Saturday, September 27, 2008

Can Pakistani music speak louder than guns? - By Mark Levine



Can music speak louder than guns?

By Mark LeVine

The information for this article was extracted from the author’s topical book – ‘Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam’.

This piece was written exclusively for TGK’s inaugural issue.

Driving into Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), there is a sign on the road that welcomes you to ‘The land of hospitality’.

This is not what I expected to find on my way to Peshawar, gateway to the region of the country controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding.

But it's true nonetheless, at least part of the time.

For me, the main clue to understanding the contradictions between the warmth of the people in general, and the strikingly beautiful scenery across the NWFP and FATA, and the violence that has long plagued the region, lies in the beautiful new highway from Islamabad to the NWFP that, at least when I was last there a year ago, stops about half way between the two and becomes little more than a dirt road, passing village after village that seem poorer the closer you get to the border.

Whether during British rule or today, the unwillingness of central governments to commit to ensuring a humane level of social infrastructure and development created a fertile soil for grey-market economies, violence, and extremism of various sorts. When you add hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees to the mix you get precisely the tragic situation in which so many Pakistanis find themselves.

The NWFP is also home to some of the best rock n’ roll, not just in Pakistan, but anywhere today.

Indeed, since the 1980s, it's been home to one of the best record shops in all of Pakistan, whose owner has had a knack for finding the best music from the US and Europe almost as soon as it comes out and getting into the hands of eager local fans and, as important, musicians.

Most important for me, Peshawar is home to one of the best rock groups east of Berlin, ‘Sajid and Zeeshan’.

Apparently, Pakistanis were as surprised as I was to discover great rock n’ roll in Peshawar, since the day I first met them the newspaper, ‘Dawn’, ran a front-page story about the band that began by asking incredulously about the possibility of rock music in Pehsawar: "Peshawar is not a place known for being very music-savvy, and the idea of a band coming from there was surprising for many music enthusiasts."

Well, the same thing could be said about Pakistan as a whole from the perspective of most people in the West, and especially the United States. If Sajid explained over lunch in ‘Shiraz’, the best restaurant I've ever eaten in during my time in Pakistan, people from the NWFP are called ‘walnuts’ by other Pakistanis because they are supposedly; "Hardheaded or stupid. When we tour in other Pakistani cities, people actually ask us if we live in mud huts."

Sajid and Zeeshan's success has been hard won, and continues to be hard. "It can be terrible working here because of the poverty and violence, but it's our home," Zeeshan explained to me during a recent conversation.

"Yet if we thought we'd be bombarded by criticisms from journalists and others because we sing mostly in English (and Pashtu), in fact people are more open than that." But try recording when the electricity is off as much as 18 or more hours a day, or the army and Taliban are competing for control over your city.
It's often been said that conflict and violence produce great music, and I suppose Sajid and Zeeshan are proof of that. But it would be nice to hear what kind of music they can make in a ‘normal’ situation.

Peshawar's problems are, of course, Pakistan's. Everyone knows that the country was cobbled together out of four regions that had very little in common culturally and linguistically, and that the elite has succeeded in amassing a huge amount of wealth by ensuring that the vast majority of Pakistanis live in one of the world's most under-developed economies.

But despite the poverty and constant political turmoil, it's impossible not to feel Pakistan's rich cultural mosaic when you travel the country, and listen to the music.

Like most Pakistanis, I suppose, I was first drawn to the country's music by ‘Junoon’, whose music equally electrified and mesmerized me, bringing together Led Zeppelin and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a way that I'd previously only heard in my dreams. But the music scene is so much deeper than ‘Junoon’, or ‘Vital Signs’.

It's hard for me to keep track in fact: Karavan's grandiose sonic assaults, the guitar virtuosity of Mekaal Hasan and Faraz Anwar and the way their bands blend hard guitars with lush, Qawwali inspired vocals, Ali Rooh's original mix of country music and Urdu melodies (now that's a combination I hadn't even dreamt of yet when I first heard it but can't quite get out of my head now..), the hard Sufi folk rock of Arieb Azhar, post grunge nu and progressive metal bands like ‘Akash’, ‘Messiah’, or ‘Orion’, and even harder bands like the extreme metal group ‘Halig Krinien’, the consummate hard Urdu pop metal groovers like ‘Aaroh’, or the enchanting yet haunting naats of Junaid Jamshed, one can spend a lifetime immersing oneself in Pakistan's best popular music and not reach the end.

Indeed, Pakistan's rock scene might well be the most sonically diverse in the world-certainly in the Muslim world the only place that comes close is Morocco, where rock, metal, hip-hop, Gnawa (Sufi), Berber and other styles have been percolating together for almost two generations.

What makes Pakistan's music even more special is that it has long had both a religious and a political grounding. It's impossible to hear any of the great rock singers in Urdu and not hear the Sufi/Qawwali grounding of their melodies. Even more pop acts like Haroon have a strong foundation in local traditions that raises their music above the kind of disposable pop that dominates the airwaves in the US.

When it's combined with the political impetus that has periodically popped up in Pakistani pop music, the scene really stands out. I remember Haroon playing me the video for ‘Mr. Fraudiya’ as we sat in his house. I kept thinking: "Why can't an American rock group attack the fraud and corruption of our own system with the same honesty and-as important-fun and creativity that Haroon and the other members of ‘Awaz’ were willing to do? Or Junoon's ‘Ehsab’? Or Sajid and Zeeshan's first Pashtu-language song, ‘Lambay’?”

What's most interesting to me about Pakistani rock and heavy metal is its honesty. When you look at commercials on Pakistani television, or stare at the billboards for luxury housing along the Arabian Sea, it's hard not to get angry at the fantasy portrayal of life in Pakistan that is constantly being sold to people who have no chance to achieve it.

While the country's pop music can be as cheesy as Brittney Spears or Hannah Montana, the rock music to me seems to hold a piece of Pakistan's soul inside it, helping, in the words of Salman Ahmed, to; "heal the country" even as many Pakistanis continue to think wrongly, according to most readings of Islamic law - that such music is haram, or forbidden.

However powerful is Pakistani rock, it can't save the country. As I watched Asif Ali Zardari be sworn in as President, I couldn't help thinking of Junoon's ‘Ehsab’, and how far the reality of Pakistan's politics and economy is from the ideals of Iqbal and the other founders of the country.

And the words of singer Ali Rooh, which he said to me as we stood in front of Iqbal's grave in Lahore, came back to my mind: "Mark, Pakistan is doomed unless we can return to our traditions of taking care of each other." Music can't do it all, but it's hard to imagine Pakistan moving forward without it.

The author is a professor of Middle Eastern history at ‘UC Irvine’ and a professional musician who has recorded and performed with many leading artists around the globe. Mark is the author and editor of half a dozen books, including the just published ‘Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam’ (Random House/Three Rivers Press) and the forthcoming ‘An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989’ (Zed Books).

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