Billboard, Behind the U.S. State Department's SXSW-Focused Cultural Exchange with Pakistan

Billboard, Behind the U.S. State Department's SXSW-Focused Cultural Exchange with Pakistan

Mar 20, 2015

It's normal to run across SXSW showcases in Austin funded by foreign countries helping their local musicians attempt to break into the world's largest music market. It's unusual to find a showcase with six acts from Pakistan on a trip funded by U.S. taxpayers. The first SXSW showcase from Pakistan, Wednesday night at the Driskill Hotel's Victorian Room, was the result of a trip paid for by the U.S. State Department.

The story starts with Jennifer McAndrew, an Austin native currently Deputy Public Affairs Officer in Dublin, Ireland. Last year McAndrew was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. "I was in Islamabad, meeting all these artists and seeing how they really struggled to find places to perform, struggled to produce music when there's very few intellectual property rights protections there. So we wanted to help them make this connection," McAndrew tells Billboard from a couch in Driskill Hotel foyer.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad approached SXSW to visit Pakistan "to check out the music scene," as McAndrews puts it. As a result of those conversations, Todd Puckhaber, a music booker with SXSW, traveled to Pakistan in May to scout artists at Music Mela, a three-day music festival that's also sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Puckhaber saw 15 acts from across the country, eventually settling on six acts to make the trip to Austin.

The result was perhaps the most unique set of performances at this year's SXSW festival. Musically, the six acts represented a variety of regions and styles: thundering Punjabi drumming, captivating folk music from the Thar desert, Sufi rock from Lahore, English-language indie rock, frenetic folk from Peshawar and pop music from a political activist. Politically, they came from a country with a strained but vital relationship with its host and benefactor.

But the showcase had nothing to do with politics. To Sparlay Rawail of Khumariyaan, a four-piece group from Peshawar, the trip to Austin means some Pakistani artist might be able to make a comfortable living. He says most Pakistani musicians who are educated have day jobs, but many folk artists live on $15 a month and have 8 family members to support.

"If from this showcase someone is intrigued and goes online and searches Pakistani music -- not necessarily ours -- and someone from Pakistan by some way gets booked, or gets a music score for a film, or whatever, or makes a living from something, I think our job here from this showcase is done, even if just one band makes it," says Rawail.

Musicians face an uphill climb in Pakistan. There is no recording industry to speak of. The few recording studios must deal with rolling blackouts. YouTube has been banned for over two years, although Pakistani artists have their own websites and use online services such as Vimeo, Soundcloud and ReverbNation. There is only one place to sell music,, a legal download store that works with the country's mobile carriers to allow a user to pay for downloads -- about 10 cents each -- using their mobile account credit.

Pakistan's radicalized society limits musicians' opportunities to make money performing, explain Rawail and Zeejah Fazli, head of the Mela Music Festival. Organizers have difficulty providing adequate security for large concerts, especially in Lahore and Karachi, although Fazli says Islamabad, where the Mela Music festival is held, "is still open." Concerts have been banned in certain cities. Governments limit public gatherings to 50 or 75 people. A loophole allows for larger gatherings if amusements are offered for children, but even in those cases the heavy, chaotic security may drive away attendees.

Artists are suffering especially bad in Peshawar due to the city's proximity to Afghanistan, says Rawail. Taliban extremists and splinter groups have created a dangerous and intimidating climate. Musicians are pushed underground or forced to live in exile in other countries. Instrument makers either have their hands chopped off or are threatened and forced to live in exile. "In a province where about 100 to 150 schools for girls were bombed, what do think is going to happen to music?" he asks.

The Pakistani musicians have other performances around Austin before departing on the 23rd. Sparlay performs with Khumariyaan at the Russian House Friday night. Otherwise, he is enjoying his time in Austin.

"How could you not like what's going on around you if you're an artist? It's state-sponsored fun. They closed down the streets. The police are standing there and, you know, just telling you, 'It's OK, it's OK, you can have fun.' You can jaywalk. You can smoke. You can do whatever the hell you want, and no one says anything."