The new ustads
of Pakistani music
Pakistani musical traditions have undergone a sea change in the past ten
years. With the advent of
new media such as satellite and cable television and the replacement of
the VCR with the VCD-DVD player, the music video has taken centre stage in the visual and sonic world of
many Pakistani music consumers. Undoubtedly,
this is a cultural consequence of technological change in a globalized
economy and media-scape.
the one hand, most Pakistani and Indian music videos can be readily
identified as blatant copies of North American music videos as found on
MTV and Much Music (the Canadian version of the former).
Yet, these music videos have some links to the rich tradition of
Urdu-Hindi film song. One
feature, however, remains uncontested:
the music video is a
work resulting from very elaborate studio production, especially since
the advent of digital audio and video technologies.
This begs the questions: How
much of the final artistic product is a result of studio production?
Can pop musicians perform their music live without the crutch of
pre-recorded soundtracks? How
much musical knowledge and ability do modern pop musicians actually
possess? And given the demise of the classical music traditions of
Pakistan, who are the modern-day ustads
2004, I taught musicology classes at the National College of Arts in
Lahore and in the evenings, I immersed myself in the music video world
of Pakistani cable television. One
program of particular interest was broadcasted by UNI-PLUS, entitled
"Tribute to Ustad Ghulam Ali" in honour of Ghulam Ali,
undoubtedly one of the greatest exponents of ghazal
gayaki. Among the many performers of the event, only one classically
trained performer appeared, Hamid Ali Khan, wherein he sang
approximately forty seconds of a light-classical-pop song. And with the
exception of the famous vocalist Najam Shiraz, all other performances
involved playback singing and playback
In other words, the vocalists lip-synched to pre-recorded songs
and the keyboard player, guitarist and drummer were like the cordless
microphone of the singers: to be seen but not heard.
Even more shocking was the case of Salma Agha, who lip-synched to
her own song that she had recorded earlier in the studio.
embodied, unplugged musical performance become a crime in the early
stake is the level of sophistication that Pakistani society is willing
to accept to consider an art form "great".
This is readily seen in the today's wanton usage of the term ustad. Just fifty years
earlier, the title of ustad was
reserved for those (male) vocalists who commanded the highest level of
ability and knowledge in singing either the khayal
or dhrupad genres of
classical music. Thus, the
title of ustad was not given
to singers who sang only light-classical genres such as thumri,
kafi and ghazal. Unquestionably,
recent performers such as Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan and Nusrat Fateh Ali
Khan have produced incomparable art within their respective genres and
largely due to their training in classical music.
However, they did not suffer the ill economic and social
consequences of the vocalists who specialized in the more sophisticated khayal and dhrupad genres.
Ghulam Ali, of all people, knows this social code of honour among
classical musicians, yet, sadly, he was all too willing to let an
unsophisticated pop music audience grant him the title of ustad.
music videos demonstrate another striking change in Pakistani music
culture: the majority of pop musicians have little or no interest in
classical music as source material for their music because they simply
have not learned the basics. With
only a few lessons in western tonal harmony and rhythm, the vast
majority of pop musicians rely heavily on the latest technologies of
electronic musical instruments and digital audio editing.
These musicians would be hard-pressed to match the musical
abilities of a cackling crow during periods of load-shedding.
the cleansing of classical music and musical training by today's rising
Pakistani pop stars, it is reasonable to assume that the title ustad
has been dealt a deathblow. But
this is not the case. There
is an area of highly specialized musical knowledge that has gone
unrecognized by the vast majority of music consumers: digital
audio-video editing. The
level of skill required to operate digital music editing programs such
as Cubase, Cakewalk, Premiere and Sound Forge has lessened in the past
few years due to increasingly user-friendly interfaces.
However, the current level of music video production is still far
beyond the reach of the non-specialist computer user.
Furthermore, these software engineers often possess a background
in graphic design, filmmaking and/or music performance and composition.
Yet, for all their highly specialized skill and experience, these
ghostwriters remain largely unrecognized.
They do not receive honours at pop music award ceremonies and
certainly do not command the fame of their pop musician clients.
In short, they merely provide a service, much like the chauffer
or rickshaw driver who takes their client from one place to the next.
utters today's pop musician.