The best Pakistani musicians of all time

The greatest Pakistani musicians of all time

Pakistan has its own take on popular music styles like pop, jazz, and even rock. Yet, what adds to the depth of music in the country is the variety of languages. That’s because Pakistani music is performed in many languages, including Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, Urdu, and English.

Add to this mix a wide range of traditional genres such as qawwali, nasheed, and chakri music. But what about the practitioners of these amazing sounds? Continue reading to discover Azimo’s list of the greatest Pakistani musicians of all time.  

1. Noor Jehan (1926-2000)

With a moniker like the “Queen of Melody”, it’s no surprise that Noor Jehan makes this list. And if there were a list of the world’s most prolific musicians, she’d be on that too. That’s because Jehan holds the record for having lent her voice to the most film songs in the history of Pakistani cinema. 

She is estimated to have been the playback singer in over 40 films, including a staggering 20,000 songs, in her 50-year career.

Fun fact: A playback singer is a singer who records songs to be mimed in films by actors, especially in Pakistani and Indian cinema.

An equally talented actress and movie director, Jehan began singing at the age of six, showing a keen interest in several styles, including traditional folk and musical theatre. 

At nine, Noor Jehan would train in classical music and get her big break on the silver screen. The movie Pind di Kuri turned her into a household name, notably with the song ‘Langh Aja Patan Chanaan da o Yaar’ from the soundtrack.

2. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) 

If there’s one Pakistani musician that most westerners have heard of, it’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Everyone from Jeff Buckley to Dave Navarro via Joyful Noise, has cited Khan’s music as a major source of inspiration.

For the newly initiated, Khan was a Pakistani vocalist and singer of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufi branch of Islam. Qawwali music is synonymous with handclaps and traditional instruments such as the sarangi and tabla. 

Khan’s voice became legendary thanks to his extraordinary range and ability to perform for several hours.

Although he died relatively young at 48 years old, he would release over 50 recordings, including live and studio albums and movie soundtracks. As a lasting legacy, his younger brother Farrukh and nephew Rahat continue the family’s qawwali tradition with successful solo careers of their own. 

In addition, a group called Rizwan-Muazzam consists of two more of his nephews.

3. Atif Aslam (1983 – present)

Atif Aslam is a Pakistani playback singer, songwriter, composer, and actor. He is best known for his numerous chart-topping songs in both Pakistan and India and his vocal belting technique.

He mostly sings in Urdu and Hindi but has also sung in Punjabi, Bengali, and Pashto. Along with Noor Jehan, Aslam is often considered one of the best playback singers in Pakistani music history. 

Aslam’s claim to fame is that he has never received any formal training in music. That’s because he had his eyes set on a professional cricket career. It wasn’t until his college days that he began to actively take part in (and win) various musical competitions. 

4. Abida Parveen (1954 – present)

“I’m not a man or woman, I’m a vehicle for passion”. This quote by the artist herself seems to sum up Parveen perfectly. And one look at her resumé confirms that this Pakistani singer, composer, painter, and music school founder doesn’t conform to modern conventions. 

She comes from a long line of Sufi singers, notably, her father Ghulam Haider, the founder of a devotional music school in the city of Larkana. It was at this school that her musical roots were planted. She would receive tutorship from Ustad Salamat Ali Khan in Sham Chaurasia Gharana, a form of Hindustani classical music known for its powerful vocal duets. 

Parveen is best known for impassioned and loud performances, often working herself into a trance on stage. Well into her seventh decade, Parveen continues to tour internationally and appear as a judge on the talent show Sur Kshetra.

5. Ali Zafar (1980 – present)

Ali Zafar is a Pakistani singer-songwriter, model, actor, producer, screenwriter, and painter. Zafar started his career as an actor on television before becoming a popular musician. He would later combine these two skills to great acclaim in Bollywood, paving the way for other Pakistani actors to venture into the genre. 

He is often regarded as the ‘King of Pakistani Pop’ and the ‘Justin Timberlake of Pakistan’ due to his cross-genre appeal and likability. Still under the age of 40, his five Lux Style Awards and one Filmfare Award selection make him one of Pakistan’s most decorated pop vocalists.

6. Vital Signs (1986–1998; 2002; 2013)

Vital Signs were a Pakistani pop-rock band formed in Rawalpindi in 1986 by two Peshawar University students, keyboardist Rohail Hyatt, and bassist, Shahzad Hasan

The band was best known for fusing several genres, ranging from pop music to rock to classical music in innovative ways. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that they reached the height of their popularity. Everyone from fans to music critics would hail ‘the Signs’ as pioneers of a “promising new era of cultural revival in Pakistan”.

After parting ways in 1998, the band would reunite in 2002 for a Nazia Hassan tribute concert. Later in 2013, Vital Signs collaborated with Junoon, a modern Sufi-rock band, to release the single ‘Naya Pakistan’

Vital Signs were heavily inspired by Pink Floyd, although they have often cited Duran Duran and The Police as other major influences.

7. Medhi Hassan  (1927 – 2012)

Mehdi Hassan is regarded as one of the greatest exponents of ghazal singing. He is known as the “Shahenshah-e-Ghazal” (the Emperor of Ghazal) primarily for his haunting baritone range. A Ghazal is a simultaneous poetic expression of pain, loss, and love.

He started performing at quite an early age and seemed to be headed for a successful musical career when the partition of India happened. 

After moving to newly-formed Pakistan, Hassan suffered severe financial hardships before a change in his fortunes. An appearance on Radio Pakistan would gain him considerable fame as he established himself as one of the greatest ghazal singers of his generation.

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