While one high-profile fixture on the American cultural calendar was given a tough time in recent weeks concerning its lack of racial diversity, the issues that engulfed the Academy Awards aren’t likely to be repeated at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. Among the truly global highlights of the long-running festival’s music programme, which gets under way from Tuesday, is a showcase from Pakistan’s Foundation for Arts, Culture and Education (Face).
It’s difficult to imagine a more spectrum-enveloping gaze into the aural output of this Muslim country. The four artists in question – Imran Aziz Mian, Mai Nimani, Wahid Allan Faqir and Overload – span heartfelt Sufi poetry through to ear-splitting rock.
The showcase lands at an interesting juncture both politically and culturally for Pakistan, which in recent times has suffered from terrorism and extremism.
This has hurt more liberal elements in the country, such as the arts. Last year, for example, Sabeen Mahmud, the woman behind Karachi’s cultural centre The Second Floor, was murdered outside the very building where she sought to open minds and ears.
But there are also grounds for optimism in the country’s arts world, such as the launch of Patari, a music streaming website that is the first in Pakistan to pay artist royalties, that was discussed on these pages last week.
At a time when Donald Trump, the surprise frontrunner to take the Republican nomination for the United States presidential election, has been calling for all Muslims to be banned from entering the country, it’s another important moment for this quartet of Pakistani acts to be jetting into the US.
“I think it’s important for Pakistanis to travel and be themselves, rather than to have to explain themselves,” says Farhad Humayun, the drummer/vocalist with Overload, who have been refining their brand of distinctly Pakistani-flavoured rock music since the early 2000s.
The band employs traditional dhol drums alongside more-regular percussion, as well as a well-known guitarist, Aziz Ibrahim, once of the Stone Roses. Their lyrics are sung in English, Urdu and Punjabi.
The band’s modus operandi is very percussion-led, with the heavy dhol-drum rhythms leading the often tribal-level beats. They’re offset by crunching, almost-classic-rock guitars and slapping bass flourishes that the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea would be proud of, yet with a melodic delicacy that regularly comes to the fore.
“I definitely think that Pakistani music is the vehicle to clearing the air and showing the other side to Pakistan that nobody talks about,” says Humayun.
“I was reading an article by the author Mohammed Hanif in which he talks about ‘us’ – the educated modern Muslims who constantly have to clarify, to the rest of the world, what Islam is really all about. I would like to take that responsibility and, through the music of Overload, clarify many misconceptions, without ever justifying or explaining the actions of terrorist organisations that have nothing to do with Islam but claim to be its flag bearers.”
Music’s coalescing forces are also championed by Mai Nimani, a folk singer from the Pakistani province of Sindh who is accompanied by her husband Jamshaid on harmonium and two percussion players, including her brother-in-law, Nazaqat.
“Music has no limits and no country,” she says. “It has the power to bridge differences by soothing the soul and hearts.”
The most colourful artist at the Face showcase is undoubtedly the flamboyant Wahid Allan Faqir, also from Sindh, a folk artist influenced by the love poetry of Sufi saints.
His energetic sets are soundtracked by a one-stringed instrument, the kingh, but centrestage goes to his impassioned vocals. He also hopes to use his music to build bridges between the US and Pakistan.
“I want to invite fellow musicians from the US to come to Pakistan. We want to know about their music and their thoughts. This will bring us closer.”
He has also campaigned against another issue that has blighted Pakistan: honour killings. “In Sufism, every human being is equal,” he explains. “Men and women have equal rights; both have the same desires and dreams. They should be given due rights to live their lives in the way they want to.
“I reject the idea of honour killing and I am not afraid to raise my voice against this practice.”
Among happier tales of matrimony in the country, Nimani says she owes her career to her marriage and that she has been fortunate enough to never have encountered prejudice in Pakistan as a female musician.
“I come from a musical family,” she says. “My mother used to sing too, but I did not learn music until I got married. My husband told me that I have a beautiful voice and he can give me lessons on how to sing professionally.
“Initially, I was very shy; I couldn’t even sing in front of him. Now, I can play in front of thousands of people. My biggest performance was at Music Mela 2015 in Islamabad, where I performed in front of 10,000 people.
“I have never felt any difficulty or challenge. Wherever I perform, people give me the same respect they give to my husband or the other band members. Sometimes, people appreciate me more than my male band members.”
But many other difficulties still face musicians in Pakistan, according to Humayun.
“Pakistan has many identity issues,” he says. “Even though there’s no prohibition of music in Islam, [some] clerics and their followers discourage people to be entertained by music or cinema by quoting scriptures that were written for another purpose altogether.
“The larger population, which is uneducated, follows these clerics because they don’t know any better.
“Ironically, music, art and media ripened the most during General [Pervez] Musharraf’s term, when the military took over in the late 1990s. We used to play three concerts a night, three to four times a week. It was a blast.”
Since the assassination of the prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, public events in general have declined, Humayun says.
“Sponsors aren’t willing to risk their reputation in case something goes wrong. So most local shows we play are either in schools or universities, or for corporations in closed venues.”
Despite the problems blighting gigs at home, Overload have been regular visitors to the UAE to play shows in the past few years, including gigs at the Aviation Club in Dubai and the American University of Sharjah.
Visitors to SXSW shouldn’t, however, be too worried about Overload’s past billing as “the loudest band in Pakistan”.
“That happened when we played some unplugged shows with no microphones or PA with the audience sitting very close to the drums,” says Humayun.
“And the dhol has got to be the loudest drum in the world. But we are a very musical band that’s rhythm heavy. No earplugs required.”
• For more information on the Face showcase at SXSW and to hear tracks featured in the playlist, visit www.sxsw.com
Adam Workman is a production journalist at The National.