Last time I went to the Alhamra Cultural Complex for a concert the proceedings were interrupted by a bomb blast. In that light this Saturday’s chants of ‘Go Nawaz Go’ at the Rafi Peer Youth Festival’s concert night were a relatively mild irritant.
The slight nip in the Lahori wind brings with it vivid memories of off-beat Danish and German theatrical productions, quirky dance peformances and a cultural experience that has never been equalized since the 2008 cracker bomb effectively ended the era of international performers in Lahore, soon followed by an end to International cricket with the Liberty roundabout attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009. Relegated to being a venue for shadi halls and tikka restaurants (the only two activities terrorists didn’t manage to dent), the Gaddafi Stadium premises – amphitheatre, cricket and hockey stadium – became ghostly structures, reminders of the life that once was.
[quote]I have seen Vital Signs and Awaz perform here together to a jam packed 14th August crowd[/quote]
So it was with some trepidation (but mostly excitement) that I made my way to the Alhamra Cultural Complex for the concert night marking the end of the Rafi Peer Theatre’s Youth Performing Arts Festival. Attending a concert at this venue is always an exercise in nostalgia. I have seen Vital Signs and Awaz perform here together to a jam packed 14th August crowd. Junoon, Abrar, Jawad Ahmed, Noori; all reminders of Pakistani music’s better days. The ushers quickly shepherded me into the ‘family enclosure’, that peculiarly Pakistani euphemism for everything from families with screaming toddlers to couples on dates. In the enclosure behind us, a safe distance away, sat the boys who didn’t have ‘families’ with them, and behaved in exactly the manner expected of them.
The Islamabadi artist Ali Sohail opened the show with some mellow songs of his that didn’t seem to go down too well with the restless crowd whose idea of a ‘rock’ concert was probably loud wailing guitars and a headbanging opportunity. Natasha Humera Ejaz accompanied him on keyboards and vocals, facing a hooting, rowdy crowd with confidence, though the screeching feedback from the sound system kept disturbing the music. Ali ended with an Urdu anthem in the tradition of EP: optimistic lyrics, booming sound and an i-can-conquer-the-world-spirit.
The next band was a rock instrumental group that goes by the name ‘Takatak’. Despite the lack of lyrics their sound went down well with the restless section of the crowd that responded well to their cranked up guitars and skillful drumming. They did not announce the names of their different instrumentals, however, which made it hard to differentiate between the lot.
Ali Sohail and Natasha returned with Jumbo Jutts, a louder, more anthemic, arena-friendly sound than Sohail’s solo act. Ali and Natasha both impressed with the range and depth of their vocals while the former also played a series of impressive, choppy guitars. Next Natasha sang a couple of solo songs for which she was roundly hooted by the boys who had by now penetrated the ‘family enclosure’. In the grand old tradition of Pakistani men they hooted and heckled the singer to try and garner attention. In the world of the Pakistani ‘maila’ there is no such thing as negative attention. In this atmosphere getting on with the performing arts is an act of active courage and I salute women like Natasha who are both talented and brave.
Lahore’s best known underground band Poor Rich Boy performed last and their experience showed. Astute in their handling of the particular kind of crowd they were faced with, lead singers Umer Khan and Shehzad Noor did a Laurel and Hardy-esque shtick with Umer performing the bun kebab and Shehzad the burger. The ability to speak in idiomatic, unpeppered Urdu is such a rarity now that Umer managed to keep the crowd more absorbed than they had been during the music in the rest of the concert. Umer’s self deprecating routine delivered in Urdu helps break down the barrier between artist and audience, making them more receptive to the Indie, English sounds of Poor Rich Boy. They played some of their most popular songs, including Zarzaradir and Alice, the response to whom was joyful without the restless rowdiness that was witnessed during Natasha’s act.
The crowd thinned out considerably by the end and not even at the peak of the concert did the amphitheatre look quite as crowded and glamorous as its hedeys, but an evening of competent, occasionally even inspiring artists, is nothing to scoff at in present day Lahore.