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FEATURE-Musicians in Pakistan's northwest long for better times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, March 16 (Reuters) - Zareen Gul sits on the floor of his small recording studio in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and complains that he feels like a criminal for wanting to make music.

A dusty computer and several recording machines are stacked on racks in his two-room Shama Recording Studio in the city’s busy Khyber Bazaar but nothing is switched on.

Gul, who records pop songs in the Pashto language, moved to Peshawar two years ago from his home of Bannu in North West Frontier Province after Islamist militants started bombing music shops and threatened to blow up his studio.

Like Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban, the militants see music as un-Islamic.

But for Gul, things have not been much better in Peshawar, capital of the province that has been ruled by conservative religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban for the past five years.

The religious parties banned music on public transport and concerts at the Nishtar Hall, Peshawar’s only theatre.

They also pressed landlords to evict musicians and singers from the Dabgari neighbourhood in Peshawar’s old city, where they have lived for generations, and turned a blind eye to militant attacks on music shops, musicians say.

“We’re working like criminals,” Gul says as he sips green tea, referring to an air of repression musicians have felt under the religious parties.

“I can’t even put up a sign for my company in the street outside,” he said.

Gul said he had not done any work for two months while a few years ago he was recording at least two albums a month. He said he still got threatening phone calls but was determined to carry on making music.

But things might be about to pick up for the music business in northwest Pakistan.

The religious parties were swept from power in the province in elections last month, and Gul is now pinning his hopes on the liberal parties that won and are forming a provincial government.

“Hope is there,” he said.

The secular, Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which is set to lead the province’s new government, has promised unrestricted cultural freedom.

In a sign things have started changing, advertising billboards featuring pictures of women, which the Islamists banned, have starred reappearing in Peshawar.


Award-winning Pashtun folk song singer Mashooq Sultan agreed times had been hard.

“I’ve gone through the worst phase of my life. I have barely performed in my home province. Pakistani television has forgotten me and Nishtar Hall was shut down,” Sultan told Reuters.

The provincial government also stopped paying a monthly stipend of 2,500 rupees ($40) she got after winning awards.

“Now my daughter even objects to me singing. She says it isn’t a good, respectable profession,” said Sultan, 54.

But Sultan too is looking forward to more freedom.

“Whoever forms government has to be better,” she said. “At least they won’t clamp down on us. They are our hope.”

Up a dark, narrow staircase in a terraced house in Peshawar’s old Story Tellers’ Bazaar, several musicians sit in a small room drinking tea before heading out to perform at a private party.

“They consider us kafir (infidel). We’re not, we’re artists. But who can tell them when they speak with guns?” said old musician Naseer Mohammad.

Mohammad stopped playing the harmonium three years ago after he fell ill and his hands started to shake and he now works as a caretaker in the cramped musicians’ lodgings.

But he said when the musicians didn’t get work, he didn’t make any money.

“He’s banking on us. If we don’t earn enough how do we pay him?” said one young musician tuning his rebab, a stringed instrument similar to a lute.

The musician, who declined to be identified or photographed because of security fears, said he and his colleagues had not played in public for years but they were still hired to play at private functions such as weddings, but only in Peshawar.

People outside Peshawar were too scared to hire musicians, given the militants’ threats, and the musicians themselves were not too keen to venture out after a spate of bomb attacks.

The musician said he particularly wanted to play again in the Darra Adam Kheil tribal area, 35 km (20 miles) south of Peshawar, which has been rocked by fighting and bombs in recent months.

“I can’t tell you how generous the people are there and how much they love music,” said the musician as he cradled his rebab which was ornately inlaid with mother of pearl.

“I love performing at functions there but now I’m scared to go, even without my instrument,” he said. (Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani)