When four young, clean-cut, jeans-clad boys ventured on to Pakistani television screens with their guitars and a catchy, if lightweight, patriotic song in 1986, there was an uproar in the country. It was something completely new in a society still struggling to come to terms with the censorship imposed by a repressive military dictatorship and the narrow, ideologically defined limits of state culture. The four young boys’ clothes, their music and their behaviour smacked of Western influences and they represented a youth culture heretofore denied any representation on the staid state channel. While the young hailed them as a breath of fresh air in a stultifying environment, to the older defenders of public morality the four boys represented all that was wrong with the youth of the day: "illiterate of their own culture, interested in slavishly aping the West, and wasting their time in frivolous pursuits rather than becoming respected citizens of society." Little did either side suspect at the time that the Vital Signs, which these boys fancifully called themselves, and their song, "Dil Dil Pakistan", would signal the start of a kind of musical revolution in Pakistan.
The Vital Signs and their music represented a watershed in Pakistani pop music. Suddenly, after being gradually split along ethnic and rural-urban lines during the early ’80s, Pakistani commercial music had become divided along generational lines as well. What the youth of the country listened to, danced to and liked now was very different from what their parents’ generation could appreciate. And this was a divide that would only grow with time. Since that fateful day in 1986, the pop music sector has grown into a full-fledged industry catering mainly to the youth of the country, evidence of the profitability of which can be gauged from the multinational money pumped into corporate sponsorships for it. And while the industry has now grown enough to allow for niche-targeted music, the dinosaur-ish Vital Signs are still accepted as the fathers of modern Pakistani pop music.
But were the Vital Signs really the pioneers of pop music in Pakistan? Certainly not, if one accepts that the definition of "pop" is a fluid one and changes over time. At least for the generations that grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, film music was the most influential popular music there was. The 1966 Ahmed Rushdie-sung, Sohail Rana-composed "Ko Ko Korina" can easily lay claim to be the first real Pakistani pop song by any definition of the term. No wonder then that the image of a charismatic Waheed Murad shaking and lip-synching to this famous number remains deeply evocative of the swinging sixties to this day. Defining "pop" music as non-filmi music will, thus, always be highly problematic.
But even if one were to separate (unfairly, it must be stressed) pop music from film music, the Vital Signs could still scarcely claim the honour of being pioneers. In fact, the real pioneers of non-filmi pop music in Pakistan were the "underground Anglo" bands of the ’60s. Modelled on the musical style of English performers such as Cliff Richards and his band The Shadows, Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck, mostly Christian bands such as the Karachi-based Keytones and Ivan’s Aces and the Dhaka-based The Iolites were all the rage on stage in hotels across the country. Ivan’s Aces, for example, got feet moving at the Hotel Metropole and the Horseshoe Restaurant and Bar. This was the time when the theme song from the American film "Come September" stayed at the number one slot on the Capstan Hit Parade for a record 30 straight weeks, and when Radio Pakistan’s English show deejay Edward Carrapiet ruled the airwaves.
The only thing that can be said against considering these hotel and dance-hall bands as the true pioneers of pop music in Pakistan is that they sang mostly covers of English songs and did not ever release their own music, if they wrote any. But then this is a quibbling matter and it must be remembered that this was the pre-cassette age, a reality that made releasing one’s own music financially prohibitive for most artistes. Even if one accepts this argument, however, there is no way that the Vital Signs could wrest the title of pop pioneers from the next generation of performers that achieved widespread acclaim throughout the country, courtesy the advent of television: Runa Laila and Alamgir.
Runa Laila had recorded many film songs as a playback singer beginning in the late ’60s, but she really shot to fame in the early ’70s on the "Zia Moheyuddin Show". Appearing in a tight-fitting shirt and bell-bottomed trousers with her sister Dina Laila to sing "Shakira Ki Maan Yeh Boli", she was probably Pakistani television’s first pop star. Since her appearance on PTV, the raucous number "Hoye, Hoye, Hoye, Dil Dharke", originally recorded for the film "Anjuman", was never identified with anyone else. Her instant celebrity also meant that she easily procured recording contracts and was able to release her own albums on LPs complete with psychedelic sleeves.
Pakistan’s first male pop star was easily Alamgir who arrived in West Pakistan, like Runa Laila, from Dhaka. Alamgir’s first big hit, the rebelliously upbeat "Dekha Na Tha (Kabhi Hum Ne Yeh Sama)", remains the song he is still most identified with, though later songs such as "Yeh Shaam Aur Tera Naam" and "Mein Ne Tumhare Gagar Se Kabhi Pani" continued to add to his oeuvre. There is no denying Alamgir’s contribution to the evolution of the pop music genre in Pakistan, even if he did later succumb to some political correctness by mauling the lyrics of "Dekha Na Tha" (the subversive word "nasha" became the milder "jadoo") in culturally more repressive times. Alamgir, it must be said, laid the groundwork that countless others used to break into the music industry. He not only sang well, he was a performer in the true sense of the word, dancing, shaking his trademark tambourine and emoting for television audiences. Later on, he would also introduce instruments such as the acoustic guitar and keyboards on camera in his television performances.
The ’70s were as much a period of cultural and intellectual ferment as they were of political excitement. This was the period when the svelte Iranian singer Khanum Gogosh could be seen dancing her way through Farsi numbers on Pakistan Television and folk musicians such as Alan Faqir, Pathana Khan and the Sabri brothers were being introduced to the national audience for the first time. Pop singers such as Shyhaki followed in the trail blazed by Runa Laila and Alamgir, even though he started on PTV with the traditional ghazal genre with Iftikhar Arif’s "Tum Se Bichhar Kar Zinda Hain". Among the talent that emerged at the time, he was the most successful in translating the recognition he received from television appearances into a lucrative stage career. At the same time, Naheed Akhtar emerged as a powerful new pop female voice, even though she limited her exposure to film and television and never really became a stage performer in the true "pop" sense. Nevertheless, her funky film songs such as "Tut Turu Turu Tara Tara", "Zuzu Zuzu Mera Mehboob Hai Tu" and "Yeh Aaj Mujh Ko Kya Hua (Lara Lara Lara)" became huge popular hits and defined the sound of the ’70s for many people.
The imposition of General Zia’s martial law in 1977 coincided with many other social developments which together changed the face of music in Pakistan. For one, the mid-to late-’70s saw the demise of Urdu cinema in Pakistan and the rise of the more earthy Punjabi cinema. This was coupled with the strict code of censorship imposed by the martial law regime to drive middle-class viewers away from film houses. Television, thus started playing a more important role in urban areas and new musical talent became more inclined to put itself on display in that medium. Consequently, the quality of film music also declined. At the same time, audio cassettes became increasingly widespread and recording equipment became relatively cheaper, allowing small studios to flood the market with new talent. This was the era that saw the rise of such folk-pop heroes as the Seraiki-singing Attaullah Eesakhelvi whose entire popularity in the early to mid-’80s was based on the dispersion of his cheap audio cassettes which were popular in particular with long-haul truck and bus drivers.
The popular discontent with the military dictatorship had engendered a political movement against it, which was most visible in Sindh. It was only natural, then, that music reflected this dissent and the early ’80s also saw the rise of political pop in Sindh, whose lyrics explicitly dealt with issues of freedom and repression. In addition, the state’s attempt to impose a unitary culture, in the shape of religious ideology, actually resulted in a backlash in the form of a further assertion of ethnic and spiritual identities. Sindhi Sufi and Seraiki folk music, in particular, became extremely popular and saw the rise of master musicians such as Alan Faqir, Pathana Khan, Sohrab Faqir and Abida Parveen. Such was the popularity of this music that even the state-controlled PTV channel had to nod its head to it. The most visible display of this acknowledgement was the Alan Faqir-Shyhaki duet "Humma Humma" recorded and broadcast by PTV in 1984. Folk musicians would continue to have a major impact on more mainstream pop music well into the future.
Meanwhile, the high watermark on the less political, youth music scene, came in 1980 when an unknown young girl called Nazia Hasan crossed the taboo Pakistan-India border to sing one husky number in an Indian film called "Qurbani". "Aap Jaisa Koi" became a youth anthem in both India and Pakistan. In 1981, Nazia and her brother Zoheb teamed up with "Aap Jaisa Koi’s" Indian composer, Biddu, to release "Disco Deewane" which quickly became the biggest selling pop album till then in Pakistan. Nothing in the music scenario in Pakistan at that point could be said to have spawned the Hasan duo’s music, and it owed much more to the disco-fever sweeping London where the brother and sister had spent their teenage years. But that was perhaps why its freshness was lapped up by an audience who had become familiar with Western acts such as Abba, the Bee Gees, Boney-M and Tina Charles through pirated cassettes and the radio’s daily 1:00 p.m. English language show.
Nazia and Zoheb Hasan’s success also marked a turning point in pop history, since it was the first time that a pop act had become famous before appearing on television. Usually, artistes had taken the opposite route, using the platform of television to launch their recording careers. Their appearance on TV was also marked by protests from the usual quarters, some of whom even went as far as to suggest that a brother and sister singing and dancing together was suggestive of immorality. PTV did end up shooting Nazia only from the waist-up, in order to keep her moving feet out of public consumption, but in the charged atmosphere, in which anything that went against state-imposed morality quickly became a cause celebre, this did nothing to dent the duo’s popularity.
Dubbed the Donnie and Marie Osmond of Pakistan, the Hasan siblings released one more album, "Boom Boom", in 1984. This second collaboration with Biddu, the undisputed king of Indian filmi disco music, was also a huge success. But it would be a full eight years before the Hasans would come out with another (and much more mediocre) album. Like most well-to-do youngsters, the Hasans looked upon their music only as a part-time hobby and Nazia announced soon after "Boom Boom" that she would be devoting her time to more serious pursuits. Her brother Zoheb attempted to carry on and even released a solo album later, but did not meet with much success. Without Nazia’s spice, Pakistani listeners were obviously not interested.
Meanwhile, PTV kept up its efforts to recruit new talent but most of the results were mediocre. The two acts that stood out because of their potential in this time of scarcity were the three Benjamin Sisters, two of whom shot to fame as backing vocalists for Alamgir’s August 14 national song "Khyaal Rakhna", and Sajjad Ali. After a stint of re-recording old favourites for television, however, the Benjamin Sisters faded away, though the eldest, Shabana did re-appear many years later as an English rapping vixen in a Saleem Javed video. Sajjad Ali, for his part, came from a classical gharana and tried unsuccessfully to launch himself as a semi-classical singer for a long time. He only tasted fame much later when he recast himself as a grittier pop singer.
It was into such a backdrop that the Vital Signs arrived on the scene. And as can be seen from the discussion that has gone before, their rocketing to fame was as much a product of the stagnant social environment they found themselves in, as their talent. They may have helped lay the foundations of the pop music industry as it now exists, but pioneers of pop they certainly were not. If one were to make comparisons, they were the white Beach Boys who, coming after the black Little Richards and Chuck Berrys, suddenly made music a relatively acceptable career option for the offspring of the well-heeled.
The history of pop music since the first Vital Signs album in 1989, which included gems like "Yeh Shaam" and the funky, if controversial, "Goray Rang Ka Zamana" is much better documented and includes names that are still very much in the limelight. From the well-known rockers Junoon to teeny boppers Awaz, vocally strong Ali Haider, the now-defunct Strings and female-vocalist Candi-led Milestones to the lesser known glam-rockish Arsh, variable Sequencers, the all-female Symphony and ballad-driven sops Bunny and Aamir Saleem, more names and musical styles make up the pop tapestry in the last decade than the 20 years preceding 1989. Every year has seen its own defining sound, whether it was the 1989 Jupiters hit "Yaaron Yehi Dosti Hai", Hassan Jehangir’s "Hawa Hawa" in 1990, "Sanwali Saloni" by Vital Signs in 1991, "Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar" in 1992 by the Strings, Sajjad Ali’s "Didi" ripoff "Babia" in 1993, Najam Shiraz’s "In Se Nain" in 1995, Junoon’s "Saeein" in 1996 or Awaz’s "Mr. Fraudiye" in 1997. This is only to be expected in a growing industry. But there are a number of critical events during the last 10 years that have, at various times, impacted strongly on pop’s evolution.
The first of these came in 1989 when, newly democratised Pakistani society and Pakistan Television celebrated by organising PTV’s first ever pop music concert. With all the top bands, including the Vital Signs and Lahore-based, Ali Azmat-fronted Jupiters, in attendance, "Music ’89", as the programme was titled, became a runaway success with the youth of the country. The backlash generated among the conservative elements of society over the images of young girls swaying to music played mostly by virile young boys, however, almost brought down the one-year old elected government. It also drew the battle lines between the liberal and conservative sections of society, an epic war that continues periodically and is rekindled to this day. The recent attacks on Junoon’s post-modernist rendition of Allama Iqbal’s poetry in "Khudi" are very much part of the same chain of events.
The second critical point in pop’s evolution came with the airing of the first music videos on PTV in 1992. Although, Sajjad Ali was probably the first artiste to produce a professional looking video for his song "Babia", the first to be aired on television were under the banner of the programme "Rhythm Wythm", which was a private production sponsored by a multinational tobacco company. Once again taking advantage of a liberalisation in PTV’s policies, these low-budget but well-conceived and executed 60-odd videos were such a hit with young audiences that many clone programmes followed. At the height of the pop-chart programme mania, just before the government clamped a ban on all pop music on TV last year, there were at least half a dozen such programmes running weekly on both the local channels. The advantage of these video programmes was that they opened the door to even more musical output from new faces who often utilised them to release singles, something that the cassette market did not cater to. The astounding, but one-off, success of Abrar’s "Billo De Ghar" in 1996 owes much to this phenomenon.
The third important event in the evolution of the pop music industry was the advent of corporate sponsorship of bands and artistes, an element that many viewed as detrimental to music as an art-form even if it alleviated the living conditions of the artistes themselves. With lucrative endorsement deals dished out to acts such as the Vital Signs, Junoon, Awaz and Ali Haider, the tendency for new acts to make music only to wrangle a quick sponsorship increased manifold, unfortunately to the detriment of the music. The issue of bands compromising artistic integrity in order not to upset their corporate masters was also often raised. The Vital Signs and Awaz were among the groups accused of making music for their contracts rather than from their hearts.
The fourth, and much more heartening, development was the natural expansion of the pop music market into distinct niches. Over time, non-mainstream acts such as Junoon (until their Cricket World Cup hit "Jazba-e-Junoon" catapulted them to centre-stage in 1996) became able to claim to have a sizeable cult following despite not being bubble-gum pop bands. This allowed for greater innovation in musical styles and a fair amount of experimentation. One such experiment was the controversial, but excellent, number "Main Sona Chahta Hoon" by Najam Shiraz which played with blues chords and classical ragas in a powerful, angry little song. Another was the whacky, subversively satiric take on pop music itself dished out by the National College of Arts band, Dr. Aur Billa. Perhaps the biggest unexpected success of an experimental song, however, was Sajjad Ali’s street-wise 1995 hit "Chief Saab". Full of Karachi slang and tough imagery, "Chief Saab", perhaps more than anything else, signified the coming of age of pop music. It showed that one did not necessarily have to remain within pre-determined saccharine-sweet boundaries to be popular, and that people liked hearing of issues other than puppy love.
Partly, as a result of this expansion of the pop market, established musicians from non-pop genres such as qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan were also drawn towards experimenting within it. The pop band that most successfully seized upon this idea was, of course, Junoon, which used its success with the haunting "Saeein" to recast itself as a completely different sort of band. Here we saw pop again intersecting with folk and vice versa.
In 1994, FM radio brought about another mini-revolution in Pakistani music. From Landhi in Karachi to Krishan Nagar in Lahore, names like female vocalist Hadiqa Kiyani and young Shehzad Roy suddenly became household names. Even iconoclastic recluse virtuosos like guitarist Amir Zaki (whose almost purely instrumental album "Signature" did well in the market) were receiving the kind of airplay the big bands of the ’80s could only have dreamed of.
The difference between 1987 and 1998 is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to classify ‘pop’ as one kind of music: there is often little in common between the Vital Signs and Junoon, between Sajjad Ali and Abrar, and between Nazia and Hadiqa. And unlike in the past, there is enough talent bubbling to the surface that if an act does not constantly reinvent itself and innovate, it will be left behind in the dustbin of history. Like Pakistan, pop music can never be the same.Hasan Zaidi