Red Blood Cat perform at their Lahore gig in 2014. Courtesy Abdul Mueed
Red Blood Cat perform at their Lahore gig in 2014. Courtesy Abdul Mueed

Pakistan underground – how Red Blood Cat are bringing back the music and the fun



“We would like to dedicate this performance to victims of terrorism everywhere, be they in Paris, Baghdad, Beirut – wherever.” Those were the first words from the vocalist for the band Red Blood Cat at auditions for the United States Embassy-backed Centrestage USA programme, in a university in Islamabad on Tuesday.

No sooner were they uttered when someone heckled from the crowd “what about Palestine?” and started shouting “long live Gaza”, ignoring the band’s request to honour the victims with a moment of silence.

The opening gesture had clearly backfired, but as I sat and thought about it, I wondered why the band had decided to offer it.

A week ago, in a home-built studio in the city’s suburbs, I had spoken to the some of these musicians about this very concert, which could land them a paid tour of the US – potentially a career-defining move for a small, unknown band from Pakistan.

Back then, they were distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that they would have to showcase not just their music but also somehow reflect Centrestage’s stated goal of helping music transcend cultural boundaries and differences.

“Yaar, I just feel that we should put a paratha and some daal in front of us before we begin and say, ‘Here – this is our culture!’” says Zain Ali (guitars/synths). Although he jokes, it also reflects the band’s major concern.

The Centrestage audition meant a rare chance for Red Blood Cat to stand out among the otherwise moribund Pakistani music industry, yet it was clear that their odds of landing the tour would improve considerably if they decided to “ethnicise” their music.

The challenge is not a musical one, as the band is not afraid of taking on local music. Two of the members, Zain and Danish Khawaja (guitars), recently collaborated with an iconic folk singer from the Thar Desert, Mai Dhai, and their songs have received tremendous acclaim across the country. But Red Blood Cat want to hold on to the style that they have created for themselves as they prepare to release their debut album later this month.

The band’s dilemma also represents the unique conditions which led to the evolution of their jazz-rock instrumental sound. The members – Ali; Hasham Cheema (vocals/synths); Varqa Faraid (keyboards); Khawaja; Ibrahim Akram (drums); and Parham Faraid (bass) – all grew up during the early 2000s when Pakistani music was enjoying its heyday.

There were several popular music channels on the newly-liberated TV networks and a plethora of new acts inspiring a young and rapidly urbanising population. Yet a combination of a weak industry infrastructure and the financial and security fallouts of a virtual civil war from terrorism, meant that by the end of the new millennium's first decade, the music scene was reduced to the popular annual TV show, Coke Studio, and little else.

Consequently, when the band members first met and began to play with one another over the past five years, they had no compulsion to develop a “commercially viable” sound. Almost all of them had found work as session musicians, allowing them to continue playing for a living.

However, that might have been a blessing in disguise too, as the fact that they never had to worry about appealing to music channels or radio audiences meant they could develop a unique sound.

Although they were known in the local Islamabadi scene for a while, they truly exploded onto the small but committed core of Pakistani indie music at a concert in Lahore last year. Music writer Farhad Mirza wrote the following on their set, which had left the crowd raving.

“The compositions, though sometimes odd and quirky to the point of paradoxical predictability, are infectiously exhilarating, operating on an emotional logic that challenges the linear thought process of conventional song writing. Red Blood Cat has managed to become a progressive rock band that refuses to be subtle, whilst remaining graceful.”

Yet despite engaging the critics at such a cerebral level, most concertgoers marvelled at how much fun the band seemed to have with each other, exuding a self-deprecating insouciance to go with their technical virtuosity.

When I ask the band about their seemingly contradictory ability to marry complicated music with unabashed fun, their responses belie a desire to follow instincts and intuition.

They explain that their sound has largely emerged out of a desire to simply impress one another. “It’s this thrill you feel trying to almost one-up one another, having a battle of sorts,” explains Akram.

Yet despite, or perhaps due to, the technical complexity of these, they are decidedly laidback in their approach to them.

The album is still without a name but most of its songs were performed at the Centrestage audition mentioned earlier, and by the time the set ended, the air in the auditorium was electric. Granted, many of the hecklers and curious bystanders left early on in the set, but as the band went from one song to next, they continued to revel in their eclectic mix of prog-rock, jazz accents and atypical melodies.

When We're Older, a previous single, is a tour de force of dreamlike melodies, complex time signatures and crescendos of sound interspersed with instrumental solos, where the band can go from intense passages to referencing the theme song from Inspector Gadget.

The album has no distinct themes but Akram says: “You can draw a line through each of the songs and see the connection.”

Sitting at the back, I couldn’t quite tell what the adjudicating committee made of their set (the band will find out if they won in the next few weeks), although everyone around me was rapt. Here were intensely talented musicians who had put together a near-flawless set of challenging, delightful and gimmick-free music.

Regardless of whether it leverages them to a sustainable future, they’ve already made a mark on Pakistan’s pop music history.

Ahmer Naqvi is an Islamabad- based journalist who writes on culture and sport.

Museum of the Future in numbers
  • 78 metres is the height of the museum
  • 30,000 square metres is its total area
  • 17,000 square metres is the length of the stainless steel facade
  • 14 kilometres is the length of LED lights used on the facade
  • 1,024 individual pieces make up the exterior 
  • 7 floors in all, with one for administrative offices
  • 2,400 diagonally intersecting steel members frame the torus shape
  • 100 species of trees and plants dot the gardens
  • Dh145 is the price of a ticket
UAE athletes heading to Paris 2024

Equestrian
Abdullah Humaid Al Muhairi, Abdullah Al Marri, Omar Al Marzooqi, Salem Al Suwaidi, and Ali Al Karbi (four to be selected).


Judo
Men: Narmandakh Bayanmunkh (66kg), Nugzari Tatalashvili (81kg), Aram Grigorian (90kg), Dzhafar Kostoev (100kg), Magomedomar Magomedomarov (+100kg); women's Khorloodoi Bishrelt (52kg).


Cycling
Safia Al Sayegh (women's road race).

Swimming
Men: Yousef Rashid Al Matroushi (100m freestyle); women: Maha Abdullah Al Shehi (200m freestyle).

Athletics
Maryam Mohammed Al Farsi (women's 100 metres).

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Transmission: 9-speed automatc
Power: 279hp
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Price: From Dh250,000
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Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Klipit

Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Digital receipts, finance, blockchain

Funding: $4 million

Investors: Privately/self-funded

States of Passion by Nihad Sirees,
Pushkin Press

Director: Nag Ashwin

Starring: Prabhas, Saswata Chatterjee, Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Shobhana

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MEDIEVIL (1998)

Developer: SCE Studio Cambridge
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Company name/date started: Abwaab Technologies / September 2019

Founders: Hamdi Tabbaa, co-founder and CEO. Hussein Alsarabi, co-founder and CTO

Based: Amman, Jordan

Sector: Education Technology

Size (employees/revenue): Total team size: 65. Full-time employees: 25. Revenue undisclosed

Stage: early-stage startup 

Investors: Adam Tech Ventures, Endure Capital, Equitrust, the World Bank-backed Innovative Startups SMEs Fund, a London investment fund, a number of former and current executives from Uber and Netflix, among others.

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For Euro 2024 qualifers away to Malta on June 16 and at home to North Macedonia on June 19:

Goalkeepers Johnstone, Pickford, Ramsdale.

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UAE athletes heading to Paris 2024

Equestrian

Abdullah Humaid Al Muhairi, Abdullah Al Marri, Omar Al Marzooqi, Salem Al Suwaidi, and Ali Al Karbi (four to be selected).

Judo
Men: Narmandakh Bayanmunkh (66kg), Nugzari Tatalashvili (81kg), Aram Grigorian (90kg), Dzhafar Kostoev (100kg), Magomedomar Magomedomarov (+100kg); women's Khorloodoi Bishrelt (52kg).

Cycling
Safia Al Sayegh (women's road race).

Swimming

Men: Yousef Rashid Al Matroushi (100m freestyle); women: Maha Abdullah Al Shehi (200m freestyle).

Athletics

Maryam Mohammed Al Farsi (women's 100 metres).

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Started: 2017
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Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.


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