Faiz Ali Faiz

Pakistan is regarded as one of the world’s most insular music markets. A lot of different kinds of music is developed there; but for the most part people outside of Pakistan have never heard it. Many villages have their own small groups with flutes, drums, strings and harmonium. There is also a traditional of traveling bards and minstrels. Sohni bands are clarinet-led brass band which play at weddings and other gatherings.

The variety of Pakistani music ranges from provincial folk music, which itself is very diverse, and traditional styles such as Qawwali and Ghazal Gayaki to modern forms fusing traditional and western music, such as the synchronization of Qawwali and western music by the renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Major Ghazal singers include Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Farida Khanum, Tahira Syed, Abida Parveen and Iqbal Bano. The arrival of Afghan refugees in the western provinces has rekindled Pashto and Persian music and established Peshawar as a hub for Afghan musicians and a distribution centre for Afghan music abroad.

Music sold in Pakistan often pirated. Over the years, pirated CDs, DVDs, cassettes and videos were among of the best-selling products of street vendors and small shops. Noor Jehan was one of the most popular singers in India at the time of partition in 1947. She decided to move to Lahore and thereby became the most popular singer in Pakistan. Junaid Jamshed was another a big pop star, British-born sibling duo Nazia and Zohab Hassan produced popular bubblegum pop.

Musical Instruments in Pakistan

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “There are four main families of musical instruments in Pakistan and more than six hundred Pakistani musical instruments; the most well known are the sitar, veena, rabab, sur mandal and tanpura. The most popular of all the instruments is the sitar but a two-piece drum, the tabla is reputedly the most important accompaniment for all Pakistani music and dancing. Nearly all the instruments are used primarily for solo performances; the Western concept of orchestral music is not part of the Pakistani musical heritage. However, Western instruments such as the piano, violin, and accordion are now often included in Pakistani concerts because they are adaptable to Pakistani music. Several other musical instruments are used, particularly the dhol, a double-sided drum that is usually hung around the neck and played with sticks, while the dholkit is smaller and played by hand. In addition, the flute is often used. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Among the rhythmic instruments are the Daria used by nomads, the Dilo and Tapelo used in the desert regions especially of tharparkar, big drums of African origin are used by the sheedis of Sindh. Among the wind and string instruments are the Jori also called Mattian, the alghoza, ek thara or Yak tharo, the shehnai and Nar are famous Sindhi musical instruments. Mystic songs sung by faqeers and folk singers are way of comforting inner souls in the folk music of Sindh. The mystic folk songs include the Kafis of Shah Abdul Latif Bithai and Sachal Sarmast. The marriage songs are morr bandhan song, Hina songs and Geech in Sindh. Geech are sung by the relatives of the groom in Sindh. [Source: Ministry of Culture, Pakistan ]

The harmonium, a wooden box similar to an accordion, has been featured in Pakistani music that has reached the West. It is a type of free-reed organ that generates sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame. The piece of metal is called a reed. The instrument arrived in India during the mid-19th century and quickly became popular with traveling musicians as it was portable, reliable and easy to learn. It is not a staple of vocal North Indian classical music and Sufi Muslim Qawwali concerts. Though derived from the designs developed in France, the harmonium was developed further in South Asia in unique ways, such as the addition of drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism. [Source: Wikipedia]

Musical Styles in Pakistan

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “There are so many dance and music performance arts in Pakistan — many unique to the ethnic culture of the performer — that they are almost considered common rather than unique. Music and dance are done in the both classical and folk form. Usually the performer wears a costume that features ethnic design. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Just as the costume worn by the performer identifies the tribe or ethnic group, so does the music or performance. For example, while dancing in a circle is the basic formation for Pakistani folk dances, there are also many versions of the Pashtuns' khattak, but they all begin with dancers in two columns accompanied by pipe and drum music. There is the Jhoomer in Balochistan, which involves spinning around at top speed, as men do on dark nights by the light of flickering torches.

“The women of Punjab do the jhoomer in what is referred to as a romantic fashion. Also in Punjab, the juddi starts with girls singing to the beat of a drum; then they join in a circle and start to dance. Still another dance of Punjab is the bhangra which is described as being like rock and roll and which is always done at the beginning of the harvest season. The Ho Jamalo originated in Sindh but is popular throughout Pakistan. It is a dance that is performed as part of a victory or celebration.”

Sindh Music

Music from Sindh province is sung in Sindhi, and is generally performed in either the 'Baits' or 'Waee' styles. The Baits style is vocal music in low voice or high voice. Waee instrumental music is performed in a variety of ways using a string instrument. Waee is also known as Kafi.

Common instruments used in Sindhi regional music includes Ektara known as Yaktaro in Sindhi, Tanpura known as Danburo in Sindhi, Alghoza, Bansuri, Pungi known as Been in Sindhi, Narr, Naqqara and Dhol.

Sindh is the land that inhabited Indus Valley Civilization. The extravaganza of dance and music retraces the origin of classical dancing to the times of Moenjodaro, where the 'Dancing Girl' becomes a real character depicting the life of the people of Sindh. From the province of Sindh, comes the charming 'Jhoomer Dance' performed by village girls on Sindhi folk song, 'Hey Jamalo'. People of Tharparkar come with the Dandia (stick) dance on the festive occasions. The ritual of 'Dhamaal' originated in Sindh, where pilgrimages from all over the country would journey to lay their offerings at the Shrine of the Saint 'Shahbaz Qalander'. Gyrating to the ever increasing beat of the drum, the devotees dance themselves into a wild state of ecstasy.

Sufi Music

Sufi festivals known as “urs” are held annually to mark the anniversaries of a saints’ deaths and their “marriage” to God. They attract thousands of pilgrims from both sexes and have accompanying meals. Pilgrims arrive in specials buses, trains and trucks. There is a singing and dancing. Food and entertainment is offered at the accompanying fairs (“mela”). The fairs are open to anyone, regardless of their beliefs, and many of those in attendance normally don't set foot in a mosque.

Description in the Insight Guide to Pakistan of a Sufi festival in the Sind: “There is constant music, singing and dancing, keeping pace with the booming of the big copper drums. One party follows another and the ritual continues from morning to the evening. The drums thunder, men and women celebrate the occasion by ritual dancing and achieve grace with quick steps, forward and backward, hands flailing above the shoulders. The singing girls of whom Qalander is patron saint gyrate furiously, tossing their heads and swinging their long hair, drenched in sweat, wanting frenzy to reach the state of “la hoot la makan”, no self space, perfection union and peace with the divine."

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “A man in white linen lunged flamboyantly into a clearing at the center of the crowd, tied an orange sash around his waist and began to dance. Soon he was gyrating and his limbs were trembling, but with such control that at one point it seemed that he was moving only his earlobes. Clouds of hashish smoke rolled through the tent, and the drumming injected the space with a thick, engrossing energy. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 |+|]

“I stopped taking notes, closed my eyes and began nodding my head. As the drummer built toward a feverish peak, I drifted unconsciously closer to him. Before long, I found myself standing in the middle of the circle, dancing beside the man with the exuberant earlobes. "Mast Qalandar!" someone called out. The voice came from right behind me, but it sounded distant. Anything but the drumbeat and the effervescence surging through my body seemed remote. From the corner of my eye, I noticed photographer Aaron Huey high-stepping his way into the circle. He passed his camera to Kristin. In moments, his head was swirling as he whipped his long hair around in circles. "Mast Qalandar!" another voice screamed. |+|

“Qawwali” music (See Below) is a kind of Sufi music. "Bhar Do Jholi" ("Fill My Bag") is a Sufi chant performed by the Sabri brothers that gives one “a sense sense of the kind of earnest, folksy devotion that characterizes. qawwali music.” The translation of lyrics was done by Hamza Shad, a student at the University of Chicago, and was published in the Washington Post:

Shah-e-Madeena suno iltija Khuda ke liye
(O King of Madinah, hear my plea, for God’s sake)
karam ho mujh pe Habeeb-e-Khuda Khuda ke liye
(Bestow your favor upon me, O Beloved of God, for God’s sake)
Huzoor ghuncha-e-ummeed ab to khil jaye
(O Prophet, let the bud of my hopes blossom now)
tumhaare dar par khada hoon to bheek mil jaye
(I am a pauper at your door, here to seek alms)
bhar do jholi meri ya Muhammad
(Fill my bag, O Muhammad)
laut kar main na jaaoon ga khaali
(I will not go back empty-handed)


A ghazal is a light style of classical Persian love music adored by the Mughals. Originally more of a poetic than musical form, the name is derived from an Arabic word meaning "to talk amorously to women." Although sometimes referred to as the Urdu equivalent of khayal, it is based as often on folk melodies as on ragas. The lyrics are often taken from famous Urdu poems. Famous ghazal singers are mostly women. They include Shabha Urtu, Najma Akhtar and Begum Akhtra (1914-1974). [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

Ghazals are also performed in Central Asia, Iran and Turkey. In India they often heard on the radios or in films popular in northern India and Pakistan. But they are most often associated with court music from the Mughal Golden Age. These songs were often linked with stories of maharajahs who seduced deadly snakes into performing dances, Mughal shahs who transformed day into night with their songs and musicians who calmed rampaging elephants.

Some ghazal stick close to the raga format. Others bring folk rhythms to the forefront and verge on being pop songs. Essential elements found in Ghazal are shayari (“eloquent poetry”), mausiqui (“gentle music”) and jazbat (“fragile emotions”). The music is very slow paced and the lyrics are repeated two ro three times. The first couplet is a matla. The second couplet is the makta. The remaining couplets are misra and antara.

Qawwali Music

”Qawwali” is a kind of Sufi devotional music with a high-pitched and fast-paced stye of singing. It developed in the 13th century when Sufism was becoming popular on the Indian subcontinent. Qawwali literally means "philosophical utterance" in Arabic and has come to mean performing Sufi poetry to music. Qawwali songs are based on devotional Sufi poems and often have romantic themes that can be interpreted as love between a devotee and his God or between a man and a woman.

Qawwali has a very distinct sound. The "sweeping melodies" and rhythmic hand clapping and the drone of the harmonium is instantly recognizable. It is often featured in Indian films and clubs and gatherings. Describing the appeal of qawwali music, Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, it is music "a rocker could love; it favors rock-hewn, hearty voices and an unstoppable beat."

Max Bearak wrote in the Washington Post: There are millions of Sufis in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Above all, qawwali is devotional music, and its songs are odes to love of God. They often conjure a relationship between the singer and God that is intensely personal, almost as if they are lovers. The Sufi tradition from which the music derives is unique to South Asia. Its practice often takes the form of mystical, musical folklore, and followers pay respects to dead Sufi saints at shrines big and small. Sufism preaches tolerance and peace, and is about as far as can be from the strict forms of Islam that have gained a foothold in Pakistan in the past generation.” [Source: Max Bearak, Washington Post, June 22, 2016]

Amjad Sabri, Beloved Sufi Musician, Shot Dead in Karachi

In June 2016,Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Sufi singer, was gunned down in Karachi by unidentified gunmen Max Bearak wrote in the Washington Post: By firing at least three shots into a beloved musician's car in Pakistan's largest city, two gunmen ushered in one of the darker days in that country's quest for tolerance, art and peace. The man shot dead was Amjad Sabri, 45, part of a duo with his brother, and a son of one of Pakistan's most renowned singers. The city was Karachi, which is racked by organized crime, kidnappings and assassinations. The gunmen's identities and whereabouts remain unknown. [Source: Max Bearak, Washington Post, June 22, 2016]

After finishing a morning TV show in which he sang "When I shudder in my dark tomb, dear Prophet, look after me", two motorcyclists opened fire on Sabri's car in Liaquatabad Town, Karachi, critically injuring Sabri, an associate and his driver. Sabri was shot twice in the head and once on the ear. Sabri died shortly after. His assassination occurred near an underpass named after his father. Tens of thousands of people attended Sabri's funeral in Karachi. Several protests were organised and songs, music videos were made, and articles were published, to pay a tribute to him. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A worker for the political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), admitted that he was responsible for the murder. He said the reason for the murder was that Sabri was not paying extortion to the party. According to Dawn News, the terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) also claimed responsibility for the killing. The responsibility was claimed by the group's spokesman, Qari Saifullah Mehsud, who was himself shot Khost province, Afghanistan in December 2019. +

Baloch and Brahui Music

Among the Baloch ethnic group in Balochistan in southwest Pakistan, music and poetry has traditionally been provided by professional minstrels called “loris” that are a subordinate group that performs menial tasks and are descendants of slaves captured in battles. In the old days it was their responsibility to exchange and relay information between Baloch communities. In many ways it was their work that helped shape Baloch identity. Baloch culture has many elements that pre-date Islam. The veneration of tribal heroes and belief in the power of ancestral spirits reflect these ancient practices. In the old days, Balochi customarily performed specific rituals and sacrifice at the graves of heroes. Similar rituals are conducted today at the shrines of Muslim saints.

Those that follow a traditional seminomadic way of life in the remote areas of Balochistan get enjoyment from traditional festivals, music, dancing and folk culture.Music is an important fixture or events and ceremonies with the exception of death rituals. Dancing is featured at weddings and festivals. Men's dances reflect the warrior traditions of the Baloch. Drums, lutes, and the shepherd's flute are the most common instruments used to accompany the singing and dancing. Professional musicians traditionally came from the non-Baloch Lori and Domb castes. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures,” The Gale Group, 1999]

The Brahuis, who live near the Balochi, have an oral tradition of folk songs and heroic poems. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: These are sung by a class of professional minstrels and musicians called Dombs, who are attached to every Brahui community. Musical instruments include the rabab (an Afghan stringed instrument plucked with a piece of wood), the siroz (a stringed instrument played with a bow), and the punzik (a reed instrument). These have replaced the dambura (a three-stringed instrument played with the fingers) that is found in the more isolated areas. [Source: D. O. Lodrick, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Epic poems are performed by specialist poets known as Lorî, who are considered as belonging to the lower-status groups in Brahui society. Their traditional occupation was to serve the Brahui at marriage ceremonies, playing the dhol (drum) at festivities and at funeral ceremonies. Folk songs are most often sung by the Brahui without musical accompaniment, although both men and women play musical instruments such as the sironz (a fiddle) and the dambura (a plucked string instrument). Women play the daira (tambourine). The Brahui settled in Karachi or villages on the plains have access to more modern forms of recreation. *\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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