Music in Pakistan

One day I’d like to go to a concert, or a reading, or a book launch or some such in Pakistan or Afghanistan that isn’t sponsored by an embassy, a United Nations programme, an anti-drugs campaign or whatever. One day, maybe I will be able to go to an event that someone has put on just for fun.

Anyway, last week I went to a concert in support of Music Freedom Day, sponsored in Islamabad by several of the above.

Musicians here have a tough time. They make routine targets for the Taliban. And children are apparently discouraged from taking up instruments, partly because of those threats from extremists and partly – in that rather insidious way that hardliners seem to exert a hold on everyday life – because it’s no longer seen as a respectable way of life.

The result is that ancient instruments seem to be disappearing every year with the last of the aging ustads or maestros.

The concert reminded me of a question I was asked shortly after arriving here: What was the biggest difference between Pakistan and my previous home in Kenya. Four years later and I’ve worked out the answer: The absence of music.

Go anywhere in Kenya and you weren’t far from music. Most often it would be a tinny transistor radio pumping out lingala. Gangsta rap was also a favourite on the radio while, inexplicably, Rick Astley still reigned supreme in some of the clubs. The best bars had Congolese bands. And in my first house, I was woken at 9am every Sunday by a gospel choir next door.

Of course there is plenty of music in Pakistan. But the only music I ever hear around my home in Islamabad is the call to prayer. Westernised hotels play listless muzac. Shops echo to the cricket commentary or in the evening to nonsensical political debate.

Artists such as Sachu Khan, from Baluchistan, should have a much higher profile. To me, the lute-like tanbur and the bowed suroz evoke a bluegrass energy that deserves a wider audience. I can’t get enough of it.


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