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Bringing Pakistan’s Musical Heritage To Life in 17 Episodes

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

CityFM89’s recently released 75 Years of Pakistani Music is set to become a seminal work of archival research and musical compilation, writes Mamun M. Adil.

Ever since its establishment in 2004, CityFM89 has emphasised on the need to preserve and showcase Pakistan’s musical traditions and heritage via its programming which has ranged from mainstream Western music to lesser-known Pakistani music genres.  This emphasis has been particularly apparent in the type of music aired on Cloud89, one of CityFM89’s popular shows which ran every Sunday for 15 years (from 2004 to 2019), frequently airing multi-episode series highlighting both the best that Pakistani music had to offer and often music that many of us may not have been aware of. 

These series included Twilight of the Gods: A Nostalgic Tribute to the Immortal Nisar Bazmi, Sufi Diva: The Rise and Rise of Abida Parveen, Madam Noor Jehan – 10 Years After and Zard Patho Ka Bun Jo Mera Des Hai – in addition to episodes that centred on Mehdi Hasan, qawwals Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad and Sufi exponents Ustad Mansoor Ali Khan, Muhammad Yousuf and Faqir Abdul Ghafoor. What many people may not know is that the irrepressible Red Baron, the show’s principal RJ and producer, is actually Hameed Haroon, CEO, DawnMedia, who helmed Cloud89 with members of his ‘Red Baron Brigade’.

Cloud89 made a recent return after a three-year hiatus to celebrate Pakistan’s 75th anniversary with 75 Years of Pakistani Music, which aired from June 5 to October 15, 2022. In addition to the Red Baron, three of the Red Baron Brigade’s members returned to the show – Arshad Mahmud, Sultan Arshad and Ustad Nafees Khan – Faisal Rafi (who also featured on the show) and Salman Khawaja co-produced the show with Haroon. The series consisted of 17 three-hour episodes. With the exception of an ‘anthology’ episode that aired on Independence Day and ran for five hours, the remaining 16 episodes were three hours each and focused on successive decades and ran in chronological order. Essentially, three episodes were assigned to each decade and were interspersed with informative exchanges on the evolution of musical genres between Haroon, Mahmud, Arshad, Khan and Rafi.

Musicians and vocalists featured on the show ranged from Akhtar Chenaal Zehri to Vital Signs, Rashid Attre to Runa Laila, and Noor Jehan to Junoon and Allan Faqir, not forgetting Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Mehdi Hasan, Ali Zafar, Taha G and Young Stunners to name but a few.

It goes without saying that creating a project of this magnitude was not an easy task to accomplish. According to Haroon, CityFM89 and Cloud89 had been working on creating musical archives for at least 15 years and the main challenge was shortlisting the 600 to 700 songs that were aired on 75 years of Pakistan from a collection of over 500,000, while ensuring that the quality of all the songs remained consistent. This says Haroon, was particularly difficult for the initial episodes as the songs were not very clear in terms of quality and had to be remastered while ensuring that their authenticity was not compromised and remained consistent throughout all 17 episodes, especially the August 14 episode The Best of 75 Years which featured the music of 75 years in one fell swoop. 

Some of the rare songs were sourced from the EMI collections, as well as TV and radio recordings, in addition to open air concerts dating to way back in the day. The contribution of Hamid Akhund, an expert on Sindhi folk music, was invaluable when it came to sourcing folk and Sufi music from Sindh.

For this extensive series, the members of the Red Baron Brigade brought with them their extensive knowledge of musical genres and their evolution. Haroon says that “Ustad Nafees Ahmed is a ghazal exponent, while Arshad Mahmud is an exceptional composer who has a great deal of knowledge in terms of lyrics, poetry and the ghazal genre. Hamid Akhund, who was not technically part of the show, is an authority on Sindhi classical music and Faisal Rafi is a well-known music producer, well-versed in pop and rock music in Pakistan after 1985.”

Speaking about the objectives, Khawaja says that “we wanted to leave listeners with a sense of both the variety and depth of Pakistani music. This is why we covered genres as diverse as film, ghazal, folk, qawwali, classical and pop-rock acts. Ultimately, our primary objective was to ensure that people heard the great music of Pakistan and became aware of it. Listening to great music and spreading awareness is an end in itself. There need not be a higher purpose.” As the youngest member of the team, Khawaja adds that “there were large parts of Pakistan’s musical heritage that I had not been exposed to and the show deepened my appreciation of Pakistani music.”

An interesting aspect that emerges from the show is that the music of the earlier decades (from 1947 to the seventies) were fuelled by cinema. However, following the reign of Zia ul Haq, the focus shifted to other genres such as ghazals as the quality of cinema began to suffer.

“I don’t think that music of any genre has ever really recovered from the impact of the Zia years,” comments Haroon. He points out that at the time Faiz sahab was frowned upon and banned; his poem Hum Dekhenge [rendered by Iqbal Bano] was seen as an affront to autocratic regimes and singers such as Abida Parveen were banned from the Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore.“ He says that although some of the best PTV plays and music were produced during Zia’s regime, it was not an easy task for many of the musicians to chart their careers. “Nazia Hasan’s first major hit was Aap Jaisa Koi which was featured in an Indian film; she was not encouraged – but tolerated by authorities in Pakistan. The pop and rock scene began to emerge in earnest after Zia’s death and the return of democracy.”

As far as the target audience of the show is concerned, they were multiple and included the older generation who were familiar with the early years of the music but may not have been able to access it. Then younger audiences, so they could be “introduced to our heritage. During the days when Cloud89 used to air, we played the music of the Beatles and Simon Garfunkel which younger audiences were not familiar with but to which they took like a duck to water. We realised that they had a lot of flexibility in their taste for music and interest (although they lacked attentiveness) and we wanted to expand and develop this.”

Yet another TG were young students of music and performers, and Haroon is of the opinion that the show has helped create a new sub-culture interested in off-beat Pakistani music. All the episodes were available on CityFM89’s website, and this was advertised as well so people could log on to the website to tune in at their convenience, a fact that contributed to the show’s popularity, particularly among people living abroad.

75 Years of Music was promoted on print, radio, TV and digital and the feedback was largely positive. As Haroon puts it, “the show was a remarkable success, partly thanks to people like Raihan Ali Merchant, Chairman, Z2C, who made it his mission to promote the show. Similarly, Aamir Ibrahim, CEO, Jazz is one of the most dynamic CEOs in Pakistan who has an incredible sense of social responsibility particularly when it comes to the arts and Jazz came on board as an advertiser.”

Despite its diversity and heritage, one cannot help but notice that when people talk about the music of South Asia, the music that dominates – at least in the West – is India’s. When asked to comment on this, Haroon replied that “you cannot doubt the richness of Pakistan’s music; we have people of stature like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hasan, whose excellence has been recognised across the world, including in India, as well composers such as Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, Feroze Nizami and Nisar Bazmi.”

Ultimately, the show’s success has brought this “richness” to the fore, and one hopes that shows of this kind, irrespective of the platform, continue to be made so that Pakistan’s diversity can be documented and made available to the coming generations.