A Pakistani songs playlist for a foreign friend

Isn’t great music about the beat rather than the language? Besides, Nusrat and Strings showcase our culture perfectly.

Meiryum Ali July 03, 2012
It all started with a question.
“This Columbian friend of mine is asking me about Pakistani music,” asked Ali,“What do I tell him?”

I opened my mouth and shut it again.

Columbian. Not Pakistani. Foreigner. Clueless.

When you ask people to list their favourite Pakistani songs, they reach back to their taste honed over years, sometimes decades, depending on how old they are. Atif Aslam and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are both gifts to mankind, depending on who you’re talking to.

But this was about first impressions. What possible playlist could we make for this Columbian so that he'd be completely blown away? It was an interesting dilemma: what Pakistani songs do we include, and why?

At first, it was easy. We spouted artists we knew like the back of our hand. “Bilal Khan’s Bachana, Zeb and Haniya’s Paimona Bitte,” said Ali. “Noori’s Manwa Re, Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi’s Alif Allah De Chambey De Booti were practically the summer anthem of 2010.”

After a while though, both taste and memory failed us. What to do about the spat of bands that popped up in the early 2000s-Aaroh, Call, Fuzon? Was it morally justified to include Jal if we were including Atif Aslam? How important is Ali Zafar in the grand scheme of things? If we didn’t particularly listen to Nazia Hassan, should the Columbian? How many Strings songs could we include before he got sick of them?

We also decided to not include military songs. No Noor Jehan singing Aae watan ke sajeelay jawano, no Jawad Ahmad’s Dosti, that mini movie of the three soldiers from the same town who go on to, well, die. The Columbian just wouldn’t get it.

In went Strings' Hai Koi Hum Jaisa, because that will forever be the cricket anthem of my childhood and beyond. The ultimate emotional song, of course, is Vital Signs Dil Dil Pakistan and to not put it on the list would be sacrilege. It helped since it wasn’t controversial either.
"But Goray Rang ka Zamana is a catchier song!” he said.

“It’s racist!” I replied.

“But, we’re a racist, nationalistic nation, might as well put it out there,” said Ali.

Oh, what was the point anyway. The problem was that we could link the Columbian all the racist nationalistic songs we wanted, but without a helpful English translation on the side, it would be useless.

However, isn’t great music about the beat and not the words? We argued back and forth over including English songs sung by Pakistani bands on the list.  Pros: usually new, easy to understand. Cons: Well, I mean...it’s English. It’s awkward, and at worst smacks of anglophilia. Out went Sajid and Zeeshan, out went indie band Poor Rich Boy, and out went co-Ven. If you don’t have a clue who they are, that’s ok. The rest of Pakistan doesn’t either.

At 1:00am, I finally clicked on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and that was that. This was home, this was real, and this was something I did not need to google lyrics for.

So what did that leave us with? Nusrat Fateh, Strings, Coke Studio and a couple of rock band hits and pop songs. A mix that was predominantly post the year 2000, and one that required lots of trips to Wikipedia. Did I learn anything? Only that it's very hard to pick between Damadam Mast Qalandar and Sanu ek pal chain na aave.

Oh, and also that we as a nation adore fair people and glorify the military. But perhaps the strangest thing we learnt (as we threw out songs from 2012 in favour of songs from 2003) was that the list reflected a time capsule. It was a collection of the songs I grew up listening to, as opposed to the songs I listen to now. Ah well, the point was to showcase our culture, and Nusrat and Strings can more than live up to that.

Read more by Meiryum here
Meiryum Ali A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.