“Are you worshipping the devil?”: how DIY label, Noland, is driving Pakistan’s music renaissance

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Karachi habitually emerges in the Western media as a symbol of Orientalised violence, described by Vice with characteristic hyperbole as an “ultra-violent metropolis”. Before the ascendancy of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, however, it was a centre of culture, liberality and jazz-tinged decadence. Known since time immemorial as the ‘City of Lights’, its nightlife has lived a peripatetic existence following independence in 1948. Sometimes flourishing and manifesting in all night beach parties, it has – for the most part – been obstructed by a deeply religious culture and ever-present threat of terrorism. Outside the frames of the carefully constructed series of ultra-violent images presented to us in the West, this atmosphere of permissiveness and artistic experimentation has slowly begun to re-emerge. Despite lacking many go-to venues or infrastructure, Karachi is developing an exceptionally diverse DIY scene, comprised of musicians, visual artists, and progressive thinkers, showcased on Noland Records’ inaugural release, Karachi Files. We spoke to some of the artists involved to find out how the scene has developed.

Karachi Files is the culmination of a two week ‘Sound Camp’ organised, with backing from the Goethe-Institute, by Berlin-based brothers, Hannes and Andi Teichmann (also known as DJ and production duo Gebrueder Teichmann) and the bosses of Karachi based label Forever South, Rudoh (Bilal Nasir Khan)  and Dynoman (Haamid Rahim). It brought together a select group of producers and live musicians from the city, with others from Germany, France, Switzerland and the Maldives, for a two-week jam session in a rented house.

While the trend of fusion styles combining Western dance forms with traditional music from around the world continues to proliferate, it’s refreshing to find a project that gives exposure to non-Western artists creating forward-thinking music. Karachi Files certainly defies any preconceptions we might have about what such an album might sound like. The diversity of the artists and their influences – representative of the diversity of the scene itself – is reflected in the music, which ranges from meditative ambient soundscapes to dancefloor oriented broken beats, informed by hip-hop, electro, UK bass and IDM. All are inflected with a local flavour, imbued by field recordings and the rhythmical freedom and tonality of Sufi music.

When describing the process of recorded jam sessions, edited individually after the event, the Teichmann brothers recalled it originally being alien to some of the solo producers. “They were so used to [independent] creative freedom that it was hard for them to get into this deep, deep musical creativity together, a sense of learning talk without words”, said Andi Teichmann. It nonetheless provided the work with an improvisational feel and a sense of unity, with recorded loops re-emerging in different songs. The song ‘Rise Jamming’ is perhaps the best example of this, made up of material recorded, during one of many power cuts, from a rooftop jam involving all twelve musicians. It incorporated bins and pots as home made percussion, a prepared acoustic guitar and the ambience of the street, with additional beats and synths added later.

Speaking with Rudoh and Dynoman, they explained the atypical nature of how the Karachi scene manifests in a live environment, recalling a private party they held in the garden of Bilal’s parents house with DJs and live projections. With the party in full flow, six policemen armed with AK47s rolled up with complaints from the neighbours. Having never seen a party like this in their lives, their response was to ask them both “are you worshipping the devil?” Though used to seeing police shutting down most electronic music events, for the duo this time was different. “Usually the police here are a little harsh, a little rude and very abrasive”, said Rudoh, but this time “they were just so taken aback that they didn’t know how to react to it”.

The importance of Forever South on the Karachi scene is palpable. Their experimentation with technology and form encourages those around them to be “constantly breaking out of general perceptions of electronic music”, according to Ramsha Shakeel, a key contributor to the album, bringing in musicians who also worked with graphic design and visual art, and quickly began to amass a constant stream of artworks and original music.

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Quoting influences as diverse as their dads’ collection of 60s and 70s rock bands like Uriah Heep and YES, electronic acts like The Chemical Brothers and Dalt Wisney, a “sensei-like figure” who runs the Karachi-based label, Mooshy Moo, Bilal and Haamid knew each other from playing in more rock-focused bands around the city at a young age, starting up the Forever South collective in the summer of 2012. But, despite this variety, they pride themselves on a consistent and idiosyncratic aesthetic, explaining that “you listen to a piece of ours and you know it’s Forever South.”

In the label’s output there’s a sense of DIY creativity, in spite of scarce resources. New production hardware is difficult to acquire in Pakistan, so Digital Audio Workstations like Ableton and Reason are central to both producers’ setups. Also, thanks to Karachi’s once thriving film industry, classic bits of kit like Bilal’s Roland Tr-707 can occasionally be found in the city’s markets.

Despite the unfamiliarity of dance culture norms to many in Karachi, for the city’s youth it plays a role of growing importance. The hub for much of its flourishing over the past decade, has been the venue T2F. Originally housed in the eponymous, nondescript second floor of an office building, T2F provides a free space for artists and musicians from a wide range of backgrounds to come together and create. At the core of this freedom, was the venue founder Sabeen Mahmud, an activist for the promotion of free speech through culture as director of the NGO Peace Niche, whose assassination in April 2015, only a few weeks before the artists that created the Karachi Files came together, casts a paradoxically bright shadow over the album.

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T2F exists as a cultural safe haven for countless artists and musicians across Karachi.  Ramsha Shakeel – whose drone guitar, according to the Teichmanns, “completed the universe” of the Karachi Files – discussed Mahmud’s importance in creating an encouraging environment for experimentation in thought and art, empowering people to liberate themselves from inherited perspectives.

In sessions that would go on all day and in many instances throughout the night, Daniel Panjwaneey – aka Alien Panda Jury – recalled the palpable presence of Mahmud throughout the recording process. Raised a Christian in a country whose blasphemy laws make defiling of the prophet Muhammad’s name an offence punishable by death, he recalled being grabbed by a group of boys at the aged of eight, then taken into a mosque where he was forced to recite prayers.

Despite these religious differences, Panjwaneey made clear that music served as a glue for some young citizens of Karachi, who he describes as “very open to who you are, what you do and what you believe in.” One of his formidable contributions to the album, the track ‘Drifting Dreams’, manifested as a result of a 3am session in which, unable to speak in the midst of the emotions brought on by Mahmud’s murder, the song served as his way of finding a sense of calm in the midst of tragic events.

Ramsha Shakeel is somewhat of a force unto her own. Based in Canada since 2012 and having grown up fairly far from T2F, she operates outside the beat-driven ethos of Forever South, composing ambient and drone works informed by post-rock. Along with bringing live keys and flute to the album, her bowed guitar pervades the Karachi Files. Combining the influences of Jonsi Birgisson’s drone guitar work for Sigur Rós and the leads of Junoon’s Salman Ahmad, she brings an organic wholeness to the work. Speaking on the particular difficulties of pursuing experimental music as a woman in Karachi, she urges the Western media to understand that “Pakistan has a lot of open-minded people.” While pursuing an artistic career can, at times, be a struggle, particularly with curfews and security issues, Shakeel has found encouragement in the liberal attitudes of her college teachers and increasing acceptance from her parents. She tells us that, “when women go out to do something in Karachi, it may take some time, but they are generally accepted’.

After speaking to some of the people involved in Karachi Files, the overwhelming impression was of optimism for a steadily improving situation in the city for artists and progressive thinkers. Both Karachi Files, and all those involved in its creation, demonstrate the profound skill and musical talent coming out of a city whose scene has taken shape in spite of adversity. Faced with terror, religious tension, and a city less than welcoming to the idea of electronic music, if Karachi Files is testament to anything, it is proof that Karachi is a city whose musicality can no longer be ignored.

Karachi Files is out now, available from Juno.

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