I find Bilal Baloch, one third of the band Shikari, jamming on a guitar in the grassy courtyard of the Al Hamra at the Lahore Music Meet. ‘Let me just finish this song’, he says to me, but before he has a chance to begin, someone else requests his guitar and launches in to a cover of ‘Afreen Afreen’.
‘You can’t play music here’ is a refrain that Bilal Baloch and bandmates Dara Shikoh and Safwan Subzwari have heard many times. In parking lots, in security malls, in public parks. In these spaces, music is treated as something shameful, some kind of embarrassing misdemeanour. This is, perhaps, an example of culture momentarily uncovering dominant power structures.
A thought experiment: would they have got the same reaction if they were singing Afreen Afreen? Or, for that matter, any Coke Studio song or folk classic? I would say probably not. With those, it becomes entertainment, a kind of goofy and cute karaoke. But original work seems to pierce the thin membrane of what is and isn’t allowed in a public space. Even if it’s strummed on a ukulele, this affirmation of public space comes across as an aggressive With Shikari, Baloch and bandmates are questioning the idea of public spaces, and whether they even belong to us at all.
Mosiki: Tell us a little bit about Shikari
Bilal Baloch: Shikari was something me and a friend started after making music for a long time and recording a bunch of songs and writing about 30-40 songs and we just wanted to perform. We were tired of performing to the same bubble of people and we started writing songs for people in public, because that’s where we would play; in cafes, at dhabas, in malls and in markets. We started busking and going to parks and to all these public places. And people would enjoy it…well 60% of people would enjoy it, 10% of people would just pass by, and the other 30% wouldn’t know how to react. So people would tell us to stop, or they’d call the police on us, ‘kya kareheho, azaan ho rahi hai’
M: I was watching a video where you guys were getting stopped by the mall security guards…
BB: Yeah and that happens all the time, wherever we go. But it mostly happens in places where there is security. I feel like if there is security people are already on edge, you know? So we started this thing where we’d go to places and play and, just try to take back places, because you’ve got to do what you want where we want.
M: It’s interesting because I was just speaking to Slowspin about something similar. I said it feels like many musicians are trying to reclaim public space, and she said it’s odd to use the word ‘re’claim’ –
BB: Exactly because it’s already ours!
M: Right, because it implies ownership in the first place. So I guess Shikari is not really a project of reclaiming, but of asserting our rights.
BB: Right because we’ve been told to leave places where a friend of the owner of the establishment said, you know, these guys are bothering us. But how much noise can this thing make? *lifts up ukulele* We take it everywhere and we play wherever. But people feel entitled to police other people. Somehow everyone feels that they’re an authority. And you’ve got to challenge that wherever you can. It can get scary but it’s fun. And it’s part of being human, just saying that ‘I belong here, just as much as the next guy’.
M: And especially asserting it through art and music.
BB: Right, it’s really tough for artists out here, for independent artists and independent musicians, especially if you want to do something original.
It’s part of being human, just saying that ‘I belong here, just as much as the next guy’.
M: You can make covers all day long but….
BB: And you get lost in that and people feel that’s ok. Sajjad Ali was giving a talk yesterday which, by the way, Sajjad Ali, a guy who never sold out to Coke or Sprite or anyone, and he was talking about the importance of originality and it’s not said enough. So I was really happy to hear him talk about it.
M: Especially when everything can be sold off if the right story is put around it.
BB: Yeah but these guys like Zeerak (Slowspin) and Natasha Noorani (cofounder of Lahore Music Meet) these guys are doing awesome work. It’s original, and with full control of what they’re doing and…it shows. People assume that the audience isn’t going to be able to tell, they won’t catch on, but that’s not the case. If you’re not honest it shows.
M: Any interesting stories while busking? Do you even call it busking?
BB: Yeah we do but we don’t ask for money we’re just playing. But the reactions of people is what keeps us going. Like people wanting to sing and maybe feeling shy.
M: I think what I found interesting about the security guard video was that it’s strange how something as inoffensive as playing on a ukulele, of all things, when it’s taken out of it’s ‘normal’ place can feel violent.
BB: Because in that environment, anything can feel violent. Even I started feeling like I was making these songs and maybe that’s aggressive. But that’s just a product of what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. But I just feel that when you’re being honest with art, it shows. I think that one video we were outside a hotel and waiting for our car at the valet and we had ukes in our hands, and a father and daughter started dancing. And it was so sweet. And then in the video you hear a woman saying ‘ma’am music is not allowed here’.
M: And what an odd thing to say that music isn’t allowed in the parking lot. As though there are written rules about where it is and isn’t allowed.
BB: As if you can escape it somehow!