Lahore rocks in Pakistan's shadow of change

I spent my elementary and middle school years in Lahore, when the underground rock scene was in full effect. Some good shows were played despite a lack of infrastructure, such as clubs, practice spaces and studios. I saw a great concert in one of my friend’s backyards where the stage was made up of two trucks with their tailgates parked against each other.

I left the US and my band the Kominas in 2007 to attend to my unfinished business of playing music in Lahore. When I arrived, I was surprised by how closed-off much of the scene had become, despite advances in media. All gigs were by invite-only and couples-only. Instead of backyards, bands were playing hotels, or golf and gym resorts with had exclusive private memberships.

I remember jam sessions on my modest street in Model Town in 1997 which anyone and everyone could attend, but when I went to the house of someone who had been an old stalwart of the scene during that time, he grimly told me that gigs had all but been shut down.

My time away had made me an outsider to the scene. I had walked into the era of the Pakistani power ballad, replete with pretty boys and Levi’s jeans sponsorships. It wasn’t until I found myself at a hashish-cutting ceremony that I met like-minded individuals. A boy from Karachi was urged by our mutual dealer to play me a song on his cellphone. The song was written in opposition to maulvis (religious clerics) and its chorus went something like “Pehla de fahashi, maulvi banjai marasi,” which means “spread the decadence, let maulvis become street musicians.”

We quickly began rehearsing songs through my busted amplifier, under the name of the Dead Bhuttos. We wrote a song called Teri Aisi ki Taisi about police corruption in Lahore, the curfews in Karachi, and numerous puns on the Urdu word for thief, which is only a letter away from the verb “to copulate”.

We forwarded the song around, but the subject matter and our band’s name meant it was turned down every chance that we  got. Soon, our project was dead in the water.
I swore off playing in groups until the Kominas’ guitarist, Shahjehan, moved from Boston to Lahore to live with me. Our friend and author Michael Muhammad Knight stayed with us to attend our concerts, which made rounds in the Lahori gossip circles.
As it turned out, our drummer and guitar player walked out on us 10 days before our first gig because of what Knight had written, which they found blasphemous.

Suddenly, we found ourselves the subject of controversy we never anticipated, and old friends ceased coming to our flat.

Rumours began circulating and people began speculating that we were patronised by the American government to drum up controversy that would make Pakistan look bad.
Our major break came when we managed to book the rooftop of a lodge in Heera Mundi, the notorious Lahore red light district. We plastered flyers around town and made sure to let people know it was free.

The show proved how easy it is to break though the suffocating class divisions in Pakistan. We had been told we were playing western music that was for the westernised elite, but that night we saw rickshaw drivers and the betel leaf-chewing denizens of the old city slam dancing to Punjabi punk rock for the first time. As more people from the streets filtered up to the roof, hotel staff got nervous and told us not to invite these people, as they were “the wrong people for this event,” but our flyer designer Mike Knight argued with them while we carried on, performing the same set maybe three times over.

Ironically, the only time the Taliban or Islamic extremism became an issue was when I was playing as a session musician for Arieb Azhar, a singer of Sufi poetry. We played at the World Performing Arts Festival, the largest gathering of performing arts in the country, when a bomb went off outside the stadium.

After the blast, a flute player named Akmal had tears in his eyes. If blasts keep happening at cultural events he is going to be out of a job.

The live music scene in Lahore was seriously injured after that. There were even more stringent rules for attendance to gigs than before. If the rock scene in Pakistan seems conservative and disconnected to the ‘New York Times’, should it really be that much of a surprise?

One story that gets lost in all this Taliban-related media hype is the Lahore Guitar School. Our friends in the band Co-Ven opened the guitar school in Lahore, and their singer Hamza tells me some of his students are in a teenage all-girl band. Other friends of mine who teach there say that their students can be as young as seven or eight.

The scene may have been limited before, but things are hardly static in Pakistan. Change may be just around the corner.

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