An Evolution in Motion

Change, though at times a little difficult to digest, is nearly always good. More so when one is talking about the arts, music to be particular, and that too of Pakistan. Many movements in the local scene have come and gone in the ten years since "Images" was launched. Some have left their mark in the shape of enduring pop and rock anthems, while others have faded into history.

The stimuli that drive the local market are exactly the same as those that power the engines of the global record industry: worldwide trends in music, passing fads and the changing tastes of music buyers, with a few localized variables thrown in to balance the equation. Here is a cursory glance over ten years - focusing on the main players of the music game - of popular music in Pakistan; a period that has seen both creative highs and terrible lows in the local music market.

The year was 1994. The Pakistani scene was afire with the creative currents of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Vital Signs and others. Nusrat had the distinction of bringing laurels to Pakistan internationally as goras went mad, spinning and whirling to his intoxicating blend of qawwali and western pop. While qawwali purists were outraged, and in some instances rightly so, Nusrat, without a doubt, flung open the door for Pakistani musicians to crack the international markets, as western pop and rock giants such as Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder worked in close tandem with him.

TV pop chart music shows such as Rhythm Whythm, Music Channel Charts and Top of the Pops helped the local pop industry in a big way in this period. They gave a slew of up-and-coming bands the chance to make pop stars out of themselves. Few groups emerged victorious, with most falling by the wayside due to lack of musical depth and use of gimmickry. Looking back, these bright, glitzy, slickly produced shows were forerunners of the 24-hour Pakistani music channels of today. Indus Music deserves special mention as it was the first local channel to dedicate its entire broadcast day to airing videos, and nothing but videos. And the best thing about it was that close to 95 per cent of their videos were Pakistani. Others have followed, namely ARY's The Muzik, and things can only get better, one hopes.

Amir Zaki, that eccentric, enigmatic maestro, is a true rock enigma. Though he is probably the most talented popular musician in this country, at par with the best in the world, he hasn't been very prolific, releasing only an album, the cool-as-ice "Signature", which heralded the hit, "Mera Pyar", in 1995. He has played with a host of other musicians, providing back-up, but fans hardly get to hear samples of his own brilliance. Surely, it is not for want of creativity, for without exaggeration, Zaki has more creativity in his little finger than do most of the pop mandarins of this industry put together. Call it luck. Call it fate. Call it what you will. Just don't call him a has been, for he has the fire. It just needs to be stoked.

As "Images" spread its wings, the Vital Signs had begun their final descent towards the pop history books. The "Dil Dil Pakistan" lads were now headed in a more psychedelic pop direction. In '95 they released "Hum Tum", one of their most mature, sonically dense and musically diverse albums. It would also be their swan song, for other than piecemeal singles like "Maula" and "Dil Mangey Aur", the Signs would forever be silent, with eternal promises of the new record repeated at regular intervals. Their last album, however, sealed their fate as grandmasters of the modern pop scene. Asad Ahmed and Amir Zaki also contributed to the effort. After the Signs took their permanent vacation, lead singer Junaid Jamshed launched a successful solo career, ably guided by pop genius Shoaib Mansoor. Yet the singer would eventually give in to the spiritual changes raging inside of him, after a couple of false starts of course (hey, there were soda pop contracts to fulfil).

Though not revolutionary in the truest sense of the word, Junoon's 1996 album "Inquilaab" was definitely a treat for the ears. This was the band's golden age, as they were writing catchy, socially conscious tunes, as was evidenced by such pioneering tracks as Saeen. With that song, the band showcased a shade of their 'Sufi rock' side, which would later bloom fully in 1998's "Azadi", the record that helped them smash through the South Asian charts and become household names from Delhi to Dera Ghazi Khan. "Azadi", probably the greatest album of their catalogue yet, put the group into another league, and tax bracket, altogether. The mostly acoustic record saw a variety of styles from the trio and included tune after tune of radio and video friendly singles that were original, mostly, ("Yar Bina" was a shameful swipe of Zep's Wanton Song) and catchy, such as "Sayonee", the controversial "Khudi" and the spellbinding "Jugal Bandi".

Awaz were once the perfect poster boys for squeaky clean commercial pop music. With their catchy hooks and bouncy synth leads, the trio of Haroon, Fakhir, and Asad Ahmed seemed unbeatable at what they did best: make safe, sugary corporate pop. The group captured the market early in 1995 with their sizzling "Jadoo ka Chiragh". "Shola" in '96, their last album, contained the jazzy "Mr. Fraudiye", recorded by the threesome in London. But soon after the album's release, Asad Ahmed called it quits, claiming that the group had become too keyboard-oriented. From here there was very little to any creative output from the band, and the last nail in Awaz's coffin was hammered when Fakhir started a solo career. Soon enough, Awaz disintegrated and Fakhir and Haroon both tasted solo success, with Haroon taking the lead with his smash "Haroon ki Awaz" in 2000.

Asad Ahmed steered his ship in another direction totally, with his group Karavan. Then composed of Najam Sheraz, Asad, and bassist Sameer Ahmed, this group would shake the foundations of the local industry, but only briefly though. They launched "Rakh Aas", their debut record in 1998 - one of the most underrated albums ever to have been released in this country. The record contained brooding, riff-laden rockers such as the title track, "Sajni", and "Jhoom Zara Jhoom". A fledgling Jami directed the video for the title track, a gritty masterpiece that did away with stereotypes. Asad took the band farther with the release of their second record, "Safar". By this time Najam was history, leaving the band to concentrate on his solo career. In came Tanseer Dar on vocals, along with Alan Smith behind the drum kit. After repeated listens, the record proved to be tight, with the sonic sorcery of tracks like "Beqarar" and "Aja Meray Pas Aja" cementing the cult status of the band. But unfortunately that's what Karavan would remain - a cult band, unable to crack the mainstream. In 2002 they released their magnum opus, "Gardish". The album channelled the dark side of pop-rock, (though the title track did sound too close to Zep's "Kashmir" for comfort). Karavan have thoroughly failed to capitalize on their considerable talent, mainly because of poor PR skills and hardly any marketing work. Pure talent will get you nowhere in today's scene. Ask Amir Zaki.

Najam Sheraz had already tasted solo success well before joining Karavan, leaving his first band, Wet Metal, on the strength of hits "In Sai Nain" and "Pyar ki Piyas". He followed up with his full-length debut, "Khazana", a true treasure that contained the raga-meets-rocka masterpiece, "Sohna Chahta Hoon", one of the most innovative rock songs of Pakistani musical history. Not too long ago, Najam changed direction, again, with the creatively commercial "Jaisay Chaho Jiyo". Apart from the obvious hits that came off the record, the work of guitarist Shallum Xavier, who would soon shoot to fame with Fuzon, and bassist Khalid Khan, was on display here. Najam, too, became more spiritually inclined, yet unlike Junaid, he has the tendency of hitting you over the head with his new-found zeal, often demanding that he be quoted word-for-word, and asking to edit interviews himself so that he is not misinterpreted. Naturally, this caused many in the media, after initial wonderment, to retreat and let him be. This has also translated into poor record sales.

Sajjad Ali, who shot to prominence on the back of his shameless rip-off of Khaled's "Didi", "Babia" in 1993, backed it up with the street-smart, more original punch of "Chief Saab". He has also delved into the sordid world of filmdom, scoring with the commercially successful soundtrack to his flick "Aik Aur Love Story". The less said about the film the better. Though he is a brilliant vocalist, his star is slowly fading, with "Cinderella" doing moderately well and "Rangeen" yet to make an impression on music buyers. However, his smashing cover of Noor Jehan's "Teri Yaad" was a barnstorming bit of hot-buttered Pakistani soul, and if Sajjad releases more of this sort of stuff, one can see a revival on the cards.

Hadiqa Kiani has long been trumpeted as our only worthwhile female pop singer. Even a brief glance over the past decade will prove this assumption to ring true. The gal has changed quite a bit since she launched "Raaz". The dawn of the new millennium saw her "Roshni", in 2000, which shone brightly on the strength of such tunes as the Ziyyad Gulzar-penned "Dupatta", with its Matrix rip-off video, the sleepy ballad "Inteha-e-Shauq" and the folksy "Boohey Barian". Kiani continued her infatuation with the letter 'R', with the launch of "Rung", but the record could not build upon the considerable momentum that was created by "Roshni". After recovering from a personal crisis, Kiani is ready to rebound and a new record is ready for release.

Lounging on the hood of a cherry red hot rod, shades coolly planted on his face and guitar resting on his lap (wonder why, because there was very little of the instrument on the record), boyish Shehzad Roy launched his career with the album "Zindagi". Was it an outstanding artistic achievement? Not really. Was it trendy pop music? You better believe it. Roy's follow-up efforts have been just as predictable and sugary sweet: "Teri Soorat" inspired by the Aziz Mian qawwali and "Rab Janey", which was quite comatose apart from the catchy collaboration with Sukhbir, "Jinna Kar Lo Gay Piyar".

Ali Haider, after coasting to success off such early hits as "Qarar", "Purani Jeans" and "Zalim Nazron Se", has hit a dead end. It all started with his ill-advised flirtation with 'trance' (that's what he called it), on the album "Jadu". The end results, however, were less than magical and Haider attempted a return with the slightly better "Chandni Raatein", a compilation of sorts and "Tera Naam Liya Tou" in late 2003. The crooner was stopped dead in his tracks when controversy struck, as he was accused of hanky-panky. The scandal, if it already hasn't, has threatened to permanently scuttle his career.

Speedy guitar slinger Faraz Anwar has been at it ever since his Collage days, back in '95, releasing the folk-rocker "Gul Jana", as well as an album of the same name. His latest project has been Mizraab, with which he released a record a couple of years back, "Panchi". Sadly, the album went down like a lead balloon because of a bit of audio brigandry, as Faraz's partner at the time had released the record without his permission, and infighting prevented the band from doing promotional work. However, with a re-formed Mizraab, Faraz is ready to storm the fortress of pop fortunes once again.

Strings, who had been absent from the scene for close to eight years, returned with "Duur". And what a return it was, as the record took the music industry by storm, accompanied by the slick, 35mm Jami-directed video clip and Shallum's guitar licks. Though nothing out-of-this-world, the group struck gold by adhering to a simple, proven formula of catchy hooks and safe subject matter.

The local pop world, which had fallen into a rut, was given a much-deserved kick in the behind when Abrar-ul-Haq landed. With his monumental smash, "Asa Tey Jana Billo Dey Ghar", Abrar became a household name as he peered out, pappu-faced, from the album cover. This would be the mother-of-all-bhangra pop tracks, and Billo boy would spawn many more hits in the years to come.

Jawad Ahmed, following up the somewhat successful "Bol Tujhe Kia Chahiyeh", released the unabashedly commercial "Uchiyan Majajan Wali". Apart from the title track, the album delivered a number of hit singles for the artist including "Dholna" and "Tu Meri Ki Lagdi". But Jawad has pigeonholed himself as a highly predictable, commercial bhangra singer, which won't really do him much good if he wants to expand his creative horizons.

More recently, Fuzon and Noori have hit the big time, ushering in the third wave of Pakistani pop artists and in a way closing the chapter on the popsters of yesteryear. Fuzon's secret weapon is their classically trained vocalist Shafqat Amanat Ali, while Noori appeal to the kids with their mix of pop, punk and bubblegum attitude.

Rushk released "Sawal 57:34". Probably the most alternative and creative record to have come along in a long time. Sadly, it went nowhere because of next to no publicity by the band. Brilliant music ... but what good is it if no one hears it?

Aaroh, the group that had won the Battle of the Bands, launched their hotly anticipated debut album "Sawaal" in 2003. Mixing pop balladry with alternative rock and semi-classical vocals, the band created a deft mix that had the potential to conquer the local scene. But there was trouble in paradise, and in 2004, the band called it quits after hardly a year together.

The veterans are fighting hard to keep their foothold on the big pop mountain, including Junoon with "Dewaar" and Strings with "Dhaani". The new breed has shone and given them stiff competition. "Irtiqa", by Lahore based group EP, made a strong, if a little confused case for hard rock, while straight up commercial desi dance pop channelling the spirit of Kishore Kumar has made waves in the shape of Ali Zafar and his "Huqa Pani".

In 2004, master ax-man Mekaal Hasan launched his deliciously different "Sampooran", which has raised the benchmark with its mix of classical vocals and jazz-fusion guitar.

So that, briefly, was a bird's eye view of what the last ten years in music were like. Much has changed, yet much remains the same. For instance, local musicians still swipe tunes and melodies from foreign artists and pretend that the audience is too dumb to realize when they are playing a Jimi Hendrix or Jimi Page riff. On the other hand, the next generation of groups have proven that only those will survive who take chances, who try out bolder themes when it comes to subject matter and play with different song structures. The future, for a change, looks very bright for Pakistani pop and all its subdivisions.

Qasim Abdallah Moini
April, 2004
Dawn, Pakistan