Songs From The Underground: In Conversation with the Fankaars of Pakistani Indie Music

Songs From The Underground: In Conversation with the Fankaars of Pakistani Indie Music

It was around 1 am and I was scrolling through my SoundCloud recommendations when I came across a track called “Lighter Machis” and instantly fell in love with it. Maybe it was the chirping birds, or the soft plucking of the ukulele, or the melodic whistling, or maybe a little bit of everything, that pulled me out of the rabbit hole the pandemic had shoved me into. The simplicity and innocence of the lyrics (‘mehnat ki titli ko awaaz dunga, zindagi se main toh ladh ke rahunga’) coupled with earthy instrumentals result in an indie melody that is powerful enough to transport you.

The song comes from across the border in Lahore, which is home to The Tamaashbeens, the young wizards behind all the magic. With a Facebook bio as absurd as ‘Eggs. We like eggs’ and a penchant for dedicating their songs to everyday objects (“Razayi”, “Kursiyaan”, “Lighter Machis”), they have managed to gain over 3000 loyal followers on SoundCloud.

Listening to them feels as if you just walked in on them rehearsing, experimenting with the sounds, and setting the mood—rendering them a live jam session character, as Juliane Görlach puts it. With birds and dogs often serving as backing vocalists, it would be fair to say that they are as much a part of the band as Jamal Abbas, Talaal Khan, Ali Hassnain, and Shahenshah Bokhari. Together, they are able to create an atmosphere that is as whimsical and nostalgia-inducing as a Studio Ghibli film. Songs like “Kion” take you back to your childhood when the world seemed to be full of endless conundrums and you were always brimming with curiosity. (‘Baarishon mein itna paani kyon, sooraj mein itni garmi kyon?’)

Confusion, fatigue and the state of feeling lost in “Razayi”, grief and resentment as a result of being abandoned by a loved one in “Tor Phor”, or the feeling of hopelessness in an increasingly capitalist-driven world in “Duniya Re”. They are able to make their music incredibly cathartic by conveying human emotions in the rawest form. Staying true to their band name, The Tamaashbeens (Urdu for spectators) seeks to liberate us from the hassles of daily life by inviting us to pause, observe our surroundings, and find beauty in the mundane (even if its a couple of chairs under the sun).

I had the pleasure of speaking to Shahenshah Bokhari from The Tamaashbeens, who shared interesting insights into their music and revealed their sources of inspiration.

1. What drove you to make music? How did you find your own style? 

Shahenshah: Music drove us to make music. We do not fundamentally have an original style. Our music is actually highly inspired by some of the music we personally adore. Were great fans of musicians such as The Beatles, Jason Mraz, Kimya Dawson, and of course the overall South Asian Indie scene — and we wanted to initially create music that sounded similar. This ended up gathering a small yet extremely kind and loving audience to whom were extremely grateful.

2. How would you describe your bandmates?

Shahenshah: Were childhood best friends — and we go along with each other extremely well. Music is not the primary characteristic of our relationship. Something common between all of us is that we all try to be kind — and advise everyone to be so (even if circumstances do not allow).

3. Which track is the most precious to you and why? 

Shahenshah: Hm, thats a difficult one. But mainly Koi Toh Miley Ga and Lighter Machis. Its so ironic that a melody that came into our minds at 4 am in the morning, initially humming it on an acoustic guitar – could connect with so many people around the community.

4. How has the Pakistani indie scene evolved according to you? Do you plan to collaborate with other bands such as Poor Rich Boy and Shajie? 

Shahenshah: Pakistani indie scene consists of brilliant artists and has great potential! The industry has certainly evolved but theres still a lack of monetization. I believe that discourages musicians to release new tracks. Were great fans of Poor Rich Boy and Shajie — and would definitely look forward to collaborating in the future.

Not only did The Tamaashbeens help me beat the pandemic blues but they also introduced me to a whole new world of music— one that lay just across the border. Soon after, I could be found grooving to Poor Rich Boy’s “Zardarazir” or Shajie’s “Saaray”.

Poor Rich Boy

Popularly known as Pakistan’s answer to The Smiths, Poor Rich Boy (and the toothless winos), a sextet from Lahore, emerged from the underground to put Pakistani indie music on the map. Whether it is Beatles-esque singles like “Alice”, or hauntingly atmospheric pieces like “Old Money” that are reminiscent of Pink Floyd, or the even more underrated tracks like “Thistle” that could easily be on the soundtrack of Juno— PRB can quite literally do it all. Count on them to indulge you in one of their reveries about the controversial political figures Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari in “Zardarazir” or to bring to life the highly-acclaimed poem “Samundar ki Teh Main” by N.M. Rashid.

When talking about Lahore-born artists, one cannot (and should not) forget the impeccable Janat Sohail, who was part of the first all-female ensemble at Nescafé Basement (a Pakistani music television series that provides a platform to underground artists). Her independent audio-visual project Wooly and the Uke made its debut in 2017 with “Circus”, an almost eerie commentary on the banality of life. By keeping visual narratives just as centric to her music as lyrical storytelling, she is able to create an experience that stays with the audience long after the song ends. It is what makes Wooly, well, Wooly. Her latest release “Home” bears witness to this very approach she seeks to establish— one that allows us to tap into the subconscious mind. This can also be observed in “Watch”(a collaboration with Poor Rich Boy), a song about the infinite inner voices that control us.

Wooly and the Uke by Janat Sohail

Currently based in Berlin, she has captured international attention through her striking vocals, ethereal imagery, and depiction of complex human emotions like vulnerability and fragility— finally ‘revealing the magic that was kept a secret behind barbed wires, walls, and borders’, as her official website states.

My journey into this spectacular world, fortunately, didn’t end here and led me to discover Rao Hamza Hayat, another singer-songwriter from Lahore. It is remarkable how his music, though enveloped in dark themes, can reassure us that we’re not alone— and that perhaps, we all are ‘buzdil’, struggling to live in the absence of love. The confessional style of the lyrics makes one feel heard, giving voice to what we often feel but don’t have the courage to accept.

Rao Hamza Hayat

“Sifr Batalees”, which remains my absolute favourite track, feels like the musical equivalent of the feeling one experiences when they are lost in a crowd, and home appears to be farther away than usual. An honest inquiry into human nature, it attempts to find answers to the different questions we all grapple with—about identity and relationships, all the while feeling more and more alienated even in familiar spaces. (‘Aage jaaye kyun Lahore se? Idhar bhi hain wohi, khud mein joh ghum kaheen’)

The title and nature of the song, which calls to mind the significance of the number 42 in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, shows how we are all on a quest to find an answer to the ‘Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’. This theme was so intriguing to me that I couldn’t resist but ask the artist himself if the connection to the famous sci-fi novel was intentional.

1. What inspired you to write ‘Sifr Batalees’? Is the title a reference to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  

Hamza Hayat: No it’s not- but I’m definitely taking credit for that in the future. Great book. The title ‘Sifr Batalees’ translates to 042, which is the area code for Lahore. The idea was to try to have two distinct narratives – one which was uplifting and hopeful and the other which was a bit more somber (for lack of a better word). So as you continue listening to the song, the part that might resonate with you changes depending on where you are emotionally at that point in the time. The lyrics and the music for the uplifting parts hopefully work in a way that helps instill a sense of patience and calm, even if the song ends on a darker note. 

Still, next time someone asks me this I’m sticking with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

2. What do you think of the indie scene in Pakistan? Are there any particular artists that influenced you? 

Hamza Hayat: There’s a lot of incredibly talented artists in Pakistan. We’re definitely going through an era of original indie music in Pakistan. There are tons of artists that are very inspiring honestly – Mehdi Mahloof, Moooro, Biryani Brothers, Misbah, Poor Rich Boy (I’m definitely forgetting a lot of people). I think Mehdi Mahloof and Mooroo had the biggest impact on me when I was younger, but the sheer creativity and talent that almost every other artist brings to the table is inspiring on its own. It helps push you to try something different.

3. With over 87k plays on SoundCloud, ‘Buzdil’ has seemed to become a cult-favourite among indie lovers. Can we expect a music video for the song anytime soon? 

Hamza Hayat: I don’t have any plans at the moment, to be honest. I’ve found that sometimes other people’s interpretation of a song can be far more nuanced and interesting than I originally intended (e.g. your Hitchhiker’s Guide question), so the idea of making a music video that defines the song in one way or another is not very appealing. I would love to do an animated music video someday though. I feel like animation allows you to express ideas and emotions more ‘artistically’ without shoving a tunnel vision perspective of the music onto the listener. To be fair, you can also do that in a live-action music video. But I’m not very creative. And most importantly, I’m incredibly lazy.

4. Lastly, are you working on any new projects? 

Hamza Hayat: Constantly and not really at the same time. I thought I’d do a song a year (so I’m done for 2021). But I do have a few unfinished songs gathering dust on my laptop. So maybe I could finally finish them up and come out with an E.P out by late 2022. But it’s probably to be a song a year for quite some time, to be honest. Juggling work and music is difficult but hopefully, I’ll get better as time goes by.

Janat Sohail from Wooly and The Uke also spoke with us and shared the inspiration behind her music.

1. How do you think music has allowed you to move beyond borders, beyond Pakistan?

Janat Sohail: Living in a time where bodies and minds are enveloped in a crisis of geographical restraint and questioned identities, I have found myself traveling through frequencies. I believe sound is an instrument that follows its rhythm of communication and is relentless in its travel – the language spoken, your background, color, or race are additional embellishments that give it an unrefined color.

If it weren’t for music, I wouldn’t have physically immigrated to explore more – sound has instilled in me a curiosity yet unmatched. I want to know where it comes within me, where I want it to resonate, to engage in dialogues it welcomes, and to follow all that it makes me want to be.

I am gratefully privileged to make a move, to move with the frequencies and its invitations.

2. As an audio-visual artist, what do you think is the biggest challenge? Do the visual narratives come to you first or do you shape them according to the music? 

Janat Sohail: I have found myself visualizing most, if not all, of the emotions that I have felt, or the personas I have created, the shoes I’ve stepped in. If I imagine a moment of silent remorse, I write what I see – I write about the room that lies quietly in the late afternoon sun, left to its peace, the soft linen airy, hushed with calloused yet caring hands. With skin warmly burning, the stillness in the body lulling itself while lips press gently to keep a memory close. I speak of that moment – of embracing rays swept astray with the window that watches over the bed. I see the story of silent remorse in this silent house over the hilltop. “The sun, I’ve heard, watches over the moon – but can it see, I need, too, a gentle wash over my gloom?” I hear the moment speak.

The challenge does not lie in creating or sheltering the idea, for me – it comes through in lacking accessibility to foster enough collaborations, or spaces for its comprehensive execution.

3. Your latest song ‘Home’ is, as you put it, ‘an ode to those who carry many homes within’, about the universal struggle against social constraints. Could you elaborate on that? 

Janat Sohail: ‘Home’ is an ode, as much as it is a plea – to accept those less understood, less accepted, the unlucky to be deemed otherly. There are countless lives taken, shaken, or gently pushed into boxes, labeled in big, fat words – outlander, suggestive, too less, too much, too strange, too sexual, too damn different.

I want all of us to look around, to recognize the burden each carries in secrecy – the guilt, like shackles, heavy with each secret. We carry many homes away from home – homes within people, places afar, and within the clouds where we feel safer than reality.       

Thriving on unconventional ideas and experiments, the Pakistani indie scene clearly has a lot to offer and is almost always going to surprise you— with stories about mysterious ducks and elevators (“Battakhain” by Shajie), poetic songs referring to literary characters (“Scheherazade” by dUCK), soothing melodies to fall asleep to (“DreamThang” by Ali Suhail), trippy tracks signaling an impending doom (“Crow” by Abeer Sheikh & The Wonderband), and many more. (The list is practically endless.)

So while you wait for Hamza Hayat’s EP (*fingers crossed*), tune into our playlist and listen to some of the most underrated songs! 

Read More: How ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ is Making Protests Cool Again

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