Artist Session #09: Natasha Noorani (PK) on her sense of liberation in carving her own path in the Golden Era of the modern Pakistani music scene

Artist Session #09: Natasha Noorani (PK) on her sense of liberation in carving her own path in the Golden Era of the modern Pakistani music scene

We have always had this strange relationship with older tunes from an era of Indian and Pakistani Cinema (‘Bollywood’ and ‘Lollywood’). These songs have been a massive part of shaping our understanding of music and also help us understand each other through a lens of unity and oneness. Previously, I spoke about how ‘The growing role of diversity, inclusion and cultural history is contributing to the power of Youth Culture in South East Asia’, and thanks to Srishti’s persistence, we had the opportunity to speak with one of the leading artists who has played a vital part in amplifying the Pakistani Music Scene to where it stands at the moment. Natasha Noorani - a self-confessed nerd, musician, curator, and music archivist from Lahore, Pakistan, spoke to Srishti and me about her childhood memories of creating Winamp playlists to her bold declaration of artistic freedom with 'Ronaq', Natasha's story is one of resilience, liberation, and authenticity. 

Join us as we explore her journey from her first EP 'Munaasib' to her whimsical sound of “Depression Pop” with ‘Ronaq’, navigating societal expectations and carving her own unique identity in the Pakistani music scene. With insights into her collaboration with Talal Qureshi, her academic pursuits in Ethnomusicology, and her dedication to preserving Pakistan's musical heritage through initiatives like Peshkash. For Srishti, Natasha takes her back to Biryani Brothers with Zahra Paracha from Sikandar ka Mandar, Risham Faiz Bhutta, Towers and Takatak. Both women are graduates of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Noorani earned a degree in political science and Paracha in sociology-anthropology. They are active contributors to the LUMS music society and founders of Lahore Music Meet, a music festival held in Lahore each year. In this piece, Natasha shares her vision for the future of Pakistani music, and we are here for it.

Akriti: When did your journey with music begin? Can you share some of your cherished musical memories from your childhood? 

Natasha Noorani: I grew up surrounded by music even though I didn’t come from a “musical background”. I fondly recall my mom's red cassette deck, equipped with two cassette players. Despite being restricted from using the internet, which was how kids were raised back then, I used the computer to explore the world of music through CDs. At the age of 10-11, I spent countless hours crafting Winamp playlists and downloading songs via torrents, which I then transferred from computer to cassette to CD.

My passion for music was nurtured further by my mother's eclectic playlists and my older siblings' hand-me-down cassettes. Every car ride was accompanied by music and I actively engaged with it rather than passively listening. Music has always been intertwined with my family life, providing cherished memories and a deep connection with my siblings. Indus Music became my preferred TV channel, along with the likes of MTV and Channel V.

Akriti: When did you start making music and what was the experience like when you were starting out?

Natasha: At 14, I pooled together money to buy a guitar and taught myself to play using lyric books and tabs, embracing the "jugaad" approach, which I feel is still present in my life. Despite the limited economic viability of pursuing a music career in Pakistan at the time, I was determined to become a musician. I seized every opportunity to perform, even calling into radio shows to share my music, so my journey as a musician began with a go-getter attitude that eventually led to invitations to prominent national radio shows. 

One thing I was aware of from the beginning and even now is that music is the most spiritual connection I’ve had throughout my life, allowing me to connect with my inner child and find joy and healing. I strive to keep that connection alive.

Srishti Das: Just quickly, where did you grow up? I ask because our countries have such a wild history. The perception has always been that we are incredibly different from each other. In reality, we are literally the same. The way that you grew up, your memories of music as a child, are precisely my memories. And sometimes, when I look at music videos, for instance Aise Kaise by Hassan Raheem, it looks like my house outside Noida (Uttar Pradesh, India).

Natasha: Yeah, it's strange because I was fortunate to visit Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra when I was 12. When I got there, I couldn't help but notice the striking similarities to Lahore. I remember thinking, "Is this what we travelled all this way for?" It felt like déjà vu, with preserved old buildings serving as familiar landmarks, even my mother was thriving in the chaos of the city bazaars and bargaining through Janpath (a market district in New Delhi, India).

Even later in life, during a Goethe scholarship program in Germany in 2018 or 2019, I met a musician from Delhi who initially seemed wary of me, a Pakistani. However, as we interacted, she realised our similarities in mannerisms and speech. It's amusing how cultural differences can sometimes be exaggerated. In the end, it's just nothing more than a trivial matter.

Srishti: Yeah, I think it's definitely blown way out of proportion. How do you feel about it? I mean, there is clearly an edge to Pakistani Music that is always unique and makes it different from the Indian sound.

Natasha: I love this because I understand it from both vantage points because in Pakistan, all artists have this desire to explore the Indian music scene. Yet, there’s a stark contrast in resources and opportunities. It's akin to having twins, one thriving in comfort while the other struggles amidst chaos. The outcomes reflect these disparities, with Pakistani music often characterised by its raw, independent spirit. In 2024, the emergence of record labels in Pakistan marks a significant shift, but much of the music scene remains fiercely independent, devoid of the massive machinery seen in Bollywood.

While challenges persist, there's an undeniable charm in Pakistani artists' authenticity and self-reliance. We may not have Bollywood's resources, but there's a sense of liberation in carving our own path, free from external influences. It's an exhilarating journey to witness and be a part of.

To see the music that comes out of both these spaces is what the difference is. If you look at Pakistan in 2024, you have your first record labels dipping their toes into the scene. I had to start a festival when I was 23 years old because there was nothing like it. Everything you hear is purely independent. I think the music that's been coming from Pakistan especially the last three years, is unadulterated, unfiltered, self-made and self-taught, which is fun for me to see as well.

Akriti: I noticed that there’s such a shift from your first EP, ‘Munaasib’ and your recent album ‘Ronaq’. I definitely sense that ‘Ronaq’ was more playful and has a very 70’s Nazia Hassan dancey vibe, polar opposite of what ‘Munaasib’ was. Tell us a little about your approach to making the album.

Natasha: In Pakistan, the music landscape during most of my life, until maybe five-six years ago was predominantly Rock-centric. As someone who grew up as a Metalhead, I also grew up as an R&B/Pop listener too, so a lot of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Usher and early Beyonce. That’s the space I connected with and there wasn't much room for artists because the scene was so insular, unless you were a virtuoso who played Jazz, Prog, Rock, and a bit of everything, there was no space for you.

That's where ‘Munaasib’ comes in. It was a milestone for me, not just musically but emotionally as well. It was a testament to my growth and resilience in navigating the daunting world of music production and release. With its complex compositions and intricate arrangements, it reflected my passion for artists like Jordan Rakei, Hiatus Kaiyote  and Tool, coupled with the youthful angst that fueled my creativity at the time.

‘Ronaq' was released nearly five years later, marking a significant period of personal and artistic evolution. I lived a life between both albums. I think I found more of myself as opposed to me having to serve whatever was around me in many ways, so ‘Ronaq’ is me being genuinely free. I started writing some of the songs back when I was in London, getting a degree in Ethnomusicology from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). During the time between both albums, I was torn between societal expectations and my aspirations. ‘Ronaq’ represents a liberation of sorts, a manifestation of my true self without the constraints of external judgments or insecurities. It's a deeply personal album I created primarily for myself as a means of self-expression and exploration.

Srishti: How was it like working with Talal Qureshi on your record?

Natasha: I was bothered by judgement and expectations from my peers, especially after all the work and education I took on. It were these musical socio-political issues that are there with the craft and how maybe if ‘Ronaq’ released 6 to 10 years ago in Pakistan, people would probably say this is not poetry, or it’s not correct since it’s fully Electronic. You see, making music is always political in a country like Pakistan and I carried a lot of that because I studied music history, and spent my life curating and hanging around way too many music uncles (men) who kept feeding in their thought processes. That's where I credit Talal, because he was the best producer I could ask for and he constantly reminded me to not be so afraid during the making of the album. His encouragement and guidance allowed me to shed my self-imposed limitations and fully embrace my artistic identity. Despite the challenges of navigating Pakistan's music scene, with its penchant for conformity and tradition, ‘Ronaq’ emerged as my personal bold statement of individuality and authenticity. The album traverses various genres, from infectious dance beats to soulful R&B melodies, reflecting my diverse influences and experiences. 

Srishti: Me and Akriti have had these conversations about Ronaq's whimsicality. No wonder some of these tracks are being used by drag queens in New York City because we’re in that era where it’s finally ok to feel like yourself and express yourself in whatever way feels true to yourself. It's great to see!

Natasha: Absolutely! Femininity is such a difficult thing to deal with in a generally right-wing society. I am a full figured Punjabi bodied woman and I have very long hair, which is almost like my armour. While I was growing up in the industry, I was working back-end jobs at Coke Studio, I was a manager and did a lot of backstage stuff and ran a festival as well. So, to be taken seriously in these extremely male-dominated spaces, I found that I had to not look like a woman sometimes. It helps to be wearing just black T-shirts and black pants because firstly, they can't sexualize you and secondly, they take you seriously.

Three-four years ago, if you see Biryani Brothers Natasha, she was not this colourful individual, but It’s really about taking my power back as I stand tall, and wearing the clothes that I have inherited. Also, If you wore a sari every day, people would look at you and say, “Oh my god, this is so extra! Do you need to be this extra?” Yes, now I have to be extra and only to serve myself because now I've understood the gaze through which I want to be perceived and that is the only gaze I am accepting. That is the only currency that I am accepting.

Akriti: I’m very fascinated by the fact that you studied Ethnomusicology from SOAS, London. What made you want to study music in its societal and cultural context? 

Natasha: It's something that I've always been obsessed with. It’s just the thing that I always was known for - listening to music or making a tape for a wedding or an event. I am an academic, and I can’t just separate that from the Instagram Natasha. I have a degree in Political Science and I was writing about music. In 2015, my fellow Biryani Brothers co-founder Zahra Paracha, started a music festival called Lahore Music Meet and we've done this for five years now. The purpose of that was there was no industry, we were young individuals who wanted to be musicians but there was no real way to do it unless you were born into a musical family or had lots of money and also, being women just made it harder. We started that festival and since both of us are academics, we were simultaneously working on our thesis’ just before we conceptualised the festival and thought, why don't we just do our research through the festival? So the festival was also rooted in a lot of education and learning. So while I didn’t focus on music education, I always cared about what is the politics of music in Pakistan. Because in Pakistan, music is purely political. For instance, with Ronaq - lyrically it isn't political but just me making music in itself is a statement, it is political. The baseline was charged with so many layers of socio-ethnological and anthropological things that come with it, that was something I wanted to understand. In Pakistan, we don't know other than the four or five artists that you would even know, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Nazia Hasan, and Noor Jahan. These are the only names that Pakistanis know because no institution did the  actual labour of writing a book or making resources, there is no system because there is also this conflict about what is Pakistani Classical music because classical music predates partition. I have just been trying to understand how I could fit those pieces together to both serve the industry through the festival, through my work and curation, so that I am also drawing from here as opposed to being like, I want to be the new Dua Lipa of Pakistan, which is actually what people are trying to do. When I went for my master's in 2018, I knew that my dissertation was about the 60s-70s Pakistani music and the Pop ecosystem. The drive existed because there's constant erasure of our culture, and so for me to study ethnomusicology was very important because no one in Pakistan was going to teach me this. I wanted to learn about all the cultural moments in the past because I believed it would help me navigate through the future. 

I also started an archive called Peshkash. We have an Instagram page where I've been spending the last four years archiving vinyls, saving old cassettes from being burned or lost and making sure that our heritage exists. I am eventually hoping that when I have time and resources, to make it an open access kind of platform so that anyone can listen to it. I have no desire to profit from it, I just want for people to be able to learn about the history of Pakistani music. 

Srishti: That is amazing, I think trying to learn more about the history of the music culture you represent is definitely a great way to understand where it may go in the future and also promote what is sought after the most today - authenticity. I would like to know, who are some of your favourite up and coming Pakistani artists whom you've been listening to or who you are obsessed with and maybe some Indian ones as well?

Natasha:  I love Annural Khalid, she is one of the best songwriters of our generation and it is such a treat to watch her work. I love Bilal Baloch and I've been lucky enough to listen to a lot of his unreleased stuff so I can say for sure that he is really doing a lot, especially for somebody who is a big R&B fan like I am. I'm also listening to a lot of Chaar Diwari and Yash Raj. Chaar Diwari is the kind of frenzy I need in my life. Hopefully, I'll eventually do a collaboration with him. 

Akriti: Awesome. Definitely some favourites there. My last question - how have you seen the Pakistani scene grow in the last three years? 

Natasha: My theory is that Commercial music in Pakistan and these commercial entities manufactured these certain artists, who then ended up working whatever concert circuits they were and so on and so forth. All this was infrastructure that existed before COVID. But during COVID, a lot of these artists were not really making original music, but were relying on whatever commercial songs they would make once a year. They somehow faded and what that left was space for independent artists in the truest form that I've seen in Pakistan.

Then, you had the Hassan's and the Talal's, the Maanu's and Anural's and even Shae (Gill) was uploading so many covers and videos of herself. Even that in itself was so different and so new and it just made way for something so new. This is the first time I've seen a music ecosystem or economy in Pakistan and I've researched and lived it for a while. But I think it is just the start. I am super hopeful about it. I think now is when we're finally getting into a rhythm as an industry and we are finally being taken seriously on a global scale and it's about damn time. There is a differentiation of what the Pakistani sound is now and there is a fan base. This is also the first time where the art and the audience have actually connected. Good music never stopped happening in Pakistan at any given moment. There were always tons of artists making phenomenal music. It was just timing. What COVID did was it freed all of us to just reset the entire ecosystem to be like, hello! Let's serve the people what they want to hear and people want to feel connected to something that is larger than themselves. I think we're at that point where we realise that we’re up and up. I have also been thinking about what could be done a bit differently about the cultural cliqueness that comes every time a scene comes around. I've been in the industry from the back end, front end and through the last 10-ish years and I've been following it actively even before that, but for at least the last decade I have been a part of it. Firstly, There needs to be more spaces for women to be pursuing their art because there are more than enough spaces for the boys and that in itself breeds a lot of cliqueness. I do think that there needs to be more thought and knowing that things can implode in any situation if you aren't mindful of each other and create spaces that are truly open for all and then when you make them open for all you're able to have that communication and be okay being called out on things like for instance, it’s important for me to have people who are honest about me as a person or as an artist and if I'm making choices that aren't working because I don't have a team that is designed for this. I need to keep friends and colleagues around me that are doing that. So less crews and more moves. That is my advice.

Check out the HIVEWIRE playlist - The Hive

One 'The Hive' is where our diverse team shares new music and trends from emerging markets. New additions this week: