Salman Ahmad from the Pakistani band Junoon. Photo: Facebook
Salman Ahmad from the Pakistani band Junoon. Photo: Facebook

Years of terror attacks in Pakistan may have hit the country’s music industry hard, but times of extreme political tension are also spawning a new cult of rebel rock bands.

Pakistan’s mainstream music industry was flourishing around the turn of the century, as a growing number of music channels and nationwide concerts provided platforms to budding artists. But the worsening security situation put an end to the good times, resulting in a vacuum for musicians.

Opportunities became especially scarce after the 2008 terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, which saw a precipitous decline in major events, especially those that involved overseas celebrities.

Things, however, are slowly returning towards normalcy. The reunion concert of Junoon, the most popular Pakistani rock band of the 90s, symbolizes a shift back towards times when terror attacks were relatively unknown.

Yet even as a decade marred by terrorism smothered the mainstream entertainment sector, the same volatility has served as inspiration to  underground bands and alternative musicians. Many of these musicians, who cover a wide array of genres, use tools such as satire to incorporate political commentary into their music.

Prominent among them is Ali Aftab Saeed, whose band Beygairat Brigade [Shameless Brigade] rose to fame in 2011 following the release of their first single Aalu Anday  (Potatoes and Eggs). The song was a satirical critique of Pakistani civil and military leaders, past and present.

A thorny path

Saeed, who is now an independent musician and vlogger, says that while the growth of social media has allowed alternative musicians to become visible, those taking up political commentary face a backlash.

“Anyone who wants to speak against the establishment should purchase a selfie stick for Rs 600 [USD $4.30], then talk, recite poetry, or sing songs against them and then upload it to YouTube. (However) you cannot expect to make money out of speaking up against the establishment,” he says.

With the state being involved in the clampdown on free speech online, there is a very real threat to alternative voices which largely limit themselves to social media platforms.

“The biggest problem with threats is that one doesn’t know which ones are credible. I receive pictures where people are holding up guns with the caption that we’ll kill you with this, but I don’t know who that person is and if he’s ever even shot a duck. But of course one gets scared.”

Saeed says more than censorship or violent threats, incorporation of political commentary usually means musicians can’t take advantage of even the limited professional opportunities in Pakistan.

“Physical threat is a secondary problem, the bigger issue is financial. When you address controversial subjects, sponsors run away. They say, ‘there is a certain label attached to you now’. I’m a serious musician, but I haven’t made a single rupee from my music. So I have to do other odd jobs to run my kitchen, and finance my own music.”

A political art

Given that religious terrorism has forced some musicians to go underground, for many of these artistes radical Islamists are the most obvious target of their critique.

Khadim Rizvi, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the party which has been at loggerheads with the state and successive governments, has had the most wide-ranging impact on the societal turmoil and in turn on the dissenting voices.

For Garam Anday [Hot Eggs], a newly formed feminist rock band, whose members can be seen breaking a TV set airing Rizvi’s address in their track ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’ (Mother and Sister’s Stick) said there was a dire need to challenge the fear that radicals thrive upon.

“If we insignificant citizens cannot allow ourselves to express some lighthearted vitriol then we are truly lost. Also, now that the main troll himself is under custody I think we are fine – the spell has worked. You can thank us witches,” says Anam Abbas of Garam Anday.

Given that Pakistan continues to fare poorly on the gender equality index, the obvious target for the feminist band is patriarchy. Garam Anday, which evolved from the web-series ‘Ladies Only’, performed at the Aurat [Women’s] March, where they escorted pidarshahi ka janaza [the funeral procession of patriarchy].

“What makes us a feminist band is also our process – creating a nurturing collaborative environment where we can find our voices and celebrate our talents. We are surrounded by feminist activists who inspire us and our music from a real place of commitment… Feminism is a place we struggle for ourselves and for our sisters and it is a place where we learn, heal our traumas and grow,” says Abbas.

While Khadim Rizvi featured in Garam Anday’s video, and also became the source of inspiration for an Ali Aftab Saeed track, indie-rock band Poor Rich Boy understandably feel that their 2016 track ‘Preacher’ actually predicts the TLP chief’s arrival.

“The song seems quite prophetic in how it imagines a Khadim Rizvi before the actual Khadim ever made his debut on our social stage and established a name for himself with his heinous but popular brand of pseudo-religious bigotry,” says Umer Khan, the band’s vocalist.

Poor Rich Boy has also released tracks like ‘Zardarazir’, on the topic of Pakistan People Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari’s relationship with his wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who died in a terror attack in 2007. ‘Fair Weather Friend’ is a commentary on US-Pakistan relations.

“We’re either fed utter lies through the media… [or] there is a total media blackout on important social issues. In these circumstances, it is difficult to write a song that is not political. When the situation in your country is so dire, how can you ignore it?” says Khan, who goes on:

“[Hence] I see no escape from being political. After all, you know, [patriotic anthems] Dil Dil Pakistan and Jazba Junoon, are also political songs.”