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V/A - Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals 1966-1976

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Artist: V/A

Album: Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals 1966-1976

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Mar. 2, 2011

Western countries have witnessed the nail in the coffin of what might be called “Middle Eastern exceptionalism” over the past few weeks. This exceptionalism was the idea that the “Middle East”— not really a geographic entity at all if you look at a map of continents and their boundaries — operates along rules that belong to an inexplicable universe different than our own. Cue Islam, stage right. In reality, Central and Western Asia, Northern Africa, or South and Southeast Asia have never been exceptional in world history. It was we who held it to be thusly, either out of crass realpolitik or misguided liberal platitudes.

On the musical plane, a similar process has been afoot for at least a decade. Compilations of rock ‘n’ roll and funk from every nook and cranny of the 1970s Third World are reissued, forcing high-ceiling hipsters to replace their aging wall maps of the London Tube system with an inoffensive, non-Eurocentric, flat map of the globe. Unlike those who sniff out new oil reserves in Africa and Latin America and end up as ambassadors or K Street lobbyists, however, the foot solders of rock ‘n’ roll universalism are a thankless bunch. For the hotel and diplomat lounge rock scene in Pakistan from 1966-76, we have to profusely thank Stuart Ellis, who compiled this set of teenage bop, surf, and Lollywood folk-rock instrumentals after tracking down a number of 7”s and LPs from the country.

There are music labels that daintily paddle in UNESCO-approved waters of celebratory multicultural regalia, parceling off world culture as exotic yet consumable (from afar). Then there is Sublime Frequencies. They get a bad rap for dropping a listener off in the aural Himalayas without context, history or the approved clucking of the elders. Frankly, as we can see on the news, a little history is a dangerous thing anyway. Glenn Beck has recently told us that 1. Palestine’s Hamas adheres to Sunni Islam and Lebanon’s Hezbollah believes in Shi’a Islam; 2. Sunni and Shi’a muslims irrevocably and universally hate each other for time eternal; 3. A revolutionary Egypt will soon be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sunni and linked to Hamas; and ergo, 4. Egypt and Lebanon will fight a mummy vs. zombie war that will lead to a global conflagration from which Pensacola, Fla., is not even safe. I assume Beck put this together because of all the “ancient history” he and the rest of us learned about Islam since 2003 and the ensuing Iraqi civil war. Or maybe he deciphered it on a rebus inside a beer bottle cap before he found religion in the toilet stall of his last K-ROCK shock jock stint.

Ellis’ compilation of Pakistani organ-heavy “surf and sitar” combos is not really a debriefer on life in the raging Karachi 1970s. There are mentions of the populist government under Ali Bhutto and the tumult in the country from the late 1960s onward, including a reference to Zia-ul-Haq’s coup d’état in 1977 and the subsequent Western-supported dictatorial turn of the country. As an Iranian, I am relieved that another place is singled out for (as the liner notes state) the “establishment of a pure Islamic state governed by Sharia law” than good old Tehran. Yes, Pakistan, like many other countries in the 1980s, used political Islam as a method of consolidating the power of authoritarian governments, often at the expense of cosmopolitan artists and budding rock and rollers. But this sort of scary quip along with a red flag mention in the notes of “Sharia law” generates more heat than light on the implicit questions that Ellis puts forth with his compilation.

Many Pakistanis of a particular age will recognize “filmi” composers of note, such as Sohail Rana and Nisar Bazmi. Given the overwhelming resources of the South Asian film industry compared to any of its cultural competitors, it is not surprising that these tracks are the best produced of the collection. But most of the double-LP set is given over to mod-styled catchy riffs played on Fenders and Vox organs. Bands like The Panthers, The Abstracts, and The Fore Thoughts jiggle their way around the subcontinent’s many musical stylings. Even as millions of Flower Children turned on to the eternal drone of the “East” in the late 1960s, one of The Panthers’ EPs in 1969 was entitled When East Goes West. Now, as post-Timbaland pop has cleared space for our third eye yet again, should we really be shocked that this sort of cultural exchange is novel, or, worse yet, assume that the rest of the world is perpetually in a state of simply “catching up” to our ever clever music?

These tunes are not substandard mimicry. They should be placed alongside other countries’ rethinking of their own musical histories as they encounter new and worldly inputs. Why do we conceive of the folk revivals of an Incredible String Band as a radical and forward-looking departure from our notions of tradition, but a bunch of Karachi surf bands as a cute Third World reaction to an inevitable modernization that will wipe out the “bad parts” of their culture anyway? We are currently being deluged with a rock history of the rest of the world that, for whatever reasons in the past, we have been able to ignore until now. Après le déluge, ce qui va arriver?

By Kevan Harris

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