Music can ring in the changes for Pakistan. But will its leaders stand up for performing artists? Pakistani columnist Masood Hasan makes the case
Pakistan makes the news almost all the time for almost always the wrong reasons. When the Russians in their infinite wisdom chose to attack a country where countless others had failed on Pakistan’s border, our country has unwillingly been thrust center stage. Pakistan and its people have paid a heavy price for what their stupid, self serving-leaders have passed off as ‘strategic depth.’ Neither has it been strategic and or had any depth worth the name. The harvest has been bitter and the innocent die like flies as global powers play roulette with lives and nationhoods.
An entire generation has thus grown up in Pakistan, for whom the sight of guns, blown-up buildings, suicide bombers and drone missiles are but a daily occurrence. Since Zia ul Haq’s time and the 1979 Russian invasion, instead of lives of normal lives we have been forced to view religious bigotry, intolerance, wayward killing and random bombing as a part of daily life.
In this situation, it is no surprise the performing arts have taken a beating. Increasingly fragile security conditions at home and the hard effect the economic meltdown have led to an almost barren landscape where performances are scattered or limited to small appearances. Other than a cursory appearance now and then at a Pakistan embassy overseas, there is precious little that we have done for making any impact on the world stage. The most frustrating thing for any artist has to be a situation where they cannot perform, and that has been the case for the last three years and more. With a mass exodus of artisans and embassies reduced to mere skeletons, support traditionally the hallmark of the British Council now seems a distant memory.
But the amazing thing has been that inspite of these obstacles, the arts have heroically stood up in defiance. Artists have continued to engage and produce work that demands attention, drama including street theatre has battled on and in music even the mega-industry of India has been forced to engage Pakistani artists who are fresh and ready to open new avenues.
Our young musicians as one example of those never given an opportunity to play at the countless festivals across the world. This year, there was news that the enterprising Indians had all but over run Brazil’s festival scene whereas we were not even within a thousand miles of Brazil. This abject indifference borne out of bureaucracy’s lack of will, laziness, blinkered vision and an absence of national pride has seen us slide further and further away from the mainstream. Instead of falling back on the surprising amount of natural talent that the country has to offer — in spite of no encouragement — those who have chosen to sponsor ‘Pakistani culture’ have invariably fallen back on the tried, tested and secure fashion-show extravaganza formula. Here we parade the same models, the same exotic dresses and the same theme of ‘Anarkali’. This is a rather unfortunate choice it tells the already-suspicious Western audience is the story of a king capricious and cruel enough to entomb live a dancing girl who had fallen for the prince. Hardly the kind of image that would portray us in good light. That and the fact that the whole thing is based on myth, has not deterred the sponsors to press on with the same formula year in and year out.
If given the opportunity, music from Pakistan can create such a positive image for the ‘other side of Pakistan’ that the results would be staggering, provided someone is ready to give this notion half a chance. Music has proved to be such a positive force in the world. Again and again it has crossed borders, defied odds and turned hatred into friendship because music speaks the language of the human heart. Pakistan’s young musicians are falling back more and more on the work and the traditions of the great masters, both those who wrote, sang or played immortal melodies and those who wrote words four hundred years ago that retain such relevance in today’s jaded and empty world.
Nusrat Fateh Ali was a hit because he merged our devotional material with modern western rhythms and captured the imagination of millions. When he died, alas far too early, that work died with him. His nephew has only recently begun to re-discover the magic that his uncle took out of dusty Faisalabad and brought to the world. It bears thinking about that this music was considered ‘great’ only after it was baptized by Peter Gabriel, otherwise Nusrat has been doing this traditional stuff year in and year out.
Amongst today’s practitioners, Mekaal Hasan, who happens to be my son, has single mindedly spent the last twenty years in search of a musical oasis, has chosen a path less trodden; music that relies heavily on the work of Bulleh Shah, Warris Shah, Amrita Pretam and our rich folk and devotional traditional repertoire. His efforts at fusing this largely unwritten tradition, passed from generation to generation, with western jazz, rock and rhythms has paid off and won the band countless awards and accolades.
These poets and mystics that lived and inspired millions almost 400 years back are more and more in demand but there is an entire generation of Pakistanis who have absolutely no link, no connection and no empathy with this music. This chasm is being bridged by musicians like Mekaal who grounded in western jazz and rhythms are still able to dig deep into their other half and find there a treasure of the kings. Mekaal’s new CD, Saptak that hits the markets in Pakistan and India first week of October 2009 is being promoted with the caption Music for Positive Change. It is a credo well worth adopting. He has already done extensive work with the British Council, spearheading a musical tour Network of Sparks in 2000 and 2001 that featured Britain’s extraordinary percussionist Pete Lockett (who continues to collaborate with Mekaal). A nationwide tour followed with British musicians Mike Mondeshir and Zoey Rehman, plus work with the legendary jazz drummer, Billy Cobham.
The question then remains how to make this treasure accessible to the Western world. In Britain, a shortage of funding and twisted policies make this task even harder — Mekaal has been refused a visa to visit UK. Still it is easy to say ‘no’ and far harder to say ‘yes,’ and the struggle must continue. It is largely up to progressive organizations like the British Council to carry the torch forward and they can do it. More representations from Pakistan’s performing arts world will melt down barriers of mistrust and animosity that rock Britain from time to time. With over 800,000 Pakistani Britons, Foreign Secretary David Miliband seems the right person to translate this vision into glowing reality. The ends here would surely justify the means!
Masood Hassan is a media communications specialist and one of Pakistan’s most widely read columnists. He writes the weekly column ‘Over The Top’ every Sunday in The News.