The Boys of Peshawar

The buzz about people from the NWFP making it to the entertainment mainstream seems to have died down. At least now there is acceptance that there is a new venue in the entertainment canon that can produce legitimate art for consumption.

But, quite honestly the relevance of Peshawar as a break through place for the new dialectics of the evolution of cutting edge ideas in music or programming is over rated. The sudden ready acceptance of Sajid and Zeeshan (S&Z), On The Fringe (OTF) or even Jehangir Aziz was not only about the "outsiders" coming to claim their place, but also about the fact that all these people conducted their work overwhelmingly in very proficient English.

Accepted, this is a very simple proposition. But there is a grain of truth to it. The entertainment industry also marveled at the "education" (meaning they spoke English with an accent) of these people from the backwaters of their country. Because they weren't part of the industry they hadn't accepted the norms and broke away with new avenues with niche success.

Rahim Shah has been around for ages, he is bigger in popularity than the sum total of S&Z, OTF and Jehangir Aziz but hasn't been accorded the same respect because he doesn't fit the mould of the urbanite with flawless English speaking abilities. Rahim is actually the opposite; he is the one who still hasn't been able to lose his Pashto accent while speaking Urdu, making him the right candidate for the stereotype that was widely accepted about the NWFP before the acts in English came out.

Much has been made about Peshawar and its anti-art sentiments. But, like the rest of Pakistan, if you can seclude yourself into the comforts of posh suburban areas that create your own oasis outside the realm of the public domain, you can get away with anything (like the paid for E-raves in Karachi). In effect, being children of privilege (by virtue of a decent schooling) has created acts like S&Z, OTF and Jehangir Aziz (though he has lost some of his lustre because of a lack of a follow up).

Peshawar's current, though very small, presence in the media makes for an interesting story. In some ways it can be traced back to when Sajid Ghafoor was in college and decided he needed a guitar, took a bus to Lahore and got himself one. He is obviously a prodigy because in two years he was proficient enough to make some stunning compositions.

But the real growth of the scene came when Sarmad Ghafoor (Sajid's younger brother) picked up the guitar. He has a canny ability to teach and an unselfish desire to help those who want to know music. Through him, a lot of people went beyond simple chords to real proficiency; in fact one of Jehangir Aziz's primary teachers has been Sarmad.

Luckily, Sarmad's interests went beyond simple guitar playing into recording sound and production, which would later become instrumental in the growth of the nascent music scene. Sajid is far less social than Sarmad, and while Sarmad was reaching out Sajid was still in his room writing the songs that would later become the hits they are today. His self enforced isolationism is what gives the music its depth and poignancy.

Zeeshan Parwez is another story. Almost entirely self schooled in music and video production, he started off as a polymath who could paint, be a chameleon in his comic impersonations and produce really good music. It came naturally to him. But, like Sarmad, his real break came from the internet which has all the material one could need to educate oneself to a professional level. The fact that there is so much free pirated professional software out there added immensely to the scope of the work they could do out of their home computers. OTF came Zeeshan's way two years ago and he roped me into it after we had collaborated on several documentaries together. Zeeshan and Sarmad are similar in the sense they have both been teachers of the art to anyone who is interested and give freely in that way.

At some point in time all three immensely talented musicians met up to become cross pollinators of their respective pools of knowledge. But the key advantage is that they can release material far easier than anyone else, they make the videos, do the audio production and write the material at home without having to outsource and bleed their pockets. They can afford integrity more than others who need sponsorships just to get their act together, and that's what helps differentiates them.

In part that's why the Peshawar scene won't be breaking out more acts; barriers to entry are huge for those who are only musicians. The cost for the production of one song is generally above 20,000 rupees, a video above two lacs and that's only the first round of costs. The empowerment the new mainstream that Peshawar's lot has is still lacking for the rest because they have to bear this money. A case in point is the band Lagan which has some of the most incredible commercial ditties I have ever heard (some are on the internet) but have been denied their share of media simply because they come from lower class families and cannot afford the start up costs that will propel them.

But the "scene" so to speak is a myth, all the Peshawar boys just live three streets away from one another.

Fasi Zaka
December, 2006
The News International, Pakistan