Amanda Edwards, Getty Images 20 years ago, way before he became a lion, Snoop…
- Posted on Feb 8th 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, the sounds of surf music proliferated around Pakistan. Twanged, tremeloed guitars and cheesy organs pumped out instrumentals suitable for Rincon or Trestles.
Only thing is, such bands as the Panthers, the Fore Thoughts and the Blue Birds were playing Urdu folk tunes. And in 1977, the military-led Islamic revolution dealt the scene a total wipeout.
Now, though, a new compilation – 'Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals 1966 – 1976,' a double-vinyl LP set from the Sublime Frequencies label – uncovers this remarkable, unlikely phenomenon. The wave made its way halfway around the world, though a few decades later, to Portland, Ore. That's where Stuart Ellis was living, pursuing an interest in garage rock and obscure exotica, trading tips and tapes with fellow fanatics via Internet discussions. Then one day, this washed in with the mail:
The Panthers, 'Khatak Dance'
"A CD-R I got from trading with a guy in Holland had three songs from this band the Panthers," says Ellis, whose Internet activities eventually evolved into his music blog, Radiodiffusion, a site for colorful posts of and about musical oddities from many lands. "It was the first clue for me that there was anything going on in Pakistan [of this nature] in the late '60s. Up until that point, I had no idea that there could have been anything like it."
But exactly what it was stumped him. Clearly, this wasn't just some band imitating Western records.
"I was struck by the rhythm," he says. "It was unlike anything I had heard in a 'rock' song before. I mean, there was that instrumental rock sound that was reminiscent of the Ventures and some of the instrumental bands that I had heard from Southeast Asia. But there was that beat that was very obviously not Western. And then, of course, there's that electric sitar, which was icing on the cake."
Curiosity piqued, he started searching – via his various Internet connections and trader circles – for more records and information. He found little of the former and pretty much none of the latter. It took a full year before he came across another recording of this nature, a single of the song '"Shahbaz Qalander,' credited to the Fore Thoughts (pictured, top), which he found on eBay.
The Fore Thoughts, 'Shahbaz Qalander'
"The Fore Thoughts were my first actual vinyl record that I got of Pakistani music," he says. "Again, it was the rhythm that got me. Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Down on the Corner' comes to mind. But it really is something entirely different than anything I had heard before."
Beyond the music itself, it confirmed that the Panthers' tracks were not anomalies.
"It was a sign that there had to be other bands. From there, I started finding out about a few more, but it would take many years and countless e-mails to put all of the pieces together."
Slowly, more and more music started to come his way, eventually totaling a dozen songs that he thought might make for a good compilation release. Then another breakthrough came.
"The drummer from [the Pakistani band] the Bugs tracked me down," he says. "I had posted one track by them on my website and thought, 'These guys must have been a studio creation.' One record I had was a song from a movie, a theme song, and the flip side was the same song by the Bugs. And this comment came: 'We weren't a studio creation. I was the drummer!'"
It turned out that many if not most of the musicians from these bands had left Pakistan, living variously in Europe and the US.
Through this, he was able to put together at least a sketchy sense of the environment in which this music was made. (Full interviews with some of them can be found on Ellis' Radiodiffusion website.)
"They were all garage bands," he says. "Talking to a few of them, it sounds like they were mainly doing a lot of covers – Stones and Beatles and whatnot."
But why the folk tunes? Ellis is left with some mystery in that regard, both in terms of the roots of the tunes and the reasons for recording them in this context.
"Sorry, I'm not an ethnomusicologist, just a nerdy record collector," he confesses, a bit sheepishly.
Regardless, the musicians he interviewed were not much help with any of that.
"I never got an answer to why they did the folk songs. Maybe the label said, 'You have to do these.' But they basically played in hotel lounges and nightclubs. Supposedly there was an influx of hippies coming from England, bringing records and turning on the locals to what was going on in the rest of the world. So they put their own touch on it."
It was very much a trend, something that was marketed. The album covers he's seen, he notes, have titles emphasizing that aspect – and written in English, not Urdu.
"They're things like 'East Goes West,' 'Folk Tunes of Pakistan on Electric Sitar and Western Instruments,'" he says. "Those were the names of the records. I wonder who they were marketing to sometimes. To fellow Pakistanis or to tourists? The nightclubs they were playing, especially in the hotels, were for people from outside of Pakistan. But they would play high schools and universities for each other. But I wonder."
In any case, the surf-folk combo worked. And it was something that Ellis had heard in other settings.
"The Ventures were everywhere – the Ventures and [English instrumental group] the Shadows," he says. "Those were the big two. Thailand had 'Shadow music' – traditional songs done surf style. The Ventures started touring Southeast Asia early, like '62. They definitely left their mark, especially since there was no language barrier for the music."
In recent times, reggae and currently hip-hop became universal styles, embraced and adapted by in disparate places and cultures globally. Arguably, surf music served a similar role in the past. The twang and microtonal string bending at its core, the rush of percussive rhythms fit nicely with the modal tones and dance beats of many traditions – a fact well established when California guitarist Dick Dale had a huge 1962 hit with 'Miserlou,' a version of a Middle Eastern folk tune he'd learned from his Lebanese-American father and uncle. The approach became a thread through much of Dale's music – and a lot of other instrumental rock of that era.
While Ellis couldn't trace the specifically Pakistani roots, he did find another aspect of this music emerging as his collection started to grow. Much of it, not surprisingly, shared the pop omnivore quality of Bollywood film music of neighboring India. He'd already learned much of that as a collector, and had put together a prior Sublime Frequencies collection, 'Bollywood Steel Guitar.'
The Pakistan variation, called Lollywood, seems to have followed the same anything-goes aesthetic for some of the music, and several of these tracks reflect that. Some of the results are just downright bizarre, such as 'Lotus Flower,' by the Abstracts, which could pass for a Bulgarian tune with its off rhythm and accordion-esque organ lines. And two tracks from the Blue Birds – 'Hussani Lal Qalander' and 'Sun We Bilou Akh Waliya' -- offer utter space-age lounge madness.
The Blue Birds, 'Hussani Lal Qalander'
"The Blue Birds are the biggest mystery of all the bands on this compilation," Ellis says. "They were the only band to record a full-length LP, and it consisted of version of Lollywood film songs. But there is no information about the band. Not even a photo."
Anyone? A little help?