Karachi, Pakistan is one of the world’s most violent cities. And yet some of the music coming out of it would fit right in at a garden party on Cape Cod.
The disconnect is emblematic of a new cultural era for the world’s seventh largest city, characterized by variety. Outsiders are noticing, from Rolling Stone to Pakistan's neighbors in India. A writer for the Delhi-based magazine Caravan recently dove into the city’s secret clubs and concluded that a “shift” aided by the internet is producing an unprecedented range of sounds, "reflecting [Karachi's] frenzied character.”
Even the band names seem designed to stir things up, with an almost overwrought indie sensibility: Mole, //orangenoise, Dynoman, Basheer & the Pied Pipers, Alien Panda Jury, and DALT WISNEY are a few of the current hottest indie acts. Because Pakistani hits historically come from the classical world or the movies -- meaning Bollywood, or the Lahore analog, Lollywood -- these independent artists are forming collectives that act as labels, helping bands put out albums and promoting each other.
The best-known collective is Forever South (FXS), inspired in name by one of the first albums put out by the Karachi-based band Mole. FXS members -- most of them young men -- tend to self-identify with Electronic Dance Music, which generally emanates from a single deejay’s computer. The bare-bones production of EDM is a natural fit in a country where independent studios are a rarity.
But the sounds embraced by Karachi's young musicians also recall two traditional Sufi forms that reign in the Muslim country. The ghazal, which translates to “the mortal cry of the gazelle,” tends to be slow and dreamy, while the quick beats of qawwali are intended to score the spins of whirling dervishes, as they twirl their way to enlightenment.
As in any good music scene, there are turf wars. In an interview last fall with Vice Magazine's electronic music spinoff THUMP, the rising Islamabad-based producer Talal Qureshi distanced himself from “that word ‘trippy.’” According to Qureshi, his peers in Karachi are limiting themselves by sticking to “music which is good to dance and be on drugs to.”
The comments rippled through the Pakistani music scene. In a counter interview with THUMP, FXS hit back at Qureshi, using their respective cities as ammunition. “Karachi,” said one member, “is a living city.” Meanwhile, “after 8pm Islamabad shuts down. All the house lights are switched off. It’s a town full of retired army uncles.”
There is one meeting point for every young Pakistani hopeful: the internet. Scour YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, and you’ll soon be an expert in subcontinental indie.
But domestically, traditional venues still count. The Caravan article names a trigger for the "shift," when the band Mole performed on the popular Pakistani concert series, Coke Studio, in 2011. Sponsored by Coca Cola, the televised series tends to launch the careers of mainstream acts, as it did for the Pakistani pop star Atif Aslam.
The Mole appearance jumpstarted what the cautious are calling an “overly experimental approach” at Coke Studio HQ. (Notably, one of Mole’s members is the son of a Coke Studio founder.)
Hearing "drone beeps" of electronica mixed in with otherwise standard fare, a journalist at The Friday Times, an independent weekly in Pakistan, praised the new era at Coke Studio, marked by "the humility of the old learning from the new."
Uzair Jaiswal, the youngest singer ever to perform at Coke Studio, "represents the shift in musical culture, led by a generation [eager] for electronic sounds," wrote the Friday Times.
It’s not all revolution. Drinking alcohol is still illegal in Pakistan, a rule that ghettoizes the music scene into underground house parties.
But limitations bring their own opportunities. In the THUMP interview, DALT WISNEY compared Karachi to "a prison." As a kid, he wasn't allowed to roam due to threats of violence and kidnappings. It was on his daily circuit, from home to school to a pirated music store and then back home, that he found a CD of music-making software. "That's how I started making music," he told THUMP. "So I think I mean prison in a positive sense, maybe like being stuck in a library. You make the most of it."