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Jazz, fusion and electric sitar: Pakistan's unlikely musical past

Jazz, fusion and electric sitar: Pakistan's unlikely musical past

Name one industry in Pakistan that is thriving against all odds? Try music.

We are blessed to have quite a rich culture of music even though the much reviled Zia era didn’t do it any favours. It could be because music is the one thing that gets through to entire nations when nothing else does. Maybe our musicians are just too brave. Or perhaps, it is merely a case of numerous rare probabilities falling in line at the same time.

Whatever the reason, our music is good, and it always has been, in some form or the other. Every generation has had a current trend, an emerging trend and an experimental underground scene that goes on to become the defining sound of future generations.

My focus here is on the music that was unlikely in its era in the country.




Back in the 1930s, the underground scene of the time was ruled by jazz, especially in Karachi. The voices of that era included Lionel Pinto, Joe ‘Bill’ Soares, Ivo D’Souza and Willie Lewis, Carol & Winnie Lobo (Winnie referred to as the 'nightingale of Karachi').

This trend carried through partition up to the '50s. Exact dates are hard to get a hold of (I’ve yet to meet someone who still owns working records), but you can find a detailed history of Pakistan’s jazz roots on this site.

By this time, Pakistani musicians had started participating in non-traditional music. It was mostly underground, not because there was a cultural conflict (we were very open back then, just look at the fashion of the time), but simply because there wasn’t a massive audience for it – just enough to keep the musicians interested, but not enough to garner mass appeal.

We all know that Ko Ko Koreena is considered Pakistan’s first pop song. More than a mere hit, it helped open audiences’ minds to music outside movie soundtracks. This was the '60s, the name Tafo Brothers had grown in popularity since then. Have you heard the track Black Tequila by Wu Tang Clan feat. Ghostface Killah? It was sampled from Tafo Brothers’ Karye Pyar feat. Naheed Akhtar. They have a bunch of albums available on digital media, definitely worth a listen. They alone were not exactly trendsetters, but they created an alternate genre.

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In the '60s, there were The Panthers, comprising of Norman Braganza (lead guitar and vocals), Fasahat Husain Syed (keyboard, sitar and tabla), Eric Fernandes (bass guitar) and Syed Ahsan Sajjad (drums and vocals). You could even call this the first popular form of Pakistan’s fusion music.

They had released two albums (that we know of), named Folk Tunes of Pakistan on Electric Sitar and Western Instruments and East Goes West. Some of the tracks, though 50 years old now, continue to hold up today.

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In the '70s, some of the names might sound more familiar. For example, the Aay Jays, who were more famous because of their concerts than their albums. They were notably featured in two of PIA’s inflight albums.

If you listen to their instrumental version of Dachi Waliya Mor Mohar, you will get a sense of where they were headed. In fact, the grandson of one of the Aay Jays band member, Jamshed Attre, is an active musician currently working in Pakistan.

A cornucopia of information on music from the '60s-'70s can be found here, thanks to the efforts of Stuart, who has put in tremendous effort collecting information on music from all over the world in amazing detail.

If you want to hear a “best-of” collection from the decade of '66-'76 in Pakistan, there is an album called Sublime Frequencies, featuring the Aay Jays, another band called The Abstracts, The Blue Birds, The Bugs, The Fore Thoughts, The Mods, the aforementioned Panthers, Nisar Bazmi and Sohail Rana – it is a piece of living history.

From the decade of 1977-1988, music did not see much progress. In fact, during Zia’s reign, music was all but outlawed. Concerts were a rare occurrence and there was no incentive to create music, which sent a lot of our experimental music deep underground, the details of which are conflicting. We know that the popular music still continued, but even that grew stagnant over time.

No discussion of the '70s and '80s is complete without mentioning Alamgir. His mainstream songs took attention away from his musical genius, which has not yet been fully expressed. Alamgir started off as guitarist with Sohail Rana, where he’d provide background sound for the kids’ music show “Sung Sung Chaltay Rehna”.

It isn’t until you hear his complete performance on the Bengali TV version of “Keh Dena” (not the new one) that you realise that this man had weapons-grade talent on the guitar that went unnoticed until the advent of YouTube.

The band Livewires was not exactly mainstream, but they had quite a few memorable tracks such as Nayi Umangain in the late '80s. They later moved to the US and have not been a prominent feature in Pakistan’s music since, but they did have some great solos.

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Speaking of the '80s, what is the first song that comes to your mind when I say Musarrat Nazeer? Long Gawacha? Chalay to kat hi jaega safar? Those were basically the “gangnam style” of their time, but did you know she actually released an album called Musarrat Nazeer Sings Disco that came out in 1984?

Now, disco was the defining sound of the '80s, which explains the title, but if you listen to it, it is actually more rock than disco. In fact, some of those tracks feature solos that sound like they should be on a Deep Purple track. Sure, there is a track called Galay Se Laga Lo that sounds exactly like One Is The Loneliest Number by Three Dog Night, but we will let that one slide.

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After the advent of Music '89, the music scene was back up and running, and the underground bands of then (especially the late '90s) went on to become popular bands, as is the case with this particular band. And so, Pakistani music stayed alive and kicking and moving forward one way or the other.

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