1. A Few Personal Thoughts
For the past few months (as I partially hinted all the way back in April), my obsession for the music of the Indian Subcontinent/South Asia has really been focused on singers from Pakistan. Some of these singers have been around for quite a while and/or have drawn upon very old traditions. But the artists whom I am going to focus on here are still very much with us, actively doing performances and appearing in broadcasts or streaming videos in the present day.
I’ve said before in this blog that when it comes to contemporary musical performers – especially those who extend themselves into the world of pop music – I tend to be more impressed in general by the ones I’ve seen from Pakistan than those that I’ve seen from India. Especially when it comes to the context of “global” pop music, Pakistan simply seems to have produced a much better scene in recent years. I might say more, but I have realized that I already said more in this blog a decade ago. Quoting myself from my 2012 “About” page:
I still do like looking at and posting contemporary folk/pop/dance music from the whole Subcontinental region, just as I did at the very beginning of this blog. But my tastes tend most often to lean toward the north. I have developed a great fondness for contemporary Pakistani pop, and it seems to me that Pakistan is producing excellent pop, rock, and dance music (much of it based on more traditional stuff, such as folk music or spiritual music). I actually had some exposure to Pakistani music (and inspiration to explore it) long before my obsession with Indian films, and I developed a particular fondness for the music of the Sufis. Along the same lines, I have realized that I love a whole range of music that has Punjabi or Sindhi origins….
Since I wrote that “About” page, my attitude about this matter hasn’t changed. (In fact, not much has changed regarding the things that I mentioned in that “About” page – except, maybe, the fact that I have developed an enormous fondness for kathak over other dances – which actually helped to increase my fondness for North Indian and Pakistani music, classical as well as folk and pop. Come to think of it, that might be a good enough reason to write a new “About” page.) Anyway, during the years since that time, I have found a lot of good sources agreeing with my thoughts about the obvious proportional superiority of Pakistani pop (including popular forms of folk or classical/devotional fusion). (By the way, just to be clear, by “proportional superiority,” I mean that Pakistan seems to be producing so many great musical outfits that we get to see (or hear, especially if we have YouTube), which is very impressive vs. the number that we might find from India, especially because of the difference in population.)
2. A Fine Article About Coke Studio
One recent source that I have seen is a very good article that came out on the BBC website on May 31, Pasoori: How Coke Studio is defeating hate between India and Paksitan, by Zoya Mateen.
Most readers of this blog probably know that Coke Studio is a very interesting musical performance show that has been showcasing contemporary Pakistani music acts. It’s been broadcasting for close to 15 years, and I have been viewing much of the show via clips on YouTube for at least a decade. (Incidentally, if you don’t know about Coke Studio, that’s perfectly all right, but I would strongly recommend that you take a look at it one of these days.) In the past few years, we have also seen Coke Studio programs spring up in India and Bangladesh, but these still are like minor offshoots, relatively speaking. It’s still the case that if people talk about Coke Studio, they’re very likely going to be referring to the Pakistani version.
Coke Studio was initiated in 2008 due to the efforts of its first producer, a Pakistani musician named Robin Hyatt, who, as Ms. Mateen tells us in the article, was inspired to launch into a “a dizzying musical journey, experimenting with fusion and eclecticism.” (Of course, he could not have done this without the assistance of sponsors Coca Cola, who don’t let you forget their presence – but thanks to the quality of the music, it’s easy to stop being bothered by the Coke bottles that are so often flashed before our eyes.) After Hyatt produced 14 episodes, other producers took over, who only helped to increase the eclecticism of that fusion.
In this article it’s made clear from the beginning that Indians just love Pakistani Coke Studio (the main reason that it’s helping to “defeat hate” between the countries), and it’s suggested that one reason for this is that Indians are so used to fusion, given how much (and how long) they’ve been exposed to it by the Indian film industry.
That point is made nicely via a quote from the singer Zeb Bangash (a name that you are going to see pop up more than a few times in this post):
Indians are no strangers to fusion music. You look at songs composed by [Indian music director] RD Burman – he constantly brought jazz and Afro-funk beats, tunes and interludes and married them into traditional sounds.
I would add, though, that, as many readers of this blog no doubt know, RD Burman’s work comprises only a fraction of the fusion music that can be found in Hindi cinema, stretching back to an era well before he was born,
Similarly, while I was reflecting upon the statement that forms the core of this article’s title – “How Coke Studio is defeating hate between India and Pakistan” – I instantly recalled reading quite a few references to how Hindi/Bollywood cinema once did the same thing. For example, I have read accounts about a time during and right after Partition when the world of cinema was the place where politically inflamed hatred between the two then-newly formed nations was surprisingly absent or at least temporarily forgotten.
Unfortunately, it seems that in more recent times, cinema has not provided such a refuge. As Zoya Mateen mentions, “when political hostilities migrated to the cultural arena, Bollywood dropped Pakistani actors and Pakistan banned Indian movies.” I have also noticed – and have seen confirmed elsewhere – the fact that Bollywood in recent years has increasingly featured stereotypes of Muslims acting as terrorists and has asserted jingoistic attitudes about India. (There are some good explanations to be found regarding why this change happened, related to the domination in India in recent years by a certain right-wing Hindu-nationalist party and its prime minister, but that is a discussion that we need not delve into too much in the present post.) In any event, even if the popular cinema can no longer really serve as such a great refuge, there are bound to be other places that will. And at least according to this BBC article, Coke Studio is one.
Curiously, although the song “Pasoori” is named right in the title of the article, this song isn’t really discussed much afterwards. “Pasoori” is singled out because, as the brief description at the beginning of the article says, “This song breaks barriers of language, religion, nationality and touches the heart.” But after these few words, accompanied by a nice picture of the duet who performs it (Ali Sethi and Shae Gill), that subject simply gets dropped.
The next picture we see is a nice shot of Abida Parveen (someone who really has to be included in any comprehensive article about Coke Studio or Pakistani music), but for most of the rest of the article, Zeb Bangash seems to be the person most prominently featured – through a picture, descriptions of her music, and interview excerpts. And speaking for myself, I think that was a good choice. Zeb is one of the “divas” whom I also am going to feature prominently, in the next part of this post.
3. A Few Divas
I don’t know if “divas” is the best word for all of these female Pakistani singers. In some cases, they might not fit that definition, nor want it. (Remember that this word is often used as an insult too!) But I like it as a light and somewhat humorous way to refer to a group of great female singers, and I’ve seen it used in reference to at least a couple of these singers too. (It’s an Italian word, of course, but sometimes I think it might seem fitting for South Asians because it sounds bit like “devi.” Though that would probably not be so appropriate in the present post, considering that most of these women are Mulsim.)
I’m also quite aware that there are great male singers in the Pakistani scene, but I tend to notice the female singers first, and I think that they are actually getting more of the attention these days. In another, future post, I may write a little about those male singers, too. I also may want to write about more female singers. But I only intended to single out a few women this time so that I can commit enough wordage to adequately describe them and a couple of each singer’s most impressive clips.
In any event, enough of the tangential discussion about what I would like to do here. Right now, I would like to go back to writing about Zeb!
It occurred to me that maybe Zoya Mateen chose to focus a lot on Zeb Bangash because Zeb has done so much to cross the cultural boundaries, placing herself in the middle of a very diverse range of projects. (Though that is just one explanation… It could also be that Zeb made herself very available to be interviewed.) Zeb has sung in a number of Bollywood films as well as in a variety of arrangements at Coke Studio – solo, in a few different combinations and, especially in the earlier episodes, as half of the duet Zeb and Haniya (which actually were my favorite of her performances there). She’s also been featured in other Pakistani forums and in independent videos (one of which I will get to soon). And Zeb has also performed regularly in my own home town across the ocean, New York City, in the fascinating group Sandaraa (whom I will also get back to shortly). It may be that Zeb is one of the most innovative/versatile global fusion pop singers whom you could find anywhere.
Below is a stunning Zeb and Haniya video for the song “Dadra,” which I found somewhat randomly. I don’t know anything about how the project developed or where it’s generally appeared (other than on YouTube). But when I watched this (and heard it), I thought this was even better than the appearances they’ve made on Coke Studio. (And that, of course, is why I decided that this would be the Zeb and Haniya video that I would include on the list here. For those who are curious about seeing what they did on Coke Studio, I encourage you to search for them there – because nothing you find will disappoint you.)
I would like to have come up with some great words on my own to describe this video, but I looked at the YouTube comments and found other people’s descriptions to be perfect: “Beautiful,” “dark,” “haunting…” Yes, it is all of these things! There is also an interesting social message in the lyrics (which are comprised of words from Zehra Nigah, one of very few female poets who became prominent in Pakistan during the 1950s). Although subtle, the song actually seems to hint at a coming revolution, with lines like “The world so quiet and sleeping will surely come alight” and, a little later on, “These wild gusts of wind are here to let you know that.” (Of course, I am reading from the English subtitles; the Urdu might be even more interesting in this regard. But, unfortunately, my ability to understand Urdu or Hindi is still pretty limited, though I have learned some words here and there.)
But as I started to say above, Zeb’s American incarnation is really unique and interesting, too. Apparently, Zeb also has been a resident in Brooklyn, NY, where she joined up with Michael Winograd, a clarinetist and composer specializing in the Jewish/Yiddish/Eastern European musical tradition known as klezmer. And the group that they formed is Sandaraa (“Song” in Pashto)… Essentially, she sings Pakistani and Afghani folk songs and poetry to a slightly experimental version of klezmer. (There also are a number of other styles thrown in – but I think to most ears, the most evident styles in these songs are Zeb’s kind of folk music and the klezmer.)
“Farz Karo” might be their best-known number. And by the way, the lyrics here come from another famous Pakistani Urdu poet, Ibn-e-Insha. There are no subtitles in this video but I have actually found an English translation at Urduwallahs. (And I will say that it is amusing and interesting – and end any attempt at interpretation there.)
Zeb and many other Pakistani singers who can claim a diverse audience come from Punjab. (Actually, she was born in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but she is known mainly as a singer from Punjab – specifically, Lahore.) Punjab, I imagine, has contributed more singers to Pakistan’s popular music of the past several decades than any other region. But recently – as I mentioned a couple of months ago – I’ve been finding a lot of delightful singers hailing from Sindh. Of course, this is not the first time I’ve enjoyed the music of singers from Sindh. As I mentioned in my 2012 “About” page, I was enjoying Sindhi singers even then and I was actually going through an infatuation with the folk singer who once was considered one of Sindh’s greatest cultural representatives, Shazia Khushk. (Unfortunately, Shazia has long since then quit music, claiming a contradiction with the serious pursuit of her religion. That is a shame, especially considering that she made some of her best music in service to Islam via Sufi classics.) In general, it’s clear that Sindh can claim to have been the source of a lot of great music in the heritage of Pakistan and the Subcontinent, and it’s probably also the place that contains the most ancient musical roots.
One of the Sindhi singers whose work I have enjoyed a lot lately is Mai Dhai. I actually found out about her in a trailer for a documentary film that I would also highly recommend (now that I’ve seen all of it), Indus Blues. Some of the musical instruments that this film features – if not the actual styles – probably date back to the Indus civilization, hence the very appropriate title of the film. (The “Indus” part of the title most overtly refers to the Indus River, which enters into the many different areas of Pakistan where the film takes place, but I get the impression that the other reference is just as significant.) A big theme in this movie is the struggle between ancient musical traditions and the challenges of contemporary Pakistan. And these challenges do not just consist of having to face modern tastes and technology but also having to deal with harsh economics and reactionary political forces that are opposed to music altogether (as well as dance, of course). The film overall might be considered depressing, though the musical scenes, themselves, can inspire a lot of joy. And, conversely, the joy in the music just makes it more depressing that there are forces aiming to eliminate all of this.
Mai Dhai’s scene in the film is actually centered on the instrument called the murli (aka the been – the ancient instrument of snake charmers), and that is what the song is about, too. And there is an excellent murli player in this scene, Sattar Jogi. But it seems to me that the main star in this scene clearly is Mai Dhal. She has a fantastically compelling voice, and her style of singing is not like anything you are going to find in most videos or films. That style and this scene might not be something you would normally expect to come out of Pakistan, either; if it brings any place to mind, it’s Rajasthan. But that makes perfect sense when you read about Mai Dhai’s background. Mai Dhai is from the Manganhar, which is a Muslim community centered in Rajasthan – but some of its members did migrate right across the border to nearby Tharparkar, Sindh, Pakistan. That is Mai Dhai’s home village, and this video probably does an excellent job of letting the world know about their traditional music.
Mai Dhai is apparently known for giving performances on Coke Studio. On YouTube, I noticed one interview clip for which she was labeled “the Coke Studio sensation.” But since I am including only two clips from every artist on this list, I wanted to post something by her that I like much more. The Coke Studio clips involve her in a little more fusion than I like in this case, almost making her seem like a jazz singer. I actually really like seeing her performance clips that are more traditional and less elaborately produced.
I love this clip of her singing a song entitled “Laila Makno Banayo To,” which I found on the channel of the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh. Because it is considerably longer than the Indus Blues scene/trailer, I think it gives us a better opportunity to fully enjoy her intense voice. I also love her dhol playing here! And there is something else that I found interesting about this clip. Maybe it is just my own perception, but the vocal melody to this song reminds me a lot of a Punjabi song that I hard previously, “Chitta Kukkad.” (You can hear a version of “Chitta Kukkad” in one of the videos in my post about India’s Neha Bhasin.) As to whether there are any lyrical similarities, I could not claim to be able to tell with Sindhi vs. Punjabi, and no translations are available. (I am kind of guessing, though, that the “Laila” in the song involves the familiar Laila of legends.) I suspect that the lyrics are not very similar but that this case is just an interesting illustration of how folk melodies often drift from one region/culture into others (especially if the others are virtually next door).
Now, someone might be inclined to ask, if none of my favorite clips from these performers actually are from Coke Studio – even though they are known for playing on that show – then why did I spend so much of this post praising the show? Well, I might say that the show deserves praise for giving these performers a forum where the world can see them even if their appearances on Coke Studio aren’t always my absolute favorites. But now I am going to get more into performances that actually did come from that show. And I am going to begin a with a video that comes from Coke Studio’s special “Explorer” series, where I first got to see another performer from southern Sindh, named Shamu Bai.
When seeing Shamu Bai, I thought of Mai Dhai because I noticed a few similarities. For one thing – which is not actually a product of the singers’ talents or voices – the clip from Coke Studio reminded me a lot of the clip of Mai Dhai from Indus Blues. In both clips, you’ll see lots of children, grazing animals, and scenes from within southern Sindh’s beautiful rural countryside. (Apparently, this was shot far from Coke Studios’ studios. I guess that is why it is labeled one of their “Explorer” videos? They traveled all the way to – what village, exactly? I have seen a couple of different answers to that question, neither of which I could find labeled on any map. But I know that it is definitely in the same part of the same province as Mai Dhai.)
Both Shamu Bai and Mai Dhai wear very traditional clothing with head coverings (by the way, in Mai Dhai’s case, that’s a Rajasthani ghoongat), though they are of different religions, with Mai Dhai being Muslim and Shamu Bai a Hindu. Those familiar with Rajasthani heritage might expect Mai Dhai to be a Hindu, but she comes form a group who were a religious minority back when they lived in India. Meanwhile, an interview with Shamu Bai reveals that she is devout and she loves singing bhajans, but she also is happy to sing about the Sufi saints who are popular among most of the traditional communities in Sindh. As I see it, both women in their own ways blur distinctions between traditional Muslim and Hindu cultures, which is something that Sufis in the region are historically famous for. Of course, the Sufi leaders/philosophers/saints also famously worked to “defeat hate.”
To a Westerner like myself, there is also some similarity to their singing styles, though someone closer to their homes might tell you that they are very different. Shamu Bai does have a much younger voice (she is only 21, actually – and in this Coke Studio debut, she duets with her brother, who is 14). Her singing also is probably a bit lighter in a way that has nothing to do with the difference in age.
The Coke Studio song is entitled “Faqeera,” which means “hermit” or “wanderer,” and it’s based on a words by the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah about wandering Sufi saints. Normally, it might sound very old/traditional, but it turns out to be a really catchy pop number, thanks to the use of addictive electronic beats. This is a kind of fusion that I tend to take to much more than, say, the kind that jazzes someone’s music up and throws in a lot of different instruments and heavy production. It’s a number that, in my opinion, really gets stuck in your head. And, as I’m sure was intended, it’s all pretty cute sometimes too.
The next song, “Saagar Na Motee,” is of a somewhat more traditional musical vein, although it was produced by the Sketches, who are known as a “Sufi rock” band (who, by the way, have also appeared on Coke Studio, with Mai Dhai). In this song, Shamu Bai is able to show the true power of her own voice more extensively than in “Faqeera, in part because she sings solo here and also because she is allowed much more time. For those who want to get a good perspective of her talents, it complements “Faqeera” well.
Speaking of singers from Sindh, is any female singer from Sindh better known than Abida Parveen? In this case, it wouldn’t be strange at all to refer to her as a diva, as I have heard people do before. She is the queen of Sufi music and qawwalis. And, incidentally, she has been quite a groundbreaker because she is a woman who became famous for singing qawwalis, which have been such an exclusively all-male form, at least in her traditional circles in Pakistan. (Let’s remember, these are spiritual/devotional qawwalis that get sung at shrines, etc., in Pakistan. They are not the secular qawwalis that have been sung by women in Hindi films since 1945.)
Abida also has a broadly recognized kind of passion in her voice that has helped her to gain a following among Westerners. In fact, I am such a Westerner, who took to her music more than 25 years ago, when my knowledge of Sufi music and music from the Indian subcontinent was fairly insignificant compared to what it is today.
It’s also been quite a while – 15 years, maybe – since I first heard the singer Naseebo Lal. But he context in which I heard her is quite amusing (at least to me) since it happened while I was indulging in the sometimes-raunchy Pakistani stage “mujra” videos that are so abundant on YouTube. Naseebo Lal also developed a reputation for singing in Pakistani films (probably, that came first). In fact, at the beginning of her rise as a singer, she was known as the “new Noor Jehan.” She does sound a little like Noor Jehan, although I would say that the similarity exists with Noor Jehan’s somewhat later incarnation, not the young Noor Jehan who appeared in films as a singing star.
Based on what I’ve known, Naseebo Lal’s background is not one that I would associate closely in my mind with Abida Parveen’s. To me, they seem to have earned their acclaim by going down very different paths. On the other hand, Naseebo Lal has sung some Sufi spiritual numbers and did playback for some good dhamal scenes. More significantly, they are both Pakistani singing superstars, and they probably have both sung most of their best-known songs in Punjabi. (By the way, although Abida is Sindhi, she has sung fluently in several different languages.) So, it is not a big surprise that when they finally collaborated for the first time, they ended up creating Coke Studio’s greatest hit.
“Tu Jhoom” fits well into a genre that I have seen referred to as “orchestral qawwali,” exemplified in the UK by Abi Sampa. Abi Sampa’s videos are great, but “Tu Jhoom” is even better strictly by virtue of the voices singing it. At the same time, “Tu Jhoom” hardly depends on the two divas’ voices alone, because Coke Studio throws everything into it, including a church choir chorus, rock drums, and sophisticated electronics.
Meanwhile, at least judging by the subtitles, it seems to me that the lyrics are designed to have as broad and universal an appeal as possible. I think there is a hint here of the Sufi theme of looking into yourself to find the path to God, but that spiritualism is very subtle. The more obvious message that reaches everyone is: learn to accept yourself and the limitations that fate has given you because this will help you to enjoy what life has to offer despite the difficulties that it presents. Although I am an agnostic, I admit that find the more spiritual messages of a real Sufi song to be more interesting and I think the real Sufi songs can offer more for the intellect to process too. But going by what I have seen in terms of comments about these lyrics, I understand that a lot of people have found them to be very moving, and I would say that there is certainly no reason to knock them.
One thing you can definitely say about “Tu Jhoom” is that even though it may have been designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, there’s nothing either meandering or diluted-sounding about this song. It’s actually far less meandering than some other Coke Studio numbers that I have seen that include lots of different genres and instruments, etc. From beginning to end, this song never loses its impact.
I would guess that “Tu Jhoom” has mainstream appeal even in the U.S. because I’ve seen an unusual number of American “reaction” videos listed for it. The YouTube ratings, especially on the Coke Studio channel, are also huge. I wonder if it has “charted” anywhere. If there is a world music chart anywhere that actually includes listenership from around the world, I could imagine this one topping it. It would be nice to see this recognized as a global Number 1!
I thought of closing this post with “Tu Jhoom” (given that it is Coke Studio’s greatest hit), but on the other hand, since I have been including second clips from everyone else, I thought it would be fun to include nice ones of these two divas singing solo in other places and maybe a little back in time.
For Abida Parveen, I am going to go back a little further than I have with the other singers in this post and show the classic clip of her singing “Tere Ishq Nachaya,” a poem by Bulleh Shah that does more explicitly encourage people to find God by looking into themselves. (Incidentally, I know I mentioned before that Shamu Bai’s song was also attributed to Bulleh Shah, but I think that the lyrics that Abida Parveen sings in this song are more substantial in terms of giving you a vivid glimpse of the Sufi saint’s core philosophy.) This song clip is probably from the 1990s, the decade when I first actually started listening to Abida Parveen. It’s also still probably my favorite.
With regard to Nasebo Lal, I don’t really have any points of reference to figure out which performances might be the best in her long history or which songs she is best known for, so I looked through a variety of videos of her on YouTube and merely decided which ones I liked the most. For this post, I wanted to include something from her film history that also might show that she was good at singing Sufi numbers, especially since that would be relevant to her collaboration with Abida Parveen. That’s why I’m including the following clip, which I happened to find very enjoyable. The scene for this “Ali Ali Dam Qalandar” song – which is officially entitled “Main Gawan Aayi” – actually includes Naseebo in the scene (she was one of the stars in this film), along with the popular dancer-actress known as Saima. Saima is the taller one, with the slightly lighter, straighter hair, who does more of the dancing (of course). I believe Naseebo Lal is singing for both of them. This actually reminds me of a few dhamal scenes from movies made in the late ’60s and ‘70s in which Noor Jehan did the playback, so it also kind of reinforces the idea that Naseebo Lal became the new Noor Jehan.
I don’t think that Pakistani films from Naseebo Lal’s times – I believe she rose to stardom in the ‘90s and 2000s – could ever have gained the status and recognition of those from Noor Jehan’s time, whether that would be from the ‘70s or, more so, the ‘60s and ‘50s (not to mention Noor Jehan’s legendary Indian films of the ‘40s). Pakistani films notoriously declined in the ‘80s, thanks in great part to the society that developed around the right-wing dictator Zia-ul-Haq. (One gets the impression, after a while, that oppressive right-wing regimes just aren’t good for film industries anywhere.)
In terms of popularizing music, Pakistani films never really had the power to do so (especially not for an international audience) the way Indian films did. They may have done so to some extent in the peak days of Noor Jehan and Zubaida Khanum, etc. (once again, meaning the ’50s to the ’70s), but those days seem long gone. On the other hand, it may not be far-fetched to say that Pakistan has entered a sort of golden age for popularizing its music via the broadcast of performances. Not only do we have the astoundingly successful Coke Studio, but there are other shows such as Nescafe Basement, which has gained quite a reputation, too. (By the way, I have watched a number of clips on YouTube from that show, and while it may not be as impressive as Coke Studio, it certainly is worth checking out now and then.) Although, if these shows are a representation of a current golden age in Pakistani music, it seems a little odd that they seemingly always have to include the names of sponsoring Western food-and-drink corporations in their titles. But that’s a minor quibble. Speaking for myself, I’m going to be cheering on any further developments in this area. I intend to watch these contemporary Pakistani music performances more frequently also (via whatever clips I can find on YouTube), and I hope that I’ll have the chance to write quite a few more blog posts about them in the future.