The diary of a Pakistani music aficionada
As I sit down to pen my thoughts about my life as a woman music journalist in Pakistan, I am nervous and amused by this task that has been a long time coming. I wish there was a way I could sum up all the multifold nuances in one article of what it’s truly like, navigating this field as a woman in a conservative society. But here goes…
One of the best things about being the youngest in the family is that you always have an elder sibling and cousins who introduce you to music. From my sisters I got Nazia Hasan, Junoon, Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys; from a cousin, who until the age of six I thought was my brother, I got introduced to Metallica, Glam rock and heavy metal; and I have this vague memory of early, early childhood of an aunt listening to Vital Signs on a huge, black tape recorder/boombox. My mother, while cleaning or cooking, would turn to the highest pitch in her voice to sing her favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs. My father, who I owe all my love for culture, filled the silence in all our road trips with his favourite instrumentals and Ghazals and taught me appreciation for genres I wouldn’t normally turn towards. So, my life has always had background music for as long as I can remember. But as I grew older, I didn’t realize how from light entertainment it would turn into an obsession in the form of a trauma response.
Years after I lost my eldest sister to an accident when I was nine, a walkman with random, borrowed cassettes was the only thing that helped me at night. Fast forward to the age of eleven when I attended my first real concert (Junoon) with my sister and parents (as they sat hiding their discomfort), I was moved in a way I couldn’t understand. Watching Ali Azmat belt into the mic and Salman Ahmed and Brian ‘o’ Connell rocking out with their guitars provided a sense of healing that got me addicted to live music. So much so, I wanted an electric guitar of my own. A guitar on which I never made sense, but the feeling of my fingers over the strings and experimenting with sounds on the amp turned into therapy.
Just a couple of years after that I started spending hours online after school during my family’s 5 year stay in America and music gave me an excuse to be antisocial, but the truth is, this nerdy little brown girl in a predominantly white town was just trying to come home after a long day of being bullied at school. Music forums for bands like Junoon, Noori, Jal and EP were a world of people and friends I didn’t have in real life. This was my first real interaction with people actually writing about their favourite songs and performances on these forums, and this led to my early practice of writing about music, albeit as a fan-girl. Years later and after a lot of self-reflection, I had to come to terms with the fact that separating the fan-girl from the journalist is necessary and difficult. I was intrigued by blogs such as Band Baja, run by the ever-so-inspiring Saba Imtiaz and her sister. Pakistani women writing about music? Give me more.
After moving back to Pakistan and lack of willingness to accept the conservative ways my immediate and extended family had always embraced, as a teenager I started to give up on the passion and drive to play music with my classmates and online friends. The electric guitar that traveled with me to Pakistan started collecting dust as I tried in vain to convince my parents that playing music is okay. “Why guitar even?” my mother once said lightheartedly. “Girls are more suited for playing the piano.” Meanwhile, my father, being a Pakistani father, struggled and grappled with the idea that his teenage daughter is starting to have male friends in this society, let alone go to one’s house for band practice. When I used to shut myself off in my room to noodle on the guitar, my father always took an interest in hearing what I learned to play. “Humein toh tum kabhi nahi sunaati,” my father would often articulate. My family tried to support me in their own little ways, but there was a bigger force out there that limited them from setting this bird free.
Over the years it was my mother being stretched like skin over a drum, while I argued with her about music and my father spoke his mind to keep me in line and stay home. One would think staying home is the perfect way to practice to become a musical prodigy, but giving up at that point and giving my parents a break made me believe that it’s time to be the “acchi bacchi” our society expects from me. On the side, I watched some of my male schoolmates go on to have bands and concerts beyond the school bonfires at festivals and auditoriums. My parents and sibling found solace, entertainment and a way to unwind in their own complicated lives through films and music, so why was my love for music so different and difficult to understand? Because it was never about music. It wasn’t music that was an evil force spoiling their youngest one. It was always society’s perception of it that got in the way. The way my parents’ conservative circle viewed them and their daughters got in the way. How would it look if their teenage daughter started spending her free time roaming around Karachi with boys and a guitar instead of protecting her image of an “acchay ghar ki larki” by always staying home?
But music always finds a way back and as a teenager who had to ask for her parents permission to attend y to classmates’ birthday parties, asking them to let me attend, or worse, drive me to concerts, became an anxiety-inducing pattern. But every time I went to concerts and saw the energy around me, especially young girls and women, I started to learn how important the culture of going to concerts is for women in a repressed society like ours. Girls letting their hair down as we were forced to keep them tied at schools; watching them clap, dance and scream their lungs out was a beautiful feeling. To me, concerts provide a space for women in our society to just exist freely, standing there feeling emotions and freedom we were forced to restrict and constrain to avoid misogynistic labels that people in our society love to hand out like free stickers.
Yet, even this 1-2 hour freedom to exist and enjoy music was punctuated by the patriarchy because women having fun for too long without being bothered seems too good to be true. And the memory of my first ever Noori concert as a 16 year old is forever marred by the man standing behind me, repeatedly trying to brush up against my behind. And I couldn’t go home and talk to anyone about it. I had to choose between being “allowed” to go to future concerts or trying to tell a family member about a traumatic experience. So I chose concerts and let the trauma simmer somewhere in a box in my mind that I could attempt to tape up with more concert memories.
As years went by, the frequency of concerts by the big wigs declined as I had just started to overcome my anxiety of being at shows. At a few shows I got the chance to meet some of them, and I observed the scenes as a wallflower. Me, still some-what a child, and these much older, intimidating men filled with confidence and thunderous laughs. I grew up constantly wondering if the Pakistani music scene will always be this testosterone-fueled world. I wished for more women in the scene but I also started to understand why there were so few. I remembered the blog Band Baja, and started thinking about women that are actually in the scene as journalists watching from the green room, observing the music scene evolve, appear, disappear. Even now, the most music coverage you see in mainstream news outlets in Pakistan is done by women. I decided I want to somehow get closer to what little is left of the Karachi music scene as I saw bands like Aunty Disco Project and Rachel’s Plan B and others call it quits.
A friend suggested I watch the movie Almost Famous because it reminded him of me. But I wasn’t sure which part, was it the groupies or this passionate young music journalist getting to go on the road with a famous band in the 70s? I started to feel like a little bit of both. It was a film that allowed me to identify with both the main characters. The director Cameron Crowe was a famous music journalist himself, working for Rolling Stone magazine. This film, to this day, is a movie I turn to when I lose my purpose, when I feel like I’ve lost my yearning and passion for exploring music in Pakistan and finding the strength to write about it.
Craving more live shows, my early to mid 20s were spent exploring the indie music scene in Karachi, and those are some of the best years of my life. This was a whole other world that what I saw in the mainstream music circle. These were people, barely a few years older than me, creating some of the most innovative, exhilarating, raw and unrefined music. I idealized this time as the stories I heard about Pakistan’s indie grunge scene in the 90s with bands like Co-Ven. We got to have our own version of that with bands like Basheer and the Pied Pipers, Sikandar ka Mandar, //orangenoise, DA Method, Sara Haider, Natasha Ejaz and so many more incredible, new musicians that included women actually being taken seriously by their peers. There was a whole electronic music movement brewing in Karachi with Forever South. T2F became like a second home to me. I started obsessing over music videos as I got intrigued by Lussun TV, a DIY project by some of these musicians that shot performance videos of so many bands and artists to just exist on our computers. Gone were the days when we would spend hours watching fresh, new, music videos by young Pakistani bands on Indus Music and The Musik that no one remembers the names of.
It was one of these shows that accidentally allowed me to pursue writing about music for mainstream media outlets in Pakistan. After attending one of these close-knit, intimate, indie gigs, one of the musicians asked me some days later if I knew someone who could do a small write-up about the gig for a radio station’s website. I told him I didn’t. I always attended concerts by myself and I didn’t know what to tell him. I told him I could do it. And I did. And that joy of seeing my byline for the first time reminded me of how I felt when I attended that first Junoon concert.
Through internships and post-Bachelor jobs, I found myself pushing for more stories about the independent, DIY music scene while navigating Coke Studio and other beverage-sponsored music shows. But it got more difficult with time, as music journalism was always hidden under the umbrella of entertainment journalism, a field which I feel is still taken lightly in Pakistan. You’re not considered a ‘real’ journalist if you’re writing about entertainment instead of interviewing political figures or anything that is labeled as ‘newsworthy’. While I tried to push for more music stories at any news organization I worked at, I was either struggling to find ways to convince an editor that the local music scene is as ‘newsworthy’ as a music show on TV, or I was struggling to avoid being tasked with covering a fashion show, a world I could never wrap my head around, or just editors on a power trip. An editor once took away a story from me which involved me interviewing Zoheb Hasan, because she got feedback from her circle that they didn’t like my scathing review of a musician’s song and music video filled with sexism and objectification of women. Feelings of going freelance started brewing and after just a few years I did that. But it came with its own set of problems like never getting paid on time, or never at all.
On top of that, the ordeal of concerts ending late and not being home by a certain time went well into my mid 20s until I moved out of Pakistan. When Zoe Viccaji’s album Dareeche came out, the venue was a 15-minute drive from where I lived. I was commissioned to write a story on her album-launch concert, which my mom agreed to drive me to without telling my father that I’m going to a show. Because all these years passed, but the music and concert world in Karachi to him was something he felt strongly about protecting me from, and understandably so. He wasn’t holding me back from music, but no parent who has already lost a child can easily let another go off into the night in a city rife with muggings, kidnappings or worse. It was clear we grew up in very different Karachis. My mind tried to bandage those parts about Karachi with music to an extent that there came a point where I associated everything here with music, and lost sight of what my family felt was unsafe.
Throughout this decade of discovering music, I hold the importance of documenting and providing a space for musicians to share their journey as artists is something I still hold very dear to me. Pakistan has such a beautiful history of music beyond films, but it barely made it to the papers. When I spent these past few years following young musicians around, trying to attend every show at T2F and their DIY festivals, making a documentary about the scene for my Bachelor thesis, I also found a community in it. I felt again like I could exist, I could just be.
One of my favourite quotes from Almost Famous is a conversation between a young journalist William and an older, jaded but famous rock critic in the 70s, Lester Bangs.
“Oh man, you made friends with ’em. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.”
“Well, it was fun.”
I started applying this to myself. I did get drunk on feeling like I belong to this raw, energetic, powerful world of music. A world beyond daily misogynistic microaggressions, a world beyond expectations of doing well in school, a world beyond lectures on getting married. I found a tribe that enabled me to exist unapologetically and music that healed me. Being able to write about it for some mainstream news was just a side bonus I managed to make a career out of. And I hope and pray that the music continues, despite Pakistan going through tough times, I hope we as a people can someday appreciate the true value of and importance of art and music in any society. Even a society as polarizing as ours. If you’re a music fan reading this, any local band you explore, any big music icon that makes you starry eyed, any piece of music you experience, hold on to it, chronicle it, don’t allow it to fade away. The musicians in our country that spend years working on their craft to give you an experience to cherish, connect with them, be with them, exist unapologetically as a die hard music fan. We need them in ways personal to all of us, but they need us as fans and writers to carry on their legacy.
“They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” -Sapphire, Almost Famous
Bio: Zahra Salah Uddin is an Erasmus Mundus Journalism alumna based in Berlin, Germany. She’s a freelance music journalist and also works for a journalism non-profit called Hostwriter as part of the editorial team and community management.