A Tale of Two Cities

By Sonya Rehman and Khaver Siddiqi

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ begins with these words. Though the novel has a theme of self-sacrifice and resurrection, the starting line of the novel can be applied here in Pakistan, to the two of its largest and most prominent cities; Karachi and Lahore.

Indeed both cities have seen the best of times and the worst of times, as far as the music industry is concerned, but how do these cities relate to one another? How does their music combine and form the modern music scene as we know it?

The music that originates from the Punjab is as intricate as its historic architecture. Lahore, the Garden of the Mughals, has seen a myriad of melodies, genres, and vocals alongside a variety of musical instruments (both new and old) over the past few decades. This has given rise to the city’s diverse sound of music and rapidly evolving culture.

From the earthy qawwals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Punjabi ditties of Abrar-ul-Haq, the pop sensations; Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar, the underground Lahori grunge/rock revolution (of a handful of bands) in the early 90s and to the revolutionaries of yesteryear – Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and many more. In addition, the dhol maestro, Pappu Saien, and the master of the ek tara, Saien Zahoor (both of whom have shared their glory performing for people at shrines to concerts), to the fresh crop of commercialized Lahori pop acts (of both the past and today), to the jaded, angst-ridden rockers/bands such as Shahzad Hameed, Call, and eP…music from Lahore has been assorted at best.

Infact the Lahori music scene has churned out so many musicians over the years that it would be almost impossible to list each band/musician down. Nonetheless, each has contributed to the country’s music scene on a macro level – making it what it is today; pulsating with promise.

Even though things have been on the downslide – given the worldwide economic recession and the security situation within the country – our local musicians have still managed to stay in the game by taking out albums (some of which are completely self-funded), and playing at concerts and gigs throughout the country.

Therefore, given the innumerable genres, the music from the Punjab cannot really be ‘defined’ as such, rather, just ‘felt’, and taken in. And perhaps this is what sets the city of Lahore’s music apart from Karachi’s music scene. Where Karachi carries its very own, signature sound, melodies from Lahore come wrapped in unrequited love, Sufi-istic devotion, and nostalgia – which oft reminds one of luminous diyas, and fresh jasmine.

On the other hand, Karachi as a city can best be described as a potpourri of people, traditions, lifestyles and history. This stepping stone of Mohammad Bin Qasim, a picturesque city of light and lightlessness, has its own distinct sound which permeates through the air and settles amongst its populace.

Music has been a vital part of this city, whether it is the sound of the drums at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s Mazar or the tone of socialism in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry, the music (and its words) very much echo the mood of the city. It is somber and realist, laced with satire and melancholy. Karachi music has no definite history to speak of, such as Lahore has. This is because compared to Lahore; Karachi is a modern city with a modern sound. It is the sound of realism, sometimes the harshness of reality and sometimes an echo of its soul.

The music from the city by the sea is gritty, real and often makes many political statements. ‘Social Circus’ by Ali Azmat is an album that, in recent times, speaks this city’s language. Take this album and drive along the streets of Karachi and you’ll find yourself traveling the city with an accompanying soundtrack. From the raging guitars of the intro track accompanied by the blaring W-11 and all, to the calming rushes of the waves at the coast, this album really does speak the language of this city.

But its not just Azmat’s album that beckons the sights and sounds of Karachi, bands like Strings and Junoon evoke a particular Karachi sound. In terms of heritage, giants like Allan Fakir and Abida Parveen evoke a rich texture unto the language of the entire province. Going further deep into heritage we come to the mazars of Karachi, most particularly the Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the monument that is perhaps the epitome of this land, long before our time and the British Raj. One will often find people from all walks of life loitering about the mazar; some simply paying their respects through prayer whereas others through their stories of song. And it is those stories of song that truly paint an unseen picture of the city by the sea. No matter where you are in the world, if you hear tracks by these artistes or the songs of these faithful, one would be compelled to think of Karachi.

Comparisons between Lahore and Karachi are ultimately inevitable. Though we are one nation and one people, we speak many languages and we have a collective history of many generations. Though the two cities are so vastly different, so vastly apart, they are indeed just branches of the one same tree.

In Pakistan, we have at our disposal, a thoroughly rich and diverse cultural heritage, which has blossomed over the decades, if not centuries. From almost every facet of what ‘art’ encompasses – such as; music, fashion, poetry, architecture and so on.

That being stated, there is a hidden but devastating war taking place. Unlike our neighbors that celebrate, support and cherish their culture, our culture is slowly being eroded by ourselves. Our children are more familiar with Miley Cyrus’ songs and Aamir Khan’s 15 minute memory that they are ambiguous and lost to the rich culture that is their own.

And what is the result of that?

The result is we are now on the brink of losing our identity. Our art and culture must be held on to with an unflinching zeal. It must constantly be nurtured, nourished and cultivated without letting and allowing ‘borrowed culture’ from overseas sully it. For in these trying times, art seems to be our only release, making everything, at the end of the day seem all the more worthwhile.

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