Chris Hladowski presents a wayward selection of some musical genres, instruments and regional characteristics of Pakistan and neighbouring areas, based largely on late-night YouTube sessions, web searches and the odd foray to the library
The district of Chitral – a princely state until its accession to Pakistan in 1969 situated in the northernmost reaches of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – is home to a diverse range of languages and musical cultures. Among the Khowar communities that criss-cross remote highland villages, all-male sonic gatherings display a marriage of sensuous solo dances, sweetly impassioned sung poetry and the celestial strumming of the Chitrali sitar (a slender type of long neck lute) alongside the demotic sounds of empty oilcans and Casio keyboards. Repeating crescendos, building through a frenzy of rhythmical breathing and communal handclaps, periodically scatter as dramatically as they have risen, like wayward storm clouds breaking under strobes of electric light on dark mountain peaks, before slowly resuming their ascent heavenwards.
Two hundred miles to the south of Chitral in Peshawar, heavy limping rhythms and cascading waves of tabla, Afghan rubab, harmonium and voice saturate palpably smoky music rooms – or is that my own room creeping into the story? Sadly, many people across the Pakhtun and Pashto-speaking north, a cultural area that extends well into Afghanistan, have been victims of a rising tide of fundamentalism and extreme censorship which has pushed Afghan music lodges, formerly a safe haven for exiled musicians, out of the city or underground. For a more vivid picture of the precarious lives of folks in Peshawar in 2001 (after five years of civil war across the border) check out Daniel Ridicki’s documentary Silent Voices, replete with a sumptuous if slightly sanctimonious voiceover, scorching rubab solos and heartfelt talking heads, interlaced with some great cinéma vérité excerpts from the 1970s.
Mehri Maftun (born 1971) is a well known singer and dambura player from Badakhshan in the Pamir highland region of Central Asia. Establishing himself on the music scene across the North Afghan provinces from a young age his music gradually found its way – through releases on cassette labels like Kunduz Muzik and Pamir Muzik – to bazaars all over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately his rising star, like many others, was curtailed by increasing Taliban censorship throughout the 1990s, which effectively restricted him to a decade of obscurity living under poor conditions back in his home village. This video captures a sense of the irrepressible fire in his music, which has seen him resume his musical career with aplomb, as does the title of his only commercially available Western release, I Am Burning From The Sparks Of Your Eyes, released in 2005 on the Dutch label Pan Records.
Mehri Maftun & Khomari
Owing to Peshawar’s Afghan links Mehri Maftun was also in demand in that city, and his visits there during the 1980s and 2000s would commonly see him paired alongside popular Afghan artists such as the singer Khomari. A friend who recently visited me at home said that this is the kind of music you could hear at Pakistani restaurants in Bradford "back in the day". I wish.
Beltoon wa Khomari House Party
YouTube videos of the apparently epic 10-part “Beltoon wa Khomari House Party” feature a more youthful-looking and undoubtedly intoxicated Khomari, sitting (and dancing) alongside the seasoned voice and Herati dutar of Ustad Beltoon and group. The first part of this YouTube mix gives a good indication of Khomari’s vocal talents, while the second part provides an equally impressive document of her reckless abandon on the dance floor, propelled by some cyclonic harmonium and tabla work. Make yourself comfy and watch on.
Of course, qawwali music is regarded by many as the quintessential Pakistani musical form, popularised by luminaries such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers, Aziz Mian and Abida Parveen, and calls for a primer in its own right. Laying claim to a long historical thread trailing all the way to the Persianate Mughal courts, musicians like Aziz Mian strove throughout their careers to convey a sense of the radical progressiveness associated with Sufi poets like Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif and Shah Hussain. Channelling the sufferings and hopes of the Pakistani people, Mian’s instructive, metaphor-laden use of mystical poetry, his showmanship and his rhetorical confidence in front of a crowd provide a visceral testament to the enduring appeal of the genre – as this rendering of “Teri Soorat”, augmented by a strikingly funky rhythm section and the support of an enthusiastic young acolyte, goes to show.
Lest disputations over the participation of women in qawwali befog your perspective, see this video of the great Abida Parveen, from Larkana in Sindh, and her group performing the iconic qawwali song “Mast Qalandar”.
The popular religious music of ascetic wanderers casts an alternative light on the Sufi shrine cultures crucial to the development of qawwali, frequented by musicians and itinerant malangs, dressed in bright green robes and covered with jewellery. Allan Faqir, reportedly a rebellious young manfrom Jamshoro in Sindh, wandered from home at a young age to live on the streets outside the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif, where he learnt the famous saint’s poetry. After almost a decade of life as a penniless fakir, during which time he became a popular attraction for the hordes of devotees visiting the site, he was ‘discovered’ by a producer at Radio Pakistan. He went on to become a mainstay of the boom enjoyed by Pakistan’s folk music scene during the populist regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. This video reveals something of his quirky and often comedic gestural performances, forlornly sipping water out of a plastic cup while rolling his eyes, donning a variety of hats… with his flowing tears of total annihilation in the beloved.
Faiz Muhammad Baloch "Yeh Pakistan Hamara"
Behind the intuitive if misguided transplantation of a “My Sharona” backbeat, on my band The Family Elan’s versioning of “Pakistan Hamara” (“Our Pakistan”) by Faiz Mohammad Baloch, lies a fortuitous (albeit posthumous) YouTube encounter with this wonderful tunesmith. Though admittedly dubbing his tumbling melodic strains with thoroughly un-nationalistic English lyrics, I am indebted to the man born of a Persian-Baloch family in Iran, who spent his working life as a labourer and in 1947 moved to Lyari, an area of Karachi. When Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) opened a new studio in Balochistan in 1974, Faiz Mohammad moved to Quetta, the provincial capital. Already well into his seventies at this point, his charismatic barefoot TV performances finally saw him achieve widespread popularity, touring Europe, the former Soviet Union and the USA before his death in 1982.