by Tristra Newyear Yeager
“Love the music, hate the musician.” That’s the bind musicians of Pashtun heritage in Pakistan face, a challenge only made tougher as extremist religious doctrines have come to dominate public discourse.
Yet young, well-educated Pashtun musicians are answering this challenge, creating a small wave of pop-powered work that draws ingeniously on tradition. Asserting one’s roots may seem like a conservative act, but for Pashtun artists, it has become an act of defiance and a source of fresh inspiration. It’s a lifeline in a time of stultifying dogma and trying violence.
Some of the touchstones of this movement: the rubab, or traditional lute, and the progressive poetry of wild philosophers, whose words ring with an eerie truth—and lend themselves to really catchy songs. Despite the lack of public venues for performing in Northwestern Pakistan (and their paucity in the country as a whole) and the threats to instrument makers and music stores, music thrives in private homes and in inner worlds. The underground has slowly begun to break out into broader audiences, both in Pakistan and abroad, thanks in part to savvy producers like Peshawar-based Zeeshan Parwez.
Two groups stand out for their artistic clarity and intriguing approaches to traditional sounds: Khumaryaan and Yasir & Jawad. While Khumaryaan offers a freeform, joyful instrumental take on Pashtun roots, Yasir & Jawad (actually a trio of musicians) make songs that shine a light on the individual’s struggle—grim and uplifting—in conflicted times.
Sometimes, incredible joy springs out of confusion and hardship. That’s the feeling that Khumaryaan (“The Intoxicators”) conveys effortlessly. The project began when Farhan Bogra picked up the rubab, the instrumental mainstay of Pashtun music, only to be chided that he needed to put it down immediately. “It was an instrument for the uneducated,” he explains.
Bogra went on to teach himself and then record a series of videos so others could learn to play. In this act of personal rebellion and with the determined hope to bring Pashtun music and culture into the regional and international mainstream, the instrumental quartet began taking the sound of home jam sessions to the stage.
With addictive passion and trancelike instrumental pieces, Khumariyaan demonstrate why Bogra couldn’t just leave the rubab. The signature Pashtun instrument can have the forceful twang of a banjo or a percussive, hypnotic thrum. It intertwines with the strong sonic qualities of other rare traditional instruments, including the djembe-like zerbaghali (clay or wooden goblet drum) and Pashtun sitar (long-necked lute). Underpinning these instruments with driving acoustic guitars, Khumariyaan’s rolling pulse and richly layered sound builds to high-spirited intensity. It’s an addictive and accessible pleasure that’s ushering in a new era for an eclipsed music.
Without lyrics, Khumariyaan’s pieces can move audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds instantly. “Sometimes, it can feel much harder to get the audience connect to a piece that’s purely instrumental,” says supporting guitarist Aamer Shafiq. “But if you make that connection and you’re targeting multi-cultures, then instrumentals allow everyone to relate. It’s bridge building.”
“In our country and particularly in our region, playing music, or indeed anything that is art, is a form of resistance, a resistance that many have paid for with their lives, yet the Pashtuns love their music,” reflects lead guitarist Sparlay Rawail. “By introducing Western and local instruments in one line up, we hope to remove the stereotypes from our culture, and bring back a love for music, and indeed, more importantly, a love for the musician. We are very lucky in regard to the support we have in our homeland from the public.”
Khumaryaan has been touring the US this autumn as part of Center Stage, an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
If you watch one music video from Pakistan, watch “Niqab.” With this song, this trio of friends forges an unmistakable link between the sentiments of the past and the present’s intense sonic statements, between social forces and painful introspection.
The band illuminates the shadowy inner world of individuals struggling in a community and world increasingly obsessed with ideas of physical and religious purity, yet celebrates the striking endurance of the heart and hope. Songs like the indie-rock gem “Reidi Gul” and the anthemic “Jaam” show how much poetry can speak to pop sensibilities. This is an act of rebellion, much like that of rock’s golden era in the US and UK.
The amalgam of rock and trad came intuitively to Yasir & Jawad, who met when both attended collage in Lahore. They met in their dorm, hanging out and jamming. Yasir had picked up the rubab, the traditional Pashtun lute, several years before, while Jawad had taught himself to play guitar by checking out videos by musicians like Neil Young. In their hometowns, there were no music schools, no instrument shops, no clubs and no sheet music. Everyone learned on their own, sometimes scanning MTV to catch the fingering of a certain guitar lick.
“When we started playing together, we weren’t a band. In 2008, we were sitting in our university hostel. I had brought my guitar, and Yasir said, ‘Let’s jam and see what happens.’ It was guitar and rubab, and I was doing the vocals. It wasn’t even a song, it was more of a rough jam session.” The two stringed instruments dialogue well, the rubab’s softer timbre weaving addictively through the guitar’s metallic resonance.
After vocalist Wali Khan Aurakzai, a native of Northwestern Pakistan’s Orakzai Agency, joined the duo, the group began to explore Pashtun culture in greater depth, in particular the poems of 20th-century poet-philosopher Ghani Khan. The move, seemingly unexpected to those unfamiliar with Ghani Khan’s work, made perfect sense to the young artists: “We can relate to him more than we can relate to any other voice,” states Jawad. “He’s open about his thoughts. He’s a rebel.” Wali’s raw-edged voice has the right intensity and emotional commitment to render Ghani Khan’s words meaningful, even to contemporary listeners unfamiliar with the language.
The free-thinking poet has been a source of inspiration for Pashtun singers and musicians for decades. Yet his words and his ideas take on a particular color in light of the current state of affairs in Ghani Khan’s homeland. “Ghani was against religious extremism,” Jawad notes. “He talks about freedom and expressing yourself, about feeling an open connection with yourself and beyond.” It’s a freedom Pashtun musicians are claiming for themselves.