History of Pop Music In Pakistan

By Omar Alavi


The popular music in Pakistan developed just like anywhere else in the world. This begs the question fundamentally and primarily: how does one define popular music? Is it the sign of the times or the product of the times one lives in? Popular music just like any other art form is subjective and hard to confine in a genre, people feel satisfied in. In fact popular music is an enigma that keeps the mainstream on its toes.

It’s important to understand that popular music is not a genre in itself but more of a hybrid of musical styles that touches a chord with most people. It’s the influences that make up what people call popular music. At one time it was pure classical music. At another time the music was accapela or what people here in Pakistan view as Mushaira, a sort of poetry trade-off live and totally uncontrolled. Beautiful!

Had Salim Raza (Voice) and Faiz (Content) not existed, would Rushdie be asked to sing ko ko korinna, infact could Rushdie how we came to know him have even existed. That is a fundamental question if one has to define what it is that embodies popular music in Pakistan.

If popular music in the 1940’s meant KL Saigol and Khursheed, in the 1950’s the perception changed – why? The evolution of cultural norms is hard to fathom, the development of music – nay popular music – which is a function of culture, must be looked at closely and delicately to understand what it was that touched the fancy of the masses at different times of Pakistan history.

People may exclaim Siagol, who? But go a decade or so later and you have Salim Raza as a popular musician – and hugely popular. Begs the question, though, how is popular music defined? Popular music’s description is conundrum. As soon as you define it, it changes shape. Chameleon this Popular Music! For lack of a better hemisphere, begin with the western cultural influence. Popular music has been demarcated for centuries as the democratic musical style – the one that appeals to the masses, mediocrity across ages notwithstanding. Start with Mozart, for instance, and one would find the rock era including Beatles using his influence to reengineer what young impressionable stick their hearts and wallets to!

Thus popular music is not a particular genre of music but a style that is influenced by what historically came before. One gets to experience a total magical experience for instance across the past decades by virtue of these diverse inspirations – The Big Bands, Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, the electronic era, the grunge era, etc. And come back East and one has a similar experience.

Pakistan has long since been known as a uniquely innovative area in the evolution of popular music. If popularity in the masses is one criterion of what popular music is then the land of the pure has it in spades. There are two strains – streams – that kiss the popularity lips of the masses. One is the teenage dream, the other is that which steamrolls through masses – the bubblegum vs middle-of-the-road. And here one finds the dichotomy: on the one side you have salim raza and his predecessors and on the other noor jahaN struts through the roost – they called it a war between the semi classical and the ‘right’ way of singing music. However one defines it, both were popular and hugely at that among the teens and the masses.

In Pakistan most people have been looking at how to evade the harshness of the times and eyeing the panacea for the ‘injustices’ meted out to them. One place they found it was in the genre of music and thus popular music.

The history of Popular music in Pakistan can thus be traced back to the one who sang “Jan e BaharaN,” the sweet voiced Salim Raza. Who would have thought! But that song began, what one can call the beginning of the TEENAGE SCREAMING scene in Pakistan. What a sensational beginning!. And although that song accompanied a classically influenced musical arrangement, no one could have thought at the time that very soon a barely twenty year old young Ahmed Rushdie would drastically change the world of popular music in Pakistan – much like the inimitable Elvis Presley!

Mr. Rushdie single handedly singing by the scruff of its neck and brought it to where it stands now – glorified, beautiful, ahead of the times and most of all, and best of all, so melodically effervescent. Rushdie brought with him songs and voice and inflections that changed the way people, girls, perceived music. His ballads were hypnotic, moody and nuanced as the audience laid mesmerized. The way he sang made one look for a hiding place to make out with a lover.  What chutzpah in his voice!

And then came Bronson…nobody!!! But still after him came a guitar slinging hobo from East Pakistan, then recently, Bangladesh. He set the non-movie – going people on fire. He brought the live guitar playing into contention. He infused life into pop music with his sultry, raw, slightly imperfect but completely sexy poise and delivery. He was the prototype for was about to come. He was Alamgir – the conqueror of the world – literally!

Alamgir played for those who skipped a generation. In other words he played and sang for those who were removed from the people who looked up to the west as pioneers. Although he copied their style he brought to the people of Pakistan a whole new pop frontier to discover and conquer. He defied, he copied, he conquered the west for the generations that came after him. The generations that enveloped the fire of Shehki, the fusion of Nazia-Zoheb, the beautiful un-savvy-ness of the Vital Signs, the sufi rock of the inimitable Junoon, and the IDOLIC rock that came after. What times! What a place! What nerve!