Veterans like Runa Laila started the pop industry in Bangladesh while the fifteen-years old pop sensation Nazia with her brother Zohaib Hassan ushered the birth of pop music in India tailing on the success of her British endeavours.
From Rushdi's pop hits to songs sung by the Hassan siblings, to bands including Junoon, Vital Signs and Strings, the Pakistani pop industry has steadily spread throughout South Asia and today is the most popular genre in Pakistan and the neighbouring South Asian countries. Songs sung by Pakistani pop artists are a regular feature on soundtracks of most of the Bollywood movies.
The genre has always been accepted in the mainstream youth culture but hindrances came in the form of changing governments, radical Islamicisation, foreign influences and a stiff competition from neighbouring countries. Still, pop music thrived and survived with a steady growth. In was not until recent times that Pakistani pop music was to be admired throughout South Asia and the rest of the world.
After the partition of India, the most popular form of entertainment in the newly created Pakistan was the medium of film. Cinemas sprouted up in various corners of the nation, especially in Lahore, Karachi and Dacca in East Pakistan and playback singing became popular. People that tended to move into the genre had to be trained in classical music, usually trained by ustads who mastered its various forms and styles.
In 1966, a talented young playback singer Ahmed Rushdi sang what is now considered the first Pakistani pop song “Ko-Ko-Korina” for the film Armaan. Composed by Sohail Rana, the song was a blend of 60s bubblegum pop, rock and roll twist music and Pakistani film music. This genre would later be termed as ‘filmi pop’. Paired with Runa Laila, the singer is considered the pioneering father of pop music, mostly hip-hop and disco, in South Asia.
Following Rushdi's success, Christian bands specialising in jazz started performing at various night clubs and hotel lobbies in Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore. They would usually sing either famous American jazz hits or cover Rushdi's songs. Rushdi sang playback hits along with Laila until the Bangladesh Liberation War when East Pakistan was declared an independent state. Laila, being a Bengali, decided to leave for the new-found Bangladesh.
The 1970s saw a nose-dive in the progress of cinema in Pakistan as the nation was left in the state of turmoil over the changes in the government administration and Pakistani cinema lost its Dhaka leg. Number of cinemas decreased rapidly and people preferred watching television over going to a cinema. Playback singing that once was popular now struggled to exist and the singers needed a new medium to start afresh.
A few years later came Alamgir. Like all people from his generation, Alamgir was raised listening to songs by bands like ABBA and Boney M. He would do renditions of popular New Wave songs in Urdu. In 1973, influenced by disco and funk, Alamgir sang Albela Rahi, an Urdu song literally translated from an English hit. Alamgir brought a new form of music to Pakistan, one that blended the classical forms with a tint of modern Western music. Hit after another, he proved to be the most successful singer and musician of his time. Alongside Alamgir, Muhammad Ali Shehki also rose to fame with his renditions of the Hindustani classical forms with mediums like jazz and rock. Patriotic songs sung by the singer are still the nation's favourites. Pop music was growing a snail's pace until the appearance of the most unlikely entrant in the music scene.
In 1980, Nazia Hassan, a fifteen-years old Pakistani girl residing in the United Kingdom were approached by Indian actor and director Feroz Khan along with Biddu Appaiah, an Indian music producer who asked her to sing the song Aap Jaisa Koi for the film Qurbani. She was selected for the nasal quality of the song's delivery. The song became an instant hit in the UK and the Indian sub-continent. Influenced primarily by disco beats and hip-hop, Nazia along with her brother Zohaib Hassan produced successive hits. Their songs Disco Deewane and Tere Qadmon Ko became the rage all over Asia to the extent that their very first album was declared the best selling album of the time in Asia.
The hype did not last for long as with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's regime came drastic decisions to Islamicise the nation. Almost all music videos were banned to air on local television. The religious leaders found the two Hassan siblings dancing together on the stage most un-Islamic. When shown the videos would feature Nazia waist-up to hide her dancing feet. Hence came another blow to the music industry.
Indian artists including the likes of Alisha Chinai, Shweta Shetty and Lucky Ali followed in Nazia's footsteps giving birth to the Indian pop industry, formed out of the void that the Pakistani industry had left. It is reported that the song “Made in India” was initially written and composed by Biddu for Nazia but was later given out to Alisha to perform. Satellite television broadcast from across the border became more popular in Pakistan and the people lost track of the local music scene.
In 1988, Zia-ul-Haq's regime ended abruptly with his assassination and the music industry started recovering. In a time when there was no hope for the industry to survive, the first privately-owned television station, the Network Television Marketing (NTM) opened up introducing shows aimed at the younger generation. In 1989, Shoaib Mansoor produced a show for PTV called Music '89 and took the Hassan siblings as the show's host. This show is responsible for single-handedly creating legends out of bands like Vital Signs, Junoon, Ali Haider, Sajjad Ali and Jupiters also including underground alternative rock bands like Final Cut and The Barbarians.
With the advent of MTV India and Channel V in mid-1990s, the Indian music industry started to blossom and overshadow every effort the Pakistani counterpart would make to highlight the talents within. Music industry in Pakistan lingered on as India gained in strength. It was during this time that record companies like EMI and Sound Master started taking note of the new and rising stars. They started signing contracts with bands like Strings and Awaz who would later become iconic pop bands. The early 90s Nawaz Sharif government didn't help much either but the genre thrived nevertheless.
In 1992, another fifteen-years old Pakistani-Norwegian girl, Deepika Thathaal aka Deeyah, released her first solo album I Alt Slags Lys fusing the cultural sounds of Pakistan with jazz and electropop. Her successive albums became a hit in the Dutch countries and she became widely known as the ‘Muslim Madonna’. Her videos were banned in the subcontinent but she is largely responsible for bringing the Pakistani pop fusion culture to Norway basking alongside Junoon in the hall-of-fame for hit Pakistani musicians in Europe.
In 1994, the Indian government privatised a large number of television channels which received viewership in Pakistan. Quality music videos for Indian artists began airing on the channels and gathered a following in Pakistan. Music Channel Charts had to be taken off air as it could not compete with the Indian productions in terms of quality and content, and as a result musicians and singers started journeying to India and the UK to release their videos.
As Indian media became popular in Pakistan, pop singers were limited to performing gigs only at select parties and events. At the PTV Lahore centre in 1994, host of the children's musical show Sohail Rana's Angan Angan Taray, Hadiqa Kiyani sang in Adnan Sami's musical Sargam. She would continue to host the show for three years after taking a break out to pursue her career as a solo pop artist. She would later be crowned as the second most popular pop singer after Nazia.
In the very last years before its closure, MCC introduced a Punjabi pop song “Billo De Ghar” in its line-up which instantly became a hit. The chart-topping success was most unexpected for the singer, a Pakistan Studies teacher at the esteemed Aitchison College. Abrar-ul-Haq became a celebrity overnight and decided to leave his teaching career to enter show business in 1997. His Punjabi pop songs with bhangra beats introduced ‘Punjabi pop’ to the masses later followed by Indian singer Daler Mehndi.
Where the local industry was dry, the band Junoon had established a name as the pioneers of Sufi rock in Europe and the Americas, although people believe the genre started with Alamgir's “Jugni”. In an effort to revive the Qawwali/Ghazal genre, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was invited to join music directors in India and produced the first ever Qawwali/Ghazal pop song “Afreen Afreen”, with Javed Akhtar.
In 1999, following the Kargil War, all Indian channel broadcasts were limited or banned in Pakistan and after Pervaiz Musharraf's coup d'état, the media was privatised. To cater to the needs of thousands who watched the Indian channels with regularity, programmes were broadcast to match the Indian content. Seeing this as an opportunity, bands returned on the music scene and started producing videos with a much richer content. In 2001, Ghazanfar Ali, producer and CEO of the Indus Media Group started his very first venture into the music industry with Indus Music, a channel dedicated to music following the formats used by MTV India, Channel V and B4U Music. The channel started as a part of the Indus Vision channel and was later started as separate channel in 2003. With nothing much to watch than a few Pakistani channels, the youngsters in the country would settle in for Indus Music and would become interested in music once again.
In 2000, following successes of Pakistani artists abroad specially in the United States of America, talented singer Nadia Ali collaborated with Markus Moser in New York City and formed the band iiO. She would later become the first Pakistani American electropop diva. After a brief stint with the music producer, she would her solo career a few years later in 2005. Her hit single ‘Rapture’ reached #2 on the UK Singles chart and topped charts elsewhere around the world.
Once the ban was fully lifted in 2002, the music industry in Pakistan had fully recovered and with local concerts in full swing, Pakistan music had taken the country by storm yet again. Websites opened up discussing, distributing and satirising music. Perhaps, the only reason music began so popular in so short a span of time can be attributed to piracy. Instead of fighting against piracy, musicians embraced it and released their musical content not through a record label but through the Internet on their own website and personally collaborating with fans.