‘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 responses to “‘Nobody in Karachi whistles anymore’”

  1. yellO.pk says:

    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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