Food of love, food for thought

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

–William Shakespeare


The quality music that touches heart strings is fast fading away in our country. 1980s struck death blow to celluloid Urdu industry that led to sharp fall of mainstream playback Urdu music. This music was at its zenith during 60s and 70s with master composers including Nisar Bazmi, Robin Ghosh, Sohail Rana, M Ashraf and Amjad Bobby in the lead. In years ahead, melodious voices like Mehdi Hassan, Masood Rana, Ahmad Rushdi, Akhlaq Ahmad, Mala Begum, A. Nayyar, Mahnaz Begum and Naheed Akhtar started receding into oblivion.

Nevertheless, these years witnessed some superb Punjabi songs sung by melody queen Noor Jehan as Punjabi films somehow survived decline. In later half of 90s, Urdu movie industry though still on ventilator started inhaling again and some nice melodies surfaced with Anwar Rafi’s Janu Sun Zara, Arshad Mahmood’s Dekha Jo Chehra Tera and Ho Sake Tau Mera. Songs like Jann Bhi De Doon sung by lesser known singers like Saima Jahan and Tauseef Dar were other soulful playback numbers.

A few singers in their individual capacity supported by music labels like EMI and Sadaf Records tried to make for the acute deficit of soothing music. The towering figure of this and later period was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan whose ecstatic soundtracks did not let the flavour of mainstream music (filmi style) perish away. While pop bands like Vital Signs, Junoon, and Strings had come up, it was music groups like Fuzon which kept the melody-oriented filmi style alive with fusion of classical school and modern instrumentation.

Since 2001 Sufi genre made its way into our music in a big way. But it was in this decade that a new breed of vocalists with intention to keep mainstream music alive rose into prominence. These singers included Sajjad Ali with his Sohni Lagdi and Faakhir Mehmood producing music tracks including Mahi Ve and Jiya Na Jaye. Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan’s Khamaj and Ankhon Ke Saagar were real treat to ears. These were the years when Bollywood tapped our talent by producing a stream of hit movie songs sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat and Mustafa Zahid, with first two still indispensable for India’s film and music industry.

Meanwhile, dedicated youth oriented music TV channels like ARY Musik, AAG Chanel, MTV Pakistan, Oxygene TV and Play TV emerged. These channels were focused on pop and Sufi songs instead of filmi style music as pop considered futuristic had become synonymous with youth. As Pakistani film songs of good visual quality were scarce, these music channels started airing Bollywood songs, a trend still being followed though music channels on PEMRA demand have enlisted Pakistani movie songs which though of competing visual quality still lag behind in quality of lyrics, singing, and composition.

As part of brand endorsement, an effort to bring about revival of quality music was made in 2008 by CocaCola. The Coke Studio in its eleven seasons gave more heed to Sufi and folk songs apart from remixing old Pakistani movie songs. The result is that the Studio like its replica ‘Nescafe Basement’ met with modest success in giving good if not outstanding voices, an outcome produced by a similar PepsiCo undertaking titled ‘Battle of the Bands’.

One can see that only the music with soulful melodies and poetic lyrics appeals to the larger run of listeners regardless of age. Such soundtracks which became viral include Sajjad Ali’s Har Zulm Tera and recent Lagaya Dil. Rahat Fateh Ali’s Zaroori Tha or Nabeel Shaukat’s Ban Gaya Tu, are a few more instances. But such long-life tracks require sufficient resources in addition a great teamwork and patronage by the government.

If some singer succeeds in making a song, its promotion is a bigger challenge. In the absence of prestigious record companies in our country, India-based labels like T-Series or Sony Music sponsor a known voice from Pakistan like Atif Aslam or Bilal Saeed. Well-funded projects like OSTs of TV drama serials often produce musical masterpieces like Baaghi’s theme song Peera Ve Peera created by Shuja Haider. But it is not easy for majority of budding vocalists to get an opportunity to create theme songs for TV soaps.

Talent hunt ventures as was done by Geo TV in ‘Pakistan Idol’ or social media discoveries of “Justin Bibies” would end in futility if enormous singing and music composing talent do not find institutionalised patronage and sponsorship. The vocalists and instrumentalists coming from humble backgrounds earn money by mostly performing in wedding and birthday events, as large space concerts are beyond reach due to taxes and security concerns. Even famed vocalists, playback singers, song writers and veteran composers are not being roped in for new movies or TV projects. In enthusiasm for young and new we are often compromising on the quality. The young boys and girls coming from affluent families but with mediocre abilities are churning out music tracks with no quality or impact. There are, however, a few instances where social resources and real talent sometimes meet to catapult to fame one or two singers.

The PTI-led government in line with its pledge to provide patronage and resources to Arts may create talent funds or loans on easy conditions for struggling singers and music composers so that great melodies could be created in addition to generating livelihood for thousands of persons associated with music production. The Information Ministry may consider establishing special funds under veteran vocalists and composers sponsored by private sector and international companies (i.e. CocaCola and PepsiCo) to liaise with Pakistani record labels or dedicated music channels for producing high standard original soundtracks akin to our glorious film songs of yore. The funds, with a selection board or committee, may also act as networking forums for established and upcoming vocalists, composers, lyricists and music producers for linking them with Lollywood film and TV soaps producers, ads companies and government departments. The sponsoring TV channels and business companies may provide opportunity to top three or five winners of music reality contests to sing in Coke Studio or an OST for TV soap, or one or two songs for movies. Music awards shows should also be arranged on annual basis in the categories of singer, song, composition, lyrics, social relevance and popularity. These measures are needed without waiting for the revival of Lollywood to gain full throttle.

Expectations are high as the ruling party, which made good use of music talent in its rallies, would seriously tend to mitigate existential crisis faced by mainstream music. Good music is for soul as water is for life. Quality music must continue to play on. The food of love is now food for thought.


The writer is an Islamabad-based freelancer and practitioner of music.


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