It was a surreal situation for rock. Concerts with bands playing loud and hysterical music in Lahore used to be an escape for teens and rock enthusiasts alike. Lahore’s once promising underground rock scene is now a distant dream as local bands struggle to cope with a variety of issues, insiders say.
During the 90s, Pakistan’s rock scene had become comparable to international standards. Bands like Junoon paved the way for a generation of artists who would uphold the cradle of rock across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Lahore had, during this period, become a contemporary rock hub.
“In the 90s, bands like Call and Entity Paradigm (EP) made a sincere effort to give a good sound to people, even pop bands like Vital Signs were ahead of the curve,” says vocalist and guitarist for the band Aag, Haroon Sheikh. “Al-Hamra in Gaddafi stadium was where local rockers would jam but people stopped showing up after the bomb blasts.”
“In 2000, there seemed to have been an explosion of bands across Pakistan but with the change in the security situation, live performances became rare. Now in Lahore, underground rock bands have disappeared and performances have also gone down,” adds Sheikh. “There is no basic technical understanding of live performances and the people are now into more upbeat songs which don’t really relate to rock.”
Ali Azmat, who is considered one of Pakistan’s pioneer rock stars, explains that the shift which took place has to do with the situation in the country. He says that the revival of music requires an added drive by musicians. “When we started [our band] we were playing at parlours and weddings to survive,” says Azmat. “It is the state of the nation, not just rock but all cultures have suffered because entertainment depends on the mood of the people.”
Azmat says that the public looks at entertainment as an avenue to explore after certain things such as the economy improves. He also added that it was possible for younger bands to enter the mainstream provided there was a will to pursue. He added that people like Atif Aslam had done so despite the presence of bigger competition.
“People are performing for their own pleasure and now it’s mainly mainstream music not rock,” explains Ahmed Husnain, the drummer for the Bilal Khan band. “People are done with the rock scene and are using a more commercial approach by making more mellow and patriotic songs which sell.”
Husnain said that the surviving bands tend to perform covers of Urdu and Punjabi songs. He said that there are bands like Coven who perform in English but some of them preferred to cash in on patriotic songs. Husnain added that the bands producing music are facing difficulties gaining media recognition since music channels are viewed by two per cent of the population. He said that many bands had resorted to using the internet and YouTube but that too, was very competitive to gain recognition through.
Then there are small initiatives undertaken by various underground artists to provide venues for bands to perform such as Rage’s Salman Haideri who founded Jam Session, a place for underground artists to record and hold jam sessions.
Jam Session’s recording engineer Sheraz Maqsood who works with a variety of artists explained that Lahore has seen a decline in the number of underground rock bands. He said that there were several issues besides venues and promotion. He added that there had been changing trends in terms of music with the rise of trance, hip-hop and bhangra. “Many local bands which were popular broke up and the members started to play solo, and the people who are keen towards rock music are not listening to it anymore.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2011.