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The Jhankar Plague

Jhankar was elevator music akin to a pesky mosquito that returns to suck the lifeblood, taking a whack now and then but still staggering around punch drunk, waiting to bite again.

In the 1980s, computer-based solutions took center stage over "traditional bands" playing "traditional instruments." Synthesizers, sequencers, Digital Wizardry in the studio, Vocoders, Drum Machines, and the Syndrum—the daddy of them all—driven quirky new directions. Pop music had to adapt and innovate, and there was a race to embrace the machine to make cash.


By the beginning of the 1990s, there was a peak of horrible music around the world, with the most offensive songs becoming the most popular (though there was also a backlash). In South Asia, pop music was shaped by the songs of Boney M (still), Alisha Chinoy, and Bappi Lahiri. The 1990s were the time of Barbie Girl, Boom Boom, Whigfield, and other terrible things. Electro arrived like a comet somewhere in the West and drove our South Asian dinosaurs into an era where they risked extinction if they didn't adapt. Some of India's most revered and talented music directors found themselves in despair, failure, and a lack of work thanks to brash, talentless wonderboys with a finger on the pulse who sidestepped them ruthlessly up the ladder. Rather than the silences of Khushboo's musicless Lata Number in 1974, we had entered the age of screeching string sections and Shockabilly nightmares. They were concocting a grotesque goulash of Caribbean lilts to Rockabilly Pop and Eurodance, the kind that thrives in such discerning music audiences as in Ibiza on a muggy August night.


Tarzan Tarzan, my Tarzan, Aaja dekhao doon Pyar kaise ho. Ho, ho, ho! Tarzan became the age's anthem, and rightly so. But, as pop music lurched from one shocker to the next, deep, dark thunder loomed around the corner in the form of something so odious, foul, and disgusting that it would turn a generation of its listeners into brain cell wasteland. Unsurprisingly, this was followed by the age of Ecstacy, Raves, Jungle, House, and other unthinkable abominations in pop culture history that we had to endure on our way to perfection. Even Prince forgot his name in the interim. We had the dreadful Junoon and Bubble Gum Vital signs in Pakistan. One with its entitled boy whitewashed pretty boy tosh for the well-heeled, and the other with a bunch of lads tearing it up and landing the occasional tune.


Then IT crept up on us. It had been in the works since Biddu released Aap Jaisa Koi with Nazia Hasan some time ago. Still, IT was in its infancy, requiring many mutations before arriving, like Ebola and Covid combined and spreading just as quickly, soon conquering the world and changing how we lived. We'd gone way beyond the depths by the time Aashiqui arrived, along with Kumar Sanu's best days. And then, one day, IT appeared, entrancing the entire region with its entrancing brilliance. It is, of course, The Jhankar Mix, which still exists and will never die. Like any good virus, it has discovered ways to mutate, hide, breed, and resurface without being eradicated by any vaccine. It was back last year like a nasty rash worse than measles when it hit Spotify like a tidal wave.


When it first attacked in the '90s, hundreds of good and bad soundtracks were reissued from the 1970s Jhankar-free days. These were then fitted with the Jhankar formula: ghastly, screechy electronic TABLE and Dhol collectively sucking the life and vigor out of yesteryear's gentle tunes.


The 90s was also the era of the satellite dish in South Asia that blitzed the age into all sorts of new directions. It was all about Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin and the sound that this one epitomized the era—all mid-tunes, as they say, "medium" in desi lingo. The glorious charlatans Nadeem and Shravan churn out sickly sweet meaningless nothings to kill enough brain cells as an Atomic Wave. Nadeem, you will remember, is still an absconder in a Murder Trial incidentally, and Bhais held sway in Mumbai (Dawood and Salman). Match fixing was in the air, and Pepsi had settled in India. But from coast to coast, madrassah to mosque and temple, there was no escaping from Jhankar.

There was not a single cabbie in South Asia who wouldn't attempt to dazzle his rides with the sophistication and future-forward trendiness of some Jhankar. In Pakistan, there came to the point when anyone caught without Jhankar on their Walkman would be cold-shouldered as has-beens, as dead as Dodo Ji. Even the Uncles and Aunties had been won over, first by a steady wave of Jagjeet and Chitra Middle Of The Road waffle, then assaulted with the striding sounds of Bappi, Bappa, Reema, and co going Everybody Dance With Pa, Pa, Pa, Everybody Dance with Ma Ma Ma going down a storm with the party set.

Govinda was everywhere; Life was Dance, and Dance was Life. Jhankar beats became the sound of the era - Defined the era itself. In Pakistan, it was embraced by all sections of society and cut across all "classes" and income groups. Most of all, the nation's drivers embraced the sound like few others. It became their caffeine and their acceptance as cultural equals. Jhankar served as an equalizer. A tepid medium in a musical landscape divided by elitism.


It wasn't all awful, though, as Jhankar Remixes introduced the world of melody, however, compromised by horrid drum and synth sounds, to a new generation growing up on Barbie Girl, Bappi Lahiri, and The Spice Girls. New generations were introduced to the Burmans and Shankar Jaikishen, Madan Mohan, and Kalyanji Anandji, who time was beginning to forget.

Jhankar's popularity and acceptance in Pakistan grew to the point where it became the norm. Suddenly, non-Jhankar versions of songs became rare and in some cases, impossible to find. Though it encircled, engulfed, and devoured various decades of music without mercy, Jhankar will forever be associated with Nadeem Shravan's lukewarm mid-tempo drivel depicted in pastel shades with young lovebirds cooing to one another in Kulu Manali. And, of course, for endless nightmares of Kumar Sanu gurgling and crooning in the sickest manner. Slowly, the cracks appeared, and Jhankar's shadow faded as the Honey Singh style and rap took center stage, but it never completely vanished, with a reminder lurking around the corner. Jhankar was elevator music akin to a pesky mosquito that returns to suck the lifeblood, taking a whack now and then but still staggering around punch drunk, waiting to bite again.

There are lists of "The Best Jhankar Songs of the era" dominated by Kumar Sanu, Nadeem Shravan, and friends. This side of the border Noor Jehan was having a career revival as a Disco crooner (think Disco Dildar Mera), and a most aggressive kind of Jhankar featuring the fascinating array of Syndrum sounds led the way. Some evils like VD never quite go away; they just become more virulent and wait their turn to bite back. Same with Jhankar, Bhangra, or Reggaeton Remixes. You can bet a pretty penny that Hell has the stuff playing nonstop on a loop.

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