In the world according to the majority of Western media, Pakistan might well the scariest place on Earth, the real-life Mordor so to speak, a menace to all so-called free societies, and after all, the archetypical rogue state. Whenever Pakistan is mentioned in the news, the topics you almost unconsciously expect are those related to terrorism, drone operations, or nuclear weapons. Sure, there are reasons for that which can hardly be denied, yet during the last few years, a level of imbalance has been reached with the result that every story coming from Pakistan that does not deal with these things comes across as a surprise. Yet even "over there", young people are breathing, eating, sleeping, and in between, making music. Then again, dialectically speaking, to emphasize the fact that someone who's just submitted a musical work of his has done so while actually living in Islamabad is of course in itself reinforcing the bias: We wouldn't feel the urge to explicitly stress the fact if we considered it a normal occurrence. Despite our best intentions, Western media obviously got us here. That being said, after featuring a little piece about the music of Islamabad local Asfandyar Khan roughly a month ago, we were introduced to a (very) small, but indeed interesting DIY scene that is starting to take shape in Pakistan, highly influenced by the development in the electronic, experimental and ambient scene in Europe and North America of the last couple of years. Asfandyar kindly agreed to give us some further insight into contemporary Pakistani pop music, which you may enjoy both aurally and visually below. The editors Words: Asfandyar Khan 2008 was a tumultuous year for Pakistan (and the world in general, as the recession finally kicked in). After nine years of military rule the country held its first general elections, which were swiftly followed by the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, architect of the coup d’état that plunged Pakistan into martial law. The country’s armed forces too, embarked on a sustained counter-terrorism campaign. It was also the year of Mooshy Moo. The brainchild of a few young ‘uns from Karachi (Pakistan’s biggest city; a sprawling metropolis home to 18 million people, it is at the centre of the country’s industry and culture) it is the closest Pakistan has to an indie label, despite having only two artists on its roster, Dalt Wisney and Mole.
Though it would undeniably make for a great feel-good story, or be perfect for a NYT soft piece, music in Pakistan is in fact quite rampant, rather than banned - whether it’s imported Bollywood dance numbers, or local pop fare. The country’s general political travails end up supplying the country’s musicians with a fair bit of material as well, though for Pakistan’s indie musicians, that’s surprisingly not the case. Unlike the rest of their musician brethren, Pakistan’s indie outfits deal more with stories that aren’t (overtly) political – or at the very least aren’t home to brazen, yet simple moralizing. Though politics do affect musicians in the country (security issues are the primary reason why live shows have become a rarity), indie music in Pakistan exists in spite of politics, rather than because of. The greatest precursor to the rise of indie in Pakistan isn’t politics but something far more humdrum: technology.
While bedroom artists represent an established phenomenon in the rest of the world, for a lot of Pakistani musicians that idea was incongruous. Primarily, that was because most of Pakistan’s musical history has been resigned to manufactured pop or standard 4-piece rock, both of which require studios for production and recording. To quote Ahmer Naqvi, “The role that technology has to play here is two-fold. On one hand it is providing previously expensive production equipment, inaccessible samples and loops right into the hands of anyone with a computer and an ability to download torrents. On the other hand, the prevalence of technology is also important on a creative level. Bands and artists might not have gigs to play, but they can check out each other’s music online and build up an audience there as well, they can learn from each other, and explore ideas others have spawned.” With technology then, and the internet to bounce ideas off of like-minded musicians, or to actually be able to listen to Slowdive’s discography, music for many Pakistani’s tip-toed beyond the confines of local pop-rock fare. It led as well to greater appreciation for experimentation, for music that flirted with the edges of what many of us had come to hear on the radio and the television in Pakistan. A lot of it had to do with the trajectory of indie as a whole — more people heard Modest Mouse because more people wrote about them. Indie music’s development in Pakistan is linked inextricably to indie music’s rise in the rest of the world (thanks OC, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill!). Many of these musicians are very young as well, born either in the late 80-s or the early 90-s. Consequently, even though Pakistani music has always been strong, many of these musicians would’ve grown up inspired less by popular mainstays such as Junoon and Noori than by the Arcade Fire or Neutral Milk Hotel. The internet, again, is a common denominator here. Dalt Wisney - Under The Radar
But back to 2008 and the Mooshy Moo boys, Dalt Wisney and Mole. Though now dormant, Dalt Wisney’s Lifetime Psychedelic Dance Lessons EP charted through the murky depths of generic pop and alt rock in Pakistan, giving every wide-eyed listener a glimpse of music only heard before on Aphex Twin videos played by MTV. I personally remember listening to Dalt Wisney and thinking, ‘sounds a bit like Four Tet’, oblivious to the machinations that made it possible for a Pakistani kid to make music of that nature. Nodding to DJ Shadow with his use of samples over trip-hop driven beats, Dalt Wisney employs interesting and complex melodic structures over multiple layers, creating a sound that’s as manic as it is understated. Mole followed up with We’re Always Home, borrowing inspiration from a myriad of genres (post-punk, 8-bit, IDM, indie rock). Though it’d invariably be easy to lose one’s collective self when inspiration comes from so many corners, Mole do a fantastic job of making music that’s never overwhelming or hard to follow because it’s disjointed. "Brother", though, shows Mole at their strongest and most focused. With emphatic drums and swirling synths, buoyant vocal lines and a trenchant atmosphere, Brother has Mole recalling the best of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective. Mole - Brother
Karachi, it seems, is singularly hell-bent on making sure there’s enough local indie to satiate everyone’s tastes. //orangenoise plough through warehouses with their own brand of shoegaze mayhem; guitars drown in fuzz and reverb while the vocals seem to be in a constant state of glorious flux. "I Know Everything", from the band’s Veracious EP, is a nearly-seven-minute long primer on this lot, as well as an exquisite treatise on shoegaze. But that’s not entirely where //orangenoise’s story ends – band members Talha Asim Wynne and Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey have solo electronic projects too, Toll Crane and Alien Panda Jury (respectively). //orangenoise - Trust Marrying electronic music with bass guitar driven post rock, Basheer and the Pied Pipers are another fantastic outfit from Karachi whose efforts are surprisingly organic and a worthwhile testament to the talents of this two-man act. At times B&PP sound like Leeds band Vessels, with delirious cymbals and ostinato driven bass lines breaking though the electronic haze. With both band members originally from the sleepy capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, one can hear a curious dichotomy in B&PP’s songs, as the sanguine nature of the instrumental work contrasts against the wandering austerity elicited by the band’s more ambient travels. "Margalla Winds" is a mammoth of a track, showcasing every trick the band has up their leave – a simple, exquisite bassline forms the base, allowing for a multitude of electronic flourishes, only to eventually give way to the song’s actual arrival where the drums are lashed left, right and centre. Basheer and the Pied Pipers - Margalla Winds
6LA8 and Air Liner round up the Karachi noiseniks – both acts might be labelled post-rock for accessibility, but that would negate the various permutations their music goes through. 6LA8 are frighteningly prolific as well, churning out nearly an album a quarter (though Air Liner is no slouch either – seven releases since 2009 ensure that spectacularly). Stereotypes of Tomorrow is probably an apt realization of previous 6LA8 albums and the band’s general efforts – as it veers towards ambient and drone, electronic and post-rock, 6LA8 seem quietly confident about the sound they’ve arrived at. Guitars encircle synths and bleeps, while every now and then we see a brilliantly executed, ear-shattering crescendo. Air Liner’s Short III also capably puts on display Taha Badar’s brilliant sense of melody. Though the album moulds modern classical pieces in the vein of Olafur Arnalds, it’s the progressions and effervescence of Air Liner’s stuff that is so joyful to listen to. 6LA8 - Eroded Signals Air Liner - Short III Poor Rich Boy (and the Toothless Winos), from Lahore, are one of Pakistan’s more conventionally indie outfits, though that does considerable disservice to their quality. From a single singer-songwriter, they’ve developed into a folk outfit in the vein of Great Lake Swimmers, while simultaneously nodding to Scott Walker, Tom Waits and Bill Callahan. "Alice", from the band’s upcoming album, finds them comfortably in their element. Umer Khan’s vocals sway over plaintive, fingerpicked guitar, while brushed cymbals meet up with a slide guitar, ensuring that the music is never excessively subordinate to the vocals. Poor Rich Boy (and The Toothless Winos) - Alice
Yet for Pakistan’s indie musicians, the biggest problem is perhaps the lack of opportunities to play live. Often, these musicians will play a show every six months, while the possibility of a nationwide tour remains highly unfeasible. This, in turn, quashes any hopes of an indie label turning up. However, there is some hope – Karachi Detour Rampage, a collective of electronic musicians in Karachi have been trying to regularly put on shows in their city, leading to an aesthete built on collaboration and collective representation. Smax and Dynoman are two brilliant musicians who are part of KDR. Venues too are slowly popping up in Pakistan’s major cities, looking to facilitate local indie and electronic musicians who would’ve previously been stuck just playing house parties. Smax - Follow the Feeder Dynoman - A Lullaby The lack of opportunities to play live isn’t the only thing keeping indie in Pakistan on the fringes – paradoxically enough. As with genres that are new to a country, indie too is still fighting with preconceptions and misconceptions about it, leading to a stunted listening populace. As indie starts to enter the mainstream consciousness in the rest of the world, there’s a greater chance that more listeners in Pakistan will emerge too, creating a vacuum that hopefully is filled with labels, and bands able to tour. But for now, bands like //orangenoise, Basheer and the Pied Pipers, 6LA8 and Mole are finding greater success internationally, with concentrated radio play, reviews and general appreciation. It is, in many cases, easier for indie musicians in Pakistan to send their releases to blogs and sites like No Fear of Pop, than to try and appeal to local listeners – for fear of remaining stagnant, if nothing else. In doing so however, they face criticism – some claim derivativeness while others argue that a severe lack of local influences tempers the music, rendering it servile rather than novel. Despite these constraints, despite the lack of gigs, labels and listeners, indie music in Pakistan is on an upward trajectory. There are more musicians collaborating with each other, providing a constant stream of content for anyone interested. In turn, this leads to not only music of a greater quality, but also of significantly experimental value – more and more musicians are trying different things rather than sticking to old formulas, egged on by each other. It’s slowly and effectively turning into one of those ostensibly annoying by-words; a ‘scene.’ And a quite legitimate one, at that. Asfandyar Khan - Trails