Pique Magazine, "Absolutely instrumental"

Pique Magazine, "Absolutely instrumental"

Jun 24, 2014

Reaching out with music

A Rahim Khan

How does a national culture marred by a decade of bad international press affect a revamp? How does it emerge from a miasma of disrepute?

Questions of these sorts have been bandied about for years now, followed interminably by introspection and soul searching on behalf of the harangued. Answers, however, have been in short supply and Pakistan’s image remains fixed in the world’s crosshairs, as a dark and violent place.

While collectively, this notoriety has nipped away at the country, parochially, it has done a particular disservice to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been under a pall ever since the twin towers fell. Pakhtun culture and art have gradually been weathered into media obscurity, where now they appear as vestiges of a time long past.

In conversation with the Pakhtun musical quartet, Khumariyaan, Pique engages with an up and coming band that is decidedly on the offensive when it comes to battling this cultural decay, enacting their resistance one strum at a time. Taking up such instruments as the Rubab and the guitar, the members of Khumariyaan, Farhan Bogra, Shiraz Khan, Aamer Shafiq and Sparlay Rawail, have become the proverbial storm in a teacup, giving crowds an eclectic mix of traditional Pakhtun music while also being very clear in their message, that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still very much culturally alive and kicking.

Lead Rubab player and manager for the band, Farhan Bogra spoke to Pique about Khumariyaan, the local music industry and the band’s upcoming tour to the US.

In the band’s own words, they were “born in the age of Talibanisation, sectarian violence, military operations and neo-imperialist expansions”, how have these events affected you and your music?

FB: The issues highlighted above do not only affect music, they are all encompassing, they mould your life and every decision you make as there most certainly will be a consequence to it, naturally, it effects our music. The main reason why we do music is because we realize that mere existence is resistance in our part of the world and that art for extremism is like water for fire. Artists here are persecuted, converted, exiled or worse, killed; a very different paradigm than in the West. If one was to talk about a direct effect, than we create tracks with a philosophical backdrop e.g. for our track ‘Bela’ we used a poem by Ismat Shahjehan which mentions the clouds opening up over an archipelago and bowing the seeds of peace. 

Pakhtun culture has a very rich tradition of music yet there is often surprise when people hear of emerging bands from the province, why do you think this is?

FB: The majority of the music that comes from this area is either folk music or something the band terms ‘brutally pop’ music, thus the surprise when there is a contemporary rendition of our music or simply contemporary music, moreover the society, as is the case with many societies in the world, is going through a glorified phase of ignorance where they can’t break free of stereotypes, which is a by-product of the issues that are facing the province.

Though predominantly a male and martial culture, figures that have come to be noteworthy from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in recent years have primarily been women such as Zeb & Haniya in the arts and then Malala Yousafzai etc, what are your thoughts on this?

FB: The more women, at every front, the better! There are other great Pakhtun female artists such as Zarsangha and Qamargulla which we all hold in high regard as well.

What has reaction to Khumariyaan been like so far?

FB: The reaction has been extraordinary no matter where we go our audience, which is mainly the educated youth of Pakistan, always treats us with great affection and respect. We have been told that our energy on stage is contagious and that the people connect with the tunes and instruments of their land very deeply. We think we invoke their need to dance and sway, of which we have a rich culture! 

Did you think that music that has such a regional feel like your own would have such resonance with others?

FB: The word ‘regional’ now is getting outdated, with the internet and global music producers looking for exotic sounds all the time, anything goes. Part of the reason we don’t have a vocalist is so that our music can be all encompassing, that being said though, our job is to play the tunes of our land with a contemporary flare, and if we get a good response that’ll be great, but what is important to get the work out there.

What inspires you? Where does Khumariyaan’s sound come from?

FB: Khumariyaan uses folk tunes from all regions of Pakistan as backbones for our compositions. The sound comes from an understanding that the guitar serves as a great instrument to accentuate the sounds of our native ‘Rubab’ and ‘Zeel Baghli’, keeping that in mind we create all sorts of melodies, some completely contemporary, others heavily inspired from a certain region of the country. The idea of presenting an evolution of folk music is what inspires us the most.

You say you want to “break the tradition of the South Asian vocal based musical culture”, do you think audiences are ready for instrument driven and based music?

FB: Audiences in Pakistan have already had exposure to a lot of instrumental music, e.g. the ‘dhol’ is played at many ceremonies here and people dance their shoes off, with no vocals. The famous dhamal at ‘Shah Jamal’ is another example and so is the dhol and ‘surna’ of our land, our aim is to try and tap into that little soft spot people have for native music a lot of which is purely instrumental.

Generally speaking, as musicians yourselves, what do you think of the music industry in Pakistan, does it hold promise for budding talent?

FB: There is no industry as such. There is no curriculum for music in the public schools of Pakistan, only a few universities offer a handful of degrees in music, there is no state run music recording facility in the country either. It is hard even for a person with generations of family members who were artists. Unless these basic issues are sorted and a state mandate is introduced, merely talent will sometimes not be enough and that is unfair. Now that international artists are going anti-record label, we really can’t say what is needed here in Pakistan, except more state endorsed music curriculum and performance venues and a systematic grass roots approach. We are able to give you this interview because we are from relatively privileged backgrounds and had access to instruments that we mostly learned ourselves.  

We’ve seen a lot of talent emerge from the local music scene yet beyond niche fan followings, these bands rarely make it big or for that matter, established bands rarely go international, why do you think this is?

FB: That is not true; many bands from Pakistan have a great fan following abroad and not just of the people of their land, but if you mean no one from here has played at great venues like the O2 arena with other great bands than yes that is true. In our part of the world, the existentialist values reach us after a trickle down where they are mangled and distorted, thus the pop or post modern concepts and subject matter alike reaches us a decade or two late, by which time everything has already been said and done, maybe that is why.

Why do you think the local music industry has floundered in the past decade?

FB: As the public sector is in tatters, we think that private sector has blossomed, many corporate backed recording set ups have popped up and are great platforms to show our music to the masses of the country who sadly at times don’t know about it already, that being said, with a conservative government, it really isn’t a surprise that the public sector is in such disarray generally and especially when it comes to the arts. The discussion goes far beyond why it has floundered when artists are persecuted, exiled, converted or killed for practicing their art, not by the government of course, not anymore, but this can only be done when the state does not whole heartedly endorse the arts.

You’ll be touring the US in the coming weeks, how did that come about?

FB: We are a very prolific performing band and are extremely lucky to get the amount of gigs that we do. It just so happened after performing at a venue that we got to know about the program and we applied for it, along with dozens of other bands from the country that applied, we were among two that were selected under the Center Stage US program. The selection panel felt that we were worthy and here we are, about to tour the US and hopefully other countries as well to create a lifetime of music and good times.

How do you think an American, or more generally, a Western audience will react to your particular brand of music?

FB: That remains to be seen, but we have been told that there is quite the following for folk and international music in America and that rap music and Fox News is just one side of the country, much like our own country . So we’re optimistic.

What does the future hold for the band?

FB: In the coming days, we are planning on recording another song and ultimately an album, but overall, like we said, hopefully a humble existence and a lifetime of music and good times.


The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.