It goes without saying that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one of Pakistan’s most volatile provinces – a statement that every soft piece on the province echoes while waxing lyrical about its peoples’ strength and its unbridled beauty. Over the past few years, some of Pakistan’s most extraordinary music too has been coming out of that very province, though unfortunately the amazement it arouses focuses on the implausibility of music in a province so fraught with violence, rather than the music itself. The fact that some Pashtun bands are making incredibly powerful, unique music is actually more astonishing than the fact that they’re making music.
Recent months have seen Khumariyaan release their song ‘Bela’, an austere but remarkably uplifting “hope for peace by the Pashtuns.” By incorporating the rubab and the ‘zeel bughlaye’ (an instrument akin to the djembe), Khumariyaan substitute a lyrical tether to local culture in favour of a sonic one. In a culture subservient to artistic commercialism, it’s hard for an act to not only remain true to their roots, but also to continue eschewing vocals. As guitarist Sparlay Rawail argues, “Instrumental music doesn’t have the barrier of language, anyone who listens to it can take away whatever feeling they want from it, we feel that this adds a layer of richness and depth to the meanings of our pieces as the interpretations are tenfold as opposed to a song with lyrics.”
[quote]”In a land where peace and melody is hard to come by, we wanted that our listeners be transported to a quieter place”[/quote]
It’s this recourse to the language of music that’s prevalent throughout ‘Bela’, with its lilting rubab melody soothed by sombre guitar arpeggios. For Rawail, ‘Bela’ represents more than just background music, as he claims, “In a land where peace and melody is hard to come by, we wanted that our listeners be transported to a quieter place, a tolerant place, where music can be listened to and appreciated by everyone.”
However, while Khumariyaan focus on ensuring that their musical identity is tied closely to their ethnicity, another Pashtun act, Naseer and Shahab, head in the opposite direction. Eschewing traditional instruments in favour of more conventional rock ones, Naseer and Shahab make straight up rock music, though their vocals are in Pushto. The band’s preference for not only ‘western’ instruments but more conventional rock songwriting follows from, in vocalist Naseer Afridi’s words, “Our attachments to lots of western rock bands since we both grew up listening to them.” For him, “Guitars and drums [are] what we felt helps us express what we are.”
[quote]It’s a stark reminder of how varied and multi-faceted identities are as a whole[/quote]
One of the duo’s strongest tracks, ‘Za Pakhtun Yam’ (I am a Pashtun) is a fierce reiteration of their identity, not just as an ahistorical people, but as Pashtuns in the 21st century. It’s a stark reminder of how varied and multi-faceted identities are as a whole when not pigeonholed by broad ethnical strokes.
Regarding the song’s genesis, Afridi said, “Since both of us are Pashtuns and proud of that fact, it came to us that we could utilize Pushto and produce some genuine music out of this part of the country.” While it would be easy to snidely deem Naseer and Shahab’s music as a product of an identity crisis, Afridi argues vehemently against it, claiming instead that it represents, “The new age of Pushto music where there are no boundaries set forth by language, locale or instruments.” Maintaining that link with their ethnicity also drives the band, even when they’re being pulled in a different direction musically. For the duo, singing in Pushto is not a gimmick, but a decision taken with purpose. As Afridi explains, “[Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] has been understood wrongly for a long time and in order to set that straight I think it is our duty to this place to make sure we put things in order. The philosophy behind our songs is to let the world know this place has better things to offer and has new ways to let the world know what the real deal is.” It’s often easy to exploit politics for short-term commercial gains, but that’s a criticism that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny when one realizes that Pushto is far from the country’s primary language.
It’s telling though, that even though Khumariyaan as well as Naseer and Shahab have very different ideas and approaches to music, their message and identities are similar and closely linked to their province and ethnicity. More so than (non-folk) music in any other part of the country, it’s these Pashtun bands that are constantly exploring and building on local identity, and we’re all the better for it.