PAKISTAN, LIKE THE REST OF THE SUBCONTINENT, CAN PRIDE ITSELF ON A VIBRANT AND DEEPLY INGROUND HISTORY OF POETRY AND MUSIC.
While respect for polished poetry and music is deeply rooted in Pakistani society, the state has been inconsistent in its role as patron of the arts and has attempted to impede the free flow of culture at times. However, this has not slowed the birth of master musicians or the development of innovative new musical forms across multiple genres.
Pakistani music is typically divided into folk, classical, semi-classical (ghazal and geet), Qawwali, pop, rock, and modern categories (including electronic). The term ‘fusion is a more recent coinage that refers to any style of music that incorporates folk or classical elements with electronic instruments or guitars.
Excellent folk music may still be found in practically every region of Pakistan, despite the scarcity of local venues for performances. Despite the ongoing threat from terrorists and extremist segments of society, Sufi shrines and folk festivals continue to be bastions of the land’s lyrical, musical legacy.
On the other hand, the growth of Pakistan’s urban-based music has been far more unpredictable. Between the subcontinent’s split and the late 1970s, bars and nightclubs in Pakistan’s cities featured live jazz and rock music bands, formed mainly of Anglo-Indian and Goan decent musicians and a significant number of Westernized adolescents from Muslim homes.
In 1977, the center-left populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was deposed by General Zia-ul Haq’s military coup, backed by the US and Western powers as part of their Cold War strategy. Bhutto had previously prohibited alcohol usage in public settings to please right-wing religious parties. Still, when General Zia took control, he implemented harsh punishments for alcohol consumption and shuttered all bars and nightclubs, sending many musicians into the streets. For a time, the film industry and its orchestras survived as films became increasingly propaganda-based, selling Pakistan’s new religious, patriotic image to survive.
However, this boom in the music industry was brief. The deadly blitz of post-9/11 Pakistani terrorist strikes dealt a further debilitating blow to the country’s music industry. Musicians and promoters began receiving death threats from unidentified groups in certain towns and neighbourhoods. Culture and the arts continue to suffer in a society divided over how to cope with the threat of terrorism and religious extremism. The internet has created new opportunities for young artists to publish their work, and local music websites such as taazi.com and patari.com are attempting to monetize artists’ work. However, increasing state pressure against liberal and secular thought has stifled the free exchange of ideas and cultural expression.