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The Bhuttos are dead, long live the Bhuttos

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 15, 2018

And then there were three: The newly-revived Dead Bhuttos, a Pakistani punk band   -  The Dead Bhuttos

Partners-in-crime (From left) Sheraz Ahmed, Basim Usmani and Hassan Amin

Partners-in-crime (From left) Sheraz Ahmed, Basim Usmani and Hassan Amin

A group of dedicated, street-smart musicians are trying — against all odds — to create a DIY punk scene in Pakistan

In 2007, Basim Usmani found himself going a little nuts. He had moved from Boston to Lahore to work as a journalist, but 10 months of newspaper mayhem was getting to him. He needed a musical outlet but couldn’t find it in a city obsessed with terrible arena-rock. Then one day, while he was waiting to pick up a big strip of hash, his dealer introduced him to a guitarist named Ali Malik. The two started jamming and put together a desi punk project called Dead Bhuttos — a reference to Pakistan’s iconic political dynasty in a nod to California anarcho-punk pioneers The Dead Kennedys. They recorded one song, a hilarious bhangra-punk blast of anti-cop vitriol called ‘Teri Aisi Ki Taisi’. But Malik left for Australia soon after and the project was dead in the water.

Usmani tried to start other bands, but it was a difficult time to be doing counter-cultural music in Lahore, with the Tehreek-E-Taliban taking its campaign of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks to the heart of the country’s big cities. “I was on stage as Arieb Azhar’s session bass player at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore when two explosions happened just outside the concert, and the place had to be evacuated,” he tells me over e-mail. The ‘bomb’ turned out to be a prank, but the threat was real enough for Usmani. Two months later, when his old Boston band, The Kominas, got called to play at the prestigious SXSW festival, he decided to pack up and move back.

Earlier this year, Usmani flew back to Lahore, where he was picked up at the airport by Hassan Amin, a young Lahori punk musician, writer and film-maker. Amin is the frontman for two of Pakistan’s most innovative, and transgressive, bands — grindcore/crust-punk act Multinational Corporations (MxCx) and thrash-punk crossover act Foreskin. He’s also involved in a whole constellation of related side-projects, when he’s not busy organising shows or writing about punk and metal bands from across the subcontinent. It’s no exaggeration to say that Amin and his frequent partner-in-crime Sheraz Ahmed are the hardest working men in Pakistani punk. Between them, they’ve established Lahore as a bastion of extreme music in Pakistan, an antipode, if you will, to the navel-gazing indie and bedroom electronica of eternal rivals Karachi. The little punk ecosystem they’ve created is exactly what Usmani was desperately searching for way back in 2007. So it’s no surprise that five minutes into the car ride, Usmani and Amin had decided to make some new music together. Within a week, Usmani, Amin and Ahmed wrote and recorded an EP — three tracks of Black Sabbath’s doom-laced riffs mixed with Black Flag’s speed-freak energy and Dead Kennedys’ in-your-face lyricism.

Eight years after their abortive first run, Dead Bhuttos were back. “It just felt right this time to revive Dead Bhuttos,” says Usmani. “It’s kind of like making up for lost time.”

Despite having all the necessary ingredients for punk rock to thrive — large numbers of angry, disaffected young men, a restrictive and oppressive political culture — the genre never really took root in Pakistan. When the fall of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamic dictatorship opened the floodgates for a whole generation of Pakistani rock and metal bands, the snot-nosed rebel-yell of punk rock was conspicuous by its absence. As both the pop-rock mainstream and the underground metal scene grew by leaps and bounds, Pakistan remained no country for punk rock.

Not that people didn’t try. In the early 2000s’ Karachi, you had Cornhole, who would pop up at metal gigs to play proto-hardcore punk alongside the Metallica and Megadeth clones. Karachi also threw up the pop-punk act The Chosen Rejects, largely remembered for one fantastic performance at Zakfest in 2003. But in a scene dominated by covers, these bands didn’t have the audience or the resources to last or make a difference. When the Karachi live scene experienced a downturn in 2004-05, they disappeared without a trace.

Over the years there have been other, slightly more successful acts that draw influence from punk rock, most notably Islamabad’s post-punkers Bumbu Sauce. But the contemporary punk scene in Pakistan — not just a hard-and-fast approach to playing music, but also the transgressive, outsider-solidarity ideology to go with it — first emerged in Lahore in 2010-11. “The grindcore and hardcore that is coming out is all from this new generation of musicians,” says Pakistani journalist and music critic Shaheryar Popalzai. “They are much more motivated to create original music and that’s why the bands, the sounds are a lot fresher. And that scene is largely centred around Lahore.”

At the centre of this action are, of course, Ahmed and Amin, both of whom stumbled into the world of crust-punk, grindcore and hardcore from their explorations in metal. “When we started Foreskin, most of the bands were Dream Theater cover bands,” says Amin over Skype, while Ahmed nods in agreement in the background. “Even their originals were Dream Theater covers. We thought, ‘F*** this, we want to write 40-second songs, we want to play fast and hard. That was shocking for quite a few people, it wasn’t easy for them to digest. They’re still digesting it.”

While Foreskin mines thrash-punk crossover territory, Amin, Ahmed and friends dug deeper into the more extreme punk sub-cultures with the politically charged grindcore/crust-punk MxCx and the provocative power-violence of Amin’s cross-border collaboration Atif x Aslam. Along the way, they found fellow travellers like Islamabad Pashto-punks Marg, and Rawalpindi power-violence exponents Bvlghvm. More recently, new acts like Lahore’s anarcho-punks Wehshi Inquilaab have stepped up to join their crusade. Recorded in home studios with cheap gear bought after years of scrounging up, their albums and demos are raw, uncontained blasts of fury, vitriol and gallows humour that reflect on the issues affecting Pakistan — hyper-nationalism, extremist violence, corruption, the lingering after-effects of colonialism. Amin and Ahmed, in particular, write songs that they jokingly call “anti-everything”, featuring scathing takedowns of right-wing fascism but also the excesses and failures of the Left. They are influenced by Urdu revolutionary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Javed and Ahmed Faraz and identify ideologically with Bhagat Singh and his rebel contemporaries from pre-Partition Punjab. Musically, they draw their inspiration not only from the American and UK punk scenes, but also the movement’s thriving outposts in South East Asia.

“The Malaysian and Singapore scenes are ideal models of a DIY scene for us,” says Amin. “They’ve been through the same shit that we’ve been through; military dictatorships, ethnic rivalries, communal strife. But they’ve managed to build a thriving, self-sustaining scene. We want to reproduce that model in Pakistan, but it will take some time to open the minds of the people.”

Of the hurdles they face, the first is a serious lack of infrastructure and venues. The bars and pubs that drive India’s independent music scene don’t exist in Pakistan. The few venues that do exist favour mellow indie fare to metal or punk bands.

So the bands improvise, setting up underground shows in backyards, in paintball arenas and in abandoned swimming pools. Without licences and permissions, these underground gigs are always prone to disruption by reactionaries who don’t approve of the mayhem on display.

“There was one gig near a railway station,” remembers Amin. “We got on stage and 30 seconds into our first song, a circle pit breaks out. There were some hardline right-wing students there. They pulled out the PA cables, saying ‘off hai bhai off hai’ (It’s off bro, it’s off). We had a lot of friends there waiting to see us and they started raising a ruckus. It was a riot-like scene, I ended up stealing a microphone from the stage.”

The volatile political atmosphere in Pakistan and the ever-present threat of extremism are a major problem when you make music that pushes back against cultural and political orthodoxy. While punk rock at the moment is too small to really come to the notice of the hardliners, they’ve received the occasional reminder that the music they play can put them at risk. When Amin gave one of his many side-projects a particularly provocative name, their Facebook page was flooded with threatening messages from outraged extremists. “It was an online side-project, wasn’t too serious, so I said let’s not risk any shit and quietly delete the Facebook page,” he says. Ahmed adds, “We’re always conscious of what we speak about, even in interviews, because you never know what might happen.” He then recounts an article last month in which an interviewer badly misquoted and misrepresented him and his music. Such mistakes can have major repercussions for an extreme music artist in Pakistan.

But they also find support from the most unexpected sources — whether it’s fellow underground scenes in India, Nepal and Bangladesh or from audiences that may not know much about punk but understand exactly what these bands are talking about. “Last gig, before this track called LPC, I said that “these Punjab Police VIPs can go f*** themselves” and the whole crowd roared in agreement,” says Amin. “So you test the waters, talk about Pakistan’s problems and see how people react.”

“There’s a lot of public anger that never makes it into the mainstream,” adds Ahmed. “On TV everyone’s a hyper-nationalist waving flags, or you have uncle-aunties with their family dramas. Us talking about the issues everyone cares about draws new people in.”

Now that they’ve established the foundation for a proper punk scene in Lahore, Amin and Ahmed are thinking about how to help it blossom. They worry that gigs have the same line-ups and that there aren’t new bands to take the scene forward. Amin dreams of Pakistani bands touring India and Nepal, and vice versa, but realises that the political situation makes that untenable.

The fact that there is no money to be made does not deter them, because for them it’s never been about the money. It’s about making uncompromising music and asking the right questions, whether you do it as Dead Bhuttos, or Foreskin, or Amin’s Indo-Pak collaborative project Atif x Aslam.

“The fact that there are these bands creating such great original music is enough for now,” says Popalzai, remembering an earlier era with lots of gigs but no new music. “This will eventually lead to regular gigs, as the bands get more solid and they figure out how to get access to more resources. You have to build a scene from the ground up, and by focusing on the music, these kids are doing it the right way.”

Usmani, meanwhile, is just happy to be a part of Pakistan’s emerging new punk scene. “It is incredibly exciting,” he writes. “I don’t know what to say except that I met two of my best friends a few months ago, and Dead Bhuttos are alive once again.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

Published on November 18, 2016

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