To be ‘western’ is not to be ‘modern’

Thomas Burkhalter interacts with local musicians to understand the genesis and rich heritage of Pakistani music.

Hifza Jillani June 17, 2014
Ethnomusicologist Thomas Burkhalter interacts with local musicians to understand the genesis and rich heritage of Pakistani music.


Swiss Journalist turned ethnomusicologist Thomas Burhalter has come to Pakistan in search of experimental music and his interest is not only restricted to qawwali. Having a post doctorate in Global Niches — Music in a Transnational World, Burkhalter interacted with local musicians to understand the genesis of this part of the world’s music and what they are doing with their incredibly rich heritage.

Most of the music produced in the Middle East and Africa has western influences, however, Burkhalter believes that Pakistanis are proud of their heritage and have their own genre of music. “Most of the music produced here is quite indigenous and I am not talking about Sufi music,” he says, pointing at ventures like Coke Studio. “They think that to be modern is to be western. I don’t think they should think like this. One should follow their own creativity, but be self-critical.”

Over the past few years, Pakistan has exported many musicians and their music has revolved around Sufism. While some artistes have genuinely worked to take the Sufi kalaam forward, the others have simply capitalised on the West’s thirst for the Sufi thought, which has eventually given Pakistani artistes a collective identity of Sufi musicians.

“The media portrays Pakistan in a negative light; people think that it is a dangerous and extremely religious country. As a result, they take Sufi music as Pakistan’s form of religious music,” says Burkhalter. For him, identity matters, but that never impedes a musician’s broad vision. That drive is persistent within Pakistani artistes, who he considers to be just as experimental as Europeans. “There is little investment and fewer opportunities, which is why talented people never get a bigger audience. You will see that there is no concert culture in Pakistan, but in Europe there would be almost five to six concerts running at the same time,” says Burkhalter.

In a week, Burkhalter has met artistes like Ali Gul Pir, Rohail Hyatt and Usman Riaz. He watched movies with them, visited their recording sessions and went instrument shopping to Saddar. He is doing this to add more value to the features for his own online magazine,

Referring to Ali Gul Pir’s style of music, he says that protest through parody is a great strategy to engage a bigger audience. “The usage of metaphors and lyrics for protests requires a lot of courage and you only see it in the east  — this is music with a message.” He enjoyed watching Usman Riaz’s short movies Waves and Ruckus and called them “high-quality work”. He also met Waqas Abbas, the man starting a Pakistani version of iTunes.

“Some people make music to sell, which ends up making it a product and not art.” For him, Coke Studio was the kind that sells and is also very creative. “The world is full of sounds, why not use all different sounds around us,” he says.

“I am interested in art, whatever it is, the way it’s created, the process of making that art and how people experiment,” says Burkhalter, “ After all, music is not all about the lyrics,” he replies.

Burkhalter feels that the music industry in Pakistan has a lot of potential to grow. There will come a time when he would visit again and see more new bands emerging and actually get some recognition. “You never know, maybe one day musicians will take over the world.” 

Published in The Express Tribune, June 18th, 2014.

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genesis | 8 years ago | Reply

Pakistan music is Indian in orign and is based on Indian tradtions.

Professor | 8 years ago | Reply

@amir jafri: And what exactly is "self respect" according to you? It is obvious that there is something wrong in the way Muslims are doing their business. Why else is the Muslim youth disillusioned and seeking violence instead of being a productive member of a community? It is no coincidence that there is NO Islamic society in the world that is at peace with itself or its neighbors. It is time to introspect as a community and be forthright about the ills in Islamic society. I don't see the chances of this post seeing the light of day, very bright. But, well, at least I voiced my opinion.

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