Blending the traditional with the modern, bands from across the border take India by storm.
By Namrata Joshi
It's the Lux Zee Cine awards night. Filmstar Kajol is swaying to the mystic chants of an enigmatic number. Karisma Kapoor and sister Kareena are visibly entranced. And the crowd is absolutely rapturous, dancing on their seats and shouting "encore, encore". The number that has so captivated Bollywood big shots and still leaves the crowds craving for more is Sayonee from Junoon -- comprising guitarist and songwriter Salman Ahmad, lead vocalist Ali Azmat and bass guitarist Brian O'Connell. This is Pakistan's very own Boyzone, the pop-group from across the border that has captured the hearts of Indians. These boys have nothing to do with mush, slush, treacle and candyfloss. The all-male band leads the Pakistani pop brigade with a very different kind of music: a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-inspired eclectic blend of Sufi poetry, sub-continental folk, classical rhythms and western rock. And, it has now taken its big neighbour India by storm.
According to Parag Kamani, consultant, EMI, which is distributing the album in India through Milestone Music, within three weeks of its release Junoon's latest album Azadi sold 1.7 lakh copies in India. The album has emerged as the bestseller among all categories of music at Mumbai's leading music retail outlet, Rhythm House, racing past the home-grown favourite Dil To Pagal Hai. Following Macarena and Didi, the single Sayonee has acquired a near cult status.
But Junoon is not the only Pakistani group which is India-bound -- there's a veritable invasion of pop artistes from across the border. MTV has been regularly airing pop band Saroor's Teri gali aana hai. Karachi-based Komal Rizvi's Baojee has been on Channel V's playlist for the past one-and-a-half months. The latest entrant is Lahore-based Hadiqa Kayani, whose debut album Raaz is being released in India through BMG Crescendo. Among the other groups and stars trying to find a place under the Indian sun are Akash, Sajjad Ali, Awaaz, Strings and Caravan. In fact, Channel V has about 15 new music videos from Pakistan waiting to be aired. Rumour has it that the channel is also planning to rope in Rizvi as its first Pakistani veejay.
"A lot of Pakistani artistes have been coming to Mumbai to look for representation in India," says Suresh Thomas, managing director, BMG Crescendo. The reason is simple: India offers a bigger market than Pakistan. Besides, India has traditionally taken to music from Pakistan: from the ubiquitous ghazals of all-time favourites Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan and Farida Khanum in the '70s to the squeaky-clean teenagers Nazia and Zoheb Hassan in the pre-music channel days in the '80s to the most astounding success of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Though not strictly a pop artiste, Khan was single-handedly responsible for throwing open the doors for Pakipop. This new breed of Pakistani pop stars are making a focused attempt to go mainstream in Asia, especially in the sub-continent. "Pakistani pop artistes have had a hard-core following back home but they are culturally crossing over in a major way now," says Mandar Thakur, Channel V's music and artist relations manager.
Junoon, however, is way ahead of its compatriots in making inroads into the Indian music market. The group heads the charts. "It has been totally unexpected, the industry had never anticipated this," says Kamani. Sayonee alone is being touted as a breakthrough act, predicted to do for Pakistani pop music what Alisha Chinai's Made In India did for Indipop: turn it into a phenomenon.
Sayonee is on the top of the MTV charts and figures on the channel's high-rotation playlist with an average airing of four times a day. Last heard, it was among Channel V's top three, racing towards the No.1 slot. It has been getting unprecedented play for a Pakistani pop song on the channel: almost six times a day. That too at a time when there are plenty of other chartbusters jostling for airtime: the mega-hit remix Dil kya kare, Kamaal Khan's O oh jaane jana, Bally Sagoo's Gud naal ishq mitha and Shweta Shetty's Deewane, not to forget pop diva Madonna's latest act, Frozen, and Khan's Piya re.
Pop music has been around in Pakistan for about 15 years. "It is the fastest growing entertainment phenomenon," says Junoon's Ahmad. But it has remained largely in the background because of political and religious curbs. Lack of proper enforcement of copyright laws, the absence of international recording companies, ineffective marketing and distribution systems and a thriving piracy market have also affected its growth. Music channels are now stepping in to provide a pan-Asian platform, exposure and the much-needed hype. Having established the Indian pop scene, it's now destination Pakistan for the channels. Consequently the marketing and promotion of Pakipop is acquiring the cutting edge. "The market for them was always there. Now they are communicating with that market and the media is providing the fuel for that," says Thakur. This is being backed by videos which are becoming slicker by the day. "Production values are getting better, more money is being poured in," says Thomas.
Earlier, singing was a serious pursuit grounded in classical tenets. "Now we have also begun to derive fun out of music," says Rizvi. However, compared to its Indian counterpart there's still a lot of restraint in Pakipop. No mini skirts to show off the legs, no tank tops to give a daring glimpse of the belly-button. Pakipop is all about trying to do a balancing act between tradition and modernity, which is best summed up in the lyrics of Rizvi's Baojee: Je tusi padh laiyan chaar jamataan culture apna na bhool jao jee (Don't forget your culture once you've studied a bit). "Indian pop is more beat-based, whereas Pakipop is a lot more conscious of retaining its roots," says Ahmad.
The basic reason why the Pakistanis have been able to do well here is because Indians are able to relate to their music. "The market knows no nationality," says Vinay Sapru, chief programming officer, Polygram India Ltd. For Mishal Verma, mtv's director, programming, talent and artist relations, Sayonee works because it makes for easy listening. "The selling point of a record is that it should have a beat which allows one to dance or a melody which allows one to sing and a catch word thrown in," says Verma. And Sayonee has all three. The song is an ideal blend of the East with the West, the true example of good fusion music. As Ahmad says, "Ultimately we are moving towards a universal sound." And that's because "listeners are asking for more mature, fuller sound, not bubble gum pop", according to Thakur.
However, it's precisely this discerning taste of the audience which is going to make the road to success a bit difficult for the Pakistani pop brigade. In the fickle world of music, the stakes are getting higher each day. Anything and everything don't sell anymore. Though Pakipop is the rage now, the question is whether it's the beginning of a trend or just a passing fad. "There's room for Pakistani pop if it is of the same standard as Junoon's," says Verma. And if the music is good, it will certainly know no borders.
© Living Media India Ltd