Through the haze of a dim-lit, smoke-filled room, 50 or so men, apparently in their 20s and wearing ‘just-out-of-bed’ T-shirts and jeans, are visible reclining casually against cushions on the floor. A few of them, sporting long hair falling limply over their shoulders and goatees of different styles, are moving their heads in rhythm to the sound of an acoustic guitar. Another, who looks around 18 and has experimented liberally with gel on his short spiky hair, sits with his back against the wall, a single bullet hanging on a black thread around his neck and a thick, studded, leather band on his wrist. All are intensely focused on three people sitting on a sofa in the middle of the room, playing music on a bongo, an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar.
“Let’s see how many of you have heard this one,” says a young, confident voice from the middle of the sofa, making the small audience raise some fresh hoots and applause as the guitar abruptly picks pace towards a familiar number. Soon, the crowd is on its feet, repeating the high-pitched chorus, some jumping and banging their heads aggressively against the air. The aura is explosive; the youngsters gathered are hardcore fans. It’s an underground rock jam session in a small room on the upper floor of a café in Islamabad.
Having shed its ‘quiet’ image, a new, Metallica-styled face of Islamabad is slinging on a guitar and a pair of torn jeans after school and work, and keeping the music savvy youth of the city rocking away into the night.
It comes as no surprise that the city that proudly gave us ‘Vital Signs’ two decades ago — a band titled as the ‘pioneer of pop music in Pakistan’ — is brimming with the talent of young, eager musicians. Irtaash, Lahu, Corduroy, Nafs, Saturn and Needlework, to name a few underground rock bands in Islamabad, have quite a number of concerts to their credit, each struggling with nothing more than the strings on their guitars and self-trained vocals to attain ‘rockstardom.’
Underground bands, typically known in the West for their contempt for commercial success, a music style that appeals to a non-mainstream, cult-like audience, and at times, linkages with political movements, call for total redefinition in this part of the world. Here, bands remain underground only because financial constraints, lack of contacts, sponsorships and media attention, and discouragement from parents cause them to remain smothered down there. Most Western UG bands prefer remaining proudly unheard of by the larger audience; here, UG bands long for popularity and success. Because of this fundamental difference, UG rock music in Pakistan, unlike Western UG rock, which is more ‘free’ and at times bizarre due to its rejection of specific genre labelling, sounds more or less the same as mainstream rock.
“It’s the dream of every underground band in Pakistan to record an album. If you don’t want to go commercial, you might as well sit in your room and play your guitar to yourself,” says Junaid Waheed, 29, lead vocalist of the band Lahu and a business graduate, currently working as a regional sales manager at a telecom company.
Others, like Aashir Irfan, 19, bassist of the band Saturn and a student of ACCA, feel that the notion of ‘selling out by going commercial’ that applies to UG bands in the West is relevant here as well, but only if you compromise what you do best just to develop a popular following.
“If an underground rock band starts making pop music just to get on TV, that’s selling out. The band Corduroy released an English rock album two years back and sales did not sky-rocket, but at least they stuck to what they do best,” says Aashir.
These young musicians might lack finances and acknowledgment from the mainstream crowd, but the one thing they claim they do not lack is passion.
Junaid, with his ‘zero-cut’ hairstyle (an almost shaved head), a French beard and spectacles, explains with ease of manners how his love for music landed him a gig at Bahria University in 1999, which gave his fellow musicians and him the idea of forming a band. The newly formed band circulated pamphlets around the university, asking students to suggest a suitable name. The result was ‘Lahu’.
“‘Lahu’ is the essence of life,” he explained, with a hint of pride in his voice. Yasir Jaswal, 23, lead vocalist of Irtaash and a student of BBA, practised his vocals from an early age by singing along old Indian songs of Kishore Kumar. His clean, pressed shirt, neatly trimmed hair, and boyish looks contrast with his aspirations of becoming a rock star.
“I make music for myself … to let go of my emotions. If people can connect with it, my job is done,” he said with a voice full of passion. “The term ‘Irtaash’ means ‘vibrations produced by waves’,” he continued. “Our first performance was at a function at FAST University, which we did for free because the organisers couldn’t get any other band and we wanted the exposure.”
The band performed their song ‘Kali Raatain’ (Dark Nights) at the function, which was an instant hit among those present. Now, 5 years later, they have finally released a video of the same song on ‘Indus Music’ and ‘The Musik’– a feat that was no picnic for a struggling UG band from Islamabad.
“UG bands have not been able to get the exposure they deserve. Whatever they are doing, they are doing it on their own. If a band finally manages to get a video on IM, it wont be run very often unless you actually go to Karachi to make sure it is”, said Junaid.
“There are very good rock bands in Islamabad … the problem is that to get some attention, most have to shift to Karachi and now Lahore. Vital Signs was an Islamabad-based band but had to move to Karachi … as did Junoon, which was from Lahore,” he continued.
Money is unanimously cited as the biggest hurdle on the way to commercial success. Recording studios are out of reach of the pocket of a typical UG band, since recording a single song costs much more than what they make from one concert. Consequently, whatever they make is usually spent on upgrading their equipment.
But perhaps all these issues would not be so painful to swallow if it weren’t for the lack of one of the most sought after elements in the world of show business: Respect.
“Not getting money for our performance doesn’t feel as bad as not getting respect. Organisers often cancel commitments at the last minute if they find a band that will perform for a lesser amount or for free. Once, an organiser bluntly asked us to leave after we had finished playing at an event,” said Yasir, with a trace of bitterness.
A band that performs the opening act at a concert is immediately categorised as ‘mediocre’, the crowd is also unsympathetic towards newcomers in the music scene, not willing to applaud or appreciate no matter how impressive the performance is, and the ultimate letdown is when a rock band is requested by a coarse crowd to play ‘Bhangra’.
“The mainstream crowd is mostly attracted to ‘Bhangra’ and pop music and doesn’t appreciate the talent of rock musicians,” said Jonathan Jones, 21, lead guitarist of the band Nafs and a student of Bachelors.
Gradually, however, the crowd’s taste is becoming more refined, says Aashir. Thanks to Call and EP — prior UG bands from Lahore but now household names among young music lovers — an appetite for rock music is steadily developing.
Luckily, UG rock bands from Islamabad are more successful in developing a small, intensely loyal fan-following as compared to those from Lahore and Karachi, where large numbers of mega-famous bands make the crowd less patient towards unfamiliar performers.
“Islamabad has really good underground rock bands. My favourite is Corduroy and Lahu,” said Bilal Abbas, an 18-year-old ‘A’ levels student from Islamabad who claims to avidly follow local UG rock music.
The performances of these UG bands, attended mostly by fellow musicians and word-of-mouth crowd wanting to party and ‘head-bang’ (a popular practice among heavy metal fans involving aggressive shaking of the head, preferably if one has long hair, along with the music), take place at different venues around the city, including Islamabad Club and Lok Virsa, where NGOs and other private organisations arrange ‘Rock Fests’ (performances by four or five bands), Planet X, where they perform on self-financed basis, schools, universities and local events, where they sometimes play free-of-charge just for the exposure, and the only venue in the city that asks for no money or contacts for practising in front of a live audience: Civil Junction.
The small café in F-7, with its casual, simple interior, perfect for lounging about on lazy days and a pretty patch of trees outside beneath which one enjoy the tit-bits offered by the famous, quirky menu card, has become such a crucial element of support for these young musicians that most of them refer to it almost reverently. Arshad Bhatti, owner of Civil Junction, says that he offered this platform because he believes that Islamabad is capable of producing brilliant rock stars.
Via The News