Culture, anew

December 15, 2019

Modern Pakistani culture has blurred the boundaries of language, system and tradition

Culture is a tricky concept to define due to its dynamic nature. Interestingly, it changes differently for different people. In Len Karakowsky’s study of culture in the 2000s, he sees it as multi-faceted and divided along the lines of geography, gender, politics, economics and class. Moreover, he stresses cultural differences arising from varying education opportunities, and occupations.

In every society, especially Pakistani, culture exists as either ‘high’ or ‘low’. High culture is exclusive, refined, enjoyed by only a few privileged with access – yet expected to be glorified for all, such as long-form qawwalis or calligraphy. Low culture, on the other hand, is a more democratic institution with lower barriers to entry and understanding, such as rap music which uses everyday language, or graffiti through its public placement; does not restrict art to strictly artistic circles.

Some traditional forms of ‘culture’ can still be thought about in this ‘high/low’ dynamic however, recently something has changed in Pakistan’s cultural framework; language being the key. Although English has existed in the sub-continent since its colonisation, an increasingly interconnected world has made it crucial to the growth of Pakistani culture. This growth, paired with how easily the English language merged with Urdu has shifted understanding quite aggressively. Think about our day to day conversations; we mix a lot of words from English and Urdu while forming sentences.

This mixing is extremely pervasive in our society today as everyone, from your superiors at work to the person operating the nearby tandoor, has become essentially bilingual. It is important to note how our national language has absorbed English so brilliantly. This merging comes with its fair share of problems and implications, however, there are some positives to it too.

Till a few years ago, Pakistani society and culture operated within the bounds of Urdu and some regional languages. However, as English became more pervasive, this cultural affinity with vernaculars fell. This process was underway even at the time of our musical greats, like Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Madam Noor Jehan. However, now these global trends are accessible to literally anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. Leading to a wider and faster dissemination of data, stories and of course trends.

The best examples of this are to be seen in music, especially the Coke Studio phenomenon. The show’s premise was simple; re-ignite old Pakistani classics and folk music and appeal to a younger, more hip nation. The songs might not have been translated into English but western ideas of modern music were definitely added to the mix. Folk songs included aspects of rap and even EDM, sometimes in Urdu and sometimes in English. A great example of this comes from Season 11 of Coke Studio. Esakhelvi and his son perform his classic folk song, Allah Karesi. The twist is that Esakhelvi’s son re-imagines the song with an EDM-inspired remix. In theory, this doesn’t particularly sound appealing, however, it works and the combination of these seemingly separate worlds, makes harmonious music.

Other than bringing in a new way of perceiving music, Coke Studio was also able to break through the barriers of music and its societal impact. As time passed, the appreciation and understanding of folk music in Pakistan, especially traditions like qawwali, decreased. The language and style began to feel ‘archaic’ to most. What Coke Studio did rather masterfully; was warp that perception and re-invent traditional music to make it something more appropriate for a younger generation.

The makers of Coke Studio were attentive to what was attracting younger audiences and applied that equation to the local music scene. It seemed to have worked, at least initially. A prime example of this is Atif Aslam’s rendition of Tajdar-i-haram. The traditional naat was performed by the Sabri brothers, and later by Amjad Sabri, however, it was made anew with a modern voice, a voice which resonated with the younger generation, leading to the song become a modern cultural symbol. In earlier seasons of the show, Abida Parveen was able to create similar magic with classics like Soz-i-Ishq (Season 3). With Abida Parveen, the vocals were still the same, however the music that accompanied it had a younger feel to it. This symphony of old and new made is what initially gave Coke Studio fame and clout.

In several interviews, the team behind Coke Studio has pinned its initial success to a couple of factors. Firstly, Pakistani music was in a deep slump and it gave people a musical outlet. Secondly, Coke Studio believes that they made different cultures and languages accessible to a younger generation by fusing music with languages like Urdu and English. According to them, this is why in a lot of songs they pair a folk/ classical singer with a fairly new and modern voice; this, according to them, makes the craft and music accessible.

Music in Pakistan has seen the most change in the last decade. With the rise of YouTube, and social media in general, it has gained more autonomy. In the past, music was a major cultural battlefield, the elite classes guarded the music they loved and kept the rest - which was considered low brow - at bay. Social media and Coke Studio have made music ‘democratic’, meaning that music is no longer controlled by a societal group. Initially the music industry was in the control of a few talent agencies and recording studios. The barriers to entry were high. There was an acceptable ‘rite of passage’ that musicians had to go through to even be considered musicians. This included training, shadowing other artists and producers, and even then, for someone trying to make it in the industry, this route did not guarantee success. Musicians can now do what they want and are able to find an audience for themselves, audiences that transcended class and class structures.

One of the largest musical influences to have hit Pakistan in recent times is rap. The musical impact of rock is undeniable, with bands like Junoon and Entity Paradigm trailblazing the music scene back in the day, however, it can be argued that in the 2010s, rap took over as the biggest influencer. Many would have said that influences like rap were confined to certain classes, but the emergence of groups like the Lyari Underground and rappers like Abid Brohi prove otherwise. Rap was informal, fluid and accessible. It reached people all over the nation and inspired a new form of music – desi rap. This new genre gave people who would otherwise have gone unnoticed a platform and a voice. In some ways, rap even took up the mantle of making music political.

In their song, Rap Hai Sara, Lyari Underground sing about breaking free from the constraints of society and writing music regardless. They rapped in Balochi, but the lyrics that stood out the most to me, were these

“I rap against the tyrant

I do so creatively

Write and learn till your last breath

Sit and write till the nib of your pen is broken

You have the knowledge and you have the talent

Think about it” 

The author is a culture and entertainment analyst. He tweets @ArslanArsuArsi

Music in Pakistan: Culture, anew