Natasha Noorani, Zahra Paracha and their team truly cultivated an inclusive space where (somehow) the attendees checked-in their judgment at the door.
Our country is obsessed with showcasing the “softer side” of Pakistan. “The bombs and the terrorists have sullied our name; this is not us. We want to reclaim our identity, our history and our rich culture,” is the rousing sentiment. And to a great extent, we have managed to accomplish some of the reclamation. Cinemas are back, if not thriving. Cricket has finally come home again. We even hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, a visit that sent our still colonized minds atwitter with joy.
But if you really want to see what Lahore used to look like, what Lahore is capable of, how Pakistanis can act and interact with each other - given a safe space - you should’ve attended the Lahore Music Meet 2020.
Held over a warm, sunny weekend in Lahore at the iconic Alhamra Arts Council, the two-day festival definitely championed music but more than that, it gave Lahoris, rich or poor, young or old, from either side of the bridge, a chance to let their hair down and breathe.
Yes, we’ve had film premieres and fashion shows, concerts and small ticketed gigs in more posh parts of the city with controlled guest lists. LMM5 is a different beast altogether. The egalitarian ethos of the festival, the lack of a ticketed entry might sound like a folly given how quickly shared public spaces can turn dangerous or ugly in this country but to give credit where it is due – Natasha Noorani, Zahra Paracha and their team truly cultivated an inclusive space where somehow, the attendees checked-in their judgment at the door.
The amount of talent this sonorous festival introduced to the public over the course of two days is staggering. The main outdoor stage featured a mix of old and new, upcoming and established artists and bands, while smaller set-ups around the venue courtesy Rearts and Karachi City Radio (KCR) gave a platform to the amateurs to experiment with and experience live audiences.
The passes for the indoor headliners ran out very quickly on both days, around 3 p.m. on Saturday for Shamoon Ismail and Saakin while on Sunday, for Talal Qureshi and Naseebo Lal, the passes were gone by 11 a.m.
From the outdoor showcase, bands and sounds that truly stood out were Gentle Robot, Maanu, Fake Shamans and (Pepsi Battle of the Bands 4 winning group) Auj on day one and day two featured Towers, Mehdi Maloof and Karakoram as memorable highlights. Gentle Robot’s progressive sound, Towers’ easy listening vibe and Mehdi Maloof’s solo, acoustic performance had Lahoris hooked, with crowds enjoying unreleased/unrecorded music from all three. Auj was great but they sang too many Junoon covers even though the audience responded much better to their original tracks.
It must be said though, Auj’s lead vocalist, Abdur Rahman Sajid has a fantastic set of vocals and his rendition of Ali Azmat’s rock classics were pitch perfect. In fact, if you weren’t aware that it was Sajid singing, you would’ve (probably) just assumed Azmat was on stage. We most certainly appreciate his honey poured over thunder voice but would’ve probably appreciated the covers more if he added his own sound to them. We have and love Ali Azmat already; it would’ve been great to see what else Abdur Rahman Sajid had to offer.
Coming now to the headlining acts for the Pepsi Auditorium, there’s one tiny critique. With the festival scheduled for late winter/early spring, the weather being great, the outdoor space ample, the decision to host the most popular shows indoor seemed amiss. Understandable that the management wanted to differentiate between the showcases or perhaps prevent over-crowding or any untoward incident, but the indoor auditorium just doesn’t resonate the same way with a concert that an outdoor space does.
Another great thing about the festival was its timeliness. The showcases started, for the most part, on time. There was a delay on day one with Shamoon Ismail’s performance that cut into his time on stage, but it didn’t stop the crooner from thoroughly galvanizing the crowd. He sang live with the music on back-up tracks; it would’ve been great to see him perform with live musicians and elevate the entire performance. However, that didn’t stop an army of young, hip students, tweens and teens from gathering around him while he sang, dancing and grooving to his catchy ambient-blues tunes. He left the audience wanting more and that’s a testament to his popularity.
Saakin followed Shamoon Ismail with a much more serious performance for a more mature audience. The original band, featuring Varqa Faraid, Parham Faraid, Ali Hamdani, Ibrahim Akram and Usman Shakeel is something of a marvel.
At LMM5, Shakeel’s flawless vocals and the band’s live genius were impossible for a person to not appreciate. From their Sufi kalaams to more playful original tracks, the Islamabad-based band was an audio-visual delight, leaving the audience with goose-bumps.
The next night, Talal Qureshi took to the stage with an upbeat, electro-pop set, playing a mix of new and old, including his collaborative track with Naseebo Lal (called ‘Aag’) who would come on later. Qureshi’s set featured a surprise vocalist – Faris Shafi. He came on for the latter half of the set and the auditorium exploded. The rapper knew how to get everyone on their feet and involved, he even made the house lights go down and everyone turn on their phone torches. For 20 minutes, the duo completely made you forget that you were in a Lahori auditorium and transported the audience to a different plane altogether.
The last and final performance of LMM55 was by Punjabi singer and local icon, Naseebo Lal. You might wonder how Lal fit into a crowd that was rather posh, but the singer didn’t just match the tempo set by Shafi and Qureshi, she took it a couple of levels up. From old Madam Noor Jehan classics we’ve all sang at dholkis or heard at weddings growing up to her folk hits, the legendary singer unleashed her powerful vocals and had the entire crowd dancing and singing along to songs that are almost a part of our collective DNA by now. Lal’s performance ensured that the event ended on a high, with happy, humming crowds exiting the hall.
Apart from the music there were film screenings, panel discussions and an album launch for those who were thus inclined. Indus Blues and Shehr-e-Tabassum were shown to packed auditoriums; Bayan’s album launch was not only well-attended but also well received. Music critic Ahmer Naqvi sat down with rap’s favorite bad boy, Faris Shafi to deconstruct his style, lyrics and phenomenal success. Musician Haniya Aslam gave a masterclass and journalist Rafay Mahmood also conducted a session.
Given how for Lahoris nothing is complete without food, the festival featured stalls from a burger joint, local eateries and even a gourmet pizza stall. There were smaller kiosks offering tea, fries and sweet corn and even cotton candy. The atmosphere was reminiscent of school funfairs. It was palpable by the level of excitement, cutting edge fashion and throngs of young adults running about, enjoying not only the music but a respite from the monotony of daily life.
The objectives of LMM55, to cultivate a democratic musical space where you can learn, network and just appreciate local talent were achieved and beyond.
If anything, they left their audience yearning for more with the most common critique being the fact that there wasn’t a third day. To achieve such views unanimously in Pakistan is unheard of. Whether you arrived on a motorbike or an SUV, you left with a smile on your face and the satisfaction of time well spent.
If we’re looking for ways to prove to the global audience that we are a nation of more than angry rhetoric and patriarchal ideals, we’ve found the secret. Let art and artists flourish in the cities across the country. Let music bring together the socio-economically disparate; let laughter and sounds of levity ring out from our parks and gardens, let women and the socially marginalized feel safe and included; let people exhibit their individuality through their clothes and fashion.
Instead of focusing our energies on controlling, judging and oppressing each other we’d fare much better as a nation if we utilized our resources to lift each other up.
There is so much talent, warmth and love that Pakistan is capable of and can offer. We are a hotbed of innovation and creativity; our youth is simply lacking platforms and a supportive infrastructure. With more events that follow a similar ethos, we can fight more polarizing elements, revive our dying arts and create a shared public space that is open to all. Doesn’t that sound like a nice country to live in?