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Digital Piracy Kills The Pashtun Music Star

Music piracy has had a devastating impact on once-ubiquitous Pashtun music shops and stands. (file photo)
Music piracy has had a devastating impact on once-ubiquitous Pashtun music shops and stands. (file photo)
When future generations ask who silenced Pashtun music, the Taliban won’t get the blame – it will be piracy.

The “pirates” are easily identifiable – they are the young men armed with laptops who can be found on street corners throughout northwestern Pakistan. Word on the street is that they are the ones to talk to when you need the latest hit.

Within minutes, they can upload whatever you need onto memory sticks, smart phones, or blank CDs at a fraction of the cost of buying the original recordings.

Combined with the scores of dedicated Pashto-music websites offering unlimited free downloads, these modern-day pirates are heralding the demise of a cultural icon.

The Pashtun music industry provides a livelihood for thousands all the way up the chain – from musicians to producers to retailers. The once-ubiquitous music shops that anchored bazaars orchestrated the entire process, recording new musicians, printing the cassettes that remained popular far after the advent of the CD, and selling the product on the spot.

The loss of revenue caused by piracy has closed many shops and left others teetering on bankruptcy, which means less investment in new artists, which means less music.

Sardar Yousafzai's is one of the most famous Pashtun singers. He remembers the days when music-shop owners used to get into bidding wars for the right to record him.

WATCH: Pashtun singer Sardar Yousafzai

Now, he says, many musicians are forced out of necessity to pay the music shops if they want their music recorded. And even then the shops are reluctant to print the music onto cassettes or CDs, knowing that once the digital pirates get hold of them they will almost certainly lose money.

Desperate And Vulnerable

Yousafzai, 44, has invested his life in Pashtun music, which is known for both its stirring and calming melodies as well as its emotive folk songs.

In 2008, he survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in his hometown of Malakand. But now he maintains that the militant group which considers music and entertainment un-Islamic is the least of his worries.

"Artists in our society are now the most desperate and vulnerable people because they can't do anything else," he says. "They have dedicated their lives to their professions. What else can they learn and adopt now [as a profession]?"

Yousafzai claims that Pashtun superstars of yesterday now struggle for mere survival. In his conversations with fellow singers and musicians, the discussion often drifts to individual tales of misery and desperation.

"I often tell them that all of us are sick because we suffer from constant tension," he says. "It's not only that we worry about becoming victims of terrorism. We all have become destitute because the profession that helped us in earning a livelihood is of no value any longer."

Such perceptions are widely shared in the music industry.

Sohail Khan, the owner of a music shop in Peshawar, considers himself one of a dying breed of Pashtun music-industry elite.

His Sangam Music House located at a crowded Pehawar bazaar was once the go-to place for musicians and singers. His shop doubled as a recording studio and became a pillar of the Pashtun music industry through its financing, production, and distribution of new tunes.

Pashtun music has a huge fanbase in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pashtun music has a huge fanbase in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The middle-aged Khan had the money to invest in the industry – his shop has some 700 albums to its credit -- and the payoff was lucrative. Customers bought new recordings -- usually released on cassette ahead of important Muslim festivals -- in the tens of thousands.

Today the Sangam Music House is among the few such shops that remain in Peshawar's ancient bazaar. Scores more have been closed in Peshawar and other major cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

A Complicated Picture

According to Khan, he used to rake in thousands of dollars a month in profits, but now finds it difficult to pay his bills and look after his family.

"The good old days are over," he says. "We are in a grave crisis and our business is ruined. We don't have any savings now. It is even difficult to meet our expenses."

Khan says Pashto stars such as Khyal Muhammad, Gulzar Alam, and Nazia Iqbal offer him money to release new albums, but he finds it hard to sell even their music because of piracy. He says the authorities fail to enforce copyrights despite protests from the music industry.

WATCH: A live performance by Nazia Iqbal

In Islamabad, officials paint a complicated picture of the effort to fight piracy.

Saifullah, an official of the Pakistan Intellectual Property Organization, says that this body is helping the Pashtun music industry form a Collective Management Organization and a Performing Rights Society so that the Pashtun investors and artists can protect themselves.

He claims he has advised the Pashtun music industry elite to take legal action against pirates, using existing laws.

"We don't have any specific analysis [about the scale of piracy] in the Pashtun music industry," he says. "But we can say that the problem is very big and this industry is in dire straits because of it. One of the problems is that even the legal copyright owners do not know that our country has copyright laws, and even the current laws are sufficient to deter violations of their copyright."

Expressing his personal, not professional, opinion, Saifullah points out that, since its formation in 2005 the Pakistan Intellectual Property Organization has worked hard to spread awareness of intellectual property rights.

The body was set up in response to international pressure after Pakistan emerged as a leading piracy hub, churning out millions of bootlegged DVD and CD copies of Hollywood movies and Western music.

But back in violence-wracked Peshawar, the enforcement of copyright laws seems like wishful thinking.

Karan Khan, a rising star of Pashto music, is proud of his burgeoning fan base among the Pashtun youth in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he believes that unfettered piracy is clouding the future of the Pashtun music industry.

"I do not see this [piracy] ending soon because everybody here has a USB [memory stick], or a smart phone, or a digital radio, or access to the Internet," he says. "And they can download and listen to as much music as they want."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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