Abrar-ul-Haq laid the foundation of a genre, and this song set the template for all of it. It is easy to forget the context in which this song was released, since the presence of Abrar seems almost inevitable in retrospect. This format of Punjabi music did not exist before Billo, released in 1995. The prevailing pop giants of the time were Vital Signs and Junoon, who themselves performed under the shadow of Nazia and Zoheb Hassan. Clips from music shows from this time reveal a thriving underground rock scene. In this context, the legacy of Billo is larger than an isolated catchy tune.
In a conversation with Fakhr-e-Alam, he argued to me that it was the release of Bhangra Rap, that mainstreamed the use of Punjabi in pop music. Note that while pop is short for popular, arguably the most popular music in Pakistan at the time included works by Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi, who among the languages he uses also includes Punjabi. It is hard to delineate ‘pop’ from this sort of music. There are a few markers that would help ascertain this boundary – western style, the format and structure of songs, and perhaps their delivery mechanisms. But it is easy to argue that these lines are arbitrary and do not cleanly divide what we sometimes call ‘folk’ and what we lazily call ‘pop’. That said, in this loosely defined ‘pop’ realm, it is very interesting to me that the use of Punjabi can source itself back not to bhangra, but to rap. Which makes it even more interesting that Fakhr-e-Alam wrote Bhangra Rap. (I discussed the bhangra-ness and rap-ness of that recording previously).
The release of Billo, about two years after Bhangra Rap, created a new class of pop music. Loosely the music that descends from Billo can be classified as bhangra. This is not inaccurate because the beat, the boliyan, and the overt calls to to do the bhangra are very much part of this music. But there is more that is archetypical to Abrar’s music.
The lyrics in Abrar’s songs often tell a story. They sketch a scene of the Punjab. For this to be done with accuracy, humor is perhaps necessary. In one swath of Abrar recordings, this humor is central (see Preeto, Shareekan, Ferrari, Aja Te Be Ja Cycle Te). This humor is delivered in everyday language, which while being in Punjabi remains at least partly accessible to Urdu speakers. English vocabulary is frequently used, and detailed videos accompany the lyrics to illustrate the story.
Arguably these recordings appear (or revert) to stereotypical images of Punjabi life, and of Punjabi women in particular. Perhaps for this reason, it is easy to see some reflection of actual life in Abrar’s recordings. I find that there is a theme of aspiration in Abrar’s songs. Even the serious ones. Through the stories they tell, the imagery they use, and the themes that seem common: marriage, political power, religious longing.
It is hard to talk about the entirety of Abrar’s work without at least an acknowledgement of activities outside of music. He runs a non-profit with well-known presence, and has of late been politically involved. His politics has not been problem-free, and instances of prejudice and less-than-thoughtful commentary are troubling. Politics has also spilled over into a disagreeable relationship with at least one other musician also involved in politics.
I was nervous before hearing this recording of Billo on Coke Studio 12. After a few years of hiatus while he conducted aforementioned extracurricular activities, this Coke Studio appearance could have been a nostalgic throwback and nothing more. It also could have been a complete reimagination which comes with its own share of risks. The actual recording is a triumphant performance. The iconic synth line remains, the bhangra is center-stage, but the standout is Abrar’s live performance.
That seeing Abrar is so important to experiencing this recording in its fullest, makes it even more of a travesty that this video has been off YouTube for so long due to copyright claims against Coke Studio. The inside story of Coke Studio 12’s copyright troubles, as I’ve heard them, is that Coca-Cola leaves it up to the producers to work out the copyright arrangements of each song. In early seasons of Coke Studio, the negotiations some times prevented artists from performing their own songs. Rohail Hyatt’s ire of the big record labels, EMI specifically is documented. In the Strings years efforts were made to smooth the relationship between Coke Studio and EMI. In the videos, the credits became more laborious towards the original recording, and historical clips became part of the final cut. With Coke Studio 12, claims by EMI led to some videos being taken down. This emboldened other artists to raise their own claims. Abrar’s recording was taken down due to a claim by a party in the UK, whose claim to it is still not quite clearly understood. A few days ago, as I started writing this piece, the video was briefly back up on YouTube. It was taken down again soon after. Curiously the audio recordings of the song continue to be available on a number of major platforms, including YouTube’s own music streaming service.
I wonder if this saga would have played out in this manner if YouTube was more embedded in Pakistan and understood the nature of Coke Studio and historical relationships within the music industry. Hyatt argues that Coke Studio is happy to share revenues from YouTube with copyright owners, what made this year different is that the belligerence of the claims led to immediate takedowns. I would argue that Pakistan’s existence on the periphery of the attention of global platforms made this saga more likely to be handled poorly. Regardless of what the fair outcome of these proceedings was, the circus of it was an embarrassment of all involved. A more established technical, legal and corporate infrastructure would have prevented this.