The Arts

33 Years of Strings: How the Pakistani Band Championed Rock Music in the Subcontinent

Having garnered a cult following across the subcontinent, the band hung up its boots last month.

While Pakistan was reeling under the oppressive cultural clampdown of President Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s, a revolutionary rock music scene was brewing underground at universities and five-star hotels. Pop rock band Strings, formed in 1988 in Karachi, was a strong pillar of this movement, capturing the imaginations of millions not only in Pakistan, but across South Asia.

Thirty three years later, the band decided to hang up their boots in March.

“Everything has to end. Thirty three years is a long time. It was going to be never ending. Right now, Strings is loved by all and everything is going well. So, this is a good time to say goodbye,” says vocalist Faisal Kapadia over the phone.

From the very beginning, Strings – which was started in college by Kapadia, songwriter-guitarist Bilal Maqsood, keyboardist Rafiq Wazir Ali and bassist Kareem Bashir Bhoy – wanted to do original music in their native language, following in the footsteps of Vital Signs, whose 1987 single ‘Do Pal Jeevan Ka’ became the first instance of Urdu being used in rock music.

Strings’ eponymous debut album, released in 1990, was a journey in soft rock territories with copious influences of Western synth-pop, glam rock, disco and even rap. This carried into their second album ‘2’ in 1992, which had their first hit ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’. However, Strings disbanded that very year, as its members wanted to focus on their studies.

Sar kiye yeh pahaar
Daryaon ki gehraiyon mein
Tujhe dhoonda hai
Aa bhi ja ekbaar
Mere yaar aise na looto mere
Mann ka karar

(In the heights of the mountains
In the depths of the rivers
Have searched for you
Come at least once
My friend, do not rob me like this
Of my heart’s peace)

– The lyrics of ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar

Finding the indigenous sound

Seven years later, when Maqsood was making ads for a production company, he had an opportunity to compose a song so he roped in Kapadia. Maqsood had a melody in mind which impressed Kapadia enough to want to record it. This melody would eventually become one of their most-well known hits ‘Duur’. The song prompted them to make another album, ‘Duur’ (2000). Thus, Strings was reborn in 1999 with only Kapadia and Maqsood.

While Maqsood composed the songs, the lyrics were penned by his father – poet Anwar Maqsood. Keeping in mind a rock band’s audience, he used language that the younger generation spoke in.

Also read: Inside Coke Studio Pakistan’s Enduring Appeal – and Its Shortcomings

Elaborating on the creative process, Maqsood says, “I usually work on the melody first, not the lyrics. I think about what the song is saying – longing, journey, sadness etc. Then I take it to abba, who writes down several options for me to choose from. This collaborative process continues till we finalise the song.”

Their sound had also evolved out of the Western umbrella now, anchored in a space that had Oriental elements. Says Maqsood, “The little Eastern touch in ‘Duur’s’ melody gave the entire direction for the album. This sound wasn’t present in the music scene then. Only later, we realised the novelty of that element.”

This sound was instantly relatable for crowds in the subcontinent. This was also the time when music videos were becoming a rage and they cashed in on this. In Pakistan as well as in India, Strings’ popularity rose on the wings of channels like MTV and Channel V.

Musically, another turning point was composing the 2003 Cricket World Cup anthem for Pakistan – ‘Hai Koi Hum Jaisa’. The song’s buoyant rhythmic nature was a departure from their laidback sound. “The groove had a desi swing and we had a lot of fun playing it live. Duur’s rhythms didn’t translate into good live songs and we realised what was lacking,” Maqsood says.

So their next album ‘Dhaani’ (2003) ended up having compelling rhythms and complex arrangements with a profound usage of Eastern percussion and flute, cementing the musical direction. The sound of the band had also been established by now – marked by dense instrumentation, tight grooves, subtle background guitar fillers, heavy production and an emphasis on vocals. Though the genre was rock, this sound was removed from its Western strappings. By tracing its roots, the Pakistani band had found its distinctive sound.

Indian connection

Around this time, the band discovered it had a cult following in India as a remixed version of their song ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’ had been doing rounds in Indian clubs. They were also featured on Channel V’s show ‘Jammin’ with singer Sagarika Mukherjee. “The artists met, wrote, composed, arranged and recorded a song in three days. And this was all on camera!” recalls Kapadia.

The resultant ‘Pal’ was one of the two songs on Dhaani that saw collaborations with Indian artists – the other being singer Hariharan. Besides this, Strings has collaborated with folk rock band Euphoria, playback singer Sona Mohapatra and performed with Indian Ocean and Parikrama on multiple occasions.

Also read: As We Celebrate Urdu, Let’s Not Ignore the Signs of Its Decline in India

Their popularity in India peaked with the chart-topping single ‘Yeh Hai Meri Kahani’ for the Sanjay Dutt-John Abraham starrer film Zinda in 2005, followed by ‘Aakhri Alvida’ for Shootout at Lokhandwala two years later. Incidentally, Abraham co-produced the band’s 2008 album ‘Koi Aanay Wala Hai’ and also starred in the title track’s video.

While this cross-border camaraderie was lapped up by fans, it took a hit in 2008 after the terror attack in Mumbai. Anti-Pakistani sentiments grew in India and artists from Pakistan were barred from performing in the country. This cooled off in a few years and artists were able to perform again but that was short-lived. Strings performed its last concert in India in 2014 at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“It’s unfortunate that the artist exchange hits hurdles from time to time,” says Kapadia, who considers India to be his second home. “But music and art transcends boundaries. The love that the people of India has given us – we cannot thank them enough.”

Socio-political songs

While the primary theme of the band’s songs is love, it has ventured into other areas like motivational sports songs as well as journey tunes. Surprisingly, two of their most tender songs, ‘Titliyaan’ and ‘Urr Jaoon’, deal with remembering the dead and death itself. The former reflects on loss while the latter, part of their last album ‘Thirty’ (2019), contemplates the day one dies.

However, their socio-political commentary has largely always been overlooked. Their very first album had a song called ‘Pyasi Zameen’, which reflected the sufferings caused by severe droughts and famines in the Thar region in 1987 and 1988.

The Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006 moved them to write anti-war sentiments in the single ‘Beirut’. Post 2008, the political situation in Pakistan was gradually morphing into dangerous chaos with the increasing activity of terrorist groups. “The air was very different. Pakistan was also going through a very rough time. Bomb blasts were happening in every city and people were dying. Even cricket stopped. That is when Bilal wrote ‘Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga’,” recalls Kapadia. Featuring Atif Aslam, the song urges people to take matters into their own hands and do something to save the country and its people.

Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga:
Kab taak rona padega
Jo hai khona padega
Kehta hu sunlo mere yaar
Ab khud kuch karna padega
Humko jalna padega, marna Padega
Ab khud kuch karna padega

(How long will we cry
Lose what we are losing
Listen to me, my friend
We have to do something now
We have to burn, we have to die
We have to do something now)

– The lyrics of ‘Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga’

From 2013-2017, Strings took on the duties of producing the critically acclaimed TV show Coke Studio Pakistan. Here, they worked with musicians from different musical traditions – from classical music stalwarts such as singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, sitarist Ustad Rais Khan as well as Pakistan’s ‘Baba-e-Pop’ Abida Parveen and Zoheb Hassan of the superduo Nazia and Zoheb.

Despite numerous accolades and performances all over the world, the legacy of Strings is rather elemental – it lies in their unforgettable songs that crowds at their concerts know by heart.

“When you have been performing for three decades, you don’t have to do anything extra to engage people,” says Kapadia, “The songs are the biggest connection.”

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata and interested in music.