This year, the SXSW Music Festival will host its first-ever Pakistani Showcase at Victorian Room at The Driskill on Wednesday, March 18! The showcase will feature six artists and groups who will make their way to Austin from Pakistan for the festival.
The lineup includes traditional Manganiyar singer Mai ...
For most American listeners, Pakistan is a blank spot on the world’s musical map, with the exception of global phenomenon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This year’s Pakistan Showcase at SXSW aims to fix that, bringing six wildly different ensembles together that show the full diversity of the country’s beleaguered but rich music scene. From intimate indie rock to rollicking traditional drumming, from a female singer hailing from a remote desert to cosmopolitan rock and jazz...
“It’s the truth of the matter: We are poor rich boys. We are okay, well off, and are still sad,” explains Shehzad Noor Butt of Lahore, Pakistan’s experimental rock band Poor Rich Boy.
With a careful ear for this curious state of affairs, with discreetly subversive and mysterious tales, Poor Rich Boy digs into the interior life of the urban middle class in a city of sharp contrasts, and in a society where expressing one’s inner world can be both a cathartic and subtly rebellious act. “The band’s name is self-deprecating: We have three square meals a day and then talk about hurt feelings,” Butt continues.
Avoiding the slicker sounds of Pakistani pop, attuned to the quasi-acoustic indie rock movement (think REM, Andrew Bird, or Arcade Fire), the musicians behind Poor Rich Boy conjure the strangeness of everyday life in their homeland. They are returning to the U.S. this March 2015 as part of the Pakistan Showcase at SXSW.
“Their lyrics glimpse tensions and longings, both personal and societal; they touch on affection, sorrow, uncertainty and violence, offering more conundrums than lessons.” Jon Pareles, New York Times
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Center Stage is an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Exchange programs initiated by the Bureau support U.S. foreign policy goals and engage youth, students, educators, artists, athletes, and rising leaders in the U.S. and more than 160 countries. Center Stage uses the performing arts to support cultural understanding between American and international communities; participating artists experience the U.S. first hand and cultivate lasting relationships.
Poor Rich Boy’s songs start from impromptu jam sessions, sometimes in the studio or on stage, sometimes on a late-night drive home with a ukulele (“Finger”). They hint at half-told narratives charged with emotional meaning and with a longing to give comfort in distress (“Alice”). They dream up everyday adventures of unusual characters, like a composite persona of former Pakistani Prime Ministers and spouses Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari (“Zardarazir”). Enigmatic and layered, Poor Rich Boy uses guitars, ukuleles, atmospheric sounds, and the occasional percussion instrument to create a crystalline sound that suggests, but rarely reveals.
“It has largely to do with this inability to communicate, this almost isolated existence which is the middle class,” Butt notes. “Writing these lyrics in English, in a language we don’t speak all the time”—though well-educated Pakistanis are often fluent in English, the majority of Pakistanis speak only Urdu or other languages—“that has helped us come to terms with the fact that things are changing. It’s mirroring the outer world. It could be political, it could be personal. It’s a shift of paradigm.”
The musical paradigm has shifted as well. Though pop proliferates in places like Karachi and Lahore, it’s hard for less commercially oriented artists like Poor Rich Boy to find places to perform, especially as many venues have closed in the last five years. Yet there is an embarrassment of riches for open-eared musicians in Pakistan, and the band’s musical backgrounds speak to this.
Zain Ahsan, guitarist and producer of the band’s first studio recordings, picked up his older brother’s forgotten guitar as a kid and went on to play first in a blues cover band, then in other rock projects around Lahore. Butt grew up in a family that encouraged education in Eastern classical music, and as a young man he tried his hand at both sitar and tabla. He took to neither. Ahsan and Butt joined forces about six years ago, and eventually met up with the band’s other vocalist and songwriter Muhammad Umer Khan, bassist Syed Zainuddin Moulvi, drummer Ali Raavail Sattar, and guitarist Danish Bakhtiar Khawaja, all veterans of various Lahore rock bands.
Along with the usual love of rock, metal, and blues, the improvisatory structures powering the classical tradition of the northern subcontinent influence Poor Rich Boy’s songwriting. As have their years of listening to indie bands like Bon Iver, and experimental American composers like John Cage and Harry Partch, artists who inspired Ahsan to think more in soundscapes as the band laid down their tracks in his rough-and-ready home studio (the atmospheric “Old Money,” with its distinctive electric bow-treated guitar, breathy vocals, its creaks and knocks). “Every song works a little differently,” adds Ahsan, and first takes often morph into carefully honed tracks.
“A lot of our songs are birthed out of experiments, to learn more about the craft,” reflects Butt. “A lot of material comes from experiments that start with a word or a phrase. For ‘Fair Weather Friend,’ Umer was obsessed with the phrase ‘His Master’s Voice.’ The song unfolded from there.”
These tiny points of inspiration—the sound of English words, the turn of a certain phrase—evoke the slightly obscure, hard-to-pin microcosm of the individual, a creative approach with universal resonance. This move makes a clear understatement in a society where roles and relationships between people can be very rigidly defined. “We don’t want people to be able to tell that we’re from a particular race or culture,” says Butt. “We’re very happy that way.”
For most American listeners, Pakistan is a blank spot on the world’s musical map, with the exception of global phenomenon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This year’s Pakistan Showcase at SXSW aims to fix that, bringing six wildly different ensembles together that show the full diversity of the country’s beleaguered but rich music scene. From intimate indie rock to rollicking traditional drumming, from a female singer hailing from a remote desert to cosmopolitan rock and jazz complexity, from Pashto trance to pop sleekness, the artists showcased at SXSW will present party-ready and thought-provoking sounds that urge listeners past the headlines and into deeper dialog with the country’s culture.
Pakistan @ SXSW 2015 (Main showcase: Wednesday March 18, 2015 at 8 PM, Victorian Room at the Driskill Hotel [604 Brazos Street])
Haroon: Pop idol-turned-cultural instigator crafts sparkling songs
Khumariyaan: Intoxicating hyper-folk jams from Peshawar
Mai Dhai Band: The gritty grand dame of soaring Manganiyar song
Mekaal Hasan Band: Sophisticated hard rock and jazz-inflected takes on stirring Subcontinental poetry
Poor Rich Boy: Soft-spoken, wry views from Lahore’s indie rock underground
Sain Tanveer Brothers: Bliss-inducing Punjabi drum masters
This showcase is a project of FACE Foundation for Arts Culture and Education, an Islamabad-based organization whose mission is to strengthen, empower, and educate communities through the universal language of arts and through cultural interactions. Support comes from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy, Islamabad.
Most music in Pakistan unfolds behind closed doors: in small jam sessions, at house concerts where friends gather to hang out, listen, jam together. That’s where Zeejah Fazli, president of FACE, one of Pakistan’s most dynamic concert presenters and music organizations, got his start, setting up house concerts in Islamabad about ten years ago.
“I was having small house concerts, at my own studio, or a friend’s place,” Zeejah recalls. “We had music association jams. They were get-togethers for musicians, with no commercial strings attached. The audience came to expect experimentation, new players, new sounds from established musicians. It got bigger and bigger.”
It got so big that the city government heard about it, and Zeejah found some new allies. He was eventually able to secure a site that became home to a 2,000-seat stadium venue. Then he founded FACE to ensure there were enough of the right kind of events to keep the venue running.
Yet FACE’s aims extend beyond putting on shows; they bring musicians together to promote substantive cultural exchange and expression as a counterpoint to fundamentalism and violence. The organization holds classes in the Subcontinent's classical music and events like Music Mela, an annual showcase festival and music conference similar to SXSW. That event, initiated by open-eared, progressive musician Arieb Azhar and held with backing of the U.S. Embassy, led Zeejah, young arts and media professional Mehnaz Ghulam, and their FACE colleagues to develop a plan to bring musicians to the U.S.
Making international connections fits well with the organization’s goals. Part of FACE’s ambitious mission involves making connections among musicians from different backgrounds and cultures, interactions that happen far too rarely in Pakistan. “Pakistan has four provinces, with different languages and cultures. The music is totally different in Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Each has its own distinct folk music. The exposure of musicians from one province to the sounds of another is extremely limited, and we want to promote interaction between musicians, to break them out of their isolation.”
"We have a passionate belief that music can make a huge difference in a country like ours, where you can see a lot of violence and anger," Mehnaz Parveen reflects. "FACE is a platform to promote art and music to a mass audience, at home and abroad, a way to make a change."
“In the end, we’re all in the same boat,” muses guitarist and producer Mekaal Hasan. “We’re still here despite it all, and we’re still making music. And finally, it seems that people are picking up on us.”
It all started with a smashed lute.
A friend of the Peshawar-based ensemble Khumariyaan’s founder Farhan Bogra had brought the rubab, a traditional Pushtoon (Pashto) instrument, home, only to meet with serious paternal disapproval. The instrument was soon in pieces, to be replaced by a more respectable guitar. That got Bogra thinking: If the instrument sparked such potent passion, what might the plucky long-bodied lute be able to say?
“‘Leave the rubab,’ they told him,” remembers Bogra. “‘It’s for the people who are uneducated.’ Then I realized why it was threatening.”
Bogra, like the rest of his young band mates in Khumariyaan (“The Intoxicators”), went on to teach himself a traditional instrument, in Bogra’s case the much neglected and maligned rubab, one of the mainstays of Pakistani Pushtoon music. Not content to merely learn for himself, he then went onto record a series of videos so others could learn to play. In this act of personal rebellion and with the determined hope to bring Pushtoon music and culture into the regional and international mainstream, the instrumental quartet began taking the sound of home jam sessions to the stage.
With addictive passion and trancelike instrumental pieces, Khumariyaan demonstrate why Bogra couldn’t just leave the rubab. The signature Pushtoon instrument can have the forceful twang of a banjo or a percussive, hypnotic thrum. It intertwines with the strong sonic qualities of other rare traditional instruments, including the djembe-like zerbaghali (clay or wooden goblet drum) and Pushtoon sitar (long-necked lute). Underpinning these instruments with driving acoustic guitars, Khumariyaan’s rolling pulse and richly layered sound builds to high-spirited intensity. It’s an addictive and accessible pleasure that’s ushering in a new era for an eclipsed music.
“The concert was anything but sorrowful. The music darted forward — nimble, vital and determined.” Jon Pareles, New York Times
Pushtoon music has had it rough, between local well-educated families eschewing it as too low-brow, and threats from those deeming all music and musicians suspect. During a more recent radical turn in Pakistan, many traditional and popular musicians were killed or arrested, music shops burned, and instrument makers discouraged from their craft.
But the music continues, whether at private celebrations or at friendly jam sessions fueled by MTV and later by the internet and mobile phones. At house parties or regular, small music societies, young players gather, create music on the fly, and draw on anything from Chuck Berry to WASP to Indian hits. Khumariyaan is a leader of this movement to revitalize the instrumental traditions and to bring them out of the shadows—taking risks to play live, encouraging other aspiring musicians to take up their ancestors’ instruments, and reinvigorating the live music experience for audiences throughout the region and across Pakistan.
The group sprang from a chance meeting in 2008, when Bogra spotted guitarist Aamer Shafiq carrying his instrument at a local institute and invited him to jam. They were soon joined by drummer Shiraz Khan. All are self-taught: Shafiq used to pause old music videos of his favorite metal guitarists to catch where their fingers were on the fretboard. Khan, from a tender age, would bang on anything that made a sound—tabletops, tin cans, and eventually a drum kit. About a year later, Sparlay Rawail, a student at the National College of Arts, met the three band members at a concert and joined them in an impromptu jam session. During the first half minute, it became clear to them all that the urgency, dynamics and repetitive grooves of Rawail’s lead guitar not only fit, but upped the resonance, gravity and energy of the band. Khumariyaan, with its propulsive, furious sound hasn’t looked back.
“No one knew much about the instruments. Some of them were almost completely lost here,” notes Bogra. “There was only one rubab maker left, and very, very few people to take lessons from.” The fate of other instruments was even bleaker. Percussionist and drummer Shiraz Khan got his first wooden zerbaghali in India, though his father told him that he had once played the hand drum after bringing a clay version home from Afghanistan in the 1960s. There were none to be found in Peshawar.
This broken link between the musical past and the challenging present reflects a larger issue: the perceptions and limited understanding of Pakistani Pushtoon culture in Pakistan as a whole. Peshawar has a very different cultural legacy than the rest of Pakistan, one with roots in both Persian and Central Asian cultures though with significant South Asian influences. This provincial capital, located on the eastern end of the Khyber Pass close to the Afghan border, has been an important crossroads for centuries.
Pushtoons, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, are the largest minority people in Pakistan, with their own language, arts, and customs. Their ethnic homeland has been thrown into violence, disorder, and oppressive cultural limitations by local extremists and international conflict. Pushtoons are often misunderstood, even in their own country. “When I went to university in Lahore,” recalls Shafiq, “everyone asked me if we wore jeans in Peshawar, or said how surprising it was that we knew English. But we were just like everyone else.”
Music, especially instrumental music, felt like the perfect means to exchange stereotypes for first-hand interaction and profound enjoyment. “We decided to introduce people to our ethnic music,” Bogra states. “To give people what we really are.” Dynamic and dedicated performers, Khumariyaan musicians sink their teeth into trance-inducing pieces rich with string trills and rhythmic breaks (“Qataghani”), and moving, bittersweet rubab-driven melodies (“Sheenai”).
Without lyrics, Khumariyaan’s pieces can move audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds instantly. “Sometimes, it can feel much harder to get the audience connect to a piece that’s purely instrumental,” adds Shafiq. “But if you make that connection and you’re targeting multi-cultures, then instrumentals allow everyone to relate. It’s bridge building.”
“In our country and particularly in our region, playing music, or indeed anything that is art, is a form of resistance, a resistance that many have paid for with their lives, yet the Pushtoons love their music,” says Rawail. “By introducing Western and local instruments in one line-up, we hope to remove the stereotypes from our culture, and bring back a love for music, and indeed, more importantly, a love for the musician. We are very lucky in regard to the support we have in our homeland from the public.”
It’s a passionate call for a new, more tolerant and expressive era of Pushtoon music and culture.
Haroon is someone exceedingly rare: A pop icon who went from boy-band idol to cultural instigator and tech entrepreneur. That he’s made this journey in Pakistan, shifting the pop culture landscape despite political and social complexities, only adds to the power of his story.
Americans will get a chance to hear sounds spanning the pop pioneer’s storied career at SXSW 2015, as part of the first-ever Pakistani showcase at the festival.
Born in London to a Pakistani father and New Zealander mother, Haroon wound up as a teenager in Pakistan. Though his opera singer mother guaranteed the family home was ringing with music, it was no easy time to be a budding pop performer. During the dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, music was more or less banned from the airwaves, and live concerts were few and far between. “It was an oppressive regime,” Haroon recalls. “My parents would take trips to the UK and I would beg them to record Top of the Pops. I would tune into top 20 in Britain via shortwave. We would buy bootleg cassette tapes and share with friends. There weren’t places to play, except school functions and small events.”
That did not stop Haroon. After he got his hands on a guitar at 13, he set about writing his own simple songs, trying to follow in the footsteps of artists he admired, especially the Beatles. With some schoolmates, he started his first band. Yet it was with his second band Awaz, founded once Haroon returned home from his studies at George Washington University, that he broke into mainstream success.
The moment that boosted the group’s rapid rise: Haroon had the idea to make a music video of one of the band’s songs. He heard that MTV was branching out into Asia, and sent it to producers at the channel’s new affiliate. Within a week, Awaz’s video was broadcast around the continent, the first song in Urdu or Hindi ever to be shown on MTV.
Haroon’s boldness and Awaz’s appeal pushed the envelope of Pakistani media and entertainment, breaking the band—and other pop musicians—into TV, touring circuits, and radio play. Even as a pop sensation, however, Haroon grasped he had to do more than croon about crushes: “Living in country like Pakistan changes you perception. You can’t just sing about love. There are other topics you are compelled to talk about,” he reflects. “Afghanistan was right next door and there are so many other issues challenging our country, from poverty to illiteracy.” Haroon has addressed what he feels are his homeland’s most pressing issues throughout his career, with songs like “Ghoom Ghoom,” a catchy, rollicking call for interfaith peace.
After a red-hot stint touring the country and making a follow-up album, Awaz parted ways. Haroon had no desire to rest on his laurels. He cut solo records and kept fine-tuning his songwriting skills. His most recent musical endeavors include an English-language album by alter ego Freddie Fiction, an homage to the songwriters who first fired Haroon’s imagination. Songs like the harmony-rich “Love Love Love,” a bittersweet, catchy call for love, peace, and meaning.
After Awaz and a few, wildly popular solo albums, the singer-songwriter turned his talents to a completely different set of challenges: music monetization in Pakistan and the country’s first animated TV series.
“There was a minor musical renaissance here in the 2000s,” Haroon explains, “because there were several new channels, and they all wanted music. But I was frustrated with piracy and the lack of opportunities for strong musicians to make any income.” Haroon gathered his fellow musicians together to begin the process of founding a Performing Rights Organization (the body that gets composers/songwriters paid for the use of their work) with help from SESAC. But he didn’t stop there: He went on to launch Pakistan’s first legal, monetized platform for music purchases via mobile phone, Taazi.com.
“Here I was, working on several albums, and I realized even if 20% of people want to pay for music, they can’t pay,” he notes. “The iTunes model fails here, because only 8% of Pakistanis have credit cards, but there are millions of mobile phone users. Musicians hold on to rights, can remove content at any time, and have access to a transparent dashboard. The majority of money, 70%, goes to the artists. Fans download a track, and their cell phone provider automatically charges their account.”
Other problems that confronted Haroon required a very different kind of answer. He heard about Taliban efforts to block young women’s education and knew he had to do something. He considered making a feature film, that then hit upon the perfect response: He drew on his decades of video production experience to create Pakistan’s first animated TV series, Burka Avenger.
The Peabody Award-winning show features a indomitable heroine—unassuming and unveiled school teacher Jiya by day, formidable and burka-donning superwoman by night—who combats the forces of ignorance and evil with mighty books and pens. The burka becomes a tool of progress, the perfect disguise for a powerful woman. “Female superheroes are often sexually objectified in the West,” muses Haroon. “We wanted to present some very different ideas of what means to be a woman fighting oppression.” Critics worldwide agree—TIME dubbed Jiya one of “The 11 Most Influential Fictional Characters of 2013”—and the show is up for a Kid’s Emmy.
Even while breaking new ground in other fields, Haroon’s heart never strays far from music. For his SXSW set, he’s returning to his rock-quartet roots, bringing a mix of his hook-laden Urdu hits and his new English-language tunes to Austin. “I’m bringing along some of my favorite musicians, some of the strongest players in Pakistan,” enthuses Haroon. “I can’t wait.”
It was raining, and the festival audience was drifting away. To make matters worse, Zeejah Fazli, the guitarist for the next act, had no idea what he was about to play. He climbed on stage, urging his fellow musicians to start.
Then the drums kicked in, as expert drummer Sain Tanveer and his brother Khalil hit their dhols (double-sided barrel-shaped drums). Zeejah added psychedelic washes of guitar and watched in awe: Listeners rushed back to the stage despite the drizzle and crowded to the front, heads banging. Some even leaped up to join the band and dance with them, as Tanveer whirled multiple drums around his neck—without missing a beat.
Known for onstage flamboyance and broad knowledge of their art, Sain Tanveer and company stoke the age-old flame of Punjabi drum tradition, a vital part of ceremonies and festivities from weddings to shrine festivals. Though dhol rhythms have entered the Subcontinental—and world—pop mainstream through club sounds like bhangra, the more traditional yet powerfully hypnotic rhythms remain trance-inducing fixtures at religious events and family parties.
Sain Tanveer, Khalil, and Zeejah will bring the sublime party to the US for the first time, when they perform as part of the Pakistani showcase at SXSW in March 2015.
The brothers led by Tanveer pick up on the energy of a crowd—be they onstage or at a Sufi shrine—and respond to it with complete commitment. “Every place has a different feel to it. You have to come in a completely different mood with every place you are playing at,” Tanveer muses. “For example, when we are playing at a shrine of some Sufi mystic, it’s an entirely different mood and style of playing. It’s more intense and energetic playing at a shrine because we can relate to the place and the people there. They understand our music and relate to our state of mind. It’s a very soulful experience playing at shrines, whereas on stage, it’s a different energy. We have to understand the mood of our audience.”
Tanveer—“sain” is his honorary title, as a master of the dhol—and Khaleel hail from the Punjabi city of Daska. Their passion for the dhol runs in the family: “My great grandfather was an exceptional dhol player in his time,” recounts Tanveer. “I was too young to remember him, but I have heard from people about his talent. It was actually my father who inspired me first.”
Determined to learn the dhol, Tanveer agreed to serve a master teacher, or ustad. “I started playing at the age of 16, but professionally I learnt dhol playing from my Ustad Bhaga Khan; I believe he is the most wonderful dhol player in Pakistan,” enthuses Tanveer. “I became his mureed (spiritual follower) from the very first moment I met him in [the Punjabi city of] Gujrat. He inspired me in so many ways.” While performing household tasks for his teacher for five years, he eventually learned the full repertoire of classical Punjabi drumming, the dozens of rhythms that earned his honorary title.
“There are performers who just know a couple good beats, to get people dancing,” explains Zeejah. “And then there are players like Sain Tanveer, who know all the classical forms.”
Yet even among learned dholi, Tanveer stands out. He has perfected his own style, one that bursts with wild charisma but that has deep spiritual roots. Throwing five dhols around his neck, he spins the drums like a fan and keeps playing. This unique approach was sparked at a shrine festival, when the spirit of the moment felt too great for just one drum.
“About 10 years ago I was playing at [Sufi saint] Baba Sabir Shah’s shrine,” Tanveer recalls. “There was so much energy that I stopped hearing my own dhol, and I felt only one dhol is not justifying with the energy inside me. So I asked for another dhol, and I was amazed at myself for being able to play two drums at a time. Then I started practicing playing multiple dhols and today I can play five dhols at a time while spinning.
This level of precision and artistry demands practice, and Tanveer and Khalil devote themselves for hours every day. But technical achievements aside, the drum’s energy is about more than showmanship and skill. It can reach firmly across cultural and class divides, drawing people to its sound and speaking loudly to the soul, just as it did that rainy day from the festival stage.
“For us, music is much more than just playing an instrument or singing a song,” Tanveer reflects. “For us, music is a spiritual practice that purifies the soul. I hope to take this positive energy and love to America, with my beats of dhol.”