Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Doesn't matter if it rocks or not...

The advent of rock music in Pakistan

Ever wondered why rock music has suddenly become the indispensable genre of Pakistani music scene even though it doesn’t actually “rock” much; so much so that every music act these days has to be a rock act. Of the scores of aspiring singers and musicians that have, in the last couple of years, popped up and burst like bubbles in a fizzy drink, only those who have held on to the holy grail of rock music have managed to survive. For others it’s simply been: Enter stage left, Exit stage right.

A large part of the credit for this must be given to a few class-obsessed “divine” beings who had to resort to something unique after western music had become increasingly common among the bourgeoisie. This crème de la crème of the society had to listen to something that pappu, maaja and feeka living in chak 36 don’t even think of listening to. And a few years ago, Pakistani rock music presented them with just what the doctor had ordered.

Until the mid 90s, these so called élites had successfully clung on to western music to maintain their individuality (read superiority) but during that time the western music had started to make its way down the strata into the masses. Though they had to look inside the covers of the cassettes to understand what the singer was whining (or shouting) about, the middle-class youngsters had started to develop a taste for the western music and it had already created its niche among the “ordinary Pakistanis”.

During the same period, the local music scene was all but doomed. A general lack of interest in music (making not listening) coupled with some government-imposed restrictions on what can and what cannot be allowed on the electronic media saw the worst years of Pakistani pop music. Except for the two music powerhouses, Junoon and Vital signs, and some good songs which were few and far between, the rest of the stuff being done by Pakistani musicians was downright pathetic.

The “enlightened” bunch had already given up on the local music and a few rich kids (who could afford to expend their time and money on something that never looked like a career prospect or even a part-time money spinner) had formed their own “underground” bands. Most, if not all, of these wannabes had been brought up on a feed of western rock music and you couldn’t have expected someone who had grown up listening to Metallica or Guns n’ Roses to pen a typical Pakistani love ballad. Result: the birth of “Pakistani underground rock”. Most of these musicians never made it to the mainstream because frankly, at that time not many people wanted to listen to them. Even though western rock had already become a routine with the listeners, the idea of heavy guitaring and noisy drumming with Urdu lyrics just didn’t seem to add up.

Another few years of stagnancy in the Pakistani pop music industry and then enters “Battle of the Bands” a.k.a. BoB, Pakistani version of Pop Idol.

The raison d’être: an effort by Pepsi to find the next big thing in Pakistan music after the split of Vital Signs (Junoon had already been signed by rivals Coca Cola and Awaz hadn't turned out to be "the one").

The prize: an album sponsored by Pepsi (… the most coveted prize for any aspiring musician in Pakistan)

The participants: the underground ‘rock’ bands

BoB was a dream platform for all these aspirants to launch their music careers from. eP already had a single out in the market as the soundtrack of the sitcom “Jutt & Bond” but nobody had heard of bands like Aaroh or Call except those who frequented the so-called “underground” gigs. It was the first time the general public had experienced the phenomenon that was Pakistani rock. BoB was a huge success but the novel music genre was not instantly welcomed by the public. The middle class listeners who had by then somehow acquainted themselves with listening to someone torturing a guitar with an accomplice screaming in the background couldn’t fathom the idea of this being done in Urdu, the sweet language of ghazals and ballads. “Urdu rock” was bizarre and a tad outlandish and it didn’t immediately appeal to the masses. The very fact that it didn’t appeal to the man in the street made it all the more attractive to the uber-élite who had been desperately looking for something to stay ahead of others after western music had lost its repute as the up-market thing.

Rock music became the order of the day. It was cool and hip to listen to these latest music sensations. It was like making a statement that you really knew what good music was and you weren’t one to follow the herd (by listening to all those oh-so-Pakistani singers). The beau monde led the way and the commoners jumped on the bandwagon and our very own desi rock music was propelled into the mainstream like nothing before.

The whole effect was compounded by burgeoning of private music channels which gave the impression that everybody who is anybody can be a singer. You just need to have enough moolah to produce a song and shoot a decent (or preferably ‘indecent’ video) and voila... you’re a ‘rockstar’. Every teenager living in DHA puffed the dust off his guitar and set out on a quest to become the Led Zeppelin of Pakistan. And when you have so many people trying to do something, at least a few of them will get it right and a few did get it right and have come up with some great numbers.

Rock music still remains volatile in it’s rapport with the public. In this short span of almost half a decade (since the rock revolution begun), we’ve already seen the dramatic rise and an almost equally dramatic fall of novas like Noori and eP. Noori and eP might have failed to hold on to the acme for very long but the likes of Jal and Call have kept the rock revolution alive. The torchbearers might have changed but rock music still remains the order of the day.

I’d like to add that Pakistani rock music is certainly not as bad as I might have made it sound here. When you pit it against other music genres on equal grounds, Pakistani rock is well above par. One of the reasons being that rock music is one of the few media-related things from the west that en route to Pakistan have not had a stopover in India. This has saved it, unlike other music genres popular in Pakistan, from getting an indianized feel or an Indian tinge to it before we add our very own Pakistani spices to make it suit our taste buds.

I like Rock music.

Or maybe I’m suffering from the same malady, the phobia of becoming another face in the crowd.

P.S.: this article was conceived (and mostly written) in 2004 when rock music had just “started” to make waves. That might explain why it seems a "little" ;) outdated. Even though I have tried to update it to make it sound fresher, it sure doesn’t look like it’s straight from the stalk.

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