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January 21, 2019

Cash-strapped singers and musicians leaving age-old family traditions


January 21, 2019

In a Keamari neighbourhood, where a railway line passes through Masan Chowk, a group of musicians resides in a single-storey ramshackle structure, in front of which the locals dump their rubbish. The house has only a sheet of tin for its roof, and a curtain for its door.

They endure all of this just to follow their age-old family tradition of creating and playing Pashto music. But now they are in dire straits because the practice of inviting people to sing and play music at weddings, birthdays and other occasions is almost at an end.

Most singers and musicians have called it quits, leaving the art that has been in their families for generations. “We’re invited once a week to play traditional music at a ceremony or a folk festival,” said 38-year-old Momin Khan, who heads his music group.

“Until a few years ago our hosts gave us gifts and paid us more money, but now we receive only between Rs10,000 and Rs15,000 for performing into the latest hours of the night.” Khan hails from Swabi district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He had moved to Karachi two years ago seeking better opportunities. “I arrived here with the idea that this is the most vibrant metropolis of the country, but I was without work for many months.”

The reason for this, he said, is that people do not want a single artiste, so he formed a group of locals. A band is generally based on a quintet (five), octet (eight) or more members, and it includes a singer, a Rubabist, a drummer and a flutist.

“Our art is purely a cultural activity,” said Khan. “We don’t make organised music that includes written lyrics, pitch, rhythm and other mandatory elements. We sing what we have learnt from our families.”

One of the group members sings unwritten lyrics, while the others play different instruments, including the Dhol (drum), the tabla, the Rubab (lute), the sitar, the harmonium, the Sarinda (fiddle), the Surna (pipe) and the flute.

Later, they distribute the earned money among the group members. “Our income depends on the mood of our hosts. Rarely, if ever, they pay us more than the fixed amount,” said Khan, who is now tired of this profession.

He wishes to educate his children. “The time has gone when people respected local artistes. I don’t want my children to have to deal with the kind of discriminatory remarks that I have had to suffer.”

A few decades ago there were a number of groups of local musicians in Karachi. They included the Raj Muhammad Group, the Star Musical Group, the Muhammad Akbar Naray Musical Group and the Pak Sarhad Music Group.

But only a few of them are working now, as the others have left the city. They lived in the same conditions as Khan does, in rented houses in slum areas such as Banaras, Keamari and Lyari’s Mira Naka.

Another music group leader, 30-year-old Siddiq Qamash, said his band has been finding it difficult to make ends meet. He doubts if there is a chance to start afresh. “No one would offer me a job because I have no education or skill except singing at weddings.”

He said the KP government has paid allowances to artistes, but the locals who belong to music families have been as good as neglected. “The allowances were awarded on the basis of favouritism or to those having strong links to KP Culture Department officials.”

With a monthly income of Rs10,000 to Rs12,000, he can hardly afford his children’s school fees. “I don’t know how to increase my earnings. The most frustrating thing is when a host tells us they’ll pay us later.”

As for 20-year-old Ismail, who plays the tabla, he had moved from Charsadda in KP to Karachi three years ago. He is part of the Star Musical Group. “A majority of our community members have left their native towns to search for better livelihood opportunities, but they have failed to change their fortunes,” he lamented.

“There was a time when people invited us to ceremonies and folk festivals with respect and honour. They sent a vehicle to pick us up and offered us food before asking us to play music. Now only a fraction of society makes arrangements for cultural music.”

He said that almost all the famous singers of Pashto folk music started their careers in such a way, as there are very few formal music academies. This is why, he added, the plight of local artistes has resulted in lack of quality in the Pashto music industry.