Promise of A Different Sort of Tune

The year 2002 was a transitional year for mainstream music, a year in which most popular mainstream acts seem to have arrived at career cross-roads (Abrar, Junoon, Junaid Jamshed, Hadiqa) and came under threat of becoming irrelevant or redundant. This was much down to the arrival of a diverse and hugely exciting brigade of upcoming talents (Fuzon, Aaroh, Noori, Aks, Ahmad Jehanzaib, Mizraab, the new incarnation of Karavan and many others) who threatened the stale and ageing major stars of the mainstream. The upstarts have almost all without notice arrived with music that moves away from the tired by-the-numbers musical genres of the past and infused elements of dance/rap/metal/hard-rock and a whole lot of energy into mainstream music. In that 2002 may best be remembered as a watershed year for mainstream music, the year where commercialism ceased to be the only driving concern in music and a movement started to take the scene to the next musical generation through infusion of youthful and more attuned-to-current-trends artists.

The year 2002 more than anything else was a year of memorable singles. The new arrivals made their presence felt through remarkable individual songs, even though full albums for now seemed beyond most new acts. Ahmad Jehanzaib's "Aik Bar Kaho", Fuzon's "Ankhon Ke Saagar" and Schehzad Mughal's "Bus Yunhi" were each excellent. The first two were carried by soulful, impassioned vocals and the last shone through affecting lyrics. Hot on their heels, honorable mentions must also go to Aks' stunningly understated "Neela Aasman", Noori's jangle-pop perfection "Tum Hans Diyae", Junoon's excellent "Gharaj Baras", Aamir Zaki's insightful and incisive "People Are People", EP's piledriving "Hum Ko Aazma", Najam's infinitely catchy "Jaisay Chaho Jiyo" and "Aao Wahan Chalain" and yes even Ali Haider's insipid but still memorably melodic "Chandni Raatein". Abrar's "Preeto" was the novelty hit of the year. "Nach Punjaban" was the one that got him into hot water.

Yet easily the best song of the year, by a long country mile, was from an old hand, Sajjad Ali with "Teri Yaad". Admitedly, Sajjad Ali had already come up trumps previously with "Paniyon Main" but one still did not anticipate this startling makeover in sound and image and the cross-over appeal of the song. Whereas in the past he had been guilty of appealing to the lowest elements on the mainstream with street-chaap cheap lyrics and derivative songs ("Babia", "Cinderella"), this once he was startlingly soulful and extremely cultured. The mellow music carried the haunting melody and finally did justice to Sajjad Ali's oft betrayed talent.

The year 2002 was, however, not a good year for albums. Most of the most exciting acts still seem to be working on full-fledged albums. Among the big guns Junoon (no more "No More(s)" please; more of "Gharaj Baras") and Strings (better lyrics please) are still working on their latest. Noori, Mekaal Hassan, EP and Aks' latest are too taking too long in coming. Unless these best kept secrets finally put an album out, most listeners are likely to tune out and consider the best kept secrets, secrets that are best kept that way. Even Ahmad Jehanzaib, one of the hottest new arrivals seems to have lost momentum with no album to build on the success of "Aik Bar Kaho" and "Tu Jo Nahin".

Of the albums that were actually released, few, if any, had any cohesion or coherence. Most just tended to be a collection of songs and nothing more. On that account Hadiqa's "Rung" possibly suffered the most. "Rung" was a schizophrenic album with some spectacular songs ("Aurat", "Is Baar Milo", "Jogi Ban Ke Aa") but lacked soul and an organic touch. Ditto Haroon's "Lagan". There was an excess of filler and a fair degree of commercial calculation driving the music, but the album had a clutch of memorable songs and deservedly ended up on top of the BBC Asian charts.

The other Awaz boy Faakhir also released "Aatish", a masterful piece of work, but for all its merits (catchy songs, excellent production) it was a tad too calculated and felt contrived. Junaid Jamshed's "Dil Ki Baat" was understated but assured and notwithstanding JJ's quite public and tortured ruminations over religion and music, the album showed that JJ is still competent at middle of the road pop and that Shoaib Mansoor still has the magic touch. Shahzad Roy's "Rab Janey" was hobbled by his illness and is yet to catch fire while Karavan's "Gardish" seems to have suddenly picked up and is selling like hot-cakes. Schehzad Mughul's "Jhoom Lay" was one of the most pleasant of surprises of the year as for all its off-putting gloss (SM posing in a tight T-shirt on the album cover) it was still quite fun.

Najam Shiraz's "Jaisay Chaho Jiyo" was the masterpiece that passed under most people's radars. Junoon's "Daur-e-Junoon" repackaged their old material in yet another guise. The new "Gharaj Baras", however, was awesome. Abrar's "Assan Jana Mall-O-Mall" yielded a couple of memorable singles but his bhangra formula now seems to be running out of steam and one saw him making an effort to branch out to more authentic Punjabi folk and pop.

Bubbling under these major stars, a host of B-stars sought to make their mark in 2002: Rahim Shah slowly crept in with commercial competent music and particularly "Payal" which was everything Haroon's "Mehndi" was not i.e. good. Speaking of good, Lucky Ali was definitely not that. Lucky was not commercially lucky and demonstrated that he is only lucky in having Sajjad Ali for a brother and a host of friends to star in his videos. He was a heavy presence on all music channels. A pity. Adnan Sami Khan seems to have given up Pakistani shores, so I give up on him. No mention shall be made of his excellent "Tera Chehra". Oops. Nexus, Sharique Roomi, Stringfellows and Ali Sher released albums some of which unfortunately went straight to the cut-out bin. Dusk have weighed in with creditable "Heart of Darkness 1995-2002" and have shown that Baber Shaikh and Faraz Anwar continue to march to their own beat and want to make ears bleed.

Yet, of all the albums released this year, the best overall album was possibly "Saagar", the debut album by young turks Fuzon. "Saagar" managed the trick of making fusion accessible without the off-putting time signatures and musically self-indulgence say of the Mekaal Hassan Band. The emphasis was kept firmly on catchy songs. What, however, finally made them go nova was the emotion-drenched and well-trained voice of Shafqat Amanat Ali. Their welcome and instant commercial acceptance demonstrated that even the mainstream is starved of something impassioned and something new.

While music flourished and grew, the music videos scene seemed to have regressed in content. The emphasis seemed to grow on providing eye-candy (Haroon's "Mahbooba", Shahzaman's "Layla", Fuzon's "Ankhiyan"): While production values markedly got higher, the lack of originality and thematic intelligence continued to rankle. There was little emphasis on video content.

For the best videos of the year creditable mention must go to Strings' interesting "Ankhain", Najam's "Jaisay Chaho Jiyo" (which was miles better than Karavan's "Aagay Hi Aagay" which tried the same circling shots), EP's speedball "Hum Ko Aazma" (for its energy) and Fakhir's nicely shot "Dil Ruba". If pushed to pick one, Aks' "Neela Aasman" by Nasir Tehrani was the best video of the year with its nods to Dali and spectacular effects.

2002 was also the year when sponsorship sadly continued to intrude on videos. Curiously two of the major message videos were sponsored. The Shahzad Roy-Sukhbir cross-border love-fest "Jinna Kar Lo Gai Piyar" and Jawad Ahmad's "Dosti", a tale of military brotherhood were sponsored by Tulsi and Bio Amala (!) respectively. Each seemed to curiously indicate that even to put across messages of patriotism, brotherhood and peace artists still need base commercial sponsorship.

Yet, for the boo boo prize for the most horrid video of the year (Saleem Javed, successive winner in years gone by, was disqualified from running despite several possible entries) there is a tie between "Deewana" from Faakhir and Ali Haider's "Chandni Raatein". Both were unintentionally hilarious due to horrible makeup jobs on chief characters. Resham was caked with pink makeup that even outdid Lollywood for over-the-top makeup jobs and Ali Haider just simply looked pink and plastic a la Michael Jackson in his video. Hot on their heels for a dishonourable mention must also be given to Lucky Ali.

The year also saw a number of very significant and generally positive developments. One was Indus Music finding its feet (though now it seems to be taking a slight nosedive with excess of VJ-speak and too little actual music). Two, the Pepsi Battle of the Bands did a great job in throwing up a wealth of talent. EP, Aaroh, Brain Masala, Messiah, Schahzad Hameed and others all have Pepsi to thank. The B.O.B. got all these fledgling bands great exposure and increased their following. Three, the improvement in production skills on the scene was remarkable. Every album now seems to have pristine sound, even the ones from the lesser artists. Yet, on the downside, with digitally recorded and sequenced music, few manage to retain feel and warmth in the music. Lastly, the future of CD packaging arrived with the superlative CD package for Karavan's "Gardish". Notwithstanding that it is rather self-aggrandising, it gives value to buyers with lyrics and lavishly and lovingly render booklet information about the band.

2002 also saw a movement towards live music venues which was great but seemed to falter near year-end. Cafe M Live led the way and still remains vital in Karachi. They have done a brilliant job in promoting artists - especially Noori who seemed to take up permanent residence there in the latter part of the year. In Lahore the Banynn Cafe tried its hand at live music too, but that has gone under. The Lahore concert scene seemed somehow muted later in 2002 as most bands gravitated to Karachi to play.

In the year that has passed, the internet continued to offer significant coverage to artists and win them newer fans across the globe. The year saw the introduction of a lot of useful and fun websites (Karachi Underground, Nooriworld, EP and Mekaal Hassan Site, Pepsi Battle of the Bands site). However, sadly, near the year-end a lot of them seem to have turned defunct. died recently and shall be sorely missed. The website seems perpetually in crisis and off-line. Even Muziq.Net seem to have cut down on updating text content on their fabulous website. 2003 therefore comes as a year of anticipation in which one looks forward to better and more informative sites. (already up), and other sites are in the offing and ought to be spectacular.

There were also some serious inadequacies felt in the music scene in 2002: Despite the influx of great new talent, the lack of truly great lyric writing was still obvious. This was even more startling considering the turbulent times we live in with 9/11, Iraq, tensions with India, terrorism, return to true democracy and loads of other domestic issues. Barring Amir Zaki's "People are People" and Junoon's "No More", one could not really tell that 2002 was a time of crisis. In that our artists continued to live in a bubble and supplied music and messages to keep us in the same. Even among the tried and tested theme of love, separation and patriotism only John Mall with his work with Hadiqa ("Achay Dost") and Fuzon, Khawar with Hadiqa's "Aurat" and Noori with "Jana Tha" said anything novel. Lyrically Sabir Zafar ruled the roost, putting out tons of material that did little justice to his undoubted talent. His "Aagay Hi Aagay" for Karavan was lyrically downright bad, even if the message was meant to be good.

With the influx of a great number of artists the serious state of underdevelopment of the business aspect of mainstream music also came into sharp relief. There still are no good business labels in Pakistan. Albums are picked up on extortionately low rates and terms. Artists still make money only from performances and sponsors. It is becoming clearer that until and unless there are some labels out there that seek out bands and artists there is unlikely to be any development or bands of staying power. Without this the music industry would remain the purview of the well-connected (Hello Lucky Ali, sorry Schahzad Hameed, Adil Salik, et al.) or those with money to burn (Ifu Habib, Shahzada Faisal, where are you now?)

Most crucially, there still remains a lack of any truly unique artist with a unique voice of his/her own in Pakistani mainstream music. All the new artists seem to borrow from mainstream Western music. It is a sad indication of the state of affairs that in terms of saying something fresh or meaningful it is possibly only Abrar (who had carved out a unique niche of his own with his humour) and Junoon (when they were great) who ultimately meant anything. For 2003 one lives in hope.

Lastly, the lack of a single music-dedicated magazine at all in the market remains shocking.

For all the promise 2003 offers, a couple of troubling trends can already be seen: One, the flavours of the year 2002 were fusing foreign elements with Spanish ("Dil Ruba") and Arabic ("Mahbooba", "Layla") elements. With the advent of Fuzon, one braces for lesser imitators and more fusion-for-the-sake-of-fusion projects. I am not sure more of the same in 2003 would be desirable. Two, the other saddest trend seems to be that everyone wants to do a shadi song now. After Ali Noor's contrary "Manwa Re", Haroon had a go with "Mehndi" and hit commercial payload. Rahim Shah of course had his "Payal" and now Shahzaman is having a go with his latest. Each successive song in the vein makes me, to paraphrase Junoon, scream "No More, No More."

The above notwithstanding, in conclusion, the best thing that can be said of the year 2002 is that it makes us look forward to 2003 for the excitement the new year promises. If this sounded a bit back-handed, it was probably meant to be. But what it also means is that 2003 and beyond are going to be remarkable years for the music scene in Pakistan and 2002 will in effect be best remembered as a year when it all began, where commercial calculation ceased to be the only consideration for most artists and a number of artists arrived on their own terms, playing their own personal and different sort of a tune.

Mohammad A. Qayyum
December, 2002
The News International, Pakistan