“We’re beaten and blown by the wind/Trampled in dust/I’ll show you a place/High on the desert plain, yeah/Where the streets have no name.”
- ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ - U2
The passing year has been a strange one and not just for music. The way we live, travel and work along with our consumption of music, has changed.
2020 emerged as the year of Covid-19, a global pandemic that made working from home and staying indoors the new normal. It also meant musicians worked digitally as technology became a necessity to be embraced. In some ways, it pushed artists out of their comfort zone irrespective of the challenges that lay ahead, leading to unexpectedly stunning new music. In other ways, it provided novel vantage points from which to look at the future of music with.
Nothing, however, kept mainstream and emerging or independent artists from releasing music in droves. Though live shows took a serious hit March onwards, new debates and conversations crossed the threshold with one example being Salt Arts that offered digital conversations with a slew of artists.
The screening process is always hard and though it is impossible to name every musician working in the ecosystem, some events, releases, series and individuals stood out more than others.
“Have you ever heard the sounds/In the shadows of a song? Have you ever felt the words/Blow right through you from beyond?” – ‘Every Ship Must Sail Away’ - Blue Merle
Beginning with Pakistan’s biggest star, Atif Aslam unleashed his somber side with a Coke Studio special, ‘Asma-ul-Husna (The 99 names)’, which was produced by Xulfi and directed by Asim Raza as a Covid-19 special. Atif did break the mould later in the year and scored a massive hit in ‘Kadi Te Hans Bol‘ off Velo Sound Station (VSS), the new digital series helmed by Bilal Maqsood.
Ali Noor from Noori (on a hiatus) followed through on his words of working on a solo album and despite a life-threatening health scare, released ‘Banjo’, ‘Pagal’, ‘Nasha’ and ‘Teray Saath’ accompanied by music videos from his debut EP titled Pagal. Backed by a team of strong musicians including Ahsan Pervaiz and Kami Paul, since then Ali Noor has also gone on to appear on the special season of Coke Studio that has been dubbed Coke Studio 2020 with at least one release. Apart from his collaboration with Fariha Pervez on the series, there is the possibility of one more single from Noor before the year ends.
Meesha Shafi had the best year musically speaking with six releases in total consisting of three strong appearances on Coke Studio, including an all-female anthem in which she raps it like it’s hot (she composed the rap herself); a thunderous cover of ‘Boom Boom’ and the original ‘Amrit’ on VSS with the latter showcasing stark imagery of how women truly feel. She has also collaborated on a single with Mughal-e-Funk that is set to release this Christmas and featured on an Abdullah Siddiqui song, the monochromatic and moody ‘Magenta Cyan’, the video for which was co-directed by both artists.
Ali Hamza, apart from several jam sessions featuring Rakae Jamil and Kami Paul, available on YouTube, also released a version of old-time cult hit, ‘Maare Kakkya’ and the spiritual ‘Rabba Meray Haal Da Mehram Tuu’n’ - both with minimalist, complementary music videos. He also appeared in the second season of Candi Meray Dost Meray Yaar as a professor and presented a beautiful single called ‘Tere Bin’. The series also featured the very popular Asim Azhar who also had a terrific year. Apart from the series, he released singles such as ‘Soneya’, the collaborative ‘Tum Tum’ featuring Shamoon Ismail and the Young Stunners, gaining millions of views.
Haniya Aslam released the solo single, ‘Ayi Re’ earlier this year – after songs like ‘Dobara Phir Se’ and ‘Hum Irada’ – alongside a music video. Most importantly, Haniya confirmed she is working on new music as well as producer for another act and working on collaborative tracks with other artists but how this material will be released is still up in the air.
Ali Zafar was honoured with the Pride of Performance Award, one of the highest civilian awards to be bestowed on an artist; the ceremony will take place next year. Zafar also released several singles, aligned with music videos, such as the very successful ‘Allay (Munja Mar Wara)’ ft. Urooj Fatima & Abid Brohi, ‘Laila O Laila’ featuring Urooj Fatima, and ‘Meela Loot Liya’ via Lightingale Records, as part of launching several artists via the label. The numbers on the songs are very high, showing how successful Zafar is in showcasing younger artists with potential.
“I’m seeing a tunnel at the end of all of these lights/Sunny days, where have you gone?/I get the strangest feeling you belong.” - ‘Why Does it Always Rain On Me’ - Travis
Rohail Hyatt produced an all-original yet shorter version of Coke Studio in lieu of Covid-19 with urban artists only and a crisper house-band. Meanwhile Bilal Maqsood launched Velo Sound Station, a digital-only series featuring both mainstream and emerging artists including Takatak, Strings, Natasha Noorani, Abdullah Qureshi, Meesha Shafi, Umair Jaswal, Aima Baig, Sajjad Ali, Sara Haider, Uzair Jaswal, Aag, Shamoon Ismail and Nighat Chaudhry. Embracing electro-pop, while Bilal Maqsood co-directed the show with Yasir Jaswal, he gave others a chance to produce the songs while composing or writing lyrics where needed apart from being the executive producer. Visually, it’s the coolest show to emerge since Coke Studio first arrived.
Independent artists ruled the day with Ahsan Bari releasing his debut EP Guzaarish in collaboration with Salt Arts; the prodigious Abdullah Siddiqui releasing several collaborative singles with artists such as Zoe Viccaji, Maanu and Shamoon Ismail with plans of releasing his sophomore album Heterotopia before the year ends, he confirmed to Instep. Shamoon Ismail also released popular solo work as did MRKLE, Osama Com Laude (who released two EPs called pakING and Barbaadi as part of what will be a trilogy). Poor Rich Boy (releasing singles with music videos) released more material in Urdu including the off-kilter ‘Jatay Jatay’ and ‘Jahez Mein Churail’.
One of Pakistan’s original guitar heroes, Asad Ahmed dropped his third album, Ascension, earlier this month and returned to Coke Studio 2020 as one of the members of the house-band.
Independent music’s other hero, Ali Suhail - who is also a member of Takatak and Sikandar Ka Mandar - announced a new album, White Flag backed by boisterous album art by Sana Ahmed. He also released a single off the album called ‘Bubbleboi’ that was noticed in India’s Rolling Stone. The upcoming record will include collaborations and will be Suhail’s sixth solo studio release.
Among other dynamic names, Talal Qureshi, Karakoram, Faris Shafi, Khumariyaan, Turhan James, Sunny Khan Durrani, Young Stunners, Tamaasha, Natasha Noorani featuring Shorbanoor, Adil Omar, Wooly and the Uke, Rushk, Quaid Ahmed - all released new music. Combined these artists and the aforementioned continue to redefine the crux of the changing soundscape of music in Pakistan.
“Words and music make a song for our hearts to sing along/Like a choir within the air, there’ll be music ev’rywhere.” – ‘Words and Music’ - Andy Gibbs
Music festivals had their moments as music-based Lahore Music Meet 2020 opened to much acclaim with Talal Qureshi ft. Maanu and Faris Shafi, Naseebo Lal, Shamoon Ismail and Saakin as the headlining acts. Other musicians got to play as well while discussion on subjects as important as IPO (Intellectual Property Rights) also took place. Held over two days, LMM also played host to other musicians from around the country and seasoned artists such as the spiritually inclined Mekaal Hasan Band. Bayaan released their album at Lahore Music Meet 2020.
The cause-driven Lahooti Melo 2020 was just as successful. With this year’s theme being ‘Eco, Not Ego’, panels were held on the future of the environment and what can be done to restore nature before it is completely destroyed. Lahooti Melo, as always, also played home to contemporary and folk musicians in an all-inclusive form.
Soul Fest 2020, that opened the year featuring food and music, was overshadowed by the music on display while Coke Fest, held later in the year, post-Covid occurrence was held digitally. If numbers are to be believed, it was a huge success, perhaps a sign of how people do miss concerts.
Similarly Rearts Records, A for Aleph Records, and Karachi Community Radio emerged as counterculture platforms for artists as independent labels well-versed in the subject of music publishing or hosting daringly different kind of shows and ideas, already having embraced technology a while ago.
A for Aleph, apart from releasing A for Aleph Originals (available on YouTube and so on) also set up A for Aleph Records, the latter co-founded by Anas Alam and Umair Dar. Since launching, they have released the debut album of drummer/percussionist Aziz Kazi called Cacan, described as “Pakistan’s first ever hang drum record” insistently making it a must-hear. Aziz Kazi has featured on Chand Tara Orchestra’s debut album Volume I among other qualifications.
Aleph Records has also published Waqas Ahmed’s album Doomsday Astronaut plus live streamed jam sessions with a host of artists including The Sketches, Natasha Baig, Ahsan Bari and many more.
Natasha Baig released the dynamic Zariya, her full-length album while Natasha Humera Ejaz released the EP, Extra on Time and produced the original motion picture soundtrack for a short film called Bench. ESharp officially released their album, Choti Khushiyan along with a film.
In the end, Zindagi Tamasha still hasn’t released in Pakistan but its music has made a huge splash. The film’s second single, ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani’ released this year, introducing singer Nimra Gilani to people; the music by Saakin was impressive enough to pick up a Lux Style Awards 2020 nomination.
2021 is promising to be a strong year for music as well with potential releases from several key artists in mainstream, the emergence of one more independent label and possibility of another streaming service made available to Pakistan. The future of music is looking brighter and that just might be the silver lining amidst these difficult times.