Arts

Beat Boys

By Ahmer Naqvi | 1 March 2014
fahd zia
Bunny Cycle, a music concert held at Karachi’s T2F café.

ON A DECEMBER EVENING LAST YEAR, Karachi’s T2F café, a coffee shop and bookstore frequented by writers, artists and activists, hosted a concert called Bunny Cycle. Blankets covered the ground floor of the open-plan space. Drums, amplifiers and laptops filled an informal performance area, and Japanese fitness videos were projected onto the wall behind it.

There were a few hiccups before the concert, which was organised by the bands performing that evening. The neighbours had complained that they could smell hashish, and about half an hour before the show began the musicians were busy assuring the T2F staff that there was nothing to worry about. The matter was settled without a fuss, and an audience of about a hundred people was soon sitting on the floor. Almost everyone wore black, and flannel and khadi were the preferred embellishments. Thick-rimmed glasses were the accessory of choice. The next day, a local newspaper described the gathering as “bohemian.”

The show itself proceeded without a hitch. The lineup delivered a variety of contemporary music: the post-grunge experiments of Sikandar ka Mandar, the electronic soundscapes of Alien Panda Jury, the folk-rock of Ali Suhail and the psychedelia of Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra. With all the excitement, it was easy to forget that the café, which describes itself as a “community space for open dialogue”, had been the target of a notorious heist two years ago when a charity art exhibition called Loot Maar was visited by armed men who took the title to its literal extreme, robbing visitors of their cash, cameras and laptops. The people running the café refused to shut it down or beef up security. Crime was, after all, a part of daily life in Karachi.

Karachi has one of the highest murder rates among the world’s major metropolises, and is overrun with local powerbrokers and militant groups playing out their turf battles. In 2013, Karachi’s murder toll stood at 3,251; many of these deaths were attributed to the city’s ubiquitous “target killers.” Bunny Cycle seemed an escape from the oppressive violence. It was also worlds away from contemporary music concerts in Karachi of the past. For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Karachi’s contemporary music concerts, most of them featuring heavy metal, were held in large, open-air spaces suffused with the thick smoke of joints and pungent vapours of alcohol. The bands were loud and guitar-heavy, the crowds large and rowdy, and the few women in attendance were usually surrounded by protective rings of their male friends. Concerts started relatively late, the sound quality was invariably awful, and the ambience was charged with paranoia because of inevitable fighting. People waved weapons around at the slightest provocation.

Bunny Cycle manifested what many in Karachi see as a shift in the local cultural scene, with literature and music no longer emerging only as an antithesis to the city’s violence, but also reflecting its frenzied character. For instance, the Karachi-based writer Saba Imtiaz’s debut novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me, released in late February, tells the story of a young female reporter working in a Karachi defined by bomb blasts and scattered body parts, but also by high couture and decadent parties. Another recent novel, Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here Is Too Great, follows a set of Karachi residents as they seek dignity and meaning amidst the chaos of a bomb explosion in the city. This embrace of turmoil is perhaps most strongly represented in the city’s emerging underground music scene, which boasts a fascinating range of sounds and inspirations.

The scene is also remarkable because it seems to herald the end of a dormant stage for Pakistan’s music industry. With the exception of new recordings of religious and folk music, album releases in the country have dwindled. Many nationally popular singers, most notably Atif Aslam, now contribute to the soundtracks of local dramas and Bollywood films instead of producing new albums. Local channels play Bollywood music, concerts are rare, and the only large platforms left for performing musicians are corporate-sponsored television shows that usually only feature established acts.

In terms of style, the sounds of the new underground resonate with experiments in contemporary music around the world. Take, for instance, the absurdist-folk of Shajie; the dread-laden post-rock of the band 6LA8; post-rock acts like Mole, Basheer & the Pied Pipers and //orangenoise; the progressive-ambient sound of Slowspin and Airliner; the electronic jazz of Toll Crane; the furiously melodic EDM of Dynoman; and the avant-garde electronica and post-rock of the likes of Nawksh, Rija Yousuf, Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra and DALT WISNEY.

Sheryar Hyatt is a cult figure in the Karachi underground music scene—many of the discordant sounds that characterise the city’s bands today can be traced back to the music he has been producing for almost a decade now under the moniker DALT WISNEY. When he moved to Karachi as a kid in the early 1990s, the city was experiencing a spurt in violence and kidnappings. In an interview with Vice magazine, he said of that time: “I don’t want to use the word, but [Karachi] was like a prison. You could maybe go house to house, maybe get high with different people. But ... I always wanted to just go home and back to making music. I wasn’t allowed out of the house—I was given a computer and books and a telescope. That’s how I started making music. I got one of those Korean pirated CDs with the music software in it, which I installed. So I think I mean prison in a positive sense, maybe like being stuck in a library. You make the most of it.”

The refrain of being stuck indoors is common among Karachi’s underground musicians. Another one of the current scene’s most influential bands, Mole, called their first EP We’re Always Home; this prompted the EDM producers Dynoman and Rudoh to name their collective of underground electronic bands Forever South, though the moniker they first came up with was “Forever At Home.”

Many things unite these disparate sounds and those who produce them. Floating through common hangouts and performing at the same venues, the underground’s musicians are all young (under 30), all enmeshed in each other’s lives and work, and all egging each other on in creative collaborations. All their music has been irrevocably influenced by technology, which has transformed how independent music is produced, recorded, performed and heard. Most importantly, the scene is fuelled by a cult-like zeal that exists nowhere else in Pakistani music.

Take the song ‘Hash ’n’ Bangers’ by Talha Wynne—who is known on the scene as Toll Crane and is also a member of //orangenoise—a jazz aficionado who told me he wanted to make “music he could bob his head to.” ‘Hash ’n’ Bangers’ begins with a simple snare and bass beat that is quickly joined by an alarm-like, horn-based melody, followed by the sound of breaking glass and a mix of squealing electronic beats. For Wynne, “all that grit that you see in my music is borrowed from the city itself.” He was particularly influenced, he told me over a Skype conversation, by the route he took to his workplace between 2011 and 2013. The journey started from the gaudy, fortified houses of the upscale neighbourhood of Defence and wound through the surreal chaos first beside the mazaar of Abdullah Shah Ghazi—Karachi’s patron saint—and then on the Mai Kolachi expressway, with a view of the city’s port in the distance. “You navigate through the formlessness of the trash heaps; the chaos of the traffic; the wistful, paradoxical barren landscape ... the sudden order of cargo boxes meant for ships. It was like being [high] on pot, and it was all this influence I absorbed that came through in my music.”

In an email, the Karachi-based music critic Safieh Shah said of Toll Crane’s music that it is “not something one can flit in and out of—much like a crowded city. It does demand your attention in the way being caught up in the thick of it—in the middle of traffic on a hot day.”

ONE OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST and fastest growing cities, Karachi has long been a cultural melting pot. Its ethnically and culturally diverse citizenry constantly destabilises the idea of Pakistan as a nation with a monolithic identity. The city has historically been a destination for the country’s migrant poor, and also for waves of refugees—starting with those driven here by the partition of the subcontinent and continuing with those fleeing the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan. Its position as a port and financial hub and the wanderings of its inhabitants have also continually exposed Karachi to cultural influences from all over the world. From its bawdy street slang to its dazzling fashion shows, all of Karachi’s expressions of style and aesthetics represent its cultural diversity. This has put the city at the forefront of a new wave of Pakistani television shows, films, theatre, literature and music.

For long-time residents, the new music produced in the city is nothing like the songs they have come to associate with Karachi over the years. Before alcohol and gambling was banned in Pakistan in 1977, Karachi was known for its cabarets and swanky discotheques. According to Hasan Zaidi—a filmmaker, music critic, and curator of the Kara Film Festival—whom I interviewed via email, “One of the earliest memories in terms of [Karachi’s] music would be the filmi ‘club’ numbers (such as ‘Ko Ko Korina’)—which was a result of that nightclub milieu which didn’t really exist elsewhere in the country.” If Lahore was the traditional centre of film-making in Pakistan, Karachi was in some ways the hub of pop culture. “Another association,” Zaidi said, “would be fusion music e.g. Allan Faqir and Muhammad Ali Shehki’s ‘Humma Humma,’ which kicked this entire genre off, and then Alamgir who would intersperse his Urdu lyrics with Bengali words. The hip female pop vocalists—Runa Laila, the Benjamin Sisters, Nazia Hasan, etc from the ’80s—have always seemed to be very quintessentially Karachi to me.”

Karachi’s music has long been associated with the guitar—starting in the 1960s and 1970s when the city’s vibrant nightclubs and discotheques swayed to local bands like The Panthers and The A-Has; through a slew of pop and classic rock bands like The Barbarians and The Milestones in the 1980s; and culminating in the 1990s with the country’s two most influential rock bands, Junoon and Vital Signs, which moved to Karachi from Lahore and Rawalpindi respectively. The city is also home to Faraz Anwar, who is widely acknowledged as one of Pakistan’s best guitarists.

After the turn of the millennium, however, the guitar appeared to have swallowed up the entire music scene. The cult status of guitarists like Anwar and Amir Zaki inspired bands that, as Zaidi described it, “[had] musicians [for whom] technical dexterity often took precedence over a holistic sense of music—thus the focus being mainly on the ‘axe-wielders’ and their solos.” Very few of these bands—guitar-centric, testosterone-laden, heavy-metal outfits—made original music; most were content to play covers. Many of the musicians on the current underground scene grew up playing in such bands, before rejecting them to pursue more original and challenging music.

One of those musicians is Daniel Arthur Panjaweeney, who, born into a family of musicians, had already performed on national television by the age of 16, with the metal band Messiah. Messiah was one of the few bands producing original songs in the early 2000s, and boasted crossover success, but was obliged to play lots of covers nevertheless. “It had gotten to a point when I was sick of playing other people’s songs, doing 26 different covers in a row,” Panjaweeney said when I spoke to him before the Bunny Cycle concert. “I just wanted to do something new, something which I had made myself.” It was an impulse common to many musicians around at that time.

ON A PLEASANT, sleepy afternoon in September 2013, I drove to a mansion situated a stone’s throw from the Shahrah-e-Faisal, Karachi’s main artery, which cuts through residential concentrations of many different ethnic communities. Driving down it, I had passed several garish malls, including one, topped with a large golden crown, which is rumoured to be owned by the gangster Dawood Ibrahim. Turning off the Shahrah-e-Faisal, I passed dozens of people queuing outside a heavily fortified building—the office of a courier service—to submit their visa applications for the UK.

The mansion, named Naubahar, was a throwback to an earlier Karachi, built in the 1950s in the art deco style. It had sweeping driveways, and generous windows without the menacing metal spikes favoured in newer houses. I was there to meet Haamid Rahim, also known as Dynoman, a music producer in his early twenties whose long hair and broad shoulders give him the air of a fast bowler. In 2012, Rahim recorded a song for his debut album Naubahar, called ‘Imaginary Parrots Cheebay,’ that served to represent the style of Karachi’s new underground music.

Sitting in his large bedroom, which offered a view of his front garden, Rahim told me the story behind the song. “I was randomly flipping channels one night when I came upon this Pakistani movie called Surraya,” he said. “I don’t normally watch local films, but something about this one had me captivated. I was just blown away by the sheer weight of emotions on display.” Having seen the film, a classic desi story of secret love between middle-class people, he went to sleep with the melodrama bouncing around in his head. In the middle of the night, he told me, he suddenly woke up, downloaded the film from YouTube, and began to splice together pieces of dialogue from it, juxtaposing reflections on family values and the politics of relationships. Rahim then combined these with a range of unusual sounds: electronic notes, mechanical claps and snippets of sitars melodies. The song that resulted was intense yet honest, evoking in listeners a sort of trance-like philosophical clarity.

‘Imaginary Parrots Cheebay’ begins with a girl talking to her sister-in-law.

Bhabi, mere kalejay mei to phaans utki hui hai. Agar ghar walon ko meri khufiya shaadi ka raaz pata chal gaya, to kya hoga?” (Bhabi, I am beside myself with fear—what will happen if the family find out about my secret wedding?)

This is followed by a snippet from a TED talk that encourages living without regret: “Things without remedy, should be without regard; what’s done is done.”

The song then returns to the film. This time, the heroine is talking to her lover:

 “Yousuf, humari khufiya shaadi ka anjam kya hoga? Bhabi tassaliyan to barri deti hain, magar…” (Yousuf, what will become of our secret wedding? Bhabi gives her reassurances, but...)
Tum mujh per aitebaar nahi karti, yehi kena chah rahi thi na?” (You don’t trust me, right? Isn’t that what you want to say?)

Agar main tum pe aitebaar na karti, to itna barra qadm kaisay uthati?” (If I didn’t trust you, how would I have ever taken such a big step like this?)

“Something about the song just drove home all the shit women have to deal with in our country, their absolute lack of options. I wanted to get that across somehow,” Rahim said.

Another act that defines the underground scene is Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra, which plays psychedelic, post-rock ambient music. The band consists of Omer Asim, Mudassir Sheikh, Sarim Khan, Asadullah Qureshi and Suhaib Nadeem, all of whom hail from Gulistan-e-Jauhar—a middle-class Karachi neighbourhood densely packed with apartment blocks and housing complexes. Sheikh, the band’s gawky frontman, delivers vocals in a dry monotone, while the rest of the members use a range of synthesisers, slides, mouth organs and laptops to create gloomy, thought-provoking and occasionally bizarre soundscapes. A prime example of their music is the song ‘White Lodge,’ which the band jokingly describes as being about a man who wants to poison a squirrel. The song’s lyrics, though, read like a treatise on the terror of being an individual:

Welcome to this uncanny lounge, 
of familiar uncertainty
A giant lounge with just a TV, 
glass walls and a family on the sofa
It’s a door that you’ve been trying 
to open all your life
Maybe it’s a dream that you saw every night, 
years ago as a child.

The song builds up with slowly cascading layers of sound plucked on electric guitar, which are steadily engulfed by discordant synthetic sounds that coalesce around a marching drum pattern. Those soon merge with heavily reverberating, wailing slide guitars and mumbled vocals. The progression remains gentle and subtle, and the song, like many others recently produced in Karachi, evokes a bewildering set of emotions.

IN THE SUMMER OF 2008, a thin, rakish young man with expressive eyes and a sharp wit showed up at V Sell Music, a store selling musical instruments in Khadda Market in the upscale area of Defence. The market is famous as a popular haunt for young, single men—the laundaparty, as they are locally known. The man was Talha Wynne, and he had just quit business school to study art. He wanted an internship at the store.

The store’s bemused owner agreed to take him on, and Wynne started working as a store assistant, showing young men around the shop when they gathered every evening to check out guitars and amplifiers. What Wynne actually wanted to do, though, was learn to play every instrument in the shop, he told me via Skype. After a year of working there, in 2009, he met Daniel Panjaweeney, and the two eventually got more friends together to form their own band: //orangenoise. “When we started we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to sound like,” Wynne said. “It had to be loud but sweet.” The band ascribed to a style of music called “shoegazing,” which draws its name from the repeated use of pedal effects that often has performers looking down at their feet. The //orangenoise boys soon created a new descriptor for their own music: “chappal-gazing.” One of their signature songs, ‘Rabblerouser,’ is marked by a menacing bass line laced with squealing, foreboding guitar play, all punctuated by vocals processed through a succession of digital effects. The band began renting out small cafés and auditoriums to play music that, according to one reviewer, “instantly immerses you in a wall of echo, reverb and beauty.”

//orangenoise often performed with the band Mole, since two of their members, Daniyal Hyatt and Faizan Reidinger, had started out playing with the latter. Like almost all the other bands of its vintage, Mole started out playing a lot of grunge and metal. “You go through this angry phase when you are young, and for us that was around when we were 13 or 14 and playing a lot of Nirvana covers. But you evolve out of that,” Hyatt said to me over the phone. A few months after Mole began performing, other musicians started to take notice. Several of the musicians I interviewed recalled being impressed with Mole’s “bravery” in composing new and original music, and performing it with laptops and synthesisers right after angry metal bands had just left the stage.

For their album We’re Always Home (2008), Mole employed a wide range of effects, sampled videogame loops, and added heavily manipulated synthesisers and crashing percussion. The album’s opening track, ‘Introduction,’ begins with looped bass samples and frantic digital bursts, evoking a sense of suspense. In the relatively cloistered environment of Karachi’s underground music, Mole’s was one of the first cries for change.

By the beginning of 2010, artists were connecting with one another all over Karachi. The musicians Saad Manzar and Salman Khan met as students at the city’s prestigious Aga Khan Medical University. During a concert at their university, the duo played an eccentric set that started with an hour of frenetic, post-rock covers of songs made popular by television shows such as Friends and Seinfeld, before riffing over 8-bit ringtones amplified from an old cell phone. By the end of the night, they decided to form a band together, which would go on to be called Basheer & the Pied Pipers.

A few months later, in October 2010, a friend asked them to show up at a concert at Karachi’s Arts Council, where they were introduced to Mole and //orangenoise. Panjaweeney told me he and his band were incredibly excited when they first heard Basheer & the Pied Pipers. “These guys were still setting up and doing the sound-check, but even then the kind of stuff they were doing felt phenomenal,” he said. “I remember we were all hanging around waiting for the crowd when Daniyal said ‘fuck this’ and just sat in front of the speakers to listen to these guys play.” Manzar was already a fan of Mole and //orangenoise, having recorded their songs during an earlier concert, which he had been listening to since. “It was one of those gigs where the audience stopped being part of the occasion [for the musicians],” Manzar said. “We were all just so excited to be there we just kept smiling at each other.”

The Hyatt family home in Defence became an adda for local musicians. Sheryar, Daniel’s brother whom a musician described to me as the “total legit baap (father)” of the electronic scene, also set up Mooshy Moo Records, which was ostensibly a record label but mostly served as a collective to encourage bands like Mole to start producing albums and EPs. In 2007, Sheryar released Lifetime Psychedelic Dance Lessons, an album of electronic tracks, under the moniker DALT WISNEY. Soon afterward, Mole released their EPs We’re Always Home and Visiting I, both on the Mooshy Moo label.

By 2011, there were enough musicians and producers in Karachi for Bilal Nasir Khan (also known as Rudoh) and Faizan Reidinger (also known as Freidi) to launch a collective called Karachi Detour Rampage, which selected and recorded songs from various acts. The idea of a home-grown electronic music scene was catching on. In 2011, Rahim, who was then a college student in the US, had recently been introduced to a computer programme for creating and editing music, called Reason, which allowed him to try his hand at electronic music. While browsing for music online, he came across DALT WISNEY and Karachi Detour Rampage. “When I heard the kinds of sounds being made in Karachi, my first instinct was I have to be [in] on this,” he said. Emboldened, he decided to abandon a possible career as an IT consultant in the US and return home to pursue music. Unfortunately, by the time Rahim got in touch with the Detour Rampage curators at the end of 2011, they had lost their steam.

Undeterred, Rahim decided to “set something up” and, in early 2012, while still in the US, he started sending out messages to various Karachi musicians he had heard online. After several months of waiting around as he wound down his studies, he began to slowly receive responses. By the summer of 2012, he and Khan had set up a collective of electronic producers called Forever South, and in June that year the collective released its first single, Rahim’s ‘Escape.’ Like most songs produced on the underground scene, it got little attention initially, but steadily garnered hits online and attracted a small core audience of a few hundred fans, who kept returning to it.

In February 2013, Forever South brought out its first compilation album, Collections Vol. 1, which featured several artists, including the collective’s founders. Most of the ten artists featured were members of the Karachi underground: Treehouse, chi.boss, Alien Panda Jury, Toll Crane, TMPST, EMPROR LEPHANT, Dreadnaught and Friedi. What had started as a bold experiment was now an established phenomenon.

THE GROWTH OF THE KARACHI underground owes much to the internet, which has provided musicians with opportunities to reach peers, critics and fans at a time when conventional means of distributing music are becoming increasingly less popular. Take the story of Asfandyar Khan, at first glance a buttoned-down Islamabadi. Khan had learned to play the guitar in his teens after becoming enamoured with metal, but soon realised that the genre was not for him. Drawn to complex arrangements, in 2010 Khan began seeking out like-minded music fans online. While he waited to find the right people, he began to write about new Pakistani music, especially from Karachi, for websites such as No Fear of Pop and Border Movement. Slowly, the musicians he was listening to and interviewing over the internet began to influence his own music. “When [these guys in Karachi] started making this music—adding so many instruments to their songs—I was extremely intrigued,” he said when we spoke in Islamabad. “Here was electronic music with its infinite possibilities. Already with ambient [music] I’d become comfortable manipulating a guitar’s sound to a point where it sounded like something completely different. But with electronic music, it just makes you want to pick up more things because you realise you don’t want to just make guitar music, you want to make music.”

Soon, Khan began collaborating with musicians in Karachi over the internet. In 2012, he made it on to Forever South’s debut compilation under the moniker “TMPST.” Two of the songs he created for that album, ‘Suntrails’ and ‘Are You,’ were a definitive shift away from his previous work. One of the songs he later released with the Forever South crew was ‘Magnolia’, which is built around a brooding melody with sharp, cascading high tones that give the listener the impression of emerging from darkness into light. Yet, incredibly, it wasn’t until several months after the release of Collections Vol. 1, during a visit to Karachi, that Khan actually met the people he had been working with.

The internet has allowed the creation of a virtual community that holds the scene together. Like everywhere else in the world, its presence has profoundly affected how music is heard and shared in Pakistan. All of Karachi’s underground bands maintain Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and use streaming services such as YouTube and Soundcloud to reach thousands of listeners from around the world. Instead of releasing CDs or tapes, the bands post albums online.

Now, several members of the scene are being recognised by the mainstream, offline Pakistani media. In 2011, Mole was chosen to play on season four of Coke Studio, a popular concert series on Pakistani television; //orangenoise, easily the most unconventional of the underground bands, was showcased in 2012 on UfoneUth Records, a television programme highlighting young talent; and Dynoman’s debut album was nominated for album of 2012 by the Lux Style Awards, the most prestigious awards in the Pakistani entertainment industry.

THE LAST BAND TO PERFORM at Bunny Cycle was Sikandar Ka Mandar, whose front man is Nadir Shehzad. When Shehzad took the stage, he held his mobile phone to his face, recording a video of the crowd which was capturing his performance on their smartphones. On and off stage, Shehzad is both awkward and gregarious at the same time. On stage, he often seems to start shivering from the intensity of his performance, and at times breaks off in the middle of a song. He often then delivers a few nods and winks to the crowd, followed by some sotto voce punch lines, before suddenly picking up the song where he had left off.

That energy isn’t limited to Shehzad’s performances alone. His career in music is representative of the way Karachi’s fringe artists have sustained their work in the absence of an industry or infrastructure. Growing up, Shehzad, who is a graduate of the city’s Indus Valley School of Art, and his friend Shajie Hassan, now a pilot who also plays soulful folk-pop songs, spent their teens, in the early years of the millennium, in Malir Cantt, a partial cantonment area cut off from Karachi’s other upper- and middle-class enclaves. Shehzad and Hassan spent their time making bizarre comedy sketches and film parodies, which they would upload online. Both of them also used to play the guitar as a hobby. In 2011, MTV Pakistan approached Shehzad to develop a show on underground musicians. He accepted the offer, and started working on the show Lussun TV.

Shehzad started shooting a large variety of underground artists, including Mole and //orangenoise, but also local sitar players and Sindhi acoustic acts. But before anything went on air, or any money changed hands, MTV Pakistan declared itself bankrupt. Shehzad started seeking new sponsors for the show while he continued to work full-time as a graphic designer. It wasn’t easy. “I just wasn’t able to sell my vision to any of the people I met,” he said. “They kept suggesting that we do covers or make something with a more ‘Pakistani touch’—essentially the kind of music which already existed.” Other ideas suggested by potential sponsors were no more acceptable to him. “They would suggest that we set up a ‘battle of the bands’ and have audiences send in SMSes to decide which one they liked the most. I’m sorry, but other than helping sell some shampoos or drinks, how exactly would such a format help create better music? It just didn’t make any sense to me,” Shehzad said.

But rather than give up, Shehzad just posted everything he had made on the internet. The show didn’t go viral, but kept steadily racking up hits as more and more fans began to discover Pakistan’s burgeoning underground scene through social media and music-sharing websites. Over the next two years, Shehzad and the several bands involved with the show, particularly Jumbo Jutt, Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra and //orangenoise, pooled money and produced two more seasons, using DSLR cameras and shooting in Shehzad’s parents’ living room. Throughout its three-year run, Shehzad’s show has featured more than a dozen different underground acts. Songs from the three seasons are now also on audio cassettes, which the team gives out to fans for free.

Independent musicians in Pakistan must often take on the roles of manager, publicist, event manager, accountant, video director, producer and more. The Forever South label has itself organised various live events over the past year, held at venues ranging from art galleries to wedding halls, all of which have been paid for by the musicians. In early 2014, Shehzad launched the Khayaban-e-Lussun tour, brining artists who had performed on his show to play in a café-cum-gallery in Islamabad and a puppet theatre in Lahore. In preparation for live events, bands and collectives in Karachi not only send out tweets and design show tickets, they are also responsible for additional duties such as keeping generators fuelled and negotiating with corrupt policemen.

Though the scene is driven by what seems like an unwavering passion, observers wonder about its future. With their college degrees and the freedom to pursue music without any commercial rewards, many of the musicians are part of Karachi’s privileged class, although several are from middle-class backgrounds. Although most of these artists started as students—and some are still studying—almost all of them currently hold full-time jobs in various fields, such as sound production, graphic designing, banking and medicine. The societal pressures they face, chiefly to make money, can be unrelenting, but many of Karachi’s underground artists are determined to carry on nevertheless. “Sometimes, you feel like you just have to keep making new stuff in order to make sure that you are around when something [definitive] happens,” Daniyal Hyatt told me. “It’s stubbornness to a great degree, but I guess we won’t let this scene die.”

Correction: An error in a photo caption has been corrected online. The graphic art in the image is not a part of a Karachi administration drive against the use of weapons in the city, but an appeal from artists to end the violence. The Caravan regrets the error.

Ahmer Naqvi is a freelance journalist based in Karachi who writes on cricket, music, cinema and popular culture.

ON A DECEMBER EVENING LAST YEAR, Karachi’s T2F café, a coffee shop and bookstore frequented by writers, artists and activists, hosted a concert called Bunny Cycle. Blankets covered the ground floor of the open-plan space. Drums, amplifiers and laptops filled an informal performance area, and Japanese fitness videos were projected onto the wall behind it.

There were a few hiccups before the concert, which was organised by the bands performing that evening. The neighbours had complained that they could smell hashish, and about half an hour before the show began the musicians were busy assuring the T2F staff that there was nothing to worry about. The matter was settled without a fuss, and an audience of about a hundred people was soon sitting on the floor. Almost everyone wore black, and flannel and khadi were the preferred embellishments. Thick-rimmed glasses were the accessory of choice. The next day, a local newspaper described the gathering as “bohemian.”

The show itself proceeded without a hitch. The lineup delivered a variety of contemporary music: the post-grunge experiments of Sikandar ka Mandar, the electronic soundscapes of Alien Panda Jury, the folk-rock of Ali Suhail and the psychedelia of Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra. With all the excitement, it was easy to forget that the café, which describes itself as a “community space for open dialogue”, had been the target of a notorious heist two years ago when a charity art exhibition called Loot Maar was visited by armed men who took the title to its literal extreme, robbing visitors of their cash, cameras and laptops. The people running the café refused to shut it down or beef up security. Crime was, after all, a part of daily life in Karachi.

Karachi has one of the highest murder rates among the world’s major metropolises, and is overrun with local powerbrokers and militant groups playing out their turf battles. In 2013, Karachi’s murder toll stood at 3,251; many of these deaths were attributed to the city’s ubiquitous “target killers.” Bunny Cycle seemed an escape from the oppressive violence. It was also worlds away from contemporary music concerts in Karachi of the past. For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Karachi’s contemporary music concerts, most of them featuring heavy metal, were held in large, open-air spaces suffused with the thick smoke of joints and pungent vapours of alcohol. The bands were loud and guitar-heavy, the crowds large and rowdy, and the few women in attendance were usually surrounded by protective rings of their male friends. Concerts started relatively late, the sound quality was invariably awful, and the ambience was charged with paranoia because of inevitable fighting. People waved weapons around at the slightest provocation.

Bunny Cycle manifested what many in Karachi see as a shift in the local cultural scene, with literature and music no longer emerging only as an antithesis to the city’s violence, but also reflecting its frenzied character. For instance, the Karachi-based writer Saba Imtiaz’s debut novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me, released in late February, tells the story of a young female reporter working in a Karachi defined by bomb blasts and scattered body parts, but also by high couture and decadent parties. Another recent novel, Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here Is Too Great, follows a set of Karachi residents as they seek dignity and meaning amidst the chaos of a bomb explosion in the city. This embrace of turmoil is perhaps most strongly represented in the city’s emerging underground music scene, which boasts a fascinating range of sounds and inspirations.

The scene is also remarkable because it seems to herald the end of a dormant stage for Pakistan’s music industry. With the exception of new recordings of religious and folk music, album releases in the country have dwindled. Many nationally popular singers, most notably Atif Aslam, now contribute to the soundtracks of local dramas and Bollywood films instead of producing new albums. Local channels play Bollywood music, concerts are rare, and the only large platforms left for performing musicians are corporate-sponsored television shows that usually only feature established acts.

In terms of style, the sounds of the new underground resonate with experiments in contemporary music around the world. Take, for instance, the absurdist-folk of Shajie; the dread-laden post-rock of the band 6LA8; post-rock acts like Mole, Basheer & the Pied Pipers and //orangenoise; the progressive-ambient sound of Slowspin and Airliner; the electronic jazz of Toll Crane; the furiously melodic EDM of Dynoman; and the avant-garde electronica and post-rock of the likes of Nawksh, Rija Yousuf, Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra and DALT WISNEY.

Sheryar Hyatt is a cult figure in the Karachi underground music scene—many of the discordant sounds that characterise the city’s bands today can be traced back to the music he has been producing for almost a decade now under the moniker DALT WISNEY. When he moved to Karachi as a kid in the early 1990s, the city was experiencing a spurt in violence and kidnappings. In an interview with Vice magazine, he said of that time: “I don’t want to use the word, but [Karachi] was like a prison. You could maybe go house to house, maybe get high with different people. But ... I always wanted to just go home and back to making music. I wasn’t allowed out of the house—I was given a computer and books and a telescope. That’s how I started making music. I got one of those Korean pirated CDs with the music software in it, which I installed. So I think I mean prison in a positive sense, maybe like being stuck in a library. You make the most of it.”

The refrain of being stuck indoors is common among Karachi’s underground musicians. Another one of the current scene’s most influential bands, Mole, called their first EP We’re Always Home; this prompted the EDM producers Dynoman and Rudoh to name their collective of underground electronic bands Forever South, though the moniker they first came up with was “Forever At Home.”

Many things unite these disparate sounds and those who produce them. Floating through common hangouts and performing at the same venues, the underground’s musicians are all young (under 30), all enmeshed in each other’s lives and work, and all egging each other on in creative collaborations. All their music has been irrevocably influenced by technology, which has transformed how independent music is produced, recorded, performed and heard. Most importantly, the scene is fuelled by a cult-like zeal that exists nowhere else in Pakistani music.

Take the song ‘Hash ’n’ Bangers’ by Talha Wynne—who is known on the scene as Toll Crane and is also a member of //orangenoise—a jazz aficionado who told me he wanted to make “music he could bob his head to.” ‘Hash ’n’ Bangers’ begins with a simple snare and bass beat that is quickly joined by an alarm-like, horn-based melody, followed by the sound of breaking glass and a mix of squealing electronic beats. For Wynne, “all that grit that you see in my music is borrowed from the city itself.” He was particularly influenced, he told me over a Skype conversation, by the route he took to his workplace between 2011 and 2013. The journey started from the gaudy, fortified houses of the upscale neighbourhood of Defence and wound through the surreal chaos first beside the mazaar of Abdullah Shah Ghazi—Karachi’s patron saint—and then on the Mai Kolachi expressway, with a view of the city’s port in the distance. “You navigate through the formlessness of the trash heaps; the chaos of the traffic; the wistful, paradoxical barren landscape ... the sudden order of cargo boxes meant for ships. It was like being [high] on pot, and it was all this influence I absorbed that came through in my music.”

In an email, the Karachi-based music critic Safieh Shah said of Toll Crane’s music that it is “not something one can flit in and out of—much like a crowded city. It does demand your attention in the way being caught up in the thick of it—in the middle of traffic on a hot day.”

ONE OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST and fastest growing cities, Karachi has long been a cultural melting pot. Its ethnically and culturally diverse citizenry constantly destabilises the idea of Pakistan as a nation with a monolithic identity. The city has historically been a destination for the country’s migrant poor, and also for waves of refugees—starting with those driven here by the partition of the subcontinent and continuing with those fleeing the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan. Its position as a port and financial hub and the wanderings of its inhabitants have also continually exposed Karachi to cultural influences from all over the world. From its bawdy street slang to its dazzling fashion shows, all of Karachi’s expressions of style and aesthetics represent its cultural diversity. This has put the city at the forefront of a new wave of Pakistani television shows, films, theatre, literature and music.

READER'S COMMENTS [1]

Great read.

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