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Opinion

August 13, 2017

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Culture Pop: Songs of freedom

Culture Pop: Songs of freedom

Tomorrow Pakistan will be 70 years young. I love my country deeply, but let’s be honest: despite its scenic beauty, the Pakistani nation has not aged gracefully. We remain stranded in a self-imposed teenage angst. Still struggling with the idea of tolerance and happily neglecting basic human rights. We are, to put it briefly, forever fifteen.

But hush, birthdays warrant a celebration, a dance to the beat of our own drum. Humming a national song full of shiny lyrics and patriotic zeal. Our most joyous is probably ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’, which not only made Vital Signs a household name nationally but also earned us the number three position in a BBC poll of the world’s top ten songs. (Jingoistic types won’t be happy to hear that India’s Vande Mataram came second).

Subsequently, nationalistic music in Pakistan took a corporatist path. As my friend, social commentator Fasi Zaka, quipped on Facebook: “So, what type of Pakistani music do you like? Well, usually Coke, occasionally Pepsi and when I am in a lighter mood, Cornetto!” He wasn’t talking specifically about patriotic songs but the punch line holds. This year, fresh corporate actors have staked their claim. Even a cough lozenge has joined in with ‘Khayal Rakhna’, which (cough, cough) starts with the unfortunate refrain of “Pum, pum, pum”. I’ve never been one for censorship but honestly Pemra, feel free to jump in!

There is also the old favourite ‘Main Bhi Pakistan Houn, Tu bhi Pakistan hae’ from a massive fashion brand. Khaadi’s reputation has suffered dramatically this year from worker protests so a song about equality makes you hope (with raised eyebrow) that the company upholds the principles it espouses. Equally, some applause for Somewhat Super’s more natural ‘Pakistaniyat’ which too honour Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. Absolutely super despite a bank pitching in!

Since 2015, the popular programme Coke Studio has launched its seasons every August with a sure-shot paean to patriotism. Coke’s covers have left us either suitably teary-eyed (‘Rah-e-haq ke shaheedon’) or fervently flag-waving (Sohni Dharti). This year CS went rather literal with a re-working of the national anthem that strangely Indians on YouTube seem to have warmed to more than our local music critics. If only Strings could have gone rogue and seen the maverick potential in the just released ‘Tootay Admi’ by Rich, Poor Boy – boy oh boy, mind-blowingly good!

As we come of age, our national songs need to evoke some intellectual rigour and a degree of disquiet on where we came from and where we are going. Our theme songs shouldn’t all be written wearing green-tinted glasses; give us fewer pom-pom choruses and more lyrics that actually make us think anew and question absolutes. It’s possible to be a patriot and do that you know. Yes, actual progress needs to be bigger than a slogan or song, but if you need a different soundtrack here’s my alternative 14th August song-list for you. Listen in on Patari or whatever app motivates your phone.

‘Meri Qaum Barri Jazbati Hai’ (Ali Aftab Saeed), ‘Aloo Anday’ (Beyghairat Brigade)

Has any other lyric rung truer in 2017 than this one? ‘Jazbati’ is a plea for sanity – an attribute much needed in Pakistan. It was in April that a lynch-mob was spurred by unity, faithlessness and no discipline as it beat Mashal Khan to death. More recently, there were Twitter trolls who called for acid to be thrown in Aisha Gulalai’s face and Aamir Liaquat, the rabble-rouser is back with a vengeance – after accusing five missing liberal activists of blasphemy in January. Aloo Anday is a masterpiece of political anthem-writing – enough said.

‘Tujh ko kitno ka lahoo chahiye ae arz-e-watan?’ and ‘Bol ke Lab azaad’(Tina Sani). ‘Hum Dekhey Gain’ (Iqbal Bano)

If there is any one poet who is most equipped to write fervent, thought-provoking songs for the nation it’s Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Pakistan apotheosises martyrdom, but in a country where Salmaan Taseer and Sabeen Mahmud were silenced by the bullet and where Mumtaz Qadri has become a cult, we need no more blood to flow into our soil. We need ghazis who challenge the system and live to fight on. We also need more freedom of expression and less defamation or censorship of voices such as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mo Naqvi, who dare to show us a mirror to ourselves.

‘Bulleya’ (Junoon), ‘Chal Bulleya’ (Mekaal Hassan Band)

The way Bulleh Shah slaughters the establishment’s sacred cows is inspirational. He won’t accept a singular omnipotent narrative – and neither should we.

Meray Log – Noorie, Awam – Faris Shafi featuring Mooroo.

At the end of the day national songs should be more about people than places. Both when they are all-embracing like Noorie’s warm ‘Meray Log’ or as sharp-tongued as Faris Shafi’s ‘Awam.’

‘Maulana’ (Laal), Chief Saab (Sajjad Ali), Sheeday (Fakhir), Chor (Coven), Mr Fraudiye (Awaz), ‘Mastanay’ (Asrar), ‘VIP’ (Ali Gul Pir).

These toons are for all the bad boys. Habib Jalib tells the maulvis off in a country where ‘secular’ has become a dirty word. ‘Chief Saab’ from Sajjad Ali is a streetwise classic. ‘Chor’ and ‘Mr Fraudiye’ are outright ditties against corruption and money-makers. Ali Gul Pir raps about elitism and Asrar’s ‘Mastanay’ is a hard-hitting rant against the whole system. All demi-gods have feet of clay and we’ve tolerated them for 70 years. As Fakhir’s chorus in ‘Sheeday’ rather aptly puts it: “Thoo, thoo, thoo!”

So why do we need all these redemption songs? Surely there is space for rousing ditties like ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ and Junoon’s ‘Jazba’? Of course, there is. But true patriotism is equally about loving your country so much you want to improve it. It’s about having the grit to see the flaws and the determination to overcome them. Stuart Hall asserts that cultural identities are as much about becoming as being; they undergo constant transformation. National songs too are about how we become Pakistani; in order for them to be meaningful beyond the immediacy of an Independence Day, they must engage us in discussion. A constant reiteration of nationhood does little to cement nations. National songs need not be regurgitated anthems of the official version. They can and should also be explorative, philosophical and even subversive.

That’s what all great subcontinental thinkers from Bulleh Shah to Faiz have taught us. Nationalistic lyrics should not be about submission. Nations who aspire to greatness are able to challenge rosy stereotypes and grapple with diverse identities. When Iqbal said “Nations are born in the hearts of poets, they prosper and die in the hands of politicians,” he had a point. Sing the songs of our poets; don’t mouth the predictive text of politicians.

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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