‘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 on “‘Nobody in Karachi whistles anymore’”

  1. June 18th, 2006 11:09 pm

    Reader Mayraj Fahim writes to report of some very interesting work she has been doing in Karachi as an expert on local government, but also elsewhere in the world on “bottom-up 3-tier system with the neighborhood (union council in Pakistan terminology) as core unit” of governance.

    She has written about local governance in Karachi as well as elsewhere:

    Fascinating stuff for urban planners but also for anyone interested in local governance. Maybe we can explore urban governance in Pakistan in more detail later.

  2. June 18th, 2006 11:10 pm

    Yes, the pictures are Karachi. Top picture is Elphinstone Street and bottom one is Clifton. I beleiev both in the 1930s. BTW, Kaleem Omar is writing about the 1950 and 1960s.

  3. June 19th, 2006 1:18 am

    Very interesting piece…it reminds me of someone I know trying to make a point that Nostalgic Indian music was far more superior than present day Indian or Pakistani music combined. I, of course being the musician and listener that I am, responded by immediately calling his point non-sense and that he has no clue as to what music is. Later on, I pondered upon why so many people who grew up in the 50’s and the 60’s like the songs of that era better than modern day music. It dawned upon me that its nothing but nostalgia and the fact that there used to be far less movies and music made at that time, therefore not much to compare with (not to mention bad sound quality). Older generations always try to put down the newer generations when it comes to things like creativity and education. When you compare yesterdays music industry to today’s, well you cant. The sound quality is amazing because of the technology, videos have gone into multi-dimensional photography and lyrics also have not fallen that far behind.

    Obviously Mr. Kaleem Omar has seen the bright days in Karachi, and my generation hasn’t but not all is lost. If watching “Jurassic Parkâ€

  4. iFaqeer says:
    June 20th, 2006 5:02 am

    Why so defensive, Altamash? I love the Strings and others, too. But I took Kaleem Omar (who I also avoided reading for decades because his work just didn’t talk to me) to be point out something that most of our peers would find hard to believe: that Karachi once was an integral part of world culture and civilization, not the violence-torn backwater even we (read your own post) often think of it as. I personally, I don’t buy that it’s ever been or is un-connected to the rest of the world, but to have that view challenged once in a while is a good thing.

    And I hear the Metropole is no more? Adil, can you find/post stuff on it? Anyone else?

  5. Altamash Mir says:
    June 20th, 2006 11:59 am

    Well, the picture that Mr. Kaleem Omar drew of Karachi, was so bleak that I had to express myself. The point was that no matter how much you try to suppress the nature of a being, it will somehow and someday learn to express itself in the only way it knows how. Hence the Jurrasic Park example, where scientists re-created dinosaurs and gave them an environment to grow but when they made all of the dinosaurs, they made every single one of them of the female sex. A few months later, the dinosaurs starting reproducing “asexually”.
    The point that the writer was trying to make (my understanding) was that Karachi has lost its culture, or its exposure to the west via western music. I would say that some of the music being produced in Pakistan, especially Karachi is by far much better than most parts of the world with similar economic and historic standing.
    The Metropole might have been closed, but there are not only more concerts happenning but are also Night Clubs (not necessarily a good thing) popping up.

  6. iFaqeer says:
    June 21st, 2006 4:58 pm

    That I agree with. And what I was saying by pointing out that I never bought into Karachi not being plugged into the rest of the world at any point.

  7. FS says:
    June 23rd, 2006 9:56 am

    I was born in Karachi in 1974, and lived in Pakistan for about 1 minute thereafter. I go back regularly, but basically I am American, and my concept of Pakistan was basically shaped from the mid-80′s onwards.
    I read this article, and I hear stories from my parents and their contemporaries, and at times I could swear that Karachi in the 1950′s & 60′s was a more happening place than Monte Carlo. It would seem the city in those days would’ve have been better suited to life on the Mediterranean than on the Arabian Sea.

    Duke Ellington played the Metropole!?!?! Are you kidding!?!? I could never have even imagined it!

  8. July 2nd, 2006 11:52 pm

    Metropole is gone, maybe because it got a little too famous after Daniel Pearl was picked up from the lobby before his disasterous journalims.

    In either case, in its dying days Metropole was just another Karachi brothel, where rumor has it a Ukranian troupe would camp for weeks while ‘servicing’ local clients.

  9. 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.

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


    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!

  11. 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…

  12. 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). [...]

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

    i need old karachi pictures…
    plz send me

  14. July 14th, 2007 2:57 am

    There is likely more whistling than has been noticed.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.. :)

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