The year in music (so far)

July 2, 2017

As the first half of 2017 comes to a close, Instep looks at music activity including breakthrough projects and outdated ideas

The year in music (so far)

Instep overview

The haunting shadow of death and grief consumed us all this Eid season. Nearly 200 people died across Pakistan, with many more mourning and searching for answers and being ignored, and it felt cruel to focus on anything else. The ferocious anger felt at these moments has no outlet. Survival in a space like this is therefore contingent on finding hope in whatever shape it presents itself, for however long. If there is one industry within entertainment structures that has the power to alleviate some of the pain, it has to be music.

With that in mind, Instep looks at moments that made the year tolerable as well as ideas that fell flat on their face for lack of innovation.

Breakthrough projects: Patari Tabeer, Fanoos, Wajd

Looking back at 2017, one of the most groundbreaking projects to have emerged this year was Patari Tabeer. Initiated by tech/music startup Patari, its mission was to shine a light on six unheard voices from different regions of Pakistan and pairing them off with six equally exciting music producers. Blurring the urban-rural divide that is so prevalent in music, the project introduced us to the raw talent of Abid Brohi, who hails from the streets of Balochistan and remained undiscovered (prior to this effort) despite repeated (empty) promises from individuals that they would give him a shot. Rapping in Sindhi, Brohi was paired with SomeWhatSuper, an EDM-playing music outfit from Lahore that counts Talha Dar and Feroze Faisal as its members.

Through Patari Tabeer, we instantly fell in love with the 12-year-old Mohammad Jahangir who comes from Sukkur and sang the folk classic, ‘Chitta Chola’ in the second episode and was matched with Abbas Ali Khan as music producer.

Through ‘Players of Lyari,’ we were afforded a chance to hear the young and courageous youth of Lyari speak. The song featuring the rap group Lyari Underground and Dynoman (Haamid Rahim) as producer provided an insightful narrative on life in Lyari, an indelible space in Karachi that always erects in the mind the image of violence, neglect and gang wars.

Nazar Gill, who was born in Faisalabad and cleaned apartments in Islamabad, was given a chance to present the tripped-out and languid, ‘Jugni’ with Farhan Zameer, creating the sonic architecture for the song as producer while ‘Sajan Moi Khay Yaad Payo’ shone a light on Sindh’s rich traditions as four Sindhi folk artists jammed on the song without meeting one another. Recorded by Saif Samejo of The Sketches – who traveled through different parts of Sindhi – the track featured Faqir Zulfiqar playing the borrindo, a 5000-year-old spherical clay flute, Bhagat Bhuru Laal sharing the Hindu tradition of bhagats from a small village in Mirpur Khaas as well as Rajab Faqir and his disciple Zamar Hussain from Mitthi (who have been keeping classical music alive through a music academy in Thar).

We were also introduced to the brave Malala Gul, who comes from Khyber-Pakhtunkhuwa, a province that has sustained far too may losses in the name of terrorism, and never gave up on music. With the support of her family and having built a reputation for herself as a live performer within the province, through Patari Tabeer, she made her first visit to a studio and recorded the traditional Pashto song, ‘Tora Baram Khana Nawaba,’ with Danish Khwaja serving as music producer.

The backing of this project by Patari, which featured regional languages like Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi, Pashto and Punjabi, goes to show that the startup is willing to support music that can be political in the landscape it creates and bravely make us remember the enormous turmoil faced by entire communities, particularly minorities.

Having given artists a chance to shine in the spotlight and attain a national profile, the ultimate convergence of Patari Tabeer’s popularity culminated in a performance during the Lux Style Awards 2017, where Abid Brohi performed to a cheering crowd and earned endorsements from the likes of Atif Aslam and Mahira Khan.

The second music project to redeem this year belonged to Zohaib Kazi. Fanoos, created in partnership with Patari, is a six-track record that is a showcase of voices and music traditions from across Pakistan, a journey of rediscovery if you will.

Of the six songs that make up the record, the first song released was called ‘The Gulmit Song’ and was sung by the students of the Bulbulik Heritage Centre (Hunza) in Wakhi Pamirian language. For the second song, Kazi flew to Punjab and recorded Riaz Qadri singing the addictive ‘Takht Hazar’. He is the voice behind ‘Supreme Ishq’ which released over a decade ago and is a forgotten legend who through this project is given the limelight so we don’t forget him again.

While the first two songs were released before Ramazan, the coming days ahead will see the release of four other songs from Fanoos featuring Islam Habib from Hunza (Gilgit-Baltistan), Mai Dhai from Umerkot (Sindh), Akhtar Channal Zahri from Kalat (Balochistan) and Zarsanga from Nowshera (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa).

For Kazi, the goal behind this initiative was to not just capture the true essence of Pakistan but also find a way of embracing it. As he told Instep: "we want to recognize their (the artists) heritage as part of Pakistan’s culture."

The third and final breakthrough project to make this list comes from Hadiqa Kiani. The transcendental Wajd that is meant to be a showcase of Pakistan’s rich traditions and beautiful diversity sees Kiani embracing ideals of Sufism with great care. It is her most ambitious and personal record yet. Each song from the album, presented as a chapter, is supplemented by visuals that have been conceptualized and directed by Abdullah Harris.

The first song released from Wajd was ‘Kamlee Da Dhola’ which is sung by Kiani in Saraiki, and is a folk song that has been sung, in the past, by the likes of Reshma and Musarrat Nazir.

The second release presented itself in the form of the song ‘Bhit Ja Bhitai’ which is sung in Sindhi and is Kiani’s way of paying tribute to the mystic saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai while the third single from Wajd was the iconic ‘Aaj Rung Hai’. Sung in Braj Bhasha language and originally written by Hazrat Amir Khusro, the song offers an interesting juxtaposition since it is "mostly written from a woman’s point of view even if a male poet writes it."

What all three projects - Patari Tabeer, Fanoos, Wajd – have in common is that they ask us to embrace diversity at a time when intolerant, narrow-minded forces are at work across the country. They are asking us to be inclusive which means embracing the many folklores, languages and traditions that make this region so beautiful. They remind us to celebrate all those who present it and have been carrying the tradition forward with grace and heart without much support from the outside world.

At a time when so many spaces in Pakistan remain overlooked while one province remains the choice for superficial development, the ethnic diversity of these projects is significant.

Think about the missing persons in Balochistan, the status of FATA, the bloodbath in Parachinar and the devastation repeated in Quetta and these projects take on another life.  When the country is deeply divided and strangled by the weight and culture of radicalization, these projects offer honest redemption as they remind us to tune out the idiocy and explore the texts of Sufi saints as well as make room for the possibility that beauty can be found in chaos and there is a lot more to this country beyond the myopic, weary-world view we carry.

Major mainstream letdowns

While independent projects have seeped into our consciousness and have made a permanent home in our broken hearts, the same cannot be said for the creations that have emerged from the mainstream side of music, which is sorely lacking in inventiveness.

One case in point is Atif Aslam who sang plenty of Bollywood songs this year and even released a song written by himself but has yet to deliver one song in 2017 that is innovative, indicative of real artistic growth and surpasses hits that made him such a strong musical force in his early years. Of course, Aslam has loyal fans so even a less-than-average song of his collects scores of hits in the digital landscape.

Qurram Hussain and Komal Rizvi, who featured prominently in the second season of Cornetto Pop Rock 2, also failed to deliver with songs like ‘Turn up the Music Mr. DJ’ and ‘Yeh Kya Huwa’ respectively. However, in the case of Hussain, he has managed to redeem himself somewhat with the newly released second song (‘Aajana’) from the same music series.

The season has been rescued primarily by the likes of Meesha Shafi and the combo of Ali Azmat-Qurutulain Balouch who delivered songs like ‘Yaar Mere’ and ‘Chal Diye’ respectively and gave us some revelry-inducing moments of pop-rock music.

Another major letdown this year was the obnoxious soundtrack of Pakistan Super League. In its second year, the Twenty20 tournament may have given cricket fans a lot to cheer about but its soundtrack, unveiled earlier in the year, was pretty distasteful.

Ali Zafar’s ‘Ab Khel Jamay Ga’ emerged as the best of the lot and was tolerable while the rest of the songs coming from the likes of Shehzad Roy (‘Dhan Dhana Dhan Hoga Re’), Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan (‘Dama Dam Mast’), Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (‘Ya Qurban’) and Momina Mustehsan (‘Cricket Joray Pakistan’) made for hollow listening experience.

Similarly, despite the presence of big-music stars, the soundtracks of films like Balu Mahi, Raasta, Yalgaar and Mehrunisa V Lub U also offered nothing new. Beyond playing on emotions and showcasing cliches, they had no identity.

In addition, letting down listeners with the singular ‘Tamasha’ was Sajjad Ali who was surprisingly unable to create a collaboration worth remembering with rapper Bohemia on this track.

Uplifting ideas

The one film soundtrack that truly had a lasting impact on listeners including industry insiders belonged to the film, Chalay Thay Saath. Featuring acts like Bell, Mooroo, East Side Story, Bakhshi Brothers, Sikandar Ka Mandar, Natasha Noorani, Abbas Ali Khan and Zammad Baig, the soundtrack unfolds like a sonic dream and reminds us of the glorious music indie artists are capable of producing. With Abbas Ali Khan having spearheaded this concoction of musicians, one must applaud him and the others for this deliverance of musical revelry.

In other uplifting announcements is news that Mekaal Hasan, one of music’s unsung heroes is re-releasing the Mekaal Hasan Band’s third studio album, Andholan and is doing it by launching his own record label. The record label will also facilitate releases of other artists and their creations without taking them for a vicious ride as has been the case with a few monopoly-inducing record labels in the past.

Hasan has also announced that the fourth MHB album will be a qawwali record as well as plans to release a live album that contains live recordings of tracks from all three MHB records.

Music group Sikandar Ka Mandar, one of Karachi’s most formidable indie-rock act has also announced their plan of releasing their second studio album this year. Other artists heading into studios this year include Umair Jaswal, Meesha Shafi, Khumariyaan and Poor Rich Boy.

The year has also seen the release of several beautiful records including Sound of Kolachi’s spectacular debut album, Elhaam as well as ESharp’s rollicking second album, 600 Saal.

But even bigger than reports of upcoming albums is the unofficial but confirmed announcement that Pepsi Battle of the Bands is coming back this year. Faisal Rafi has been roped in as music producer while Fawad Khan and Meesha Shafi too have been roped in. Unfortunately, with an age limit of 16 years to 35 years, many music groups will not be eligible to apply. This means no Mauj, no Mekaal Hasan Band and no Rushk, which is both tragic and short-sighted.

With Coke Studio 10 coming up later this year as well as Pepsi Battle of the Bands and Nescafe Basement, it remains to be seen if either show can surpass past success.

(Watch this space for a full report card on experimental indie moments from 2017 next Sunday).

The year in music (so far)