Navigating Coolness in South Asian Music

There exists a space in the South Asian music scene that always remains vacant and yearns to be occupied. It can’t be filled up with traditional music, ...

Dec 13, 2014

There exists a space in the South Asian music scene that always remains vacant and yearns to be occupied. It can’t be filled up with traditional music, no matter how rich of a history it has. It can’t be filled up, fully, with Western music, no matter how catchy the tunes are. It’s a postcolonial dilemma. The South Asian middle class seeks to reach back into its cultural past through music, but it can only do so through a Western lens. Hence, innovators must appropriate Western music and provincialize it to fill that space.
One of these innovators was South Asia’s most successful band ever: Junoon, which means passion in Urdu. When Junoon hit the music scene in 1990, pop music in Pakistan was dominated by cheap imitations of U.S. music, complete with cheesy synths and turtleneck sweaters. It was an era of great pop music, but one that ultimately was a testament to how the South Asian middle class still deferred to the West to define its culture.
At its core, Junoon’smusic was rock music fused with Sufi elements. It combined guitar riffs and bluesy vocals with Eastern musical elements, such as the use of tabla, raga melodies and traditional Pakistani folk music. The result was something that sounded like Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page mixed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — considered the greatest Qawwal, or performer of a type of Sufi devotional music, of all time, and someone who met Salman Ahmed, the founder of the band, in 1990. The band recognized the need of the South Asian middle class to relate to the music they hear, even if it was still bound by a coolness as defined by the West.
More recently, this space has been filled up by Coke Studio, a platform launched in 2008, also dedicated to reappropriating Western music and fusing it with folk and classical music. The project, which first started in Brazil, moved to Pakistan where it was highly successful and eventually led to the emergence of Coke Studio India and Coke Studio Bel3arabi. Coke Studio took a variety of folk songs, from genres such as Bhangra, Qawwali and Sufi and fused it with Western music, their songs often being shortened to 3-10 minutes, in accordance with Western sensibilities. The platform was able to bring marginalized genres and artists to the forefront while making classical and folk music relevant again.
In India, a well-known rapper named Yo Yo Honey Singh is also making strides. His most recent album,Desi Kalakaar, deftly emulates a recent stylistic trend in the U.S.A., namely the New Atlanta sound. The synths are more airy, the vocals are auto-tuned heavily while the hi-hats play consistently throughout the song in the background. It’s a significant shift from the previous paradigm of Punjabi rap. Most rappers before Singh sounded like Punjabi versions of Eminem. With Singh, Punjabi rap has become more nuanced and sentimental. It’s an attempt to glorify South Asian culture in order to make it feel cool. Taking the cutting edge musical conventions of the West, Singh repackages Punjabi rap for a savvy South Asian audience.
The album before Desi Kalaakar was called International Villager, an allusion to what Honey Singh is trying to achieve. He makes music that is grounded in Western trends and perceptions of coolness while also making sure that his target audience, the Indian middle class, can relate to it. His songs, just like most songs of Junoon and Coke Studio, are relatable and alienating at the same time. They serve as a reminder that South Asian music must take elements of Western commercial music to be popular and be seen as cool in its own context. The West guides the trends and South Asia must keep up with the pace and re-appropriate accordingly in order to make its own culture seem relevant. Hence, mainstream music in South Asia is constantly reinventing itself,but it never stands on its own.
Muhammad Usman is deputy opinion editor. Email him at
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