The musical traditions of Pakistan are as diverse as its people and regions. Styles and sounds that are unfamiliar to the Western ear are at the core of a musical tradition centuries old.
Understanding and relating to the musical traditions of Pakistan doesn’t have to be difficult, though. People from around the world create and perform music in similar ways for similar reasons. In this sense, music from one culture is not all that different from the music of another.
In the West, music varies from simple songs performed by small bands to complicated musical compositions performed by large orchestras and massive choirs. While large performing groups in the West can have over 100 musicians, the largest performing ensembles in Pakistan are qawwali, a male chorus of 12 instrumentalists and singers. In Pakistan, the emphasis in music is usually on a solo performer (either singer or instrumentalist) and melody. In contrast, Western music places a great emphasis on both harmony and melody.
Music with words is a dominant part of Pakistani culture, and poetry is its most common source for lyrics. In the 1500s and 1600s, poets frequently wrote in the Urdu language about both their love for divine and romantic love. Still today, poetry remains popular at gatherings called mushairahs, which attract as many people as sporting events. This passionate Pakistani love of poetry has fueled a love of lyrics and music.
Like music from around the world, Pakistani music can be classified for two major purposes: music for religious/ceremonial purposes and music for pleasure. There are, however, many styles and genres within these two divisions.
Qawwali are mystical songs of the Sufi poets. They contain rhythmic, repeated chanting of phrases aimed at bringing the message of universal love and unity for all to the exclusion of none. The chanting is accompanied by explosive handclapping and drumming. The early poems of Sufi mystics inspired music that is still popular today. Qawwali is usually performed by a group of 12 male singers who exclusively sing devotional songs at Sufi shrines across the Punjab region. They perform sitting in two rows of six, with the lead singers in the front row. The leader of the group (mohri) has a strong voice, supplemented by one or two chorus leaders (avazia). Behind them in the second row is the tabla player, who plays the larger qawwali tabla with whole meal dough plastered on the left bass drum to make it louder and more resonant. The remaining performers comprise the chorus and clap regularly in unison. All qawwals (the performers of qawwali) emphasize that they harness music in the service of the text, which comes from Muslim Sufi and Hindu Bhakti masters in Farsi, Arabic, Punjabi, Urdu, and Purbi.
Ghazals are songs about love—a universal musical inspiration—developed from Arab and Persian poetry. These songs are usually accompanied by percussion and stringed instruments and are considered art music of a semi-classical nature—somewhere between popular singing and classical music. Originally sung in Farsi, ghazal today is sung mainly in Urdu, but also in the other Pakistani languages. Women are prominent singers of this art.
Though art music (music learned through specialized training or institutions) is not a growing tradition in Pakistan, it is a way for instrumentalists to gain notoriety in a vocal-dominated culture. Sazindah are accompanying instrumentalists, well-versed in art music. The only instrumentalist acceptable at the same level as a singer is the sitar-player or the sarod-player. A master of the art of playing the sitar is accorded the Central Asian title of Khan (“lord”), a title normally reserved for classical singers. Such masters usually belong to hereditary schools of classical music. In recent times, other instrumentalists who play classical music have also received this title.
Life-cycle music is prominent in Pakistani culture. Life-cycle music encompasses all the music at ceremonies and festivities within the life of a family, such as births, weddings, and funerals. Among the liveliest life-cycle music is that which happens at weddings, featuring a band of wind and percussion instruments announcing the wedding procession.
Work music is common among some agricultural vocations—drumming rhythms are often used to aid in the harvest season while women have songs for mill-grinding work.
Instruments add character to the music each culture enjoys. Pakistan has more than 600 unique instruments that are part of its music-making tradition. The instruments that are commonly used in Pakistani music may look and sound exotic when compared to those of the West, but instruments from other cultures have more in common than most people think.
Humans have only tapped into a few ways of producing sound: striking objects together, using air pressure to create vibrations, and vibrating stretched strings or chords. As a result, many instruments operate in a similar manner. Each culture, however, has its own variation of these sounding-producing methods.
Sitar—a plucked, stringed instrument made of wood and a gourd, similar to a guitar. The gourd helps the sound of the strings resonate, or sound louder. The sitar is used frequently in traditional, religious, and popular music of Pakistan. The sitar gained fame in the West after being introduced by popular performers like the Beatles and world-famous sitar player Ravi Shankar.
Rabaab—a plucked lute with gut strings is the most distinctive instrument of northern Pakistan and Kashmir.
Tabla—a pair of hand drums that contrast in sound and size. The tabla are among the most popular percussion instruments used in Pakistani music—traditional, religious, and popular. The unique sound of the tabla is often digitized and loaded on synthesizers, making its sound recognizable in music around the world.
Chimta—a giant pair of two-foot fire tongs with a large iron ring at one end. It is played by clicking the open tongs together and slapping the heavy iron ring against the tongs with a clanging sound. This instrument is the legacy of past Turkish invasions and is most popular in Punjab.
Dhol—a double headed drum made from the trunk of a mango tree covered with goatskin on both ends. One side of the dhol is struck with a large curved stick to produce a deep sound, while a smaller straight stick strikes the other end for a higher note. The dhol is used all over Pakistan to accompany dances, gather people for important announcements, and as a message drum between villages.
Harmonium—a keyboard instrument that produces its sound when air is pumped over metal reeds, causing them to vibrate—much like an organ. Although the harmonium was developed in France, Pakistanis have used the instrument for more than 150 years and have further developed the instrument by adding a mechanism to change its musical scales. The popularity of the harmonium is due much in part to its portability and ease of learning.
Shahnai—a wind instrument that uses a double reed to produce sound vibrations, similar to an oboe. The player blows air between two tightly-woven reeds, causing vibrations that produce sound. The shahnai is primarily used at outdoor festivities and weddings.
In Pakistan, musical style and the way in which it is performed varies greatly across its four regions.
In Sindh, “performance music” is quite popular. It parallels Western music in that an audience sits passively and listens as opposed to dancing or participating in the music making. Kafi music is among the most popular forms in this region—music and poetry written by Sind’s most respected poet Shāh Abdul Latīf (1690–1752). Kafi features poetry, repeated musical lines, and improvisation (much like jazz).
Like Sindh, performance music is common in the Northwest Frontier Province. In this region, music is often set to Pashtun poetry and accompanied by the rabab. The instrumental music of this region is highly esteemed.
Due to its high population of herding tribes, professional wandering musicians are a large part of the musical tradition in Baluchistan. The songs of the wandering musicians are usually ballads or love songs, with the musicians typically singing and playing a stringed instrument. Distinctive for Baloch music is the nar bait, a ballad sung to the accompaniment of a double reed flute, very much like an Australian didgeridoo.
In Punjab, however, participatory music is much more common, including songs and dance. The music tradition of Punjab contains songs with rhyme and humor, usually in a call-and-response format (similar to the African American gospel tradition). This music is usually accompanied by drumming. Punjab shares the kafi with Sindh as a form of sufi singing.
As a result of Western “Pop” music saturating cultures around the world, many contemporary Pakistani musicians have incorporated the traditional sounds of their country and combined it with the modern instruments and influences of the West. Music that could be classified as Rock, Pop, Hip Hop, and even Techno can often be heard intertwined with traditional Pakistani music.