July 25, 2020
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Thy Song, Great Anarch

A potato-and-egg song taking down Pak’s holy cows is a YouTube sensation. Elsewhere too, satire rules the chords.

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Thy Song, Great Anarch
Thy Song, Great Anarch

Worldwide, the prevailing opinion on how best to counter terrorists in Pakistan is to smoke them out from their hideouts and annihilate them while perhaps simultaneously imparting to its corrupt ruling class a few basic lessons in the grammar of governance. A refreshing alternative, though, may be the one spawned by a clutch of music groups in the country—satirical lyrics lampooning the powerful, set to drums and guitar, triggering guffaws of self-recognition all around. It’s providing a startling kind of comic release to the ordinary Pakistani, wallowing in misery as he is, perhaps even inspiring him to take that irreverence to the next logical step.

The tradition of satirical songs and resistance poetry is as old as the nation but nothing in the past quite matches the effervescence Pakistan is seeing now. An ample illustration is the sudden rise of Beygairat Brigade (Shameless Brigade) to international prominence. The band comprises Ali Aftab Saeed on vocals, Daniyal Malik on percussions and 15-year-old Hamza Malik on guitar. Their pungent Aalu Anday (Potatoes and Eggs) song went viral within days of being uploaded on YouTube in mid-October. So cutting was the satire, the Pakistani establishment has now even blocked access to sites featuring the music video.

Aalu Anday| Beygairat Brigade

My mum cooked potatoes and eggs
I don’t wanna have them
I will eat chicken with pita bread even if lentils are more expensive than chicken
The Kojaks (baldies) are hanging onto kites,
In Khan’s darkness the Chief Justice is
the only light
With such a hullaballoo about the extension,
the Chief has gone into hibernation
Where Qadri is treated like a royal
Where Ajmal Kasab is a hero
Where the Mullah escaped in a veil
Abdus Salam is a forgotten tale
White sugar is sold in black here
Political macaws have hit the jackpot
Why take Blackwater’s tension?
Here the attacks are carried out from within
However you roll out the dough,
The roti will always stay smaller than the stove
Here dacoits keep killing people freely,
What to talk of police’s hanky-panky?

Band member Ali Saeed says they knew the song “will hit and it will hit hard. Until an hour before we launched the video on the internet, we were discussing the consequences, the expectations and above all whether it was worth the risk.” For teenager Hamza, the catchy tune was of paramount importance: “I heard the tune before I heard the lyrics and liked it so much that I wanted to do it.” Just about every aspect of the Aalu Anday music video drips with sarcasm, from the name of the group and the insouciant lyrics right down to the telling placards they hold up as they perform. Explains Daniyal, “What we couldn’t say in the song itself, we said it through the placards and like the lyrics of the song, we wrote many and discarded lots of them. Aalu Anday is the metaphor for what we have been handed down...our social norms...and related to it is what is happening in the country.”

“The ones before them had only a small national audience. Talent and technology helped Beygairat go global.”
Shoaib Mansoor, Film director

The band’s name, Beygairat Brigade, is an aside on Pakistan’s ultra-nationalists and conservatives, sometimes derisively referred to as the Ghairat (Honour) Brigade. “The name is a pun to counter the Ghairat Brigade or moral police who have tremendous influence on traditional Pakistani society,” says Saeed. “The band’s name pokes fun at political gurus who make money, literally, by analysing news...those who do not have any self-respect. We have many flag-bearers of honour/self-respect in Pakistan, so someone had to hold up the beygairati ka jhanda. We thought why not us.”

Evidently inspired by R.D. Burman’s inimitable groove, the music video shows the three dressed in school uniforms, a la AC/DC, carrying lunchboxes containing food they clearly don’t like—potatoes and eggs. They lament the fact that their mothers only feed them these two bland staples when all they want is chicken. They want a change in the menu, a not-so-subtle reference to the popular desire for a transformation in the society.

Of course, to truly appreciate the song, you have to be well-versed in the political discourse of Pakistan, its idioms and its nicknames for politicians. So when the Brigade sings “the Kojaks (bald ones) are hanging on to kites”, it’s a reference to the Sharif brothers who have failed for too long to provide good governance in Punjab and whose grip on power is now as fragile as a kite’s thread. Leading the criticism against the Sharifs is Imran Khan but the song takes a swipe at the ex-cricketer as well (‘Tehreek-e-Insaaf = Good-looking Jamaat-e-Islami’), saying he’s banking on Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to dismiss Zardari and the army to appoint him as president. Says a wary Saeed, “Imran’s impeccably smooth public meeting in Lahore was an obvious indication of that.”

The Brigade doesn’t even spare army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, belittled in the song as the Chief who’s gone into hibernation ever since he secured a tenure extension. The most cutting comments are reserved for the militant Islamists who have gained in influence amid spiralling violence. When a line refers to the mullah escaping in a veil, it’s an unmistakable allusion to Maulana Abdul Aziz, the man who used to lead the prayers in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid and was arrested as he tried to escape under a veil after the security forces laid siege to the mosque in July ’07. And the line, Qadri is treated like a royal, is an allusion to the feting of Syed Mumtaz Qadri for assassinating Punjab governor Salman Taseer in January ’11.

Then, of course, there’s that quip: the nation treats Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving perpetrator of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, as a hero, but has forgotten Abdul Salam, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. And though not explicitly spelt out, a Pakistani is bound to notice that Salam was ignored because he belonged to the Ahmadi sect, which many here consider non-Islamic. Radical Sunni groups have already issued threats for they construe the song’s ‘interpretation’ as a conspiracy to defame them. Saeed counters that “Kasab and Qadri were people with weapons while Abdus Salam was somebody who pursued scientific research all his life. This is a bizarre phenomenon... people with weapons are praised while intellectuals are ignored”.

“We need to bring a positive change in Pakistan. I am progressive in my thoughts...that’s why we sing Faiz and Habib Jalib.”
Taimur Rahman, Lead vocalist, Laal

Critics fault the Brigade for sparing President Asif Ali Zardari, who has through his tenure courted much disrepute. The fans, though, dismiss this charge, saying the placards on display in the music video are no less critical of Zardari’s PPP. The free-wheeling placards are indeed hilarious, imparting to the textual satire some added chutzpah. Sample these: ‘Nawaz Sharif bye-bye, Papa Kayani no likey you’; ‘Free Judiciary = PPP hanged’; ‘The mullahs plus military = Zia-ul Haq’. In an allusion to America’s financial aid to Pakistan, a placard declares, ‘Your money + my pocket = we are still enemies’. And, to top it all, as the music fades out, yet another banner announces, ‘This video is sponsored by the Zionists. Like this video if you want a bullet through my head.’

The Brigade’s in-your-face lyrics and their sheer gumption has got praise from even the international press, the New York Times going so far as to call it a rare voice of Pakistan’s embattled liberals. The Aalu Anday song has the fizz of suppressed feelings finding a release, an apogee of the phenomenon that harnesses socio-political ferment to the pop music genre to reach out to the masses. And they are not the only ones breaking the shackles. Months before the Brigade stormed the Net, stand-up comedian Saad Haroon wrote Burka Woman and sang it to the tune of Pretty Woman. The song questions the relevance of the veil in the modern world, with lines like “Burka woman devoid of sin/Burka woman, my desi penguin”. It’s already earned Haroon innumerable death threats.

Burka Woman| Saad Haroon

Burka woman, in your black sheet
Burka woman, with your sexy feet
Burka woman
My love for you it grows
Every time I see your toes...
Burka woman, I love you still
Come on and give me a thrill
Show me your left nostril
Burka woman, don’t act estranged
Burka woman, it’s all arranged
Don’t you know I came to see your daddy-ee
I can’t find you, turn on the light
Don’t be scared baby, it's our wedding night
Burka woman, devoid of sin
Burka woman, my desi penguin
Burka woman

Yet the songwriters are pressing ahead. In June this year, Ali Azmat, who used to sing for the band Junoon, released a Punjabi song, Bum Phata, kadi Lahore, Karachi tae kadi FATA (A bomb goes off, sometimes in Lahore, sometimes in Karachi and sometimes in FATA). Its lyrics juxtapose the menace of terrorism with the economic woes of people through lines like, “A bomb just burst/ There’s no oil, sugar or flour here.”

Bum Phata| Ali Azmat

Bum bum phata bum bum bum phata
Lahore karachi aur kabhi FATA
Here life is as fragile as a kite on a thread
Here is neither oil, nor sugar nor flour
Finish up the meat on your plate and
don’t be offended
Come to me Raja, Chaudhry, Mian, Khwaja
Give me electricity and water
Don’t tell me stories
Don’t tell me of a king or queen,
assure me of longevity

This year also saw three leading pop singers—Abrarul Haq, Shahzaman and Jawad Khalon—coming together to sing Ki Karan Daio (What are you doing), the anthem at Imran’s mammoth rally.

It’s funny how, when other avenues of popular discourse seemingly dry up, dissent finds its most concentrated form: the protest song. But it’s not as if the prevailing culture of violence and misgovernance has overnight inspired writers to pen satirical songs, a conclusion writers, particularly those of foreign origin, have reached. The sweeping popularity of the Brigade, aided by the catalytic effect of the Net, crossed over because it was a time of intense focus on Pakistan in the West, but it draws on an old music culture that thrived on irreverence. As Rafay Mahmood, a Karachi-based journalist who writes on showbiz, says, “Look back to the ’90s to find a number of such bold songs and videos.

The 1995 video of Chief Sahab by Sajjad Ali allegedly targeted a certain ethno-political party and its workers. It is rumoured that in retaliation MQM workers abducted Ali and shaved his head...following which the singer left Pakistan for good. But the event was never reported anywhere. Ali, who now lives in Dubai, maintains in all his interviews that he left the country for personal reasons.”

Again, in 1996, Salman Ahmed and Ali Azmat of Junoon released a song, Ehtesab (Accountability), that was overtly political. Benazir Bhutto was the PM then. The video included footage of a polo horse dining at a luxury hotel, an obvious dig at the thoroughbreds her husband had. The song was subsequently banned in Pakistan.

Kismat Apnay Haath Mein| Shahzad Roy

I am allergic to bullshit,
Don’t commit atrocity or we will leave the alley
A few people have buggered the entire community
Take your destiny in your own hands
Those unlucky speak in unison
We have taken our destiny in our own hands
Don’t commit atrocity or we will leave the alley
At least you should have taken permission
before buggering us

In ’08, popstar Shehzad Roy courted controversy with his music video, Kismat Apne Haath Mein (Fate Lies in One’s Own Hands), in which a couple of prisoners, dressed in the Guantanamo Bay prison uniforms, conspire to escape from custody. One of them evades the death sentence because of load-shedding, but as soon as he leaves the jail precincts he is hit by a drone missile. The upshot: his escape as well as death was scripted by a white foreign agent (read the US).

Now another refreshingly different music group is Laal, which began to set the radical poetry of the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib to music. In 2009, it released the video of Umeed-e-Sahar (Hoping for sunrise), which shows a traffic jam due to vip movements on Karachi’s Chundrigarh road. Caught in the jam is an ambulance ferrying a patient in critical condition. A man tries to clear a passage for the ambulance but he is beaten severely, provoking other waiting drivers to block the Chundrigarh road and stop the vip convoy. A tit-for-tat that should have resonance across the subcontinent. The ambulance, ultimately, does manage to leave for the hospital.

Laal is unabashedly leftist in its ideology. Lead vocalist Taimur Rahman says the group doesn’t play music to earn money, but to support various causes. He accuses the Pakistani musician of not doing enough to give back to the society: “Why not? We need to bring a positive change in Pakistan.” About his ideological orientation, Rahman says, “I believe in progressive thoughts...in communism, socialism, leftist thinking and feminism and that’s why we sing Faiz and Habib Jalib.” As you may have guessed, Laal is a no-no for local TV channels.

“Beygairat gives a counter-narrative to notions put out by the conspiracy theorists and the right-wing TV channels.”
Sami Shah, Stand-up comedian/critic

Despite the radical history of music in Pakistan, the Beygairat Brigade has given a shot to the lampooning genre. The fledgling group’s rising popularity has prompted political parties to seek them out to make music for their campaigns. All such requests have been turned down till now, though the group isn’t averse to political outfits playing their music in any pro-democracy campaign. Says stand-up comedian and culture critic Sami Shah, “Beygairat Brigade provides a counter-narrative to conservative notions of politics, history and society, advocated by the televangelists, conspiracy theorists and the right-wing electronic media. What better and more effective way to do this than by using satire and pop music.”

Film director Shoaib Mansoor credits the Brigade for bringing Pakistanis face-to-face with their moral credentials, as well as for providing mass appeal to the genre of satirical songs. But Mansoor points out, “While they are part of a Pakistani tradition where singers and satirists ridicule and castigate politicians in their music and lyrics, the ones before them could only reach out to a national audience...and that too to a small elite. Thanks to modern technology, the talented Beygairat Brigade has achieved a huge global audience.”

They are indeed a Pakistani version of Bob Dylan, minus perhaps the poetic imagery and drawl. They are not lacking in punch, though, and they have thrown open a window to a world in which boatmen row down rivers of blood, and everyone else is trying to retain some sanity.

(Other than Burqa Woman, the songs published here are a rough translation from Punjabi and Urdu. Only certain portions of the songs have been used as examples of the genre.)

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