In American media today, when we read of double games with Islamic militants, power struggles between the military and civilian government, and daily terrorist attacks and drone strikes, one country comes to our minds... Pakistan. Pakistan at times seems to be worse off than Afghanistan and certainly it seems Pakistanis hate Americans more. A recent Pew survey reveals that three out of four Pakistanis (74 percent) cite America as the enemy. Ouch.
It is within this cacophony of negativity and peril that I had the chance to meet and interview, not diplomats, nor politicians, but regular, young Pakistani citizens who happen to be in an acclaimed rock and roll band called Noori. Noori, founded by brothers Ali Noor and Ali Hamza, are on their first music tour of the United States, sponsored by the U.S. Department of States' new cultural diplomacy initiative, Center Stage.
Why even care about a bunch of Pakistani artists in the U.S. in such a tense geo-political and social context? In today's polarized world, we seem to overlook that the greatest victims to extremists and terrorism are the people of Pakistan. Despite religious extremists and political leadership gambling with Pakistanis' lives on the international stage, there are spaces of innovation, fearlessness, creativity, and inclusiveness that exist on the ground. Yes, even in places as 'unstable" and 'chaotic' as Pakistan. Given that America's relationship with Pakistan is in a time of crisis, as Americans, it is worth devoting some energy to having our ear to the ground to the people actually living there, during our 'War on Terror'. An avenue of communication that exercises listening and reflexivity between different cultures is what I call 'arts-diplomacy'.
LISTEN to Noori:
I first had the pleasure of meeting the band Noori at a reception at the Asia Society in New York. Fresh from their first U.S. show at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. this month, the band seemed energized ahead of their first concert in New York City's Le Poisson Rouge. The reviews of their talent have been stellar.
According to the group, playing rock and roll shows in Pakistan is not as impossible as some would think. There are today rising numbers of youths picking up guitars in places once the hot bed of jihad recruitment during the U.S.-sponsored fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. While violence lately has limited their ability to book shows across the country, Noori seem ever determined and optimistic about carrying their music further, beyond the politics and violence that characterizes their country. In fact, the band also seem hesitant to the narrow labels of their band as 'Sufi rock'. "We are a rock band? Sufi rock? What is that?" one member jokingly told me.
I sat down with veteran Pakistani musician and the drummer of Noori, Gumby, one Saturday afternoon in New York City.
Gumby: "When Pakistan was made, the concept was it would be a nation for everyone, thus the white portion of the flag, signifying the minorities of that country... somewhere down the line, that whole balance, I don't know where it went in Karachi."
Mohsin: Most of my Pakistani American friends seem quite frustrated and pessimistic about where Pakistan is headed and what it is capable of. How do you deal with the events taking place across Pakistan?
Gumby: "It's a matter of acceptance. If I accept that my country is not doing well, the question then should be, what am I going to do to fix it? 15 years ago, Ireland was facing the exact same problem. Everyone was saying the situation would never change, but it did." He later goes on to explain that musicians are talking about the need to shake things up. "Noori, in our last three albums, were talking about this problem... fix it! Stop being inverted! Go out, whether its goods or bad, at least you can say I tried it out."
"Literacy issues, issues of water, gas, electricity... there are external things adding up to everything. It's not just the religious aspect of things." Despite all that, he says, "I been three weeks here and I miss home. I miss my neighbours, my food, my community. I've accepted the good and the bad."
Mohsin: What are some of the root causes of instability and tension in Pakistan? Is it all because of Islam?
Gumby: "Religion and education is not THE problem. It's lack of information and choices... that's the problem with Pakistan; a whole lot of talent, but no choices."
Mohsin: Is there a lot of artistic talent and potential in Pakistani youth these days?
Gumby: "There is talent everywhere. If I go on the subway here [in New York], Ill see a homeless guy kicking ass on saxophone, same way it is Pakistan, but we don't even have a subway he can play on openly. If someone decides what their passion is [in Pakistan], they ask, 'what do I do? I am going to end up doing something else'. Multiply that by a million, that is why we are churning out mediocrity. There is no infrastructure for the arts. Everyone who outshines, is self made. Junoon [arguably Pakistan's oldest rock export], are self made. Not everyone has the capacity to do so. There is a lot of potential there. That's why I started Uth Records... basically YouTube on steroids."
Uth Records is an unique arts initiative Gumby holds dear to his heart being that it allows him to work with young artists from across Pakistan. He helps them go into the studio and record a song and a video, thereby allowing the artists to have exposure to the public. In the opening clip of one episode, a banner reads 'my weapon of choice is music.' He reflects on recording music with young musicians from the notorious North West Frontier Province (NWFP), known to many Americans as the area where drones attack militant hideouts. Many of the men from the mountain areas have no choice but to join the military or the other side. There is little space to pursue their passions. Gumby tells me that after people saw the episode featuring some music from NWFP area, within 8 months numerous bands sprung up.
Mohsin: So what do you think about these initiatives for cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy?
Gumby: "For me, the cultural exchange is all right, and the music some people like, but apart from that, people in Pakistan are just looking out for an opportunity, they are looking for a choice, basic necessities."
Mohsin: You mentioned 'wow factors' in the U.S. What was one you encountered on this U.S. tour?
Gumby: "I appreciate the dedication and survival instinct that is so strong here... In Miles Davis's biography, he said he had to be good at what he was doing because there were always the threat of 10 people who could kick his ass at trumpet."
Mohsin: Most Americans do not understand why Pakistanis 'hate us'. How do you respond to this?
Gumby: "They don't hate Americans, they feel the U.S. is misinterpreting our beliefs. It's a defense mechanism, more than a hatred thing. If someone talks bad about my mother, I'll punch him in the face."
Mohsin: There are cynics out there, amidst the violence, the political instability, and religious ideological battles, who question what the point would be of promoting the arts or facilitating exchanges between musicians from different countries. What do you think about that?
Gumby: "You have an engine in a car, there are millions of pieces in it. If one screw doesn't work, your engine is going to stall. That one little part will stall everything else... My music has one purpose, happiness."
I was struck by this statement, not because of the creative metaphor, but of the truth within the statement that may be relevant to so many societies enduring external and internal political turmoil. Perhaps it is such a metaphor that can guide the 'soft diplomacy' of America in South Asia, once U.S. troops pull out in 2014.
Mohsin: What are your thoughts on the U.S. and its efforts to enhance cultural understanding with Pakistanis?
Gumby: "The U.S. State Department has been a great help in many ways. The Fubright is one of those things. My first experience ever to jazz music was at the U.S. consulate in Pakistan... They brought a lot of music and students to Pakistan. Apart from that and what they are doing with this initiative, us being here, it's one step ahead, because when people talk about Pakistan, they think Qawali music and classical music. In the West, no one knows the contemporary side. This is a major chunk of our society right now... The fact that they are bringing these people to an American audience, its one step up. They'll learn first hand the dynamics of the country."
What was the response from your community when they heard you and the boys in Noori were coming here to play in New York? Was their reaction led by anti-Americanism or skepticism? According to Gumby, their reaction was simple: "You lucky bastard!"
Special thanks to Noori band( brothers Ali Noor and Ali Hamza, Gumby), Rachel Cooper of the Asia Society, and Deirdre Valente from Center Stage
Noori music video
Uth Records video