Pakistan’s hardcore punk and heavy metal bands lack places to play in and fans to hear their music, as big corporations dominate the country’s music scene.
Driving around Lahore in Pakistan on the first day of Eid-al-Adha – the megacity’s ample boulevards are empty.
As I speed through the city in the back of a rickshaw, trails of goat blood flow into the gutters next to severed cattle heads, the leftovers from the ritual sacrifice of livestock that takes place during Eid.
It’s an in-your-face introduction to a place I’m visiting to meet some of its most extreme musicians – members of Pakistan’s defiantly underground punk rock and heavy metal scenes.
Twenty-somethings Hassan Amin and Sheraz Ahmed are two of the main figures in Lahore’s small punk scene. Their projects Multinational Corporations – a politically charged metallic grindcore act influenced by British metal band Napalm Death – and shock-punk band Foreskin featured on a seven-inch compilation, Never Mind the Taqwacores, Here is the Real Deal, released in 2013 by Tian An Men 89 Records, owned by French punk rock connoisseur Luk Haas.
Punk bands in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are pretty different from the Desi-American (meaning South Asian but born or raised in the United States) acts featured in Omar Majeed’s 2009 documentary Taqwacore: the Birth of Punk Islam. (Taqwacore is a reference to the The Taqwacores, a novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, an American writer and Muslim convert, depicting a fictitious Islamic punk rock scene. The title combines taqwa, meaning love and fear for Allah, and hardcore, a sub-genre of punk rock.)
“Taqwacore kind of erases all the forms of alternative music that have been happening in Muslim countries around the world, focusing only on the American diaspora rather than the actual pre-existing Islamic underground music scene,” says Hassan, who also organises hip-hop events and runs an art space in Lahore’s old town.
“We actually wrote a song, Taqwacore Ko Miss Karao!, which means ‘f*** the Taqwacores’,” Sheraz says as he strums on an acoustic guitar in his room.
Another of Hassan and Sheraz’s punk projects is the Dead Bhuttos, featuring Basim Usmani on bass. A member of the American Taqwacore band the Kominas, he joined the Dead Bhuttos while living in Pakistan to pursue a career in writing and music. With a name that hat-tips Californian punk pioneers the Dead Kennedys and slain members of the Pakistani political dynasty, the Dead Bhuttos play hardcore punk with raucous vocals. They released a three-track single, Democracy is the Best Revenge, before Usmani decided to return to the US in 2017.
The main issue facing Pakistan’s underground music scene is not its erroneous association with Taqwacore, or a government crackdown on subcultures – Pakistani musicians have never experienced the moral panic seen in other Muslim-majority countries in Asia, such as Malaysia’s bans on “black metal” music in 2001 and 2006, and an attack by police in Indonesia on punk rockers in Banda Aceh in 2011. In Pakistan, the problem is a dearth of performing spaces and fans to support the scene.
“The Pakistani audience doesn’t like to pay for anything – we are used to piracy. For example, we played a show in Karachi with 350 people and we sold only one T-shirt,” says Zain Perzaada, guitarist with pioneering Lahore heavy metal band Takatak. Formed in 2009, they have just finished recording their new album in Karachi.
Most Pakistani musicians I interviewed tend to link the situation with the rise of cable TV and the birth of music programmes sponsored by multinational companies such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Nescafe. Coke Studio, Pepsi Battle of the Bands and Nescafe Basement are studio-produced music shows that focus on singers, using a house band and guest musicians to play pop songs.
Pakistan’s music scene has not always been a corporate playground. “During the era of President Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s there were quite a lot of gigs,” says Syed Misbah Uddin, guitarist of indie rock band Keeray Makoray and an independent music producer in Lahore. But to Hassan, of punk act the Dead Bhuttos, the money poured into arts during the Musharraf era “wasn’t sustainable because bands didn’t know what being DIY and truly independent means”.
The security situation in Pakistan between 2007 and 2014, when the major cities suffered several terrorist attacks, forced people to spend more time indoors. That was when cable TV, which had several music-focused channels that helped promote local bands, switched their focus to sensational news coverage of the bombings. This changed the kind of music broadcast to Pakistani viewers.
“Coke Studio has been running for 11 years now,” says Mekaal Hasan, one of Pakistan’s most successful musicians, and a Lahore-based producer with nearly three decades of experience in the music industry. “The whole idea of independent music is gone: corporate music channels decide who they want to feature. It’s a monopoly in many aspects,” he says.
To keep playing live music and promote his clever blend of Sufi rock and progressive metal, in 2013 Hasan started recruiting musicians from India, where the music business is more mature. [Sufism is a mystical form of Islam and historically a source of art and music.]
However, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government came to power in 2014, the Mekaal Hasan Band was targeted by extremists, forcing Hasan to return to Pakistan. His subsequent self-funded tours of the US and Canada weren’t sustainable; he barely broke even.
The same problems affect Pakistan’s small underground heavy metal scene. “Think of nearby countries like Bangladesh, India and Nepal: they have huge metal communities … international bands such as Decapitated, Cradle of Filth, Dying Fetus, Rotting Christ have played big festivals,” says Shahab Khan, guitarist with Islamabad death metal band Azaab (meaning “Wrath”), who are now launching their new EP Salvation Through the Dead.
Shahab says heavy metal arrived in Pakistan’s capital in the early 2000s, when a wave of Metallica and Megadeth cover bands shared stages with Sufi rock and pop bands. A tiny local scene started after he organised Apocalypse, the first full-fledged local metal show, in 2008.
“We had eight bands formed by only about 10 musicians. Everybody was playing in multiple bands at the same time,” he laughs. Hellfest was another event that brought Pakistani metal heads to the capital city, Islamabad, but the whole scene amounted to about 300 people all over the country.” Pakistan’s population exceeds 218 million.
In Islamabad I also meet Haniya Aslam, a full-time musician and producer who works with the multinational drinks giants on their TV programmes. One of her most recent songs, the main theme for the film Dobara Phir Se, hints at the Tuareg soundscapes of North African bands such as Tinariwen and Bombino.
Haniya introduces me to Garam Anday, a female art-punk duo formed by Karachi-based filmmaker Anam Abbas and medical student Areib Usman.
Garam Anday’s video Maa Behn Ka Danda (Hot Eggs), which Haniya produced, is a grungy punk anthem that urges all “mothers and sisters” of Pakistan to “sharpen their knives” against the lecherous gaze of men.
Garam Anday’s focus is not on playing live shows. “We never played live before the women’s Aurat March (a protest to mark International Women’s Day) in 2017, where we performed in front of 5,000 women,” Anam says from the US, where she is doing an arts residency.
Anam also has reservations about shows like Coke Studio. “The TV band competitions are great and uncovered some real wonderful talent, but it’s not the best platform for us,” she says.
Televised pop and the shortage of live venues forces underground Pakistani musicians to promote their releases via the internet.
Shahab says: “Similar cultures have huge scenes, but I still can’t comprehend why extreme music is not a big deal here, because it represents exactly all the inequality and political problems we have. Successful European underground bands don’t face any of this. I like hard music because I am p**sed, and I don’t understand why other Pakistanis are not.”
–Courtesy: South China Morning Post