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‘Nobody in Karachi whistles anymore’

Posted on June 18, 2006
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Culture & Heritage, History, People, Society
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Adil Najam

Kaleem Omar is a journalist extraordinaire. Prolific, insightful, versatile beyond belief, and always full of surprises. His essay in this weekend’s The News on Sunday (18 June, 2006)‘Nobody in Karachi whistles anymore’ did not disappoint!

In the Karachi of the old days, the city of my youth, one often used to hear people whistling a jaunty tune as they cycled home at night after a movie. Many things in Karachi have changed since then, mostly for the worse. Which probably explains why nobody in Karachi whistles anymore – or, if they do, they do so in secret, as if it were a crime. Indeed, whistling has become so rare now that a whole generation of Karachiites has grown up not even knowing how to whistle – at least not in the way that many members of my generation could whistle entire songs in the old days, including catchy ditties like “Awaara Hoon Mein”, “Jambalaya” and “The Happy Whistler.

Whistling is not the only thing that isn’t heard in Karachi anymore; jazz isn’t heard here either. Back in the 1950s, however, Karachi had many jazz musicians. Most of them belonged to the city’s Goanese community and lived in a section of Saddar some people called “Little Goa”. Romeo Pereira’s bakery in Saddar was famous for its “black bread”. Rodrigues, a tobacconist on Elphinstone Street, was the shop you went to for your favourite blend of pipe tobacco and other smokers’ requisites. Where does one go to buy black bread now? Does today’s generation of Karachiites even know what black bread is?

The entire article is, of course, worth reading. But the custodians of US image abroad might want to pay particular heed to this passage about a time when America exported music rather than fear. The custodians of Pakistan’s image might likewise recall a time when we were possibly more plugged into the global rhythms than we are today.

In the 1950s the US State Department had a programme under which leading American jazz groups were sent to give concerts in cities around the world. Under that programme, such legendary jazz groups as Duke Ellington’s Band, Dizzy Gillespie’s Band and the Dave Bruebeck Quartet (of “Take Five” fame) came to perform in Karachi and Lahore. Duke Ellington’s 60-member jazz band gave two concerts at Karachi’s Metropole Hotel in 1959. The band included such famed musicians as Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves on the alto sax.

When Ellington’s band came to perform in Karachi, some of us jazz groupies informed him during a practice session at the Metropole that we had a local jazz musician [also] named Paul Gonsalves who also played the alto sax. Intrigued, Duke Ellington asked us to bring him over. When Ellington heard him play, he was so impressed by the quality of his playing that he invited him to play at the concert that evening. The American Paul Gonsalves and the Karachi Paul Gonsalves were seated next to each other at the concert. Their free-wheeling jam session brought the house down.

16 comments posted

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  1. yellO.pk says:
    December 14th, 2009 1:07 am

    Whistle??? I had absolutely forgotten about this carefree act of whistling till i read your blog..

    I remember the times when all the cousins used to go up to the roof, gaze up at the starry night (yes stars were visible back then) and whistle to our own tunes!

    But i guess us stopping to whistle or even know how to whistle is coz of two major reasons.. One is cultural, meaning if a guy whistles, he’s probably teasing a girl.. And if a girl whistles, she has bad manners..

    The second reason is political.. People are so engrossed in their own busy lives, with so many tensions and political tensions topping them, that people just forget about the feeling of being carefree!

    Although if anyone wants to find about specialties of Karachi, they should visit http://yello.pk/business, it has all the businesses listed, even lassi walas.. :)

  2. Jamal says:
    July 17th, 2009 3:11 pm

    The current state of affairs is but the result of napatism and the very fact that one particular community of the country thinks they own every thing i am sure all the people who read and wrrite this are also from the very same community.

    Perhaps we need to change the name of the country from Pakistan to Punjab.

  3. July 14th, 2007 2:57 am

    There is likely more whistling than has been noticed.

  4. zaeem says:
    May 26th, 2007 10:17 am

    salamz
    i need old karachi pictures…
    plz send me
    zaeem67@yahoo.com

  5. September 16th, 2006 12:21 am

    [...] Karachi has a wonderful history that is neither discussed nor celebrated as much as the history of Mughal Lahore (see ATP post here). As we saw from the earlier ATP post on ‘whistling’ in Karachi (here), there is much interest in this, certainly from me. As someone who grew up in Karachi, the most I was taught about its history revolved around the history of its name (derived from the town of Mai Kolachi) and that the Venetian gothic style buildings were remnants of the British cantonments and Karachi’s short-lived existence as the capital city of Pakistan. (See some historical video footage of Karachi on ATP here). [...]

  6. Murtaza says:
    August 14th, 2006 4:49 am

    well, mini bus conductors still whistle! but i guess they too would be a dying breed with all the metro buses and green buses and what not…

  7. Aziz Akhmad says:
    August 13th, 2006 11:52 pm

    Vagabond,

    I just noticed your comment and it reminded me an amusing experience a couple of years ago when I decided to visit my ancestral village, which I had never seen. (Searching for roots, I guess.) It is a small village located in a remote mountains of Mansehra district in N.W.F. P.

    The last 6 miles of the journey were on a very steep and narrow dirt track up a mountain slope. Only one jeep plied up and down the track once every day. The jeep was a bare-bone contraption with no gadgets or dials and no seats other than the driver’s. The track was so narrow that it could barely accomodate all the four tires. There were sharp turns, and thousands of feet below flowed the Indus River. The passengers tumbled at every turn and hung on to whatever they could find in the jeep — mostly each other. Some quietly recited a prayer at each turn. There was hardly any population along the track. Only a few goats and scattered mud houses dotted the mountain slope.

    After a particularly sharp turn I noticed a nicely made signboard at some distance ahead of us that looked like a well-made traffic sign. I couldn’t read it but guessed that it must be a warning of another sharp turn ahead. I was amazed and impressed by the thoughtfulness of the person or the administration for taking the trouble of putting up a traffic sign in such a desolate and inaccessible place where there was hardly any traffic. When we came closer, however, and were able to read the sign it said, “yahaN par gana bajana mana’ hai — ba-hukam nazim Oghi” (playing music is prohibited here — by the orders nazim Oghi)!!!

    You are right, no one may whistle anywhere, anymore!

  8. Rizwan says:
    July 13th, 2006 10:58 am

    Well folks in Pakistan have no concept of preservation of their heritage. Be it architecture, music, literature.

    Classic/historical buildings are torn down only to be replaced by office buildings and shopping plazas. Examples would be the Palace Hotel, Metropole, gothic styled buildings on Victoria Road, Colonial houses around Parsi Colony and Quaid’s Mazar.

    Similarly, Classical music is dying a slow death in Pakistan.

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