Thursday, June 16, 2011

It's Still Alive: The 'Vedderization' of Pakistani Rock

Pearl Jam Twenty is Oscar winning writer-director Cameron Crowe’s documentary tribute to the prolific band that initiated the ‘grunge’ movement twenty years ago along with Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. Friends with Pearl Jam since his days at Rolling Stone magazine, Crowe cut the documentary from over a thousand hours of footage and interviews to “give audiences a visceral feeling of what it is to love music and to feel it deeply.”

This nostalgic journey pays homage to a band that has also unknowingly fuelled the evolution of indie rock here in Pakistan. The ‘Vedderization’ of the Pakistani music scene began in the Benazir-Nawaz years of the early to mid 90s, fuelled by the advent of MTV Asia among English-speaking segments that could afford satellite TV. Drawn towards the Seattle sound, a series of underground acts emerged, first as cover bands and then as original musicians in their own right. Distinctive from their pop-style electronic predecessors, they echoed grunge aesthetics that were to define a plaid wearing, ripped jeans-touting sub-culture of their generation. Longhaired, self-taught musicians emoted rock music with poignant lyrics, echoing the torment of being a teenager in the relatively constrained society of the time.
Despite the overwhelming preference by Pakistan’s private school demographic for Bryan Adams-style ballads, grunge emerged with an avid local fan following that filled amphitheatres at rock performances featuring head-banging and bodysurfing et al.  In Lahore, one such band was Co-VEN. Recalls founding member Atif Saeed, “I don’t think there were people more affected by the grunge movement in this country than us.”

Farhad Humayun of Overload remembers, “Grunge wasn’t just a genre in music, it was a lifestyle. For a suppressed nation where kids are told what to do, it was a breath of fresh air.”  Sufi-influenced rockers like Junoon and the Mekaal Hasan Band are more likely to count classic rock icons like U2 and Led Zeppelin as their early inspiration, but even Mekaal Hasan admits to an appreciation of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains.

Banker-turned-musician Nabil Qizilbash was a pre-teen then; “That was a frustrating time because there were virtually no stores that carried electric guitars, let alone guitar pedals, amplifiers or even guitar strings.” He added, “Teenagers were starving to see a live rock show…It’s not like Nirvana or Guns N Roses were coming to our town any time soon, so cover-band performances were the closest we were going to get.”

In the meantime, ‘Alternative’ music had entered mainstream international pop culture, prompting fashion houses to promote an industry of Caterpillar boots, Converse sneakers, designer ripped jeans and Chanel’s Vamp nail polish and lipstick, from Alannis Morissette’s feisty rocker to Courtney Love’s heroin-chic and Kate Moss’ fashionable waif. 

Since grunge, there’s been post-grunge, progressive rock, derivatives of metal and punk and even Sufi rock. Yet, today’s 30-somethings find something resonating about the Seattle sound that has somewhat fused with Pakistan’s rich emerging rock culture, often ludicrously cited in the foreign media as ‘Taliban-defying rock,’ as if that were its motivating factor.

The appreciation for music seems mutual, however. Frontrunner Eddie Vedder, iconic for his emotive baritone that has since been echoed by Creed and re-echoed by Call, and his angst-ridden performances with socially conscious lyrics, was drawn to maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Musicology’ course at the University of Washington in Seattle back in ‘92. This led to a 1995 groundbreaking Khan-Vedder collaboration on East-West fusion masterpieces, Face of Love and The Long Road, featuring haunting melodies, tablas and acoustic guitars. Following Khan’s death, Vedder performed live with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and sang the soulful Urdu chorus alongside him in one of the world’s earliest Sufi rock collaborations.

Vedder continued on his pursuit of independent projects while remaining with Pearl Jam. In this vein, he progressed from grunge-god to a contemporary voice fusing classic and folk rock, including his award-winning soundtrack for Into the Wild to Ukulele Songs, currently at #1 on Billboard’s Folk Albums.
Watching Pearl Jam Twenty delve twenty years into its history of performing and recording on its own ethical terms provides insight for today’s musicians struggling to maintain artistic integrity in the face of blatant commercialism. As Mekaal puts it, “Have you heard the mainstream lately? It’s still bad, it was mostly always bad, and I daresay it will always cater to the lowest common denominator. While there are great bands around the world and in Pakistan, their exposure and promotion often seems to be of the blandest, most predictable, sterile music—music with the soul of a rice cake.”

Pearl Jam Twenty is due for a September theatrical release along with an accompanying book, soundtrack and concert weekend to commemorate the band’s twentieth anniversary.

Current projects: Pearl Jam is recording their tenth studio album; MHB is collaborating with Sanam Marvi as a guest vocalist; Overload plays live gigs at The Apartment until the security situation improves; Quadrum has launched itself as a percussion ensemble; and Nabil Qizilbash is working on his bilingual debut album.

Note: Mekaal and Nabil attended music courses at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and City University of NY respectively, and Atif and Farhad have both performed with Co-VEN in its early days in Lahore.

About Seattle: The capital of Washington state, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is home to Starbucks and the setting for TV shows Frasier and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as garage bands that achieved cult status in the 90s and are icons today.

About Cameron Crowe: Film-maker who shot to fame with Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.

Does 90s grunge continue to influence Pakistani music today? (Comments paraphrased for space. A full transcript will be available on Laaleen’s Tribune blog).
Mekaal Hasan (of the Mekaal Hasan Band): I don’t see it. Rock music affords an outlet for venting and Grunge (recycles) ideas from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The social conditions that gave rise to Grunge—unemployment, bad governance, economic woes—have been with Pakistan since its creation.
Farhad Humayun (of Overload): Grunge still prevails in bands like Co-VEN and solo acts like Shahzad Hameed, but it’s generally died down…in this age of consumerism, Lady Gaga and ‘Sheila Ki Jawani.’
Atif Saeed (of Quadrum): Ali Noor (of Noori) and Omran (Momo) Shafique share similar influences at Co-VEN and Coke Studio, some of the best music that Pakistan has to offer of late.
Nabil Qizilbash (new solo artist): Before Grunge, the guy on the keyboards was the bandleader, blaring synthesized arrangements out of his sequencer. Not anymore, thank God!

Complete Interview Transcript with Rock Musicians interviewed—Mekaal Hassan, Farhad Humayun, Atif Saeed and Nabil Qizilbash

MEKAAL: Lahore-based musician and record producer. MHB has been described as Sufi Rock, Jazz Fusion and World Music and is one of the most prolific fusion-rock bands in Pakistan today.
Mekaal is “very happy to announce that the Mekaal Hasan Band is now featuring Sanam Marvi as a guest artist along with the entire band line up. This is tremendously exciting because it’s just a treat hearing her sing over tracks like Ya Ali. It also has allowed us to get into writing duets since we can reinterpret a lot of our material with two singers now.”
FARHAD: Farhad Humayun is simultaneously living in Lahore, London and Barcelona and is a Singer/Drummer/Music Producer/Video Artist/Audio & Lighting Engineer. He is the founder/drummer/producer for the percussion outfit Overload and regarded as a top name in modern drum & percussion playing in Pakistan. He started playing drums at the age of 14 and became an prominent figure in the underground rock revolution in Lahore in the 90s with his heavy metal mayhem band Mindriot. Farhad has written music for artists including Atif Aslam and heads an arts and event design company, Riot Productions.
Farhad: “We’re doing Overload live at The Apartment because there is no live music happening in Pakistan due to security threats and radicalism. I think its better to do something than complain. Overload is teaming up with various artists and paying tribute to music and thoughts that have influenced us over the years.”
ATIF: Atif Saeed is a Lahore-based Sr. Operations Manager at Radio 1, FM91 and member of Quadrum. He was also a founding member of Co-VEN.
Atif: “I led a band which was the pioneer of rock/grunge music in Pakistan called Coven. We had our first concert in 1992 and paved the way for what was later known as the ‘Lahore Underground Scene.’ We were based mostly in Lahore but also played in Karachi. I have done a few collaborations in the past. My most recent project is this outfit known as Quadrum. We consist of 4 percussionists that specialize in hand drums such as African, Arabian, Djembes Dharbouka, Dhumbek etc.”
NABIL: Dubai-based banker working on his debut album. He works in investments and is professional guitarist. A music lover, he has played the guitar professionally in various bands since the late 90s as well as working on a solo career as a singer/songwriter and independently released a video for Jaanlaye.
Nabil: “I’ve just completed work on my debut album which consists of 9 songs written in English as well as in Urdu.  I look forward to showing the rest of the world the ‘real’ Pakistan as it actually is, not the one we see every day in the media.”  

LK: Your early musical inspirations were…?
MEKAAL: Too many artists to mention!
FARHAD: Pop (Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, A-ha) and Rock & Metal (Judas Priest, Dio, WASP, Twisted Sister, ACDC, Alice in Chains).
ATIF: My earliest—independent of my sisters—musical inspiration was Guns N Roses. Earlier glam rock also appealed to me from Motley Crüe to Warrant and Winger. At that time there was not much English rock music available in this country so our musical tastes were pretty much moulded by whatever was available at the local Virgin Air or Off-Beat shop. Strong independent direction started when Pearl Jam came into the picture along with Soundgarden, Nirvana and Alice in Chains.
NABIL: I was blown away when I first saw Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV. The contrast between clean chorus effects and distorted guitar sounds was something I desperately wanted recreate for myself.  That was a frustrating time because there were virtually no stores that carried electric guitars, let alone guitar pedals, amplifiers or even guitar strings! Other bands included Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, The Lemonheads, Green Day, Soundgarden, Rage Against The Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Live, Radiohead…I was lucky to have grown up in the 90’s!

LK: And your current musical inspiration is…?
MEKAAL: Being around good musicians is inspiring in of itself.
FARHAD: Muse, Ustad Amanat Ali, Journey, Judas Priest, A-ha, Seal, Sting, Foreigner, Rush, Miles – Gurtu.
ATIF: Whereas earlier my musical tastes were limited to Grunge and Metal, I have now broadened my horizons to include everything from Coke Studio to Deep House Trance.
NABIL: I still listen to a lot of the same albums from the Grunge era simply because the songs and the voices behind them were that good! Today, I continue to be inspired by the albums of Pink Floyd, Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Doors, Jeff Buckley, The Killers, Depeche Mode, Nusrat Fateh Ali and more. The melodies, lyrics, vocals, and artistry behind their music does it for me.

LK: Where were you when Seattle garage bands and the whole ‘grunge’ movement were skyrocketing? How did it all affect your work, appreciation, and thought?
MEKAAL:  I was in Lahore and had just gotten back from music school. This was ’95. I really didn’t get into any of it because it didn’t have enough appeal to me, musically or aesthetically. Later on I did come to like the music of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains so it’s all good, I suppose.
FARHAD: I was in Lahore, playing with Co-VEN just when they’d come out. I was a metal head whereas they were Grunge masters. We had fun but Metal & Grunge are two separate disciplines. I was more into clean playing, power chords and wearing black whereas they were into open distorted chords and loose rhythms with loud cymbal playing and wearing lumberjacks. It was a stark contrast in philosophy although I loved what they played too. Out of the grunge movement I loved Pearl Jam’s Ten and Vs. albums. Alice in Chains isn’t just a band for me, it’s an event in my life. (The late) Layne Staley (d. 2002) was super! I didn’t understand it at first because I was a fan of the Seattle band Heart that was completely different from these people but later, I understood what a big role Heart had in promoting the grunge scene and I read about it. It really did change my thinking and now I have respect for the grunge movement, although I think Nirvana isn’t really my idea of rock n’ roll.
ATIF: I was in a band called Co-VEN in Lahore and this grunge movement had a profound effect on what we were playing, what we coming up with, our attitudes and our everyday life. I don’t think there were people more affected by the grunge movement in this country than us.
NABIL:  I was in middle school in Lahore. Back then, the highlight of my life was to go to a high school dance and do the ‘running man’ (a dance move from the 90s)! I was probably listening to George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice and then boom—grunge came along! Many of the bands had a knack for playing ‘downer music’ which went well with how I was feeling at the time. 

LK: What was the underground music scene like in your hometown back in the early to mid 90s? Where did ‘alternative rock’ (as Pearl Jam, Nirvana etc. were called at the time) generally fit in?
MEKAAL: There were a few underground bands which mostly played covers. Some of these bands were heavily influenced in their early days by Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, such as Co-VEN, who are still around today and sound great.
FARHAD: Alternative suddenly became the ‘in’ thing. Grunge wasn’t just a genre in music, it was a lifestyle and I think for a suppressed nation where kids are told what to do, it was a breath of fresh air. As for me, I’ve always been old fashioned so the old school style worked for me. Sometimes over the weekend maybe, I’d ‘grunge out.’
ATIF: We were in the midst of it. Out of the major 4 or 5 bands that were happening back then, Co-VEN was the one leading and paving the way, and Co-VEN was Grunge. It was among the best times in Pakistan’s music history for lovers of Rock.           
NABIL: The scene basically consisted of about four/five cover bands in Lahore that were paying tribute to their favorites (i.e. Guns n’ Roses, Pearl Jam and other grunge bands of the time). Actually, there were also probably only 10 people in the entire city that had electric guitars back then! Teenagers were starving to see a live rock show…It’s not like Nirvana or GnR were coming to our town any time soon, so cover-band performances was the closest we were going to get. So whether the band could play or not didn’t matter, it was about getting as close as possible to rock!

LK: In what ways do you see its influence continue in Pakistani music today?
MEKAAL: I don’t. I think rock music affords an outlet for venting, hence it’s attraction to teens and especially males.  It has a history further back than Grunge, which in my opinion is a recycling of ideas found in the music created by bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I think what you are missing is the social conditions which gave rise to the Grunge scene. Pakistan is dissimilar in that regard since unemployment, bad governance, economic woes and such have been with us since creation itself.
FARHAD: I think it still prevails in bands like Co-VEN and solo acts like Shahzad Hameed, but generally, all over the world its died down. It’s an age of consumerism so there’s only Lady Gaga & Sheila Ki Jawani appearing on screen and playing over the radio, and it’s sad that kids have to grow up with that. When we were young, we read books, watched The Smurfs and Masters of the Universe; now, kids ‘Facebook’ and watch Cow & Chicken with bad animation. Everything is about money. It’s sad that people don’t remember that music is an art form in which the artist conveys ideas and emotions through words and melodies. People who delve deeper into the crevices of life may find the remains of why music is actually played.
ATIF: One of the prime examples of that would be Noori. Ali Noor used to sing for Co-VEN and was as heavily inspired by Grunge. He has now brought those influences to bear not just on his band Noori, but also in Coke Studio. Omran (Momo) is another person who shared similar influences. Not only does he have his own alternative band, but is also a regular session player in Coke Studio, which I believe is some of the best music that Pakistan has to offer of late. He also continues to play with the reunited Co-VEN.
NABIL: Before the Grunge era, the guy on the keyboards was the bandleader, and all the synthesized arrangements would be blaring out of his sequencer. Not anymore—thank God! I’m finishing up my own album and a friend of mine who heard it told me I’m ‘still stuck’ in the 90’s. I think she said it because it’s guitar-based stuff, as opposed to hip-hop drum loops and synths.

LK: What do you think mainstream music would be like in Pakistan and the world today if Seattle Grunge had never happened?
MEKAAL: Have you heard the mainstream lately? It’s still bad, it was mostly always bad and I daresay it always will cater to the lowest common denominator. While there are great bands around world over and in Pakistan, the exposure and promotion often seems to be of the blandest, most predictable, sterile music. Music with the soul of a rice cakeJ
FARHAD: I think over the years music has become more and more aggressive and in-your-face. The way an album sounds is so different. Every record wants to be louder than the previous one. Every artist wants to be more radical than the other. If it was grunge it would be fudged –I don’t know!
ATIF: Boring. Shallow. Grunge was the antithesis to bubble gum pop. People who should not have been singing would have continued to sing. Personally, I used to play bass before hearing Ten, after which I swapped that for drums which I still play.
NABIL: In Pakistan I definitely think sequenced music would have continued to reign supreme, and possibly we’d have more people singing rap songs. In the world, Grunge (a sub-set of Punk) because of its technical accessibility as well as its ‘no bull****, lets rock’ attitude has guided musicians to concentrate on the songs rather than the clothes they wear. Just this fundamental alone has created many great bands in the world. 


wuj said...

Eddie Vedder! now that brings back a flood of memories!

Anonymous said...

Well written and interesting to read! More! More!

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this through... I think. 10 minutes later I realize I've just read the whole post. Surprised. Excellent post. Thank you!!

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