Pakistan: Rock guitarist keeps music scene alive despite state-wide fear and censorship

15 September 2014

Pakistan is internationally known for its state-sponsored censorship and terrorists’ attacks on musicians and music shops. But in the capital, the music scene is in a fast transition. Meet Islamabad’s maestro guitarist Zeejah Fazli who works hard to help fix Pakistan’s broken and battered music industry.

By Annie Zaman with additional reporting by Sahar Ghazi


Zeejah Fazli’s Rock Musicarium became the country’s first private sector facility to create, promote and preserve Pakistani music. Image taken from his Facebook page

When Zeejah Fazli bought his first guitar at a bookshop in Islamabad in the 1980s, he was just a 12-year-old Jeff Beck fan, and Pakistan’s capital did not have a single music shop. Music and artistic censorship was at its peak.

Today, Zeejah is an accomplished guitarist, as well as an entrepreneur who is trying to turn the tide for Islamabad’s young rock musicians. State censorship of the arts has been waning since 2002, but musicians in the country still struggle to churn their talent into sustainable careers.

In Pakistan, music has not yet developed into a full industry. Most musicians act as both artists and entrepreneurs – they handle all aspects of music production and distribution themselves, from creativity to finance and marketing.

Since 2007, musicians have further been at risk due to the political turmoil and the constant threat of terrorism in the country.

In areas like the north-west province, Khyber Pakhtonkhwa of Pakistan, many artists fall victim to the Taliban, who are anti-music. Attacks on musicians, venues, music shops, and shrines which host music are common.

Artists that choose to migrate to internet spaces face difficulty as well. YouTube, used as a platform for sharing and distributing music, was banned in Pakistan in 2012, and Facebook pages have been blocked.

Meanwhile, Zeejah is one of several young entrepreneurs to work to improve the situation, which in Zeejah’s case includes starting an NGO to create and facilitate non-corporate opportunities for musicians and organizing Islamabad’s first large-scale music festival.

Tv exposure flourishes – live music suffers
While artists struggle with live concerts and album distribution, they have received some relief from Pakistan’s booming private broadcast industry. Pakistan now has dozens of cable tv channels, several of which feature “studio session” shows inspired by MTV’s Unplugged and sponsored by big corporations in the country.

The most famous of these, Coke Studio, was created by Coca Cola in 2008 and is currently entering its seventh season. It features live in-studio performances of different genres of music and has become one of the most popular music tv series in Asia. Coke Studio sessions are viewable on tv as well as on Youtube and Vimeo.

Coke Studio has inspired a series of copycat variations backed up by corporations like major cellular provider Ufone’s ‘Uth Records’ and instant coffee giant Nescafe’s ‘Nescafe Basement’.

However, since there is no infrastructure for live music, royalty collection, and paid distribution, there is no way to turn social media popularity into revenue.

“The music industry cannot survive on television alone, no matter how many Coke Studios and Pakistan Idols come up,” wrote musician and writer Arieb Azhar in a piece for “The real sources of bread and butter are regular, live music gigs.”

“Music is not only production – it is live performances,” said Zeejah Fazli: “If you produce a CD and are unable to perform, then your music will go no where. The environment for live performances is not friendly – no venues, no security. Musicians are playing at weddings and corporate events. I would say this industry is driven by weddings and corporate events.”

Alternative models
Artists in Pakistan are struggling to find ways to survive, and they are coming up with different models. Singer and composer Haroon Rashid came up with the idea of (“Taazi” means “fresh” in Urdu.) is an artist-friendly website where artists can upload and release their work and collect royalties.

Zeejah and Azhar both are positive about this new project. “It is a great step. It is difficult to collect royalty when there is no performance and one has to find ways to make money.”

Zeejah himself has taken steps to support music beyond the sphere of weddings and corporate events.

In 2004, Zeejah founded the Forum for Art, Culture, and Education (FACE) – a non-governmental organisation dedicated to “strengthen, empower, and educate communities through the universal language of arts and through cultural interactions” by facilitating music exchanges and hosting seminars, conferences, festivals, events, workshops, lectures and forums.

FACE aims to act as an informational resource to up-and-coming musicians and composers working across different genres.

“It provides all the answers for a young, ambitious music lover who wants to pursue her career in music in the country. There was no platform, guide or mentor for me when I was younger but I would want the upcoming musicians to have it,” Zeejah told with a half smile on his face.

Most recently, FACE organised the ‘Music Mela’ in May 2014, in collaboration with the Pakistani-American Alumni Network (PUAN). It was the first ever music festival of this size in Islamabad.


“It was a three-day festival with workshops and conferences going on simultaneously. We invited folk, rock and pop musicians. We focused on regional diversity and invited recognised folk artists who are not necessarily commercial and popular,” Zeejah explained proudly.

A music festival in Pakistan which brought tens of thousands of people together and showcased Pakistani artists was an impressive cultural accomplishment and a step towards creating the sort of community that could one day facilitate a sustainable music industry. For Zeejah, it was also a dream come true.

Why the industry is broken
While Zeejah was teaching himself to play the guitar, a decade-long Islamisation policy in Pakistan crippled the country’s entertainment industry with restrictive censorship policies. Its effect lasted well into the 1990s.

Back then musicians were lucky if their videos made the cut for the country’s only TV station, which was run by the government. Musicians relied on gigs from colleagues, corporations and weddings to make ends meet.

Just when things started to look up at the turn of the millennia, the US invaded neighbouring Afghanistan and Islamic militants took their fury out on Pakistan, a US ally, by bombing public places in previously peaceful cities. Putting a concert together suddenly carried high risks, which most sponsors weren’t willing to bear.

“Some extremist religious parties are condemning music,” says Zeejah, “and it’s not just music – they also want women to wear hijab, and for men not having a beard calls for problem. Those areas it is risky to play music. Unfortunately, these areas are under huge influence of certain entities, which are not true representative of the culture. Regardless of the situation people do express their interest in music and perform in hidden places. And if somebody pulls them out of that area and bring them in place where art is more acceptable, they would love to perform.”

Many of Pakistan’s commercial success stories – musicians such as Rahat Fateh Ali, Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar – made it by getting integrated into India’s multi-billion dollar Bollywood industry.

Indian music producers and distributors help them make money in India and internationally by arranging concerts targeting their hundreds of thousands of South Asian fans around the world. Once they make it in India, they can charge up to $20,000 a pop for private concerts or weddings in Pakistan.

Without the ‘Bollywood appeal’, Pakistan’s talented rock musicians are faced with economical challenges, because they are unable to reach an audience large enough to make a living from their music.

The birth of Pakistani rock
Zeejah had no music teacher but he knew he wanted to play guitar. At the time Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, who denounced Western culture and music.

Soon after he came into power, his administration put a series of legal and procedural measures in place to limit the distribution of pop music on the country’s only tv channel – the state-run Pakistan Television, PTV. The film industry and the country’s cinemas and film distributors were also heavily taxed. Soon the only source of music distribution was PTV and government-run Pakistan Radio. One by one, studios and theatres in Pakistan’s once booming film industry started to pull their shutters.

Although the 1980s era was marked by Zia’s tough rhetoric against Western music, it is now also widely regarded as the incubator of Pakistan’s homegrown rock music.

Listening to international guitarists and teaching himself, Zeejah excelled and formed a rock band in early 1990s called Elixir. Benazir Bhutto succeeded Haq, and under her democratic government, things started to get better for musicians. PTV again featured pop music. However, rock music was still not commercially viable.

“It was a funny time back then that we were invited to play on weddings,” recalls Zeejah: “Pakistani music was running by weddings and corporates. That was the time I thought, how do people who don’t play pop get recognised in this field? I realised there is no solid platform for a person like me who plays rock.”

He took a break from music to concentrate on his studies. Zeejah completed an MBA program and started a pharmaceutical business. “I thought that the music industry did not have anything to offer to a musician like me. I didn’t pursue it as a career and there came a gap in my music career. I was still playing guitars but at home.”

From open-mic sessions to Rock Musicarium
In 1999, another military dictator came into power in Pakistan. Unlike Zia-ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf took a series of steps to open up the country’s film, arts and music industry.

With Zeejah’s business doing well, things started rolling for him with music as well. He secured comfortable living in well-planned and leafy Islamabad and began producing and recording regularly after his 9-to-5 job.

In 2004, Zeejah joined forces with his like-minded friends Zaman Armaghan and Arieb Azhar, and developed jam sessions named ‘Sweet Leaf City Jam.”

“I invited all musician friends to come and jam and take out all of their frustration. It became so popular in the city that people start to come regularly to attend the jams,” said Zeejah.

As ‘Sweet Leaf City Jam’ become more frequent, so were the complaints of his neighbours, who were not accustomed to late night jams in the sleepy capital.

First they took Sweet Leaf to woods in the Margalla Hills in the outskirts of the city. Then in 2009, Zeejah sought help from the government department that handles concert approvals and land ownership, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to open a bigger venue.

With the CDA’s help, they were able to acquire land near the Rawal Lake and build a venue also in the outskirts of the capital, which they dubbed The Rock Musicarium. The Musicarium quickly outgrew its open mic roots.

“Initially it was just a continuity of the open mic sessions we were having earlier, but in a more organised way,” tells Zeejah. “But we invested more than required and it became commercially not viable for us. Small jamming sessions wouldn’t sustain such a big place.”

By 2010, the Rock Musicarium was a fully functional amphitheater, cafe, and recording studio. It has hosted many concerts and events by underground and popular bands of every genre – from underground band Bambu Sauce to popular band Noori.

Noori performs at Rock Musicarium in 2012, uploaded by YouTube user 00alihassan

A global mission
The Musicarium lives on, though Zeejah is no longer involved in it. Instead, he has been working hard on FACE, which has broadened its scope to partner with the US state department on cultural exchange.

The copy on FACE’s website reads, “these projects focus on introduction of American music to Pakistan and are vital for the empowerment of arts and artists, keeping in view the aspect of mutual benefit of two countries, and introducing and exchanging the culture for better understanding. The goal of these programs is also to have interactive session with the local musicians displaying cultural harmony and friendship. The acts can get fused together naturally and spontaneously and the musicians can show their skills by creating an interesting and novel expression never heard before in a unique setting.”

Although Zeejah has come a long way on his music journey, his ambitions grow ever larger. Through his ongoing work with FACE and the Music Mela, Zeejah hopes to extend his reach beyond Islamabad, to impact Pakistan and the world’s perception of Pakistan alike.

» Zeejah’s home page:

» Zeejah’s Rock Musicarium:


This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide and Global Voices for The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Annie Zaman with additional reporting by Sahar Ghazi, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.

“Since 2001, 12 women have been reportedly killed because of their direct involvement in music in North Western Pakistan. Approximately 600 musicians suffered due to the closure of Dabgari Bazar during the MMA government. Around 50 Sufi shrines have been reportedly attacked and an estimated 150 attacks on CD shops and music centres have left an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 shops and centres destroyed.”

Read the report: Religious extremism disastrous to music in Pakistan
Report by Center for Peace and Cultural Studies (CPCS) in Peshawar in collaboration with Freemuse, March 2014.

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