Between rock and a hard place

An underground music scene—even ‘cooler than Toronto’s’—is flourishing in many large Pakistani cities

Between rock and a hard place

Photograph by Adnan R. Khan

Something unexpected is about to happen in the underground grotto of the Base Rock Cafe. It’s open mike night at one of Karachi’s only venues for live rock music, and the steady stream of would-be rock stars has been a bit of a disappointment so far. But that’s to be expected. “We don’t judge the bands that sign up for the open mike,” Sameea Zafar, the café’s 29-year-old owner, says apologetically. “We really want an open atmosphere for Pakistani musicians, so anyone can come and give performance a try.”

The lineup on this night has been typical for an open mike: teenagers belting out cover tunes in often tuneless cacophonies, with only sporadic forays into potential musicianship. But when Junaid Akmal, an aspiring comedian and MC for the night, announces the youngest act on the playlist, what they get is something else altogether.

Twelve-year-old Sufyan Ansari approaches the microphone with an acoustic guitar and the swagger of a seasoned performer. No one would guess that this is his first time on stage, his first time, in fact, playing for any audience of any kind. But when he starts strumming, the murmur in the audience gives way to an awed silence. His acoustic renditions of Nirvana songs are dizzyingly emotive, his adolescent voice ringing out clear, near-perfect melodies. At the end of his three-song set, Sufyan leans into the mike and asks tentatively: “Do you want to hear another one?” The crowd explodes with applause.

“That was incredible,” Sufyan tells Maclean’s after his set. “I feel so blessed to have a place like this where I can play. Base Rock is making my dream possible. I know now that I can be a rock star.”

Such a benign dream may not seem so special to the Western mind—what kid doesn’t want to be a rock star at some point in his life? But in Pakistan, where in parts of the country even listening to rock ’n’ roll can be detrimental to one’s continued existence, it’s not what you expect to hear. Still, for Sufyan, music, and rock in particular, is elemental to his existence, he says. And he is not alone. In major cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, rock music is blossoming in an underground scene replete with young artists eager to explore a form of artistic expression usually associated with the West.

In dusty backrooms, posh villas, and rare venues like the Base Rock Cafe, young musicians are learning the ropes of rock ’n’ roll. Death metal, surprisingly, has some of the strongest followers, tapping into the anger and frustration many young Pakistanis are feeling, but other genres have also found their place. “The glory days of the Pakistani underground are now,” says Shehzad Noor, the lead singer for Lahore’s Poor Rich Boys. “We have bands to look up to, like the Kominas in Boston. These are guys from Pakistan originally but who’ve been successful abroad. This is the main reason young people are making music in Pakistan—because we’re sick of being here.”

But escape is still a distant dream for most young Pakistani musicians. Their world remains the tightly packed and sweltering streets of cities like Karachi and Lahore. And the dearth of venues where artists can make their mark is a source of deep frustration. “It’s demoralizing to know people are not listening to your music,” says 21-year-old Taimur Mazhar Sheikh from 6LA8, a post-rock outfit based in Karachi. “The best thing that could happen is for the outside world to help us get our music out.”

The Internet has been a boon. Without social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, most Pakistani underground musicians agree that their scene would fizzle out and die. Still, a few hundred followers on Facebook is nothing compared to concert venues where they can showcase their talents, or the backing of a record label, with the promotion and exposure that kind of relationship brings.

For now, most bands rely on private parties and the few cafés that struggle to stay afloat amid a largely disinterested Pakistani audience. “You do sometimes feel like you’re screaming into a black hole when you play at these cafés,” says Noor. And of course, this is Pakistan, which presents its own unique host of problems. Bomb blasts and gun battles occasionally force bands to cancel gigs, and fear of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists is ever present in the minds of songwriters. “Sure there’s self-censorship,” says Noor. “There are topics we should talk about openly but we simply can’t broach, like sex. I mean, then I wouldn’t have had to learn about sex from porn sites. And playing on the streets is not an option, unless you want people throwing stones at you, or worse, getting shot.”

These are the realities Pakistan’s rock musicians face every day. But still, despite the obstacles, creativity is thriving. According to Steve Bigas, owner of Porcelain Records in Hamilton, Ont., who evaluated some of Pakistan’s underground bands for Maclean’s, the scene is “cooler than Toronto’s.” He adds, “A band like Orangenoise has a great sound. Unfortunately, their mixes and recordings are horrible. If I could get these guys in a studio for a week, we’d make a monster record.”

Bigas, who’s worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, like Daniel Lanois and the late blues legend Duwayne Burnside, also faults Pakistani musicians for relying too heavily on covering Western bands. “Stick to writing songs,” he tells them. “There’s some amazing work coming out of Pakistan. Sure, everyone is influenced by bands like Radiohead, but everyone seems to forget that Radiohead writes songs.”

For a budding musician like Sufyan Ansari, that will be the next step in his musical development. “I’ve started coming up with my own riffs,” he says. “Next I want to write lyrics and melodies.” His moment is coming: the owners of Base Rock Cafe have agreed to give him a full one-hour set in May, and he hopes to have some original work ready by then.

As for the bands laying the groundwork, their mantra is exposure. “Most people in countries like Canada don’t even realize this kind of music is happening in Pakistan,” says Sheikh from 6LA8. “And I think it’s so important for young people in Pakistan to have this kind of creative outlet. I used to be a very closed person. But since I started making music, I’ve become more philosophical; I’ve started seeing the world in a different way. Pakistani youth need this kind of cultural space, where they can think and explore their own ideas. I don’t think music will bring about any kind of revolution in Pakistan, but musicians can create that space and at least help spread some positive energy.”

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