Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals 1966-1976 (Sublime Frequencies)
In the late 1960s, a restrictive military dictatorship in Pakistan was overthrown, which led to relaxing censorship and allowing more personal freedom. Long hair and hashish became popular, and instrumental bands inspired by Western pop music began playing in Karachi’s nightclubs. Few of these bands were recorded, and most of those that were got a chance to release only a single or two. Fortunately, venerable British label EMI released a number of these records, and it’s from their well-preserved masters that the 22 songs on this Sublime Frequencies compilation originate.
The American and British influences are obvious from the band names alone: the Panthers, the Mods, the Bugs, the Abstracts, the Blue Birds. In addition to note-perfect imitations of their Western counterparts on some tracks, these groups retained a strong regional sensibility, incorporating traditions from Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Reverb-heavy surf guitar and organ are the dominant sounds driving these songs, but the tone is often higher, and the tempos faster, than what you’d normally expect from surf music, abetted by the sitars and tablas that make frequent appearances.
Some singles, such as the Panthers’ “Malkaus” and the Fore Thoughts’ “Jungee,” sound nearly indistinguishable from a beach-party record an American band might have released, but the B-sides are more bhangra than Baja. The Panthers’ “Bhaivri” opens with a distinctively mournful Middle Eastern-sounding figure, which turns into a Dick Dale-style slow burner that fades just as a keening vocal, the only singing on the album, launches into a lament. The Mods’ “Spring Dance” sounds like a pop take on a traditional Pakistani folk song, much in the way British and American bands reinterpreted the folk-blues classics “House of the Rising Sun” or “Stagger Lee.”
Indian and Pakistani film music also adds its inevitable stamp. Two tracks by the Blue Birds are taken from soundtracks, and two older film composers are represented by a song each, adding more elaborate textures and indigenous flavor to the primitive template of the younger bands. But just when you’re getting accustomed to the exotic nature of these recordings, the drummer for the Fore Thoughts lays into an Incredible Bongo Band-style beat that’s ripe for sampling, as a funky organ jam dances across the top.
Sublime Frequencies has been criticized for their skimpy, sometimes even non-existent, liner notes, which detractors say do not show sufficient respect for the musicians or their culture. Co-founders Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet have defended their approach, saying their method requires more from the imagination and ear of the listener. (Never mind that extensive documentation or reportage by outsiders can come off as Westernized exoticizing of these cultures, Orientalism all over again.)
Complaints about the label’s failure to distribute royalties are harder to overlook, but Bishop and Mayet insist that finding some of the musicians who played on decades-old recordings from remote countries is impossible. Plus, any profits from sales go right back into finding, recording, and releasing the kind of overlooked world music no other label will deal with.
Bishop and Mayet seem to have taken some criticism to heart, though, as recent SF releases have contained a bit more info, and here they let us know this collection was 10 years in the making, in part because compiler Stuart Ellis tracked down most of the musicians. Considering how difficult it is to find detailed session information about lots of one-off singles by American soul or garage bands from the ’60s and ’70s, and that many Pakistani musicians fled the country after another military takeover and the imposition of Sharia law in 1977, Ellis’ detective work seems an impressive feat. Still, information about each band remains scant, certainly much less than you’d get from Smithsonian Folkways or other curatorial-type labels. In a way, that serves to highlight how intrinsically accessible and alive this music remains, way more fun than a curio or museum piece.