Code-switching

I am attracted to this new Abdullah Siddiqui recording for many reasons: its effortless smoothness, the beat, the obvious freshness. I want to talk specifically however, about its bilingualism.

For a long time Pakistani pop decided that reaching broad audiences required Urdu lyrics.

Ali Noor, front man and founder of Noori, used to play as part of (mostly) English-singing rock band Coven. Eventually Ali Noor and then Coven bandmate Mohammad Ali Jafri wanted to reach a broader audience and achieve some sort of social impact. Which changed their lyrical ideas to address societal issues (though Noori’s lyrics were always ambiguous enough to accommodate a lot). Critically however, they also decided that to make this happen they had to switch languages to Urdu.

The generation of pop that came with Noori, and most after have written their own lyrics. That has been the tradition of the Western rock music many of this era draw from, where band members (usually vocalists) write melodies and words. This is in contrast to the generation of rock that came before Noori and company. The Vital Signs relied on Shoaib Mansoor for lyrics, Junoon on Sabir Zafar, and Strings on Anwar Maqsood. The reduced collaboration with lyricists outside of musical acts themselves has meant that the linguistic prowess of Pakistani pop has reduced as a result. ‘Reduced’ of course is a loaded term here, and we can debate it. But perhaps one can make the argument without much controversy that the Urdu used in Pakistani pop that is written by rock musicians and not (more full-time) poets is simpler, more ambiguous and less lyrical or picturesque.

The force to use Urdu has been in a way, moralistic. Which is to say that English Pakistani music is immediately written off as less authentic in some way, even by Pakistani English speakers. And the lack of perceived authenticity immediately seems to cheapen the music itself.

Among the many things that hit the popularity of Junoon’s spiritual leader Salman Ahmad was a move to America post 9/11, where he began to use Junoon’s music to profess to American audiences. A maneuver used in this effort was the transformation of some of his music to English. And this became one of the many causes of Salman Ahmad’s solo work post Junoon not being taken as seriously in Pakistan as Ali Azmat’s.

The forcefulness of the expectation to use Urdu in Pakistani pop is flawed to begin with. Most Pakistanis do not speak Urdu natively. So while Urdu’s lingua-franca status makes it easy to make a market-case as Noori did about reaching broader audiences, is it really more authentic than say regional languages that many Pakistanis actually speak at home? The only real participation in Pakistani pop from regional languages is Punjabi, which has dominated Pakistani pop just as much as Urdu. This only reinforces how Punjab dominates so much else in Pakistan. Perhaps disproportionately, undeservedly, and unfairly so. (There are huge swaths of music in many other languages yes, Sindhi and Pashto are well represented in recordings. But these recording structures largely exist outside of the frame of ‘Pakistani pop’. They shouldn’t.)

Despite all this, a number of musicians kept putting out English music. Sajid & Zeeshan, of the Noori generation stand out as a local act with a cult following and critical acclaim – singing in English. Poor Rich Boy (and their descendant acts) more recently have put out stellar English music. Noori peers eP released an album of Urdu rock embedded with English rap. And to this day the question of Ahmed Butt’s rap in eP songs is akin to the question of aloo in biryani. There are arguments on both sides, but you have to pick a side and declare enmity with the other. Further down on the spectrum is Abrar ul Haq’s Sanu Teray Naal, who’s English refrain is in equal parts a subject of light-hearted ridicule and deep nostalgic endearment. I will not say much on Atif Aslam’s mashup of Billie Jean on Wasta Pyar Da in Coke Studio 2.

The common thread in all of this is the use of English as a novelty in Pakistani pop. Through rare competence and imperfect integration, English in Pakistani pop hasn’t felt right for a long time. Which is strange because if Arcade Fire’s use of French is unproblematic why is the use of English in Pakistani pop worse?

Which brings me back to Abdullah Siddiqui. In this recording and others, the songs switch between English and Urdu effortlessly without either language sticking out. This recording in particular is emblematic of this because the language switches while the melody remains the same. Often the switch happens in the same breath, without the overt breaks in rhythm that have usually accompanied this language switch in Pakistani pop.

I am dwelling on the bilingualism of this music because it represents more than the singer speaking two languages. It captures the broader code-switching regularly used by Abdullah, his audience and his peers who are in private high schools or in colleges in Pakistan’s big cities. This generation, more than any before it has grown consuming Western music not as some foreign oddity but as very much their own. Their YouTube queues giving them equal access to MKBHD and to Irfan Junejo. Their schools yelling at them for speaking in Urdu in class and their TVs at home broadcasting Urdu dubs of expansive Turkish dramas. A generation that grew up in the shadow of an Urdu moralizing pop scene yet are routinely encouraged, and sometimes forced due to lack of support and skill, to declare to foreign examination boards that they must study Urdu as a second language. And while for many this may have been true, to the examination boards if their first language was not English it might as well not have existed at all.

For many of us that have landed in American or British universities and now straddle two cultures we are unable to look at this subject and not think of colonialism. Of the replacement of the our entire mode of intellectual thought with an English frame, that has rendered us incapable of seeing our own compatriots in the face. But conversely the multi-lingual nature of our compatriots is the truth we must learn to accept, embrace and enable.

When emigrants go back to Pakistan, many find themselves engaging in some code-switching ourselves. The travel back to our homeland reveals the differences in language, work and life that we have embedded into our beings, and we must work harder to reinforce our connection to our heritage. But also we feel the need to undo some of the changes and relearn some local frames to be able to engage. The toughest part of the transition from just Pakistani, to foreign student, to expat, to diaspora is being told that you are now incapable of understanding the issues of a country you lived in most your life and to whose fortunes and soil your destiny is very much tied.

“آپ کو نہیں پتا یہاں کام کیسے ہوتا ہے”، which is true. But it is dispiriting nonetheless. So to make up for this we decide to actively use terminology, grammar and idiom that we believe furthers our ability to be Pakistani. This happens in the mechanisms of professional life, in methods of communication but primarily it is manifested in language. So some expats, certainly me, will do our best to be more cognizant about when we need to switch languages.

All of this effort to realize that the generation after us is undercutting this entire process all the time. To them, code-switching is air. To the point where it may not be code-switching at all as it is code-selection to address their specific aims when needed.

I make this long-winded argument to emphasize that the structure of Pakistani pop has failed to acknowledge that the market they cater to has changed. That while English speaking students may be a small fraction of Pakistan’s population they are underserved by this market just as every other niche in Pakistan is underserved. All of whom might I add are bigger populations than the size of many fringe music scenes that eventually captured the entire world.

Abdullah understands that pop, as much as anything else is a market proposition. His choice of electronic music over other genres is driven by lack of supply: “Privately, I do make all kinds of music but I choose to release the more electronic material because that’s the market that I feel not many people are occupying right now.” This is smart, and he’s good at it. It would be a big mistake for any sponsors to overlook that.