2001: A Local Pop Discography

Ishq - Junoon

The Junoon album is, creatively and commercially speaking, reflecting perhaps the major-league Sufi-Rock act's most personal message to date. In other words, forget what the band was up to on the rest of its five albums (i.e: innovatively and successfully weaving together the entertainment/commercial/corporate sides of various local-folk-meets-hard-rock-aspects with biting .... though sometimes downright naive .... "socio-political" comments); because the bottom line, regarding the lyrics and compositions on "Ishq", can be explained as just Salman Ahmed and Co. asking themselves: "Now then, where do we go from here?!"

No wonder then, "Ishq" has been a poor performer at both Pakistani and Indian pop markets, and most critics have been calling it a step backwards; and that too by a hard-working and exciting act which rose dramatically from the backwaters of the local pop scene, and from being a bunch of risk-taking angry-young-men with a strict cult following and onto the mainstream as the region's leading post-modern pop/rock attraction. They exhibited well the the vision and drive to pioneer the popularization of guitar-driven music and U2-like socio-political lyrics in local pop (via 1991's Vol:1; 1993's rip-roaring, angry and anti-heroic, "Talaash" ; and 1996's passionate, energetic and highly versatile, "Inquilaab").

1997's mega-selling "Azadi", though somewhat patchy, (finally) helped Junoon go past the leading local-pop status of the (now defunct, but highly competent and melodic Neo-Filmi/FM-Pop-belters-turned-bloated-corporate-pop-cola-pushers) Vital Signs. "Azadi" also broke Junoon into the huge Indian pop market with the sort of hype that was unprecedented for a Pakistani pop/rock act in that country. And even though, their contractual relationship with Coke grew deeper than ever (thus creating the hair-pulling irony and vicious contradiction of a corporate-rock band singing about revolutions and spiritual enlightment!), Junoon, however, returned sounding stronger and even more innovative with the versatile, excellent and crisply produced and played, "Parvaaz" (1999).

It is true that the said album couldn't sell as well as "Azadi", but it did help Junoon stay at the top of both India and Pakistan's modern pop scenes and retain its innovative spirit remarkably well. But was it Parvaaz's lesser-than-Azadi-commercial-factor that made Junoon design "Ishq" as a (rather flat) attempt at marrying generic, early-'90s-style Neo-Filmi-Pop with guitars, drums, bass and the tabla?

If so, then unfortunately, it now seems that the bad creative and commercial experience that was "Ishq", might also be reflecting a frightening omen: Maybe Junoon have already reached its peak? Because, believe me, these days there seems to be little difference between the "passion" exhibited by powerhouse vocalist, Ali Azmat, singing TVC jingles and (new) Junoon songs! So what next? Salman selling his famous, off-the-wall guitar riffs to Lado Soap?!

Duur - Strings

The looooong-awaited Strings come-back album conveniently managed to commercially sprint ahead big-shot releases like Junoon's "Ishq" and Ali Haider's "Jadu" by a loooooong shot.

It was, as if, the band never took that 8-year-break (after the excellent, 1992's "Vol:2"). Because the big-budgeted and crisp sound and compositions on "Duur" are radiating with a richly evolved sonic charisma. The kind of songs that actually grow-on and around you; like those mysterious still waters that run deep.

Starting-out by riding the VS-led first-wave of post-'88 neo-pop-explosion in Pakistan as teenybopping bubblegummers, their second release, "Vol:2", actually surprised even the most skeptical of critics with its versatility and pure, melodic magic (ala the beautiful and subtle, "Sar Keeay Yeh Pahar"). So, from the deep-blue sub-Alternative-Pop of "Sar Keeay" .... all the way to the rapid, minimilistic and hard-rocking "Utho Beta", "Vol:2" (in spite the fact that it was ignored by multinational sponsors, and sounded like a demo tape!), Strings can (and has) made its due place in the proud confines of modern post-Alamgir/Nazia local-pop classics.

Not-so-ironically (but rather cautiously), "Duur" starts with a new-millennium-version of the majestic "Sar Keeay". It's a start that smacks of corporate-cash-in-cynicism, but then the album actually moves (mostly) up and (sometimes) down, almost exactly the way "Vol:2" did. And what's more, the title-track has now managed to become the other Strings classic.

Vocalist Faisal Kapadia, and moody/introverted guitarist-vocalist, Bilal Maqsood, are both in top form. And Junoon can eat their hearts out because thanks to the album's commercial and creative triumphs in both India and Pakistan, Strings have quietly risen to the top. And honestly, they have done so without a bloody corporate sponsor, and which, (as usual?), could only further help Strings make a big(er) commercial buck but a total creative mess?

Main Gaddi Aap Chalawan Ga - Abrar

Abrar's first album, 1996's "Billo De Ghar", became one of the most celebrated debut releases and local-pop events, ever since Nazia and Zoheb's "Disco Deewane" (1980) and the Signs "VS:1" (1989). And the irony of it all was that, apart from the title-song, rest of the said album is, at best, pretty mediocre Bhangra-Pop and Neo-Filmi stuff! Songs one would love to forget (and did!), except, of course, the title-dittie, "Billo De Ghar". It was due to this Bhangra-Rap song's snappy populist feel, and a theme revolving around a passionate urban Romeo falling in love with a petty-bourgeois "prostitute" (and getting into trouble with the "corrupt" Lahore police as well as Billo's "keepers"); plus the witty ways it gathers and fluently rap's-out "lyrics" directly expressing the Romeo's compulsive love for madam Billo; and throwing sarcastic jabs at bourgeois/petty-bourgeois social and moral hypocracies.

However, even though Abrar was able to prove that he's not a one-hit-wonder with his two (comparatively better-as-a-whole) following albums, and remained one of the most populist post-modern pop acts in the local scene, it was thus inevitable that a multinational sponsor would get its sweaty hands and cynical eyes on a modern pop man who's appeal cuts across all sections and classes of the country.

And I want to ask (myself), is that why "Main Gaddi Aap Chalawan Ga" , not only nowhere near "Billo" (the song), but the album is rather chocked with retro-Bhangra-Rap and lame Neo-Filmi-Pop ditties, like the song "Sanu Tere Nal Pyar" that is making album sell like hot cakes. He continues to cater to his market i.e urban mostly .... and ironically .... Punjabi petty-bourgeois. Ironically because it was the Punjab's petty-bourgeois "moral-majority-squad" which first attacked "Billo De Ghar" as an "obscene song." And then, ever since Zia's myopic tyranny, this was exactly the (mostly) reactionary and conservative class in the said province which also largely contributed to PML(N)'s main vote-bank .... apart from, of course, the seths, capitalists/industrialists and the lota landlords .... and thus becoming the main lobby behind making Mian Saheb's (eventually .... and thankfully .... doomed) government, ban the song on PTV!

"Main Gaddi Aap Chalawan Ga" should actually be taken as a warning by Abrar. Because, he is to populist post-modern local pop scene, what, say, populist folk vocalists like Attaullah and Abida Parveen are to the land's popular-folk-music scene. He is free to innovate, but should stick to his roots .... and stay as far as he can "afford" to from being made-up like a Bhangra-paoing Junaid Jamshed in a flavored toothpaste commercial!

Falam Connection - Fakhr-e-Alam

Fakhr-e-Alam, the happy-go-lucky act with a quick-firing rapping mouth suddenly (as if out of no-where) appeared on the local-pop scene with a debut song ("Bhangra Pao"), which actually made him an impersonal pioneer of Bhangra-Rap in Pakistan (in 1993). His pioneering streak was soon followed by his instinctive approach to versatility when he also became (in the same year), the land's first spontaneous, rapidly witty and eventually famous (among the changing urban middle-class youth of the country) pop show host (long before the likes of Faisal Qureshi, Ahmed Ibrahim and Dr. Aur Billa), via producer Ghazanfar Ali's trendsetting "Music Channel Charts". So much so, that the trendsetting aspect of the show had more to do with highly entertaining Bhangra-Rap ditties by Fakher (like "Bhangra Pao", "Pyar Diyan Gallan", et al), and the guy's totally on-the-spot and witty ways of compering. Soon, EMI-Pakistan launched his debut album, "Bhangra Pao", which, not surprisingly, became one of 1993-94's leading commercial and creative hits.

Well, obviously, then came Pepsi. And why not? They'd found Pakistan's very own Prince of Bel Air. And the rest, as they say, is history. But a pretty patchy one for Fakhr. His sponsors just couldn't understand or further tap the spontaneous and versatile VJing and rapping talents of the man, and instead, ended-up turning him into a big-budgeted version of the torn-jeans-guy whose first few Bhangra-Rap ditties and comparing style had already made him a star. In other words, one should never turn a star into a star whose job was to now also couple his witty and popular stunts and stints with cola butts 'n' bits, dig?

Young, talented but now caught in a vicious corporate circle, the versatile Fakhr became a classic example of Jack of all trades, master of none. His albums started to flop, and he (with mixed results) ventured into Lollywood, game-shows, and the works. Many felt it was the end of a once-upon-a-time prodigy. Until Fakhr moved from Pepsi to Instaphone, and creatively, instead of playing it safe on his come-back album (by not recreating another "Bhangra Pao", especially in a time and age of two million Bhangra-Rappers), he (on his latest release) exhibited his basic versatility by branching and spreading-out the "Falam Connection" and fusing generic Bhangra outlines with a wide range of genres: FM-Pop; (pure, bass-heavy) Hip-Hop; melodic pop .... even though the "experiment" contained major risks. But the risk was taken and it's now clicking.

So, is the "Falam Connection" announcing the return of a highly talented entertainer who somehow and somewhat got lost (and fat!), in the cynically-packaged-euphoria-turned-creative-hell of the usual corporate whiplash? Keeping this in mind, not only YES(!), the real Fakhr is back, but he's done it his own way (something he wasn't being allowed to do after he came onto the scene with a bang).

Mind you, if you liked the "Falam Connection", then, (in spite the fact that it is his biggest hit after 1993's "Bhangra Pao"), it's not really a comeback with a bang. Because after only glimpsing at what he has in store for his soon-to-be-released next album, it is pretty safe to suggest that, that would not only be a bang, but a big-bang!

Haroon Ki Awaz - Haroon

Now that the whole long matter of is Awaz splitting or not? is fortunately over and done with (yes they have!), a new battle-front has emerged. Who was the real creative brain behind the band's six-year-reign as the scene's leading Neo-Filmi- meets-Rockabilly-meets-Bubblegum-Pop-act and the once-upon-a-time Pepsi's blue-eyed-boys? Synth-player Fakhir says it was he. Vocalist Haroon begs to differ. And never mind the fluent, Kiss-freak guitarist, Assad Ahmed (the third Awaz, who was purely and only there for the big cola bucks, and is now making second-hand Junoon-type Sufi-Rock with Karavan). To decide the matter, both Haroon and Fakhir got straight down to recording their solo albums. Haroon arrived first, while Fakhir has, to date, only managed to release two songs which, really, not only sound exactly like early/retro-Awaz-numbers, but also sung (and visualized) like 3-minute-shampoo commercials!

The fact is, no matter how overtly commercial and corporate Awaz were, Haroon has the distinction of never allowing himself to sing advertising jingles (a lucrative idea even Junoon's Ali Azmat couldn't resist!). "Haroon Ki Awaz" jumps, rocks and swings with great versatility and passion; taking the listener along for a quick-fire joy-ride across genres like Neo-Filmi-Pop, Rock, Bhangra .... all rather brilliantly fused with solid FM-Pop and even some hot riffs and bits of Nine-Inch-Nails-like Industrial-Rock!!

Maybe Awaz would have eventually become quite like this album had they hung around till the year 2001? And only if Assad was not such a Kiss freak, and Fakhir wasn't still stuck in the ways of early-'90s-Awaz, and, instead, spending more time and effort on expanding the band's sound rather than in "composing" stupid 60-second-jingles!

Yes, sir, "Haroon Ki Awaz" was certainly one of the most exciting releases of the year 2001. Well done, Haroon. Now you better forget Awaz, and move (further) on, dig?

Uchiaan Majaajan Wali - Jawad Ahmed

What the hell?! Is it the same passionate, leather-lunged vocalist who (finally) arrived smack-dab with a bang onto the mainstream scene with the powerhouse post-"Saieen" Sufi-Rock cracker, "Allah Meray Dil Ke Ander" in 1998? The same Jawad who then passionately stretched his version of hard-hitting, "socially-conscious" Sufi-Rock on the (albeit criminally underrated), but just-short-of-brilliant debut album, "Bol Tujhe Kya Chahiye"

What happened? What is the same Jawad doing dishing-out a lame Bhangra-Pop album, and entering an already congested territory berming-over with two million mediocre Bhangra-Pop-wannabes? Because Jawad's second album is nothing more than run-of-the-mill Bhangra-Pop crap!

"UMW" ain't no BMW (the four-wheeled-yuppie/feudal/capitalist-fantasy Jawad now thinks he has reserved the right to dream?). But, unfortunately, "UMW" is one of the most disappointing albums of the year! Sure, comparatively, it might be selling better than Mian Jawad Sharif's debut release, but .... oh, never mind. Because there's nothing uchaan here. Just downaan, if you know what I mean.

Khwaab - Aamir Saleem

The once-upon-a-time Neo-Filmi-Pop prince of the post-'88 local-pop scene is back. Five years after his first flop, two years after his second, and almost ten and nine years after his two biggest hits (1991's "Musafir" and 1992's "Ajnabi"). It was Ali Haider's spiced-up Neo-Filmi blockbuster, 1994's "Sandesa", which was one of the main reasons that broke Saleem's hold; apart from the fact that his two post-Ajnabi albums appeared when Haider had already toppled him, and fire-crackers like Junoon, Hadiqa, Dr. Aur Billa, Abrar, Shehzad Roy and scores of other Sufi-Rock, Neo-Filmi, FM-Pop, Bhangra-Pop, et al, acts were blasting in and out around him.

Being a (no doubt) hard-working and committed musician, but a modest, simple, boy-next-door-type of a man, his music remained the same, even though he tried to keep pace with the rapid sonic and image-oriented changes the local scene was shifting through, by doing his bit. He tried to "upgrade" his basic, generic Neo-Filmi-Pop sound. But, like I said, his music basically remained the same: Simple, uncomplicated Alamgir-inspired melodies with earthly "romantic" lyrics. The fact is, this is the kind of music (talent-and-potentialwise) Saleem is made of; anything else would be a disaster, and which it was even when he only slightly tempered with his style. So what to do then? Well, after going around "Khwaab" twice, it seems that Saleem planned his comeback by offering a more crisply produced and upbeat "Ajnabi"? Generic Neo-Filmi-Pop for the year 2001. Whatever I've managed to gather so far regarding "Khwaab's" position and performance in the country's leading pop markets, it is doing better business than Saleem's last two flops, but according to most retailers, it shall "never be able to match the sales of both 'Ajnabi' and 'Musafir'". Especially when men like Ali Haider, Rahim Shah, Shahzad Roy, the post-VS Junaid Jamshed and Abrar are busy chewing away a big, big chunk of Saleem's and Neo-Filmi's market and listenership, i.e: the land's urban petty-bourgeois.

In other words, compared to Saleem's last two albums, "Khwaab" is faring well .... but, then, coming from a former massive Neo-Filmi-Pop seller, the commercial and creative aspects of his latest album can, at best, be called lukewarm.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
January, 2002
The News International, Pakistan