The presumption must be that in 2021 everything in pop culture, including music, has slowed down. However, having lived through 2020 when the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic had already hit the world, the music industry learned to adapt.
Though Covid-19 is still a reality that has affected live music seriously, vaccines have brought the semblance of a silver lining. Given these abnormal times, major developments took place in the overall music ecosystem.
“I can’t believe the news today/Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away/How long, how long must we sing this song? How long? How long?” – ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2
It is difficult to not open with the biggest news of the year. Pakistan’s longest running pop group, Strings, founded by Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, have called it a day after 33 years. In March, they announced that while the band is over, they share an “inseparable” bond. Strings wanted to leave on a high note and did so after releasing their terrific sixth album, Thirty.
Where they both go from here is up in the air at this point. But we do wonder if Bilal Maqsood will come back with another season of Velo Sound Station as captain of the ship after a knockout season that appeared late last year.
Another major shift announced this year is that after returning for two more seasons, music producer Rohail Hyatt will not be producing another season of the oft-contested musical juggernaut. Hyatt has suggested (as his personal choice) Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan aka, Xulfi to be his successor. But whether it happens or not remains to be seen. Xulfi did produce, among his many projects, the official anthem for Pakistan Super League called ‘Groove Mera’ ft. Naseebo Lal, Young Stunners and Aima Baig.
In the meantime, Spotify, the global music app, has officially arrived in Pakistan with statistics for the first month placing Atif Aslam on the top slot. Embraced by musicians and fans, the statistics provided by Spotify show how musical taste is changing with Young Stunners also making a mark. But if these were major developments, hold your horses; there’s much more.
If Velo Sound Station and Coke Studio 2020 provided great music towards the end of last year, the year 2021 brought two more music branded shows. One was Bisconni Music, which was rolled out with Saad Hayat as producer. Featuring 12 numbers with 18 vocalists and 33 musicians, it featured names such as Ahmed Jahanzeb, Sinnan Fazwani, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Ali Tariq, Haroon Shahid, Nimra Rafiq, Mirage, Ali Khan, Saad Hayat, Shuja Haider, Mughal-e-Funk, M. Aizaz Sohail, Mahnoor Altaf, Taha Hussain and Alycia Dias, Ashiq Ali Chand (of Junoon fame) and Natasha Baig, who dropped her full-length album just last year, among others.
While Bisconni Music didn’t get everything right, songs from the likes of Natasha Humera Ejaz, Ali Tariq, Sajid and Zeeshan, Nimra Rafiq, Mughal-e-Funk, M. Aizaz Sohail, Natasha Baig (and Ashiq Ali Chand) did hit the right arrows.
On a somewhat similar note, Kashmir Oil’s Kashmir Beats also made a splash in the New Year. The show’s USP was that it featured a slew of actors singing original songs. A total of 16 “superstars” sang 13 new songs. Those who featured included names such as Faysal Qureshi, Imran Abbas, Zarnish Khan, Hira Mani, Asad Siddiqui, Anoushay Abbasi, Adnan Siddiqui, Kinza Hashmi, Asma Abbas, Omer Shahzad, Ahsan Khan and Zhalay Sarhadi among others.
While Kashmir Beats did get numbers, the one voice that emerged as the best from the rest was of Zhalay Sarhadi, an underrated actor and as it turns out, singer.
Among other developments, several of Pakistan’s most brilliant guitarists have come together to form a Guitar Collective. The collective features Khurram Waqar aka kW (kNUMB, Qayaas, kW and The Facedown Movement, RootGate Studio), Asad Ahmed (Karavan, Awaz, Coke Studio sessions, Ali Zafar sessions), Hamza Jafri (co-VEN, Mad School initiative), Shahzad Hameed (Shahzad Hameed Band, kW and The Facedown Movement), Omran Shafique aka Momo (Mauj, co-VEN, Chand Tara Orchestra, Coke Studio sessions, Ali Azmat sessions, Junoon Sessions), Shallum Xavier (Fuzon, Point one three Productions), Kashan Admani (Mizmaar, Dream Station Productions, Acoustic Station, Coke Studio sessions, Junoon sessions, Strings sessions), Shareb Jafar (Arid Zone, Brain Masala) and Royden Mascarenhas (Point of View). As we’ve said before, artists are using technology to embrace online music culture. This is one such effort.
Noted a press release from the collective: “We have decided to join forces and bring our combined experience, knowledge and expertise to the forefront for anyone who is interested from upcoming musicians to bands to music producers to listeners. This is a DIY effort to promote positivity and instil motivation in these unpredictable and difficult times due to COVID-19.”
What will be the goal of Guitar Collective?
“The goal is to establish an online collaborative environment to engage, facilitate and encourage independent musicians and raise awareness of the general masses to diversity in music.
We plan to schedule regular online live sessions on the available social media platforms starting from April 2021. These live sessions will be a combination of talks and performances, which we will build upon as we progress. Since we are all primarily guitar players and producers, we will dwell on subjects ranging from our guitar playing styles, individual approaches to music, songwriting and upcoming projects. Since music is a universal language above race, color and creed, this platform/environment will not be limited to one country or region. We plan to bring in musicians from all over the world as we move forward. The aim is to provide a new perspective and approach in terms of treating art as a means of self-expression rather than a route to success. We encourage everyone to join our online presence on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram on the following links and being a part of this independent effort.”
In addition to Guitar Collective, virtual concerts are also something to watch out for. Ali Sethi has been a part of two shows thus far for which one had to buy a ticket online.
Other virtual concerts worth a music connoisseur’s time includes Hijrat by Wajiha Naqvi and Boom Boom – Woman of the Hour by Meesha Shafi (available on YouTube), courtesy of Women of the World Festival; Demo Music sessions featuring Auj, Karakoram and Kashmir – all live and from the year 2021 also makes for thrilling views.
As more people get vaccinated, there is a chance that live music shows, perhaps smaller in size, could come back and revive the live music culture before we go back to the old habit of opting for passes rather than ticketed shows, provided SOPs are followed.
“Every breaking wave on the shore/Tells the next one there’ll be one more” - ‘Every Breaking Wave’ by U2
Nothing kept the music industry, particularly independent artists, from releasing new music. Abdullah Siddiqui dropped his third album, Dead Beat Poets while Ali Suhail released his most ambitious record in White Flag. VIP also released a thrilling album called Recollection – Live.
Hassan Ali Effendi, the founder of Laal Series deserves kudos for releasing both EPs and singles of a diverse set of artists including a collection of original songs-volume 1 that began in 2020 with new music still coming out in 2021. They also released Quaid Ahmed’s terrific solo EP, Sunlo.
Azaan Sami Khan released a new track from his upcoming debut album of the same name, ‘Main Tera,’ with the hope to unveil the full-length album by later this year. Having monitored sessions from Pakistan, Azaan confirmed his album features 65 musicians (including multiple orchestras) from 5 countries with a total of 9 songs.
While some records have been pushed due to Covid-19 reality, others such as Ali Hamza and Meesha Shafi tentatively hope to release their album/EPs later this year.
Karakoram’s full length debut album, Ailan-e-Jang, produced by Xulfi arrived as the perfect record given the eye of the storm Pakistan is caught up in. Hijrat, which initially began as a performance for Women of the World Festival’s digital edition earlier this year morphed into an album that is more of a journey across South Asia.
Produced, mixed and mastered by Umair Dar of A for Aleph with Wajiha Naqvi as the featured artist, Hijrat is like Christmas morning surprise and people should definitely invest in it, at least once before writing it off.
“People asking questions lost in confusion/Well, I tell them there’s no problems/Only solutions” - ‘Watching The Wheels’ by Chris Cornell
A litany of singles have released since the beginning of 2021. With or without music videos, these songs found their way to the charts and/or found intelligent ways to gain people’s attention.
Pakistan’s biggest superstar, Atif Aslam, opened the year with a spectacular new track called ‘Raat‘. He backed it up with an outstanding music video from the very talented Yasir Jaswal. Atif went on to release a cover version of Musarrat Nazir’s ‘Chale To Kat Hi Jayega’.
Another major musical entity, making waves with her debut TV serial, Raqeeb Se, Hadiqa Kiyani dropped a beautiful qawwali this year called ‘Jaaney Iss Dil’, lending weight to the idea that she is moving towards Sufi music which became apparent with Wajd – Volume 1.
One of the finest bands in Pakistan - Saakin - released what is another jaw dropping song. Titled ‘Intebah’ ft. Amir Bresler and Ismail Lumanovski, Saakin (which means Resident in Persian) backed up the song with an animated music video that moves them from Sufi music group category to socio-political commentators. The original song had lyrics written by Ali Hamdani and Nimra Gilani.
Other memorable songs released in 2021 so far include Turhan James’ ‘Chasing Serotonin’, Talal Qureshi ft. Hasan Raheem on ‘Paisa’, Faris Shafi’s courageous ‘Molotov’, ‘Daira-e-Ufuq’ by Roots, ‘Have a Little Faith’ by Stupid Happiness Theory (a musical alias of Natasha Humera Ejaz), ‘Mere Hain Aur Iraday’ and ‘Rung’ by Ali Sethi which included reinventing his sound landscape, again.
Arieb Azhar dropped ‘Charsi Bhangi’ with a smart and sharp music video while Nazia Zuberi Hassan also dropped a new single called ‘Jeenay Do’ against child abuse. Zeb Bangash joined forces with Saad Sultan for a beautiful song called ‘Kuch To Kataygi’ with Zeb delivering near-flawless vocals.
Sunny Khan Durrani continues to be the underrated voice in music. In 2021, he has released a bevy of tracks including ‘Haasil’ and ‘Raat Dhallay’ ft. Debashree Dasgupta. Shamoon Ismail isn’t far behind, releasing at least two new singles (‘Cold World’ and ‘Runway’) with slick music videos. The latter is a better track in terms of Ismail’s overall musical repertoire. Similarly, one of the bigger names in music, Asim Azhar hasn’t stayed far behind collaborating with Young Stunners this year for a song called ‘Yaad’.
Now that the first three months of the year have gone by, it remains to be seen how the process of vaccinations affects music as an ecosystem. Given the transitional period the music scene has been going through, the next couple of months will be interesting in terms of how more musical content is developed, both via mainstream and on independent notes.