Salman Ahmad

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. When they perform on Pakistani television, they stood rigidly so as not as to provoke the Islamic censors with any suggestive moves. Nazia Hassan died of lung cancer in London at the age of 35. Vital Signs, Fuzon, EP (Entity Paradigm) and Junoon (See Below) were popular hard rock band.

According to Associated Press: “Many Pakistani cities have thriving subcultures that get little attention in the West. Pakistan has a rich musical tradition, including the performance of Urdu-language love poems called ghazals and mystical Sufi music called Qawwali. Pakistani rock bands have long been popular, as have songs from Bollywood movies.” [Source: Associated Press, November 01, 2011]

In an article about London's Ministry of Sound coming to Lahore for a one-off, US$100-a-head, all-night rave in a brick factory in 2011, Khurram Shahzad of AFP wrote: “The youth music scene in a deeply conservative Islamic state, dogged by deadly Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks, is opening up to new influences — offering anger-release and a space for political expression. The cultural capital of Lahore is centre-stage for young people looking to modern music for a break from stifling militancy and political crises. Close to a preaching centre for Muslim scholars and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's estate, many spend Saturday nights dancing at farmhouses and makeshift clubs on Raiwind road leading to the countryside outside Lahore.” [Source:Khurram Shahzad, AFP, August 21, 2011]


The rock group Junoon (whose name means Frenzy) mixed heavy metal style guitar, qawwali sensibilities, and political invective lyrics. The New York Times described them as "a globe-trotting hybrid that sound like Midnight Oil, a South Asia version of Santana or Indian film music.

Junoon formed in the early 1980s, was at the height of the popularity in the 1990s and broke up in the mid 2000s. They produced seven albums (plus one in 2016 after they broke up), which have sold more than 30 million units, making them Pakistan's best selling band. Brought up on Led Zeppelin and Queen, they infuse heavy metal and grunge with traditional Islamabad qawwali mystical music. Generally the closer they are to qawwali roots Even villagers in remote parts of Pakistan know their songs by heart.

Junoon was known for their social conscience. They dedicate one song to "the suffering of millions in South Asia." The group communicated with fans around the world on their website performed a techno-rock versions of Pakistan's national anthem, addresses political themes such as corruption and the national debt in their songs, and respected Islam by not playing during calls to prayer.

After Junoon promoted harmony between India and Pakistan and criticized the testing of nuclear weapons, the group was accused by some of treason. Group members complained that they were followed and had their telephone lines tapped. Government intelligence officers visited their recording company. Junoon broke up after their members dropped out one by one and their later albums didn’t have the commercial success their earlier ones had.

Sufi Rocker Salman Ahmad

Salman Ahmad, the lead guitarist in Junoon, had a sucessful, activist, career after Junoon broke up and often engaged in a Islamic verse battles with imam who argued music is against Islam. Brian Whitaker wrote in The Guardian: “Salman Ahmad is the leading exponent of "Sufi rock" music, sometimes described as Pakistan's Bono and even hailed as the latest weapon against Islamic extremism. He's currently promoting his book, Rock & Roll Jihad. Though some would deem his music sinful – extremely sinful considering he has sold 25 million albums worldwide – Ahmad is a patently decent man. He's a UN goodwill ambassador for HIV/Aids, he's helped to raise money for refugees from Swat, and he played at the Nobel peace prize ceremony in 2007. "I love music," he said, "I feel also that my belief [in Islam] inspires my creativity, as it has inspired hundreds of thousands of Muslim artists over the last 1,400 years. That cultural heritage has been blurred by violence and fear...We need to counter the extremists' narrative through arts and culture ... Once young people do realise that this message of the Taliban is a false message, they won't be brainwashed by it."” [Source: Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, May 20, 2010 +/]

At “a madrasa in Pakistan where Ahmad repeatedly challenged a religious scholar. Where, he asked the scholar, does it say in the Qur'an that music is forbidden? The confrontation looked to be heading for a no-score draw...The scholar offered no theological argument, Ahmad said, suggesting that he – and others like him – simply regard music as a competitor of the madrasas: "They're afraid of losing their gig." The great music-and-Islam debate, though, is not just about music or even competing gigs. It's about competing value systems, with the puritanical Salafi influences on one side and the more laid-back Sufi influences on the other. Whatever views individual Muslims hold about the permissibility of music, they are linked to a whole lot of other issues too. +/

“That may be one reason why the London Muslim blog dismisses Ahmad's mission as a "discredited gimmick" – using "an ageing Muslim Pakistani rock star to sing a few songs which apparently should do the trick and prevent any tendency towards extremism". Of course, singing a few songs won't "do the trick" and nobody is seriously suggesting it might. The point is to expose people to alternative ways of being a Muslim – to challenge the idea that there is one officially "correct" Islamic way of doing things. Over time, the more people are exposed to these alternatives, the more they are going to have to make choices. +/


Bhangra is a funky, beat-driven style of Punjabi folk dance music. Popular in India and Pakistan and among South Asians in Britain and the United States, it combines traditional Punjabi drum-and-percussion music of field workers with Western dance music "in every-shifting East-West hybrids.” It is know for driving, danceable rhythms, ecstatic singing and goofy keyboard riffs.

Traditional bhangra music is performed at harvest festivals called bisakh. The name of the music is derived from the word bhang—Punjabi for hemp or marijuana—the crop that was often being harvested. The chanting lyrics are meant to entertain fields works and keep their mind off their work. It often incorporates humorous references to wives and mother-in-laws. Bhangra dancing is very popular and performed during the Baisakhi festival in the Punjab. It is performed by men and is very robust and energetic. Drummers playing dholak drums usually play at the center of the dancers.

The rhythm for the music is intended to match the movement of a reaper with a scythe. It is provided by a dhol, a large barrel drum found in many places in western Asia. It is struck with a stick for the basic rhythm on one side. Complicated cross rhythms are played with the hand on the other side and embellished with rhythms from tablas and dholak drums. Dances were developed to accompany the music.

Around 200 years ago, bhangra became a popular form of entertainment. The dhol was replaced by the dlolak, which is quieter and better suited for playing more complex rhythms. Other instruments such as the alghoza (duct flute), thumbi (one-stringed fiddle), Indian harmonium, santoori were added.

Modern Bhangra

In the 1970s, second- and third-generation young South Asian Britons began playing Bhangra music at parties and clubs and groups began making their own music. The ground breaking recording was the album Teri Chuni De Siare by a group called Alaap, one of many groups in Britain that played for Punjabi immigrants at parties at weddings. They used a violin, accordion, acoustic guitar, dhol and tabla and stayed pretty close to traditional forms.

Over time Alaap and groups like Heera, Premi and Holle Holle began incorporated more modern elements into their music and molding a unique sound. The music because a fixture of all-day or daytimer clubs, geared towards Asian youths, particularly girls, that had trouble getting permission from their tradition-bound parents to go out late at night. It was not long before bhangra concerts were attracting 2,000 people.

As bhangra grew the groups began using electric guitars, synthesizers, Western drum kits and drum machines. By the late 80s, bhanga began showing up in clubs frequented by white and black youths and the London music press began hailing bhangra as a possible next big thing. A lot of modern bhangra has a Jamaican influence, particularly dancehall reggae, and hip-hop influence. Bhangra parties were all the rage at American universities in the early 2000s. Meadow on The Sopranos was shown boogying to it in her car.

Pakistan Idol

Annabel Symington of the Wall Street Journal wrote “Auditions are underway for “Pakistan Idol,” a televised song and dance talent show that may provoke controversy in the Muslim-majority country, where an increasingly vocal and violent minority consider singing and dancing strictly against Islam.A line of young hopefuls, aged between 15 and 30, snaked around the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi on the first day of auditions in the coastal megacity and Pakistan’s commercial hub. Even as they waited they occasionally burst into song to cheers from the rest of the crowd. “There is a lot of talent,” said Muhammad Shafay Shiraz, 21, one of those auditioning, looking around nervously. [Source: Annabel Symington, Wall Street Journal, India Real Time, October 29, 2013]

“Muhammad Dannish, 24, who works in a textile mill on the edge of Karachi, planned to impress the judges with a song by Pakistani rock band, Jal. Mr. Shiraz was also going to sing a song by Jal, unless, he said, it looked like the judges were in a “romantic mood.” “I could sing ‘Suno Na’ by Shaan,” he said, referring to the Indian artist famous for his romantic ballads. Asma Naz, 25, traveled for four hours from Mirpur Khas in central Sindh to audition. Dressed in a turquoise shalwar kamise, the loose shirt and trousers commonly worn by men and women in Pakistan, with her head covered in a beige scarf, Ms. Naz waited patiently in line for her turn to impress the judges. “I have always wanted to be a singer,” she said, “I saw Indian Idol and got the inspiration to take part.” “When I heard there was going to be a ‘Pakistan Idol’ I was very excited,” Ms. Naz said that she had the full support of her family and friends, but admitted that sometimes they fun of her ambition. “My friends tease me because I always sing, but they know it is my dream,” she said. The young woman hoped to win a place on the talent show with her rendition of a ballad by Bollywood doyenne, Asha Bhosle.

“The TV show will follow the same format as that started in the U.K. as “Pop Idol”, and grew into an international franchise with country idols from across Europe, Africa and Asia. It will air on December 6 on Geo TV. Plans to bring the talent show franchise to Pakistan were first mooted in 2007, but security concerns stalled progress. Saad Bin Mujeeb, director of content and productions at Geo TV, who is overseeing the show’s production, acknowledges that the security situation has not improved much over the last six years but the company has grown and is now more used to dealing with the threats. “We are now more prepared to handle the situation,” Mr. Mujeeb said.

“Many of the “Idol” hopefuls in Karachi last week said that they wanted to remind Pakistanis — and the world — of the country’s rich musical heritage that has in many ways been sidelined by the violence and rising sectarian tensions. Yasal Kzmi, 17, from Karachi had prepared two songs for the audition by two of Pakistan’s most famous Sufi singers; Reshma and Abida Parveen. Sufism, a form of Islam with rich musical and poetic elements, is deeply rooted in Pakistan but it has largely been sidelined by the more puritanical Deobandi school of Islam, imported from India at the time of partition, and Wahhabi Islam, which comes from Saudi Arabia.

“Nearly 50,000 hopefuls attended initial auditions held across the country from conservative Peshawar to the cultural capital, Lahore. “We’ve seen everything from a street sweeper in Multan to the son of a landowner and politician in Faisalabad,” said Mr. Mujeeb. “I am hoping that it will be a very Pakistani show that shows our rich music culture,” said Mr. Mujeeb, “There are still people now who doubt that the show will happen. There is disbelief that this kind of show can happen in Pakistan. I say, why not?”

Heavy Metal Scene in Lahore

Khurram Shahzad of AFP wrote: “In Model Town, the neighbourhood where a 70-year-old American aid expert was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home, youngsters gather to bury their frustration in heavy metal...These are the sons and daughters of some of the wealthiest families in Pakistan, taught at expensive English private schools, performing to each other in a school auditorium. "Heavy metal is a way to express anger about what's happening to the country," said Zain, a guitarist in increasingly popular band Takatak, named after the sound of a knife chopping up goat genitalia. [Source: Khurram Shahzad, AFP, August 21, 2011]

“The band's six heavy-metal lovers believe that the drums and music not only ease frustration, but help others speak out. "We have terrorism. We have bombs. We have drones. We have no education, suicide bombers. There's the Taliban. There's the government — we're not going to play Beatles in a warzone, are we?" said the band members, interrupting each other before heading to the show.

“Gig organiser Younas Chowdhry estimates that there are more than a hundred underground bands in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, the three major cities. Bands organise their own gatherings and perform privately, with the general public largely unaware of what's going on behind the curtains and in basements. "They want society to open up, they want a revolution and change of the country's image from a terrorland to a modern vibrant nation and they are sending this message across through music," said Chowdhry. "For the general public, it is like loud noise. But the youth is getting our message, our music is getting popular and our message is being conveyed, we are heading towards change and youngsters are ready to play a role," said Misbah, another Takatak member.

“Then there is the band Laal, which means red and is the long-standing voice of Pakistan's tiny communist party, also used to organising concerts to gather people for public meetings. Lead singer Taimur Rahman combines classical poetry with a more contemporary style and has successfully motivated peasants into campaigning for ownership of the land they cultivate occupied by the military.

Now he's getting even more political, satirising the corruption of politicians and Pakistan's failure to address terrorism or find Osama bin Laden, who was shot dead by US special forces within the country on May 2. "At a mass level now, young people are wanting to be involved in politics and wanting to be engaged and so there is this sort of change. "If it's not being reflected at the level of the street it's only because of terrorism," said Rahman.

He says there is a long history of music as an instrument of social change in the spiritual Sufi tradition of Islam in the region. But academics are more circumspect about the power of the tiny elite to change society in a country where the literacy rate is 57 percent and the mosques are better at mobilising the street than secular causes.

Rapper Carves Niche in Conservative Pakistan

Adil Omar was described in the early 2010s as Pakistan's biggest — and perhaps only — rap star. Associated Press reported: “Omar was a 16-year-old rapping in his bedroom in Pakistan when a member of the American group Cypress Hill discovered his music on the internet and invited him out to Los Angeles to record together. That was four years ago, and Omar has now recorded songs with several other American rappers, including Everlast from House of Pain, Xzibit and one of the members of Limp Bizkit. His rise illustrates a side of Pakistan that is often obscured by the steady stream of news about the Taliban and Al Qaida that comes out of the country. [Source: Associated Press, November 01, 2011]

“But hard-core rap like Omar's laced with profanity and sexual innuendo is almost unheard of, and could even be dangerous in a society plagued by militants. "Violence seems to be totally acceptable in this culture, but sex and bad language in music and art seems to be totally unacceptable," said Omar, a clean-cut looking 20-year-old with short black hair who favors black sunglasses and T-shirts with half-naked women.

“Omar, who sings in English, insists he is not a political rapper, but his latest song, Paki Rambo, is about a vigilante who hunts the Taliban. "Ambush your camp, my inglorious crew. Straight bastards, brawny and stronger than you," sang Omar. "Take classes, learn how we got em on wax. Hit the base with a bag full of Taliban scalps." The song's title is a reference to a scene in the movie Four Lions, a satirical look at a group of British Muslims of South Asian origin who travel to Pakistan to become suicide bombers.

“One of the wannabe terrorists records himself on his cell phone firing an AK-47 into the air and calling himself Paki Rambo. Omar flipped the analogy on its head, making Paki Rambo a character who fights the militants rather than joins them. "It's the P to the A to the K to the I. Armed to the teeth until the day that I die," sang Omar. "R to the A to the M B O. Paki Rambo in the place." The song is part of the soundtrack for an upcoming Pakistani movie, Gol Chakkar, and the directors helped Omar produce a slick music video that has been released on YouTube.

“The video was shot in Islamabad and pokes fun at the decadence and luxury normally seen in American rap videos. The characters drink Pakistani ice cream soda instead of alcohol and snort candy instead of cocaine. A young boy walks around with a mink stole around his neck. The market for Omar's music in Pakistan is small, limited mainly to elite Pakistani kids like himself who speak English and live lifestyles closer to their Western counterparts than the country's conservative majority.

“The upmarket crowd was on display at a rare concert Omar held this past weekend at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Well-coiffed women in tight jeans and young hipsters in velour jackets held up iPhones and Blackberries to record the show. "We really enjoy Adil's music because it represents the young generation," said Faizaan Bomassy, a 23-year engineer wearing a white Playboy hoody. Even among Omar's friends and fans, some were surprised by the swearing and sexual references that flow through his music. "I think it's a little explicit sometimes, but I think it's good music," said Waleed Ali Khan, a 20-year-old student. "I think he is breaking new ground and paving the way for new artists."

“Omar was born in London but moved to Islamabad when he was very young. He began writing lyrics at the age of 10 when his father died and his mother was bedridden for several years with a serious illness. He dropped out of high school in his final year so he could focus on rap full time. "I have never done drugs or alcohol or anything, so I think writing and recording music was my main outlet," said Omar.

Paki Rambo and Omar's collaborations with American rap stars will appear on the album he plans to release next year, The Mushroom Cloud Effect. About a third of the songs were recorded in Los Angeles, and the rest in Omar's bedroom in his mother's house in Islamabad. Despite the in-your-face nature of Omar's music, he said he tries not to make his songs too provocative for fear that he or his family could be targeted by the Taliban or other militants who often kill people who disagree with their views. "To keep out of harm's way, I wouldn't speak on certain things or push certain buttons," said Omar. "It seems weak to me, and I don't necessarily admire it because I should be going balls out, but it's not easy in Pakistan."

“One Pound Fish’ Singer Becomes Internet Sensation

Michele Langevine Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: “Even in an age of instant Internet singing sensations, Muhammad Shahid Nazir’s tale might seem fishy. After all, it’s not every day that an unsung immigrant from Pakistan makes a respectable challenge to the top of Britain’s Christmas pop chart with a ditty about the “very, very good” fish he hawks on the streets of London. But the millions who have heard Nazir crooning on YouTube can understand: It’s easy to get hooked on his song “One Pound Fish,” named not after the weight of the day’s catch but its cost in British currency. “I never thought my song would become famous,” the 31-year-old newly minted recording artist said. “My real name is Muhammad Shahid, but the people call me the ‘One Pound Fish Man,’ and I’m so happy.” [Source: Michele Langevine Leiby, Washington Post, December 25, 2012]

“Nazir, a father of four who hails from the little-known Punjab town of Pattoki, set out for Britain on a student visa a year and a half ago, hopeful, like many Pakistanis, of forging a better future for his family. He landed a job as a fish monger but says he soon knew he would not be a very competitive salesman. He didn’t like to shout about his wares, as many fish sellers do to attract customers. But through a stroke of divine intervention, a new approach to advertising his fish came into being. “On the spot, God put the song in my mind,” he said. The simple sales ditty goes: “Come on ladies, come on ladies! One pound fish. . . . Very, very good and very, very cheap. One pound fish!”

“That’s pretty much it. But a large part of Nazir’s charm lies in the sheer earnestness with which he belts out the tune to the female shoppers within earshot at Queens Market in London, entreating them to “have a, have a look” at his wares. Soon enough, somebody made an amateur video of his jingle and posted it on YouTube. As the views mounted to 6 million, Nazir joined the likes of Rebecca Black of hyper-annoying “Friday” fame and Psy, the South Korean pop star whose “Gangnam Style” video had millions around the world dancing as if they were riding imaginary horses.

“An enterprising producer decided to polish and expand “One Pound Fish.” The latest rendition took on added zest in a music video that features sexy dancers in Bollywood-inspired outfits, flying fish and, of course, a splash of Autotune. That version had nearly 7 million views as of Monday. Nazir’s song made it into the U.K. Top 40 after just two weeks on the charts. That gave it a shot at joining the ranks of fabled No. 1 Christmas singles — those songs that top the charts in the week that the holiday falls.

“This week Nazir returns home to Pattoki with his visa status in question, but in triumph: He is most certainly Pakistan’s first viral video singing sensation. Everyone in the town an hour’s drive southwest of Lahore has heard of his fame and fortune. “You can go to any street or market of this town and will see small children singing this ‘One Pound Fish’ song,” said one of Nazir’s brothers, Saith Khalid Nazir, a lawyer. “Almost everybody has seen it on the Internet, and they are crazy about it.”As a child, Muhammad Shahid Nazir was known for singing religious songs as a member of a devout family that prayed at the mosque five times a day. Sometimes other congregations requested his vocal talents.“Nevertheless, the entire family had never thought or imagined that he would become a singer,” his brother said.”

Taliban and Islamists Verus Music in Pakistan

Under Taliban-style Islamic law, music is forbidden — even musical ringtones on cell phones. Emboldened by imams and a lack of response from the government, Taliban-supporting students have gone on a vigilante rampages in Islamabad and Lahore, harassing video and music shops for promoting un-Islamic behavior. In the Tribal Areas near the Afghanistan, Pakistani Taliban bombed a music stores in local bazaars. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, New York Times Magazine, January 6, 2008]

Annabel Symington of the Wall Street Journal wrote “Dancing and singing is considered “haram” (forbidden in Islam) by some in Pakistan. In June, two girls from Chilas in Pakistani-administered Kashmir were shot dead by a group of men after they were filmed on a mobile phone dancing in the rain, according to a report in the Dawn newspaper. In 2012, four girls were killed after they were filmed clapping to music and singing and dancing with men during a wedding in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province . [Source: Annabel Symington, Wall Street Journal, India Real Time, October 29, 2013]

In 2007, a female student named Nilofar stood up to Islamist who wanted to thwart music and theater classes at Punjab University. Simon Cameron-Moore of Reuters wrote: “The willowy 21-year-old is taking a masters in fine arts at Punjab University, where the student wing of Pakistan's most influential Islamist party tried to prevent the introduction of a musicology and performing arts department. “If they stop music today, tomorrow they will come after something else,” she says with true Lahori spirit. [Source: Simon Cameron-Moore, Reuters, February 25, 2007]

“Pakistan's largest university is caught in switching currents. For decades, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist party with links to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, systematically extended its grip over Punjab University, using its student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), to influence appointments and promotions. Arshad Mahmood, a retired general appointed vice-chancellor of Punjab University in 1999, can't sack them, there are too many and their jobs are too well protected, but in the last year there have been signs that Mahmood is slowly turning the wheel on the next generation.

“The successful introduction of more arts programmes, and a series of expulsions of disruptive IJT members, show the reformers are gaining the upper hand over Punjab University's puritans, who won't even let male and female students sit together at the open air tea shops on the leafy campus. The number of headscarves, niqab and chaddar on display among women students on the campus testifies to the prevailing conservatism, but it tells a superficial story, he says. “They are going back to their prayers and rituals, but I feel we are dealing with more open-minded students,” Khan explains. Young women like Nilofar, who dances at home to songs by pop star Ricky Martin, might feel bolder, but it doesn't mean they are ready to let their hair down. “I might even try acting — with my headscarf on,” she grins.

Five Pakistani Girls Killed for Enjoying Music

Five young women, known only as Bazeegha, Sareen Jan, Begum Jan, Amina and Shaheen were last seen alive in 2010. A cellphone video of them laughing and clapping to music, dressed in orange headscarves and robes with floral patterns, at a party or a wedding, was taken shortly before they disappeared from their village deep in Kohistan, a rugged area of northwest Pakistan. [Source: Pamela Constable, Washington Post, December 17, 2016]

Pamela Constable wrote in the Washington Post: According to court filings and interviews with people who investigated it, the families confined the girls for weeks, threw boiling water and hot coals on them, then killed them and buried them somewhere in the Kohistan hills. Later, when investigators appeared, relatives and community leaders insisted that the girls were still alive and produced a second set of similar-looking girls to prove it. They even disfigured one girl’s thumbprints so she couldn’t be checked against the identity of the victim she was supposed to impersonate.

“The Kohistan case unfolded in a conservative rural region where social mingling between genders is taboo. The girls’ participation in a coed singing party was risky enough, but someone posted the video on the Internet, where it spread rapidly, bringing shame on their community before the vast virtual world. The head of the local jirga, a Muslim cleric, allegedly issued a religious decree ordering the five girls to be killed for dishonoring their tribe, along with the boy seen dancing and every member of his family. There was no resistance from the community. After the girls were disposed of, several brothers of the boy were also caught and killed. The rest of the family, including Kohistani, fled the area.

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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