained completely unknown to me until that day in 1987 when I turned on the TV and saw the four young men singing in an open-top jeep.
The Vital Signs
Watching the video of ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ (‘Heart,Heart, Pakistan’ or ‘My Heart Beats for Pakistan’) today, I’m struck by the void that must have existed to make pretty boys singing patriotic pop appear subversive. In a bid to circumvent growing restrictions, TV producer Shoaib Mansoor had the idea of getting a pop song past the censors by wrapping it up in nationalism. Vital Signs and ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ was the result. The video, with its guitar-strumming, denim-clad twenty-something males, premiered on Independence Day – 14 August – 1987 and millions of Pakistanis, including my fourteen-year-old self, fell over in rapture.
Our reaction clearly wasn’t to do with their dance moves. The Vital Signs boys of 1987 seem ill at ease, their gyrations arrhythmic, their posture self-conscious. This is particularly true of the lead singer, Junaid Jamshed, but still, I was in love. They were clean-cut, good-looking and, most shockingly, they were nearby. They were Pakistani after all; one day you might turn a corner and run into one of them. This scenario started to seem even more thrillingly possible the day gossip raced through the schoolyard, telling us that one of the boys at school – a boy I knew! – was Junaid Jamshed’s cousin.
The first concert I ever attended was Vital Signs playing at a swanky Karachi hotel. It’s a safe guess that some of the girls present hadn’t told their parents where they were really going that evening. Mine was a co-ed school, and while all the boys and girls were entirely at ease in each other’s company, many of the girls had restrictions placed on them by their parents about co-ed socializing outside school hours. Almost no one’s parents were classified as fundo, but many were ‘conservative’ – the latter having more to do with ideas of social acceptability and ‘reputation’ than religious strictures.
The concert took place in a function room, one used for conferences, small receptions or evenings of classical music. I had doubtless been in that room many times for tedious weddings, but I don’t suppose I’d ever entered it in jeans before – and that alone must have made the room feel different, unexpected. There was a makeshift stage placed at one end and neat rows of chairs set out for the audience by organizers who obviously had no idea what a pop concert was all about. But we did, we Karachi adolescents. We’d watched pirated recordings of Hollywood teen movies, and Top of the Pops, and we knew that when a pop group started singing no one sat down and politely swayed in time to the music. So, as soon as the band came on, all of us climbed atop our chairs and started dancing. ‘You guys are great,’ Jamshed said in surprised delight, before breaking into Def Leppard’s ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’. I recall telling myself: Remember this. I had never before come so close to touching the Hollywood version of Teenaged Life.
By 1988, a slightly reconfigured Vital Signs, having replaced one of its original band members with the guitarist Salman Ahmad, was in the process of recording a debut album when a plane exploded in the sky, killing Zia ul-Haq and allowing Pakistanis to take to the ballot box to declare what we wanted for our nation after eleven years of military rule and so-called Islamization. The answer was clear: no to the religious parties; yes to the thirty-five-year-old woman.
Democracy and Status Quo
Given the state of Pakistan today, it is impossible to remember the heady days at the end of 1988 without tasting ashes. Elation was in the air, and it had a soundtrack. At parties my friends and I continued to dance to the UK’s Top 40, but the songs that ensured everyone crowded on to the dance floor were ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ and the election songs of both Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Karachi-based Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). There was little concern for political affiliation. At one such party I recall a young Englishman looking perplexed as Karachi’s teens gyrated to a song with the chorus Jeay jeay jeay Bhutto Benazir (‘Long live Benazir’). ‘I can’t imagine a group of schoolkids in London dancing to a “Long Live Maggie” number,’ he said, and I pitied him and all the English teenagers for not knowing what it was like to see the dawn of democracy.
A few months into the tenure of the Bhutto government, with the new head of state’s approval, Pakistan TV organized and recorded a concert called Music ’89. Nazia and Zoheb Hassan hosted, fittingly; but the event also passed the baton to a new generation, including Vital Signs and the hot new talent, the Jupiters, fronted by Ali Azmat. Tens of millions of people tuned in and religio-fascists fulminated from every pulpit. Benazir, as she would go on to do time and again, gave in to the demands of the religious right and, despite its huge success, the tapes of Music ’89 were removed from the PTV library.
One of the most distinguishing features of the Bhutto government was the prevalence of the status quo precisely where there was the most urgent need for change. Islamization was no longer the government’s spoken objective, but all the madrasas, jihadi groups and reactionary preachers continued as if nothing had changed, with the support of the army and intelligence services. Benazir’s supporters argued that she had no room to manoeuvre given all the forces ranged against her; her detractors said her only real interest was in clinging on to power. Either way, the great social transformation we had expected to see, that Return to Before, never happened.
Even worse, many of the changes begun by Zia ul-Haq gained momentum. Almost all of rural Pakistan continued to hold fast to Sufi Islam, but the cities, where there was no deep affiliation to a particular religious tradition, became, perversely, more susceptible to the reactionaries. There were signs that a reactionary Islam, which entwined itself with world events, had made its mark on several of my schoolfellows – the male athlete who didn’t want to run in shorts on the school’s sports day because Islam demanded modesty in dress; the close friend of mine who held up a picture of Salman Rushdie in the months just after the fatwa and said, ‘He even looks like the Devil!’; and, most notably, the other friend who told me, in 1991, that Saddam would win the war against the Americans. When I pressed him for his reasons, given the disparity in the two nations’ armies, he shrugged and made some cryptic comment about Saddam having a ‘greater’ weapon. Chemical? I asked, and it was only when he continued to look straight at me, without expression, that I realized what he was thinking. ‘Allah?’ I said, and he raised both shoulders and dropped them – a gesture that told me I may not believe it, but it was so.
Everyone I knew at school had been closely following the Gulf War, though much of that had to do with the excitement of CNN broadcasting into our homes for the first time – after a lifetime of state-controlled TV, we were all hungry for images from around the world. At seventeen I knew certain basic political truths, even if they were never directly articulated on CNN: America had turned its back on Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal; the Gulf War was about oil; the same America that had embraced the religio-military dictatorship of General Zia was now turning frosty towards the new democratic government and imposing sanctions on the nation. None of this got in the way of the draw of America as a destination for my friends and myself – most of us, including the boy who predicted Saddam’s righteous victory, were headed there for university. We knew that America was a wonderful place, if you were in it. There was no struggle to reconcile my conflicting views. I’d always known it was a country that produced both Rambo and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
By the summer of 1991, even though political disillusionment with Pakistan’s democracy was rife, I viewed the world around me as a source of delight. University beckoned – almost all my friends would be on the East Coast by the autumn. We made plans for meeting in Boston on weekends and over Thanksgiving break. It didn’t occur to me that I might be homesick, or that anything would seem remotely unfamiliar. It also didn’t occur to me that henceforth Pakistan would be no more than a part-time home, and that I would eventually join the ranks of Those Who Left. I was going away for university, that was all; in four years, I’d return, and both Karachi and I would be much the same as before. And as for those pop stars of my youth – I assumed that some would fade away before others but that in the end they’d all be remembered as ‘pioneers of pop’. I certainly never would have imagined that their lives over the next two decades would reflect Pakistan’s shifting religio-political landscape.
The Sufi Rocker
Weeks before I left for university, I had one concert-going experience that was to prove more potent in retrospect than at the time. The group with whom I spent that summer included a boy called Sherry, whose brother Salman Ahmad had just left Vital Signs to start his own band, Junoon. Junoon’s first album, released that year, was greeted with total indifference by critics and the public, but Sherry rounded up all the gang to go to a Junoon concert that summer. We went, but without much enthusiasm. Vital Signs was still the premier band in the country, and Ahmad, the guitarist, who was either jettisoned or parachuted out (accounts varied), had a whiff of second best about him. But onstage, Junoon was electrifying – thanks to both Ahmad and the singer, Ali Azmat, formerly of the Jupiters. Later, when Junoon became the biggest name in Pakistani pop, I would talk about that concert with an ‘I heard them before they were famous’ tone of superiority. But the truth was, soon after that I went to university and started to see the overwhelming maleness of Pakistani pop as alienating – my musical world now revolved around Natalie Merchant, Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls.
I started to pay attention to Junoon again in 1996, when they became megastars with ‘Jazba-e-Junoon’, the Coca-Cola-sponsored recording of the official Pakistan team song for the Cricket World Cup, and more or less simultaneously Ahmad started looking to Sufi Islam in an attempt to find a sound for Junoon that wasn’t merely derivative of Western rock. My own interest in the mystical side of Islam had started at university when I took a course on Sufism and learned how absurd I had been to think subversion via music came in the form of boys in denim singing pop songs in which they pledged their heart to Pakistan.
In the Sufi paradigm, God is the beloved and the mortal is the supplicant/lover – the relationship between the individual and God is intensely personal and does not admit the intercession of ‘religious scholars’ or ‘leaders of the congregation’. Small wonder that the Sufis have almost always stood in opposition to those who claim to be the guardians of religion. But the deep-rootedness of Sufi Islam in Pakistan has often meant that the orthodoxy don’t dare take it on – through the Zia years, the great singers in the Sufi tradition, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, continued to perform, both in public gatherings where the crowds could exceed half a million and on state-run TV. Every note leaping from their throats was a rebuke to the orthodoxy. It wasn’t until university that I saw the brilliance of those singers – particularly of Nusrat, who was a worldwide phenomenon by the nineties. You didn’t need to understand a word he sang, or feel any religious stirrings, to be struck to the marrow by one of the greatest voices of the century.
Nusrat and other qawwals were such a potent force in Pakistan that it’s not surprising that Junoon’s attempt to encroach on Sufi musical ground deeply divided listeners at first. But within a few years, the term ‘Sufi rock’ was no longer something spoken with inverted commas hanging around it. Much as I loved the music, though, I was sceptical about the relentless Coke-sponsored marketing that went alongside it. It didn’t sit too well with the Sufi idea of stripping away the ego.
Of course, there was no reason why musicians singing Sufi lyrics should live by Sufi rules. But Ahmad, who now affected the fashionable garb of a long-haired, bead-wearing, goateed mystic, spoke extensively about his immersion in Sufism. The critical acclaim for Ahmad’s music began to fade at the start of the new millennium, and yet halfway through the decade he was more visible than ever before – performing at the UN, talking up Indo-Pak friendship, promoting HIV/Aids awareness, appearing on TV, playing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. It is hard to separate sense of mission from marketing in all this. Whatever he has done in the last few years, and whatever he does in the future, Ahmad’s legacy is Sufi rock, that electrifying blend of the deep-rooted mystical side of subcontinental Islam and contemporary, cutting-edge, rocking youth culture.
In Salman Ahmad’s autobiography, Rock & Roll Jihad, it is unsettling how often he writes of receiving messages and signs from God, and of his certainty that he is doing God’s work through his music. His old friend and former Vital Signs bandmate Junaid Jamshed would doubtless disagree. I still vividly recall the moment in the late nineties when I returned to Karachi after an absence of several months and one of my friends said, ‘Have you heard about Junaid Jamshed?’ I hadn’t given him much thought for some years; other groups, not only Junoon, had come along since and eclipsed those pioneers of pop. ‘He’s become a fundo.’
Junaid Jamshed? The man who wanted Karachi’s teens to pour some sugar on him? Surely not. But yes, my friend said when I questioned them – he had joined the Tablighi Jamaat, a proselytizing movement, which believed in following the example of the Prophet in the most literal ways – the length of your beard; the clothes in your wardrobe; the Arab inflection of your pronunciation; the exact words you used to say goodbye. The Tablighi Jamaat had been among the groups to benefit from the state sponsorship of Wahhabi Islam in the Zia years, though they always insisted they were completely apolitical.
Rumour had it that some personal crisis had propelled Jamshed into the arms of Tablighi Jamaat, who promised a clear path to salvation. There was no way of knowing if that was truth or conjecture. All I knew was that one day I turned on the TV and there was a man I didn’t instantly recognize, with a long beard and white skullcap, quoting from the Quran. Nothing he said was objectionable; he spoke of peace, and the importance of education, and other perfectly right-minded things. But it filled me with despair.
Jamshed himself couldn’t seem to decide how easily this mantle of righteousness sat on him. For six years, we all watched as he vacillated between pop star and proselytizing man of faith. He declared he was quitting the music business. Then he refashioned his beard into a neat goatee and appeared with Vital Signs at a tribute concert for Nazia Hassan, who had died tragically young from cancer almost twenty years after burning up screens in the ‘Disco Deewane’ video. When questioned, Jamshed claimed that there was nothing incompatible in Islam and pop music. Later still, he would insist that the U-turn at that concert was a sign that he had not yet been strong enough to do the right thing. At the time, he rationalized, he’d had four international concerts lined up, as well as a new album he’d already recorded, not to mention a one-year contract with Pepsi . . . it just hadn’t been the right time to sever his ties with pop music, the pressures were too great. Once free of contractual obligations, Jamshed again declared pop music haram (forbidden) and soon after took to recording religious songs of praise.
Today, Jamshed’s life is divided between proselytizing for Tablighi Jamaat, recording religious albums and running a very successful designer label – J. (Jay Dot) – with stores in the glitziest malls of Pakistan, and branches soon opening in the UK. According to his MySpace page, it is no problem to reconcile his religious devotion with his designer stores. As he reminds us, ‘our Prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, was also a merchant who sold cloth.’
There are other ways in which religion can pay. Last year, Jamshed appeared on TV speaking with a tone and urgency that suggested he was about to reveal some deeply important spiritual truth. His message: contrary to rumours, Lay’s potato chips are made using only halal products. For this TV spot, which ends with Jamshed munching on a potato chip, he was reportedly paid 2 million rupees (£26,000 – though the comparatively low cost of living in Pakistan makes it a much larger amount in real terms).
That Jamshed was outspoken about his religious faith wasn’t in itself worthy of comment. In the Pakistan I had grown up in almost everyone identified as Muslim; to do otherwise meant you were either of the 3 per cent of the population belonging to other religious groups, or had adopted a contrarian attitude. But one of my friends aptly put her finger on why the particular form of Islam espoused by the former pop star was so disquieting: ‘In our grandmother’s generation, when people became more religious, they turned devout. Now they turn fundamentalist.’
The Rock Star Fantasist
From his early days in the Jupiters, to his huge success as the voice of Junoon and, recently, his critically acclaimed solo career, Ali Azmat has always been the man who most lived up to the idea of the rock star. He remains the most charismatic performer on the pop scene, with a sartorial flair that sets trends, a turbulent relationship with a beautiful model, a reputation for brashness and a personality that is an appealing mix of contagious good humour and artistic suffering. When the journalist Fifi Haroon asked Azmat how many girlfriends he’d had, he replied, ‘I’m a lover, not a mathematician.’ While Junaid Jamshed was declaring pop music haram and Salman Ahmad delved into the Quran and Sufism, Azmat just focused on the music. He might have been singing Sufi rock, but he made it quite clear that it was the rock that mattered.
Then, in 2009, the rock star shifted his primary vocation from singer to that of cheerleader.
The man Azmat has been championing – introducing him at public events, singing his praises on TV, featuring him as the resident ‘expert’ on his talk show – is Zaid Hamid, a self-professed ‘security consultant and strategic defence analyst’. An example of Hamid’s strategic thinking was in evidence early in 2010 when he set out a vision for Pakistan’s future. ‘Pakistan will lead a bloc of Muslim nations known as the United States of Islam,’ he declared to an approving, self-selected audience. ‘Any nation that wants to lift a foot will first ask Pakistan’s permission . . . We have good news for India: we will break you and make you the size of Sri Lanka.’ And on and on it went, describing how Pakistani Muslims from ‘the United States of Islam’ would ensure the security of Muslims the world over.
A few weeks after this televised address, Azmat appeared on a talk show hosted by the model and actress Juggan Kazim; the other guest was the feisty actress Nadia Jamil, who savaged Azmat for his association with Hamid, whom she described as a hate-monger.
Azmat hotly denied this. ‘We’re not against any people,’ he said. ‘We’re against a political ideology called Zionism . . . there are all sorts of Zionists. There are Hindu Zionists, Muslim Zionists, Christian and Jewish Zionists.’
‘What is Zionism?’ asked Kazim.
‘We don’t even know ourselves what it is,’ Azmat replied, without a flicker of embarrassment. ‘It’s a political ideology where obviously these guys have taken over the world, through whatever means, through businesses…’
Hamid’s star has imploded in the last few months, for various reasons, including a murder case against him and attacks from members of the orthodoxy who saw his popularity as a challenge. But the spectacular speed with which he rose to prominence, and the support he gathered, are very telling about the state of Pakistan. A country demoralized and humiliated by its myriad problems could either turn reflective, or it could simply blame everyone else. Large sections of Pakistan have chosen the latter option. Hamid’s appeal to the young – who made up much of his following – was that while his talk of Pakistan’s glorious future was entirely wrapped in religious-tinged rhetoric, he stayed away from social proscriptions. If the question is ‘What kind of Muslim am I?’ – and in Pakistan that is often the question – the Hamid answer is ‘The kind who fights Zionism everywhere!’ Whether you do so in jeans and T-shirt, and with or without a guitar, is largely beside the point. You can become a Better Muslim without disrupting your social life. What more could a Pakistani rock star ask for?
It’s a strange business, growing up. Your teen idols grow up too, and you realize that the vast gulf of years which separated you from them is actually just a narrow ravine, and that you are all roughly part of the same generation. In the particular case of the Pakistani pop pioneers, you also realize that your nation is growing up with you too – the Islamic Republic of Pakistan came into being in 1971, when the former East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Given the youthfulness of the nation, perhaps it isn’t surprising that we of the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan generation’ look at each other and seek answers to the question: ‘What do our lives say about the state of the nation?’
Largely, our lives say that polarity and discordance are rife. However, although they are few and sometimes difficult to identify, there are still spaces in Pakistan where difference presents opportunities to harmonize. Aptly enough, one of those spaces is the music studio. Coke Studio, to be specific. Corporate sponsorship has been an integral part of Pakistani pop music since Pepsi signed Vital Signs to sing their most famous tune with the slightly rejigged lyrics ‘Pepsi Pepsi Pakistan’. Notably, despite the different paths Azmat, Jamshed and Ahmad followed, they all remained linked to corporate sponsors, a fact that didn’t seem to get in the way of any of their religious or political beliefs.
Now in its third season, Coke Studio is a wildly popular TV show featuring live performances from Pakistan’s biggest musical acts, as well as introducing some lesser-known singers. The most glorious thing about the show is the disparate traditions it brings together – pop, qawwali, rock, folk, classical. Qawwals and rock stars duet, the tabla and violin complement each other’s sounds. And the man who makes it all happen? The somewhat reclusive and much sought-after producer Rohail Hyatt, who, twenty-three years ago was one of the four boys in jeans singing ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ in my living room. More than any of his Vital Signs bandmates or Junoon rivals, he seems aware of one simple and persisting truth: in Pakistan, as all around the world, what we most crave from our musicians is music.
Artwork © Ayaz Jokhio, Detail, Nusrat Fatch Ali Khan from Ten Musicians, 2009, acrylic and newspaper collage on board, gloss varnish, 30.5 x 23cm
Courtesy of the collection of Khurram Kasim