How the Pakistani group defended rock music in the subcontinent



As Pakistan teetered under President Zia-ul Haq’s oppressive cultural repression in the 1980s, a revolutionary rock music scene was brewing underground in universities and five-star hotels. Pop rock group Strings, formed in 1988 in Karachi, was a solid pillar of this movement, capturing the imaginations of millions of people not only in Pakistan, but across South Asia.

Thirty-three years later, the group decides to hang up in March.

“Everything must end. Thirty-three years is a long time. It was going to be endless. At the moment, Strings is loved by everyone and everything is going well. So now is the right time to say goodbye, ”singer Faisal Kapadia said over the phone.

From the start, Strings – which was premiered at the university by Kapadia, songwriter-guitarist Bilal Maqsood, keyboardist Rafiq Wazir Ali and bassist Kareem Bashir Bhoy – wanted to make original music in their native languages, following in the footsteps of Vital Signs, whose 1987 single ‘Do Pal Jeevan Ka’ became the first example of Urdu used in rock music.

Strings’ eponymous debut album, released in 1990, was a journey into soft rock territory with copious influences from western synth-pop, glam rock, disco and even rap. This continued in their second album ‘2’ in 1992, which had their first hit ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’. However, Strings disbanded in the same year, as its members wanted to focus on their studies.

Sar kiye yeh pahaar
Daryaon ki gehraiyon mein
Tujhe dhoonda hai
Aa bhi ja ekbaar
Mere yaar easy na looto simple
Mann ka karar

(In the heights of the mountains
At the bottom of rivers
You searched
Come at least once
My friend, don’t steal from me like that
From the peace of my heart)

– The lyrics of ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’

Find the native sound

Seven years later, while Maqsood was doing commercials for a production company, he had the opportunity to compose a song so he tied himself up in Kapadia. Maqsood had a melody in mind that impressed Kapadia enough to want to record it. This melody would eventually become one of their most famous hits, “Duur”. The song prompted them to make another album, ‘Duur’ (2000). Thus, Strings was reborn in 1999 with only Kapadia and Maqsood.

While Maqsood was composing the songs, the lyrics were written by his father, the poet Anwar Maqsood. Keeping the audience of a rock band in mind, he used a language the younger generation spoke in.

Elaborating on the creative process, Maqsood says, “I usually work on the melody first, not the lyrics. I think about what the song says – longing, travel, sadness, etc. abba, which notes several options that I can choose from. This collaborative process continues until we finalize the song.

Their sound had also evolved from the Western umbrella now, anchored in a space that had Eastern elements. Said Maqsood, “The little oriental touch in the melody of ‘Duur’ gave the whole direction of the album. This sound was not present on the music scene at the time. It was only later that we realized the novelty of this element.

This sound was immediately accessible to the crowds of the subcontinent. It was also the time when music videos were becoming all the rage and they took advantage of that. In Pakistan as well as in India, the popularity of Strings has increased thanks to channels like MTV and Channel V.

Musically, another turning point was the composition of the 2003 Cricket World Cup anthem for Pakistan – “Hai Koi Hum Jaisa”. The dynamic rhythmic nature of the song deviated from their relaxed sound. “The groove had a desi swing and we had a lot of fun playing it live. DuurThe beats of didn’t translate into great live songs and we realized what was missing, ”says Maqsood.

So their next album ‘Dhaani’ (2003) ended up having compelling rhythms and complex arrangements with a deep use of oriental percussion and flute, cementing the musical direction. The sound of the band had also been established by now – marked by dense instrumentation, tight grooves, subtle guitar fills in the background, heavy production and an emphasis on vocals. Although the genre is rock, that sound has been removed from its Western ties. By tracing its roots, the Pakistani group had found its distinctive sound.

Indian connection

Around this time, the group discovered they had a cult following in India as a remixed version of their song “Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar” toured Indian clubs. They were also featured on Channel V’s ‘Jammin’ show with singer Sagarika Mukherjee. “The artists met, wrote, composed, arranged and recorded a song in three days. And it was all filmed! remembers Kapadia.

The resulting “Pal” was one of two Dhaani songs that saw collaborations with Indian artists – the other being singer Hariharan. In addition to this, Strings has collaborated with folk rock group Euphoria, playback singer Sona Mohapatra, and performed with Indian Ocean and Parikrama on several occasions.

Their popularity in India peaked with the chart-topping single “Yeh Hai Meri Kahani” for Sanjay Dutt-John Abraham’s feature film. Zinda in 2005, followed by ‘Aakhri Alvida’ for Shooting in Lokhandwala two years later. Incidentally, Abraham co-produced the group’s 2008 album “Koi Aanay Wala Hai” and also starred in the title track video.

While this cross-border camaraderie was lapped up by fans, it took a hit in 2008 after the Mumbai terror attack. Anti-Pakistani sentiments grew in India and Pakistani artists were prevented from performing in the country. It calmed down in a few years and the artists were able to perform again, but it was short-lived. Strings gave their last concert in India in 2014 at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“It’s a shame that the exchange of artists runs into obstacles from time to time,” says Kapadia, who considers India her second homeland. “But music and art transcend borders. The love that the Indian people have given us we cannot thank enough. “

Socio-political songs

Although the main theme of the band’s songs is love, they have ventured into other areas such as motivational sports songs as well as travel tunes. Surprisingly, two of their most tender songs, “Titliyaan” and “Urr Jaoon”, deal with the memory of the dead and death itself. The first reflects on the loss while the second, which is part of their latest album ‘Thirty’ (2019), contemplates the day you die.

However, their socio-political commentary has always been largely overlooked. Their very first album contained a song called “Pyasi Zameen”, which reflected the suffering caused by the severe droughts and famines in the Thar region in 1987 and 1988.

The 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict prompted them to write anti-war sentiments in the single “Beirut”. After 2008, the political situation in Pakistan gradually turned into a dangerous chaos with the increasing activity of terrorist groups. “The air was very different. Pakistan was also going through a very difficult period. Bomb explosions were happening in every town and people were dying. Even cricket has stopped. It was then that Bilal wrote ‘Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga’, ”Kapadia recalls. Starring Atif Aslam, the song urges people to take matters into their own hands and do something to save the country and its people.

Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga:
Kab taak rona padega
Jo hai khona padega
Kehta hu sunlo simple yaar
Ab khud kuch karna padega
Humko jalna padega, marna Padega
Ab khud kuch karna padega

(How long will we cry
Lose what we lose
Listen to me my friend
We have to do something now
We must burn, we must die
We have to do something now)

– The lyrics of ‘Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga’

From 2013 to 2017, Strings took on the responsibility of producing the critically acclaimed television show Coke Studio Pakistan. Here they worked with musicians from different musical traditions – pillars of classical music such as singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, sitarist Ustad Rais Khan as well as Pakistani “Baba-e-Pop” Abida Parveen and Zoheb Hassan from superduo Nazia and Zoheb.

Despite many accolades and performances around the world, Strings’ legacy is rather basic – it lies in their unforgettable songs that the crowds at their concerts know by heart.

“When you’ve been playing for three decades, you don’t have to do anything more to engage people,” Kapadia says, “The songs are the biggest connection. “

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata with an interest in music.

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