E Sharp’s new film starts with the band playing on a rooftop. The allusion is not lost on anyone that follows rock music. This scene harks back to so many rock bands that have shot themselves doing concerts on rooftops, not least of which are the Beatles’s who’s last show was shot on the Savile Row rooftop of their office.
It was covering the Beatles, among other classic rock bands, that E Sharp found themselves. In the stead of a generation of Pakistani rock bands that started in the early 2000s – E Sharp makes note of Noori, eP and Jal – Anwaar and Ahmed met to start a rock band of their own. A few years later, done with their degrees (or nearly so) that E Sharp were regularly doing tribute gigs at Base Rock Cafe. Here they met their drummer Qumber, and started work on a sprawling 21-song debut album Bahadur Yaar Jung. Their second album 600 Saal followed 2 years later, and today they have released (along with fourth member Rajil) their third album Choti Khushiyan. This album is released alongside an accompanying film, which is part concert film, part a fictional recreation of the band’s lives ala Vital Signs’ Dhundley Rastey. The band was kind enough to chat with me and wanted to share their new songs with our audience.
E Sharp are in a way, an emblem of a thriving Karachi rock scene. Much coverage of the Pakistani music industry quickly falls to the lazy trope of writing off the death of local music to security challenges to concerts and to artists themselves. The reality has much more nuance. During a few tense phases and years, concerts have been at risk. But the challenges of the local music industry have been global too. The proliferation of smartphones and the subsequent astronomical impact of social media globalized the media industry in an instant.
Many readers of this newsletter first lived through the age of dial-up, when bootleg recordings of the bands E Sharp were listening too began to make their way around blogs and peer-to-peer sharing services like Kazaa. As you found ways to share music your friends had introduced you to, the distribution service itself built a community around new music. So much so that bands were able to put in easter eggs to their CDs that you only found after using them on a PC (which I recently found I had missed on the first Noori album, and found thanks to Peshkash, a new Pakistani music archive started by friend of the newsletter Natasha Noorani). Anyway, I go on this digression to identify that the changing mechanism of music distribution made it astronomically harder to create a community around new music. First, because getting music was so much easier that it reduced the need to go through a circle of fans ‘in the know’ to discover and obtain new songs. And second because it was now just as easy to come across music from all the way across the world as it was in your own city. In fact in some sense it was easier to come across music from the West because it was much more likely to have been written about and received coverage and viewership on the very websites you were discovering the music on. Combine this with a tense local security situation and crumbling revenue infrastructure and you get a better picture of how Pakistani music shifted as E Sharp were finding their voice.
And while all of this appeared to be gradual as we lived it, in the grand scheme of shifts in global media this last shift was quick enough that the infrastructure around industries just couldn’t keep up with the change. And instead of seeing local music channels and production companies adapt and find different formats in this new world we saw them fold and disappear instead.
During this time live music, despite its struggle, continued in changed form. A notable strain of which has evolved in Karachi’s underground scene, at Base Rock Cafe and T2F for example, where under the leadership of Faisal Malik and Sabeen Mahmud respectively, bands and hundreds of people in audiences found a way to listen to new rock bands. Sabeen, also a fellow Beatles fan, was in 2015 shot dead soon after T2F hosted a seminar on the Balochistan conflict. The many strands of modern Pakistan ever intertwined. E Sharp dedicated their first album to Sabeen.
This album was “unafraid and very raw”, the band tells me. "It had a lot to do with the lives we were leading back then, like stepping into the corporate world to find job and go 9-5 which the desire for art was more than ever in our hearts. The album reflected that anger, conceptually it was about a person who lets go of his dreams and does what people had always told him to do”. The album is a concept album, per se, in that all the songs are set to explain the emotions of the titular character. In the release notes themselves the band identify the dearth of new albums in the Pakistani industry, and it appears the ‘concept’ part of new albums is a way to reemphasize what it means to release an album. That there is some larger story to tell with these songs, and it is hanging on to this idea that Noori (one of the bands that E Sharp listened to when they first decided to start a band), released their 3rd studio album.
2017’s 600 Saal is a similar concept album, and shares the jam band sound of the first. The sound audibly more mature, with a bit less distortion, and overall of a band more comfortable with each other. Also like their first album, it landed the band a nomination the Lux Style Awards.
Looking for a larger audience, a bit of a challenge and some external motivation in a down period, the band entered Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands, a show reincarnated in the great soda advertising wars of modern Pakistan. The depth to which soft drinks are entrenched in the Pakistani music industry has to be a subject of global curiousity. It was in fact in an early incarnation of this show that eP, another band that came to the fore alongside Noori, first announced themselves, and whose frontman would now judge E Sharp on the fourth season of the show. The band left the show in a surprising result, but found the audience they needed, and returned with the motivation not just to make a new album but to scrap one they were already working on and do a completely new one – “because we wanted a record that instilled more hope in people. We felt it is necessary in times like these.” The band intends for this work to "keep at some pace with global trends in music. We feel Pakistani mainstream music is still very much stuck 20 years back and a nostalgia driven culture has only made that outcome more possible. That's why we are doing our bit to become more modern in our sound and catch up with the global trends of music. You'll hear that in our latest record.”