No earplugs re­quired

A mu­si­cal mis­sion from Pak­istan is on its way to the SXSW fes­ti­val in Texas. From Sufi po­etry to rock, they will shed a light on the coun­try’s rich mu­si­cal cul­ture. Adam Work­man tunes in

The National - News - The Review - - Music - Adam Work­man is a pro­duc­tion jour­nal­ist at The Na­tional. For more in­for­ma­tion on the Face show­case at SXSW and to hear tracks fea­tured in the playlist, visit

While one high- pro­file fix­ture on the Amer­i­can cul­tural cal­en­dar was given a tough time in re­cent weeks con­cern­ing its lack of racial di­ver­sity, the is­sues that en­gulfed the Academy Awards aren’t likely to be re­peated at this year’s South by South­west (SXSW) fes­ti­val in Austin, Texas. Among the truly global high­lights of the long-run­ning fes­ti­val’s mu­sic pro­gramme, which gets un­der way from Tues­day , is a show­case from Pak­istan’s Foun­da­tion for Arts, Cul­ture and Education (Face).

It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a more spec­trum-en­velop­ing gaze into the au­ral out­put of this Mus­lim coun­try. The four artists in ques­tion – Imran Aziz Mian, Mai Ni­mani, Wahid Al­lan Faqir and Over­load – span heart­felt Sufi po­etry through to rock.

The show­case lands at an in­ter­est­ing junc­ture both po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally for Pak­istan, which in re­cent times has suf­fered from ter­ror­ism and ex­trem­ism.

This has hurt more lib­eral el­e­ments in the coun­try, such as the arts. Last year, for ex­am­ple, Sabeen Mah­mud, the woman be­hind Karachi’s cul­tural cen­tre The Se­cond Floor, was mur­dered out­side the very build­ing where she sought to open minds and ears.

But there are also grounds for op­ti­mism in the coun­try’s arts world, such as the launch of Patari, a mu­sic stream­ing web­site that is the first in Pak­istan to pay artist roy­al­ties, that was dis­cussed on th­ese pages last week. At a time when Don­ald Trump, the sur­prise fron­trun­ner to take the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for the United States pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, has been call­ing for all Mus­lims to be banned from en­ter­ing the coun­try, it’s an­other im­por­tant mo­ment for this quar­tet of Pak­istani acts to be jet­ting into the US.

“I think it’s im­por­tant for Pak­ista­nis to travel and be them­selves, rather than to have to ex­plain them­selves,” says Farhad Hu­mayun, the drum­mer/vo­cal­ist with Over­load, who have been refining their brand of dis­tinctly Pak­istani-flavoured rock mu­sic since the early 2000s.

The band em­ploys tra­di­tional dhol drums along­side more-reg­u­lar per­cus­sion, as well as a well­known gui­tarist, Aziz Ibrahim, once of the Stone Roses. Their lyrics are sung in English, Urdu and Pun­jabi. The band’s modus operandi is very per­cus­sion-led, with the heavy dhol-drum rhythms lead­ing the of­ten tribal-level beats. They’re off­set by crunch­ing, al­most- clas­sic- rock gui­tars and slap­ping bass flour­ishes that the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers’ Flea would be proud of, yet with a melodic del­i­cacy that reg­u­larly comes to the fore.

“I def­i­nitely think that Pak­istani mu­sic is the ve­hi­cle to clear­ing the air and show­ing the other side to Pak­istan that no­body talks about,” says Hu­mayun.

“I was read­ing an ar­ti­cle by the au­thor Mo­hammed Hanif in which he talks about ‘us’ – the ed­u­cated mod­ern Mus­lims who con­stantly have to clar­ify, to the rest of the world, what Is­lam is re­ally all about. I would like to take that re­spon­si­bil­ity and, through the mu­sic of Over­load, clar­ify many mis­con­cep­tions, with­out ever jus­ti­fy­ing or ex­plain­ing the ac­tions of ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions that have noth­ing to do with Is­lam but claim to be its flag bear­ers.”

Mu­sic’s co­a­lesc­ing forces are also cham­pi­oned by Mai Ni­mani, a folk singer from the Pak­istani prov­ince of Sindh who is ac­com­pa­nied by her hus­band Jamshaid on har­mo­nium and two per­cus­sion play­ers, in­clud­ing her brother-in-law, Naza­qat. “Mu­sic has no lim­its and no coun­try,” she says. “It has the power to bridge dif­fer­ences by sooth­ing the soul and hearts.”

The most colour­ful artist at the Face show­case is un­doubt­edly the flam­boy­ant Wahid Al­lan Faqir, also from Sindh, a folk artist in­flu­enced by the love po­etry of Sufi saints.

His en­er­getic sets are sound­tracked by a one-stringed in­stru­ment, the kingh, but cen­trestage goes to his im­pas­sioned vo­cals. He also hopes to use his mu­sic to build bridges be­tween the US and Pak­istan.

“I want to in­vite fel­low mu­si­cians from the US to come to Pak­istan. We want to know about their mu­sic and their thoughts. This will bring us closer.” He has also cam­paigned against an­other is­sue that has blighted Pak­istan: hon­our kill- ings. “In Su­fism, ev­ery hu­man be­ing is equal,” he ex­plains. “Men and women have equal rights; both have the same de­sires and dreams. They should be given due rights to live their lives in the way they want to.

“I re­ject the idea of hon­our killing and I am not afraid to raise my voice against this prac­tice.”

Among hap­pier tales of mat­ri­mony in the coun­try, Ni­mani says she owes her ca­reer to her mar­riage and that she has been for­tu­nate enough to never have en­coun­tered prej­u­dice in Pak­istan as a fe­male mu­si­cian. “I come from a mu­si­cal fam­ily,” she says. “My mother used to sing too, but I did not learn mu­sic un­til I got mar­ried. My hus­band told me that I have a beau­ti­ful voice and he can give me lessons on how to sing pro­fes­sion­ally.

“Ini­tially, I was very shy; I couldn’t even sing in front of him. Now, I can play in front of thou­sands of peo­ple. My big­gest per­for­mance was at Mu­sic Mela 2015 in Is­lam­abad, where I per­formed in front of 10,000 peo­ple.

“I have never felt any dif­fi­culty or chal­lenge. Wher­ever I per­form, peo­ple give me the same re­spect they give to my hus­band or the other band mem­bers. Some­times, peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate me more than my male band mem­bers.”

But many other dif­fi­cul­ties still face mu­si­cians in Pak­istan, ac­cord­ing to Hu­mayun.

“Pak­istan has many iden­tity is­sues,” he says. “Even though there’s no pro­hi­bi­tion of mu­sic in Is­lam, [some] cler­ics and their fol­low­ers dis­cour­age peo­ple to be en­ter­tained by mu­sic or cinema by quot­ing scrip­tures that were writ­ten for an­other pur­pose al­to­gether.

“The larger pop­u­la­tion, which is un­e­d­u­cated, fol­lows th­ese cler­ics be­cause they don’t know any bet­ter.

“Iron­i­cally, mu­sic, art and me­dia ripened the most dur­ing Gen­eral [ Pervez] Mushar­raf’s term, when the mil­i­tary took over in the late 1990s. We used to play three con­certs a night, three to four times a week. It was a blast.”

Since the as­sas­si­na­tion of the prime min­is­ter Be­nazir Bhutto in 2007, pub­lic events in gen­eral have de­clined, Hu­mayun says.

“Spon­sors aren’t will­ing to risk their rep­u­ta­tion in case some­thing goes wrong. So most lo­cal shows we play are ei­ther in schools or univer­si­ties, or for cor­po­ra­tions in closed venues.”

De­spite the prob­lems blight­ing gigs at home, Over­load have been reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to the UAE to play shows in the past few years, in­clud­ing gigs at the Avi­a­tion Club in Dubai and the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Shar­jah.

Vis­i­tors to SXSW shouldn’t, how­ever, be too wor­ried about Over­load’s past billing as “the loud­est band in Pak­istan”. “That hap­pened when we played some un­plugged shows with no mi­cro­phones or PA with the au­di­ence sit­ting very close to the drums,” says Hu­mayun.

“And the dhol has got to be the loud­est drum in the world. But we are a very mu­si­cal band that’s rhythm heavy. No earplugs re­quired.”

Mu­sic has no lim­its and no coun­try. It has the power to bridge dif­fer­ences by sooth­ing the soul and hearts

Mai Ni­mani, Pak­istani folk singer who will per­form at the SXSW fes­ti­val, Austin, Texas

Cour­tesy Foun­da­tion for Arts, Cul­ture and Education (Face); Over­load

Mai Ni­mani is one of four acts head­ing to the South by South­west (SXSW) fes­ti­val in the US to show­case Pak­istan’s mu­sic to the world. Rock band Over­load, vo­cal­ist Farhad Hu­mayun pic­tured below, will also per­form.

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