It was a little before 6 pm when I entered Jinnah Garden from the gate on Mall Road. I could not have a glimpse of the hasty October sun lowering behind the trees as I hurried on the walkways towards the open air theatre located near the entrance on Lawrence Road. As I left the traffic far behind and got into the middle of the garden, I could only listen to the noise of birds settling down in their nests and to the beats of tabla being tuned. The two sounds kept mixing up till I stepped into the vicinity of loudspeakers set up for the 55th annual All Pakistan Music Conference.

Stage ready for the performance on the 2nd night of APMC (Photo: Ali F. Kazmi)

The biggest gathering of musicians in Pakistan, All Pakistan Music Conference was first held in 1960. Brought to life by the efforts of Mr. Hayat Ahmed Khan, it has provided a platform to the classical and folk musicians of Pakistan who are otherwise virtually unknown. He took the challenge of patronizing the music of the country at a time when musicians had lost hope and Ustad Bare Ghulam Ali Khan had left the country for good because the government was busy fighting more imminent challenges. Mr. Khan brought along other music lovers and held the first gathering of All Pakistan Music Conference on 15th of September 1959. It was decided that a five-day event will be held from 19th February to 23rd of February 1960. The event was held in the open air theatre of Bagh-e-Jinnah, 55 years before I witnessed it for the first time.

Ustad Naseer-ud-Din Sami performing (Photo: APMC)

As classical music in Pakistan struggled for survival, All Pakistan Music Conference proved to be a breeze of fresh air. It remained the lone pattern of classical and folk music in Pakistan, besides Radio Pakistan. 

Monthly events of All Pakistan Music Conference are held from November to May and an annual event in October. The musical gathering continued to be held in open air theatre of Bagh-e-Jinnah until 2008, when they had to be moved across the road to Al-Hamra, due to security reasons. In 2015 it was held in Bagh-e-Jinaah, its home ground, after seven years.

The All Pakistan Music Conference has resolved to keep alive not only the classical and folk music of the country, but also the whole tradition that entails such musical gatherings. So if you genuinely feel the need to appreciate a wonderful performance, keep yourself from clapping. You should only applaud by saying ‘aah’ or ‘wah’, as has been the tradition in such events. And several announcements are made during the program to request the audience to stick to the tradition. Also, you must not enter or leave the auditorium during a performance. You will have to wait till the performance is over, before you can join or leave the audience. Most important of all, of course, is the strict adherence to time. If a program is scheduled to start at 8, it will start at 8 - come what may! And this is something I have witnessed in dozens of programs over the last five years.

Ustad Badruzzaman Qamaruzzaman performing in the open air theatre of Bagh-e-Jinnah (Photo: Ali F. Kazmi)

The monthly programs are usually scheduled to start at 6 pm on the first of every month from November to May. These programs start with the national anthem, followed by a couple of performances and last for a couple of hours. The performance can be a song or instrumental performed by an amateur or a maestro. So in a certain program, you can expect Ustad Naseer-ud-Din Saami to sing you khayaal in Raag Aimen, Ustad Jaffer Hussain to play the magical clarinet in Raag Bheem Palaasi, Ghulam Abbas to sing you a ghazal by Faiz, or Waris Ali Billu to play solo tabla in teental.

The cycle of monthly programs starts every year with the grand annual event in October. The annual event of All Pakistan Music Conference is decidedly the biggest musical event held in the country. It lasts for five days and comprises more than a hundred performances by artists from all over the country. For music lovers, the annual event is a pilgrimage which attracts them from all over the country and keeps them enchanted for five days.

The annual program of All Pakistan Music Conference has followed a set format since its inception. On the first day of the event there are kids (performing in Under-10 and Over-10 categories) and college/university students competing for prizes in different categories. There are collective prizes for schools and colleges with most wins. The first day of the conference rekindles the hope that classical music will not die in Pakistan. It’s heartening to see a five-year-old sing a thumri or even khayal. In my opinion the cutest of all the performances are on the first day. There are more than 50 performances on this day alone, in several different categories including folk, semi-classical, classical and instrumental.

The special visitor of APMC who flies from Poland every year just for the annual event (Photo: APMC)

The second day of annual festival is titled: ‘Gharaano’n ki Meeras’ (the legacy of the music families). On this day budding artists from different gharanas, or music academies, perform. This day gives you a glimpse into the near future. Young artists becoming famous musicians of the time. All the big names of classical music in Pakistan have performed on this stage including, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan, Saeem Akhter Hussain, Tufail Niazi, Roshan Ara Begum and many more.

Usually the third day attracts the largest number of people. It is reserved for light classical and folk music with a variety of performances. There are performances from Balochi artists, Pashtun folk singers/dancers, Punjabi singers and Saraiki singers and from Rajhistani/Sindhi singers. This year there was a performance by a Persian music ensemble, among many others.

The hallmark of APMC has been the folk performances from artists across the country. Photo:APMC

The most classic of all the days of annual event are the last two days which only have pure classical music . Professional singers/musicians from all over the country perform their best rehearsed pieces to a select audience. The feat starts at 8 in the evening and lasts for over 10 hours straight. The event is usually planned in a way that the last two days fall on Friday and Saturday during a certain week so that the audience can attend the night long performance on the last two days of the event. The last day is the most special as all the senior artists perform on the day and the program lasts for up to 12 hours. There are performances by Ustad Tafu, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Gawalior, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Patiala, Ustad Hamid Ali Khan and many more. For the last five years that I have been a regular visitor to these annual events, the events conclude with the performance of Ustad Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan or Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Gawalior. A lot of people wait till the end of the program just to listen to the performances by these legendary singers of our time.

This crowd, pictured after 6 in the morning, has been listening to music since 8 in the evening (Photo: Ali F. Kazmi)

When the last performance of the annual event of All Pakistan Music Conference is over, a few rugged music lovers continue chanting ‘once more’. But most of the people ignore the chants and rush to the exit, yawning and singing to the tunes of the last of the performances still fresh in their minds. And most of them start waiting for the annual event of the following year right away.