Silencing the nightingales of KP

May 23, 2018
Fawad Ali

Design Credit: Sajid Ali

Folk music is alive on YouTube and on Facebook in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where singers have in many cases graduated on to the digital realm to preserve a tradition. Live music, especially with women folk singers, has mostly been silenced.

A handful of singers took on the Pashto music scene and became popular but barely a few of them could survive. Militants or relatives decided they should not have careers.

Shabana was also a celebrated dancer. The Taliban told her to quit. She refused. On January 2, 2009, men killed her in Mingora, Swat. People there say the men raped her.

A famous music street in Swat called Banr was forced to shut down after militants left warnings. Two hundred folk singers and performers fled. Peshawar’s music street Dabgari Bazaar met a similar fate. Its name was changed to Umar Street.

Vocalist and poet Ayman Udas, who sang the famous number Janan Raweekhawama (I rejuvenate my darling), was shot inside her house off Peshawar’s Ring Road in April 2009. Her brothers are said to have killed her.

Then, in March 2010, men killed another young dancer, Afsana. She was on her way back from a gathering in Peshawar when she was attacked. In 2012, Ghazala Javed was shot dead in a beauty parlour in Peshawar. In November 2013, singer Saima Naz’s brother shot her in Peshawar. In December 2013, another popular singer Gulnar alias Muskan was murdered.

In February this year, a stage performer and Pashto singer, Sumbul, was killed in Mardan when she refused to attend a private gathering.

Prominent singer Nazia Iqbal has been underground for several years after her two sons were kidnapped. The kidnappers told her to quit the industry if she wanted her sons alive.

These murders have tanked the local music industry. There is no academy in KP to preserve and promote art and music. Sindh has a music academy while the National College of Arts, commonly known as NCA, promotes the arts in Lahore and Rawalpindi.

Arshad Khan, who is pursuing a doctorate at the Pashto Academy of Peshawar University, says that a radicalised mindset is on the rise and is shrinking the space for music. “There is no market for male singers let alone female ones,” he says. “Now women folk singers cannot dare to perform at concerts outside Peshawar.”

According to famous Pashto singer Mahjabeen Qizalbash, most women singers in KP arise from poor families. “They cannot afford to continue singing due to the [conservative mindset],” she says. Pashto musicians get more respect in Kabul than anywhere else, she says. Perhaps this is why famous folk singer Gul Panra left for that city.

Senior music director Ustad Nazeer Gul says he had groomed several women folk singers, including Nazia Iqbal. Today, no women register at his private music training centre in Peshawar’s Saddar Bazaar. “It is just fear.”