By Sonya Rehman & Khaver Siddiqi
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, begins with these words. Though the novel has a theme of self-sacrifice and resurrection, the starting line of the novel can be applied here in Pakistan to two of its largest and most prominent cities — namely Karachi and Lahore.
Indeed both cities have seen the best and the worst of times as far as the music industry’s concerned. But how do these cities relate to one another? How does their music combine and form the modern music scene as we know it?
The music that originates from the Punjab is as intricate as its historic architecture. Lahore, the ‘garden of the Mughals’, has seen a myriad of melodies, genres, and vocals alongside a variety of musical instruments (both new and old) over the past few decades.
This has given rise to the city’s diverse sound of music and rapidly evolving culture from the earthy qawwals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Punjabi ditties of Abrar-ul-Haq, pop sensations Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar, the underground Lahori grunge/rock revolution (of a handful of bands) during the early ’90s and the revolutionaries of yesteryear such as Malika-i-Tarannum Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and many more. In addition, the dhol maestro Pappu Saien and the master of the ek-tara, Saien Zahoor (both of whom have performed for people at shrines and concerts) to the fresh crop of commercialised Lahori pop acts (of both the past and today), the jaded, angst-ridden rockers/bands such as Shahzad Hameed, Call and eP, music from Lahore has been assorted at best.
In fact, Lahore’s music scene has churned out so many musicians over the years that it would be almost impossible to list each band/musician down. Nonetheless each has contributed to the country’s music scene on a macro level, making it what it is today and pulsating with promise.
Even though things have been on the downslide, given the worldwide economic recession and the security situation within Pakistan, local musicians have still managed to stay in the game by taking out albums (some of which are entirely self-funded), and by playing at concerts throughout the country.
Therefore, given the innumerable genres, the music from Punjab cannot really be ‘defined’ as such, rather just felt and taken in. And perhaps this is what sets the city of Lahore’s music apart from Karachi’s music scene. Where Karachi carries its very own signature sound, melodies from Lahore come wrapped in unrequited love, sufistic devotion and nostalgia which often reminds one of luminous diyas and fresh-smelling jasmine.
On the other hand, Karachi as a city can best be described as a potpourri of people, traditions, lifestyles and history. This stepping stone of Mohammad Bin Qasim, a picturesque city of lights and lightlessness, has its own distinct sound which permeates through the air and settles amongst its populace. Music has always been a vital part of this city, whether it is the sound of the drums at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mausoleum in Clifton or the tone of socialism in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry. The music (and its words) very much echo the mood of the city — it is sombre and realist, laced with satire and melancholy. The music of Karachi has no definite history to speak of as opposed to Lahore. Karachi is a modern city with a modern sound. It is the sound of realism, at times resounding with the harshness of reality and sometimes echoing its soul.
The music from the city by the sea is gritty, real and often makes many political statements. Social Circus by Ali Azmat is an album that, in recent times, speaks this city’s language. Take this album and drive along the streets of Karachi and you’ll find yourself travelling the city with an accompanying soundtrack. From the raging guitars of the intro track accompanied by the blaring W-11 route minibus and all, to the calming rushes of the waves at the coast, the album speaks the language of Karachi.
But its not just Azmat’s album that beckons the sights and sounds of Karachi, for bands like Strings and Junoon evoke a particular Karachi sound. In terms of heritage, giants like Allan Fakir and Abida Parveen evoke a rich texture unto the language of the entire Sindh province. Going further deep into heritage we come to the mazars of Karachi, most particularly that of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the monument that is perhaps the essence of this land long before the present time or the British Raj. One will often find people from all walks of life loitering about the premises; some simply paying their respects through prayer whereas others through their stories of song. And it is those stories of song that paint an unseen picture of this coastal city no matter where you are in the world.
Comparisons between Lahore and Karachi are ultimately inevitable. Though we are one nation, we speak many languages and we have a collective history of many generations. Though the two cities are so vastly different and apart, they are indeed just branches of the one and same tree.
In Pakistan, we have at our disposal a thoroughly rich and diverse cultural heritage which has blossomed over decades, if not centuries from almost every facet of what ‘art’ encompasses such as music, fashion, poetry, architecture and so on.
That being stated, there is a hidden but devastating war taking place. Unlike our neighbors that celebrate, support and cherish culture, our culture is gradually eroding away. The result is we are now on the brink of losing our identity. Our art and culture must be held on to firmly and with an unflinching zeal. It must constantly be nurtured, nourished and cultivated, not letting ‘borrowed culture’ from overseas sully it. During these trying times art seems to be our only release, making everything at the end of the day seem all the more worthwhile.