“What are dams doing in this sacred place?” an incensed man was seen shouting outside the gates of Rahman Baba’s shrine in Peshawar a few days ago. Dams is an unflattering term commonly used for performing artists. The man, part of a larger crowd, was trying to stop a Qawwali from taking place inside; a rare enough sight in the first place.
Although the riot was eventually quelled by the police, one protester was injured during the confrontation. Meanwhile, the crew inside had to cut short their performance and leave the premises due to the growing threat.
As Music Freedom Day is being observed across the world on March 3 (today), in stark contrast, the silence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) is deafening.
This attempt to silence musical voices in K-P has been going on for long now. Some would say it has succeeded more often than not. Even the more spiritual side of this music, such as Qawwali, has been shunned by a segment of the population. The region has seen several of its prized singers bid adieu to their homeland over the years. Most of them give the same reason for their departure from K-P, and, in some cases, their profession: the conditions are not ‘suitable’ for music. Others have stopped the pursuit of their musical career because of the heavy social stigma attached to it – to live an ‘honourable’ life.
Dismantling a profession
Many cite the murder of Ghazala Javed in 2012 as the first incident where a prominent singer was targeted, though other such acts occurred previously. Following this, the 18-year-old actress and singer from Swat, Bushra, also known as Shazia, became the victim of an acid attack in Nowshera.
An attack on singer Spogmai’s car last year put a stop to her musical career for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, folk singers in Dabgari continue to struggle to adjust after the crackdowns they faced at the hands of the then Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government.
A taxi-ing tale
Perhaps one of the most disheartening tales of persecution can be told by Gulzar Alam. A very well-known Pashto singer, Alam was forced to flee Peshawar in fear for his life and his family’s during the MMA-era. During the next five years, the musician made ends meet by driving a taxi in Karachi, until he finally made a comeback under the succeeding government. “I do not expect a positive response from Khyber Agency,” comments renowned singer Hanif Afridi, from the agency. “All 19 video centres in the area have been shut down.”
Afridi, who had a prolific music career, now drives a taxi in Peshawar to make a living. “People cannot even have musical events at their weddings anymore,” he adds with disdain. “Musicians in our region are strongly bound by social pressure,” shares Afridi. “Even my own mother does not allow me to sing. It is because of my passion that I cannot let go. I only sing ghazals now.”
Singer Hamayun Khan of Coke Studio fame has a different perspective on the matter.
“In K-P, artists have huge amounts of freedom,” the singer tells The Express Tribune, “Experiments have been done with all genres of music. I have not faced any restrictions during my 10-year-long career although I will admit that music faced a decline during the former MMA government.” “If our musicians remain in touch with our culture, I do not think they will receive any threats from anyone,” claims Junaid Javed of Ismail & Junaid.
The duo has been active in the industry since 2010 and has released many well-received singles like Qarar and Pakhwa. “We have seen a great response from K-P’s society,” he adds, “Though musicians enjoy complete freedom, they should abstain from distorting our culture.”
Other musicians play on the volatile situation in the region. “This is the demand of the market,” says Sitara Younas, the voice behind the ‘explosive’ track titled Khudkusha dhamaka yam (I am a suicide blast). Younas feels although there are no rules laid down by the government for the censorship of music, artists must be responsible.
Long distance love
Famous singers like Haroon Bacha and Sardar Ali Takkar now consider it best to record and send their music from the United States, where both work for cultural programmes on international radio channels. Their move set the precedent for other singers to go abroad in search for musical freedom.
“I would leave the country like other singers have, but have not gotten an opportunity as yet,” said a singer, requesting anonymity.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2014.