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Pakistani Music: How far have we come?

There is a wide variety of musical styles in Pakistan, from the Sufi-inspired qawwali to plain ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. The music incorporates various styles and traditions, including South Asian, Central Asian, Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and contemporary Western popular music. Despite these many influences, a uniquely Pakistani sound has emerged. There has always been music in Pakistan, just as music everywhere else. But back then, society in Pakistan wasn’t quite as strict and Islamic as it is now.

In the 1960s, when alcohol was still allowed and couples often went to the movies together, Pakistan flourished; Jackie Kennedy’s trips likely contributed to this. The conservative dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq culminated in the emergence of political Islam in Pakistan throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the unstable political climate, Pakistani music has maintained its rich heritage.

Anyone who grew up in Pakistan in the ’80s knows that the Vital band Signs recorded a song called “Dil Dil Pakistan,” and Pakistanis quickly recognized the patriotism of these young leather-jacketed motorcyclists. The members of Vital Signs, decked out in Ray-Ban wayfarers, defied General Zia-ul-oppressive Haq’s rule and introduced Pakistanis to pop music. As expected, the song was not prohibited due to its nationalistic nature. Earlier in the decade, the late Nazia Hassan recorded a song titled “Disco Deewane,”.  The song became the first by a Pakistani artist to appear on the US Billboard charts.

Despite being widely regarded as the “U2 of Pakistan,” Junoon had difficulty hearing their music. Salman Ahmed, one of the band members, claims that forming the band was the first time he publicly expressed his political beliefs. The band Junoon ran into difficulty due to their songs, which criticized the rottenness of Pakistan’s elite (like Benazir Bhutto). The government outright forbade them. Junoon’s lead singer Ali Azmat referred to the band as “musical guerillas,” but the ban merely boosted the group’s status as folk heroes among an underground audience.

Due to the media expansion in the early 2000s, many young artists could get exposure to their work. Many new Pakistani celebrities became famous thanks to the proliferation of television stations in the country. Coke Studio debuted in the middle of the decade. Coke Studio has successfully combined many musical styles in its Live at Abbey Road version. Coke Studio is responsible for successfully fusing hitherto incompatible musical genres, such as qawwali and bhangra, and ghazals and rock, with the collaboration of musicians from around India.

Also, there are Pakistani artists, among whom Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan stands out as an enduring figure. Khan, the most formidable of Pakistan’s qawwali singers, often worked with Peter Gabriel and contributed to the soundtracks of films including Dead Man Walking, Natural Born Killer, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gangs of New York.

Pakistan’s music industry is rapidly growing and flourishing in ways that were not predicted but are very much welcomed. 

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