Rising Above Conflict: Concert of Cultural Exchange in Kashmir

Myself and my brother (from the New York based indie rock band zerobridge), just finished playing our first zerobridge rock and roll concert in Kashmir as part of a program we've independently put to together for cultural exchange and peace in Kashmir, India.

Kashmir a disputed territory between Pakistan and India, has been the main topic of contention between the two nuclear armed rivals. Approximately 70,000 people have been killed in Kashmir since 1989. Contrary to popular belief, the security and economic and political situation today is as fragile as it was in the early 1990's. This time last summer for example, over 100 unarmed civilian protesters were murdered in Srinagar. The streets where we last night played were under complete shutdown and military curfew, after an 18 year old student was killed by a rubber bullet. The youth recall Kashmir last summer as a type of beautiful prison where one could not step out of the house without getting beaten or shot by security forces. Today, Kashmir is taking one step at a time to not fall back into a crippling six month shutdown of last summer.

In over 20 years of coming to this extraordinary place, one term was told to me that sums it all up: "Kashmir is controlled chaos." It is within this context that we tried to get this rock and roll concert and cultural exchange program off the ground. Just one night after the event, we are still in shock. A dream of so many years actually happened for us. (Our parents emigrated to America from Kashmir in the 1970's.) As Kashmiri-Americans -- this truly felt like a type of homecoming. Zerobridge is comprised of two Kashmiri-American brothers, Mubashir and myself. Mubashir Mohi Ud Din is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. Greg Eckelmen completes the group on bass guitar and I on drums. With the backdrop of Kashmir's mountains, we played to hundreds and hundreds of Kashmiris both young and old, both boys and girls. It was an honor to play for the people of Kashmir. Strangers united tonight and felt hope in the music. Before the concert, youth here left me feeling disheartened. When I asked kids about the future here the same response was given, "what future?". But last night's program for cultural exchange exposed me to another side of youth culture. It is one holding on to hope and yearning for encouragement to change pessimistic mentalities in Kashmir that often do not trust initiatives for change and community development. This is understandable, given the violence and betrayal many Kashmiris feel towards Pakistan, India, and even Kashmir's own separatist leadership. "Before 1987," one elder tells me, "we didn't have walls between homes and family members and strangers alike, trusted one another. Now, after decades of violence, corruption and moral decay, we have gates and even blood relatives do not trust their own." Yet the youth that poured onto the make shift concert field of IHM in Srinagar, sang united in hope for a better future where expression is free to live and breath. The concert didn't solve the conflict, but it was a release of energy and it exhibited what Kashmiri youth and Americans can achieve if we look beyond politics towards universal avenues of listening and expression. The crowd last night were happy to have a pluralistic forum of expression and cross cultural exchange, regardless of our American passports and politics. The show inspired the crowd and the people of Kashmir's spirit and energy and love inspired us. Together, we achieved what many said could not happen in a place affected by war and broken promises, like Kashmir. Srinagar rose above it.

Zerobridge Concert Video shot by Murtaza

Before playing the concert we realized how important this was for some people here when a group of young Kashmiris snuck into our rehearsal room and told us that they we were proud a Kashmiri-American rock group from New York (zerobridge) were playing this concert so that others can see that Kashmiris are not the 'militants or terrorists' they are portrayed to be by the media. Kashmiris are human beings with talents, dreams and rights. Indeed, Kashmir is bubbling with extraordinary talent academically, intellectually, and artistically. As a New York based band, we first-hand have seen and heard and felt the energy and talent. It has an aura of sincerity to it. The underground art scene and young intellectual scene here is truly evolving and should be nurtured and encouraged by the older Kashmiri generation and the greater world. Music and art and community development, (not stones and guns and politics) will revive hope in Kashmir's future, which has suffocated under decades of conflict and exploitation from all sides and all parties. Kashmir's future is what Kashmir's young artists, musicians, academics, and the OYK organization represent.

Video from Kashmir shot by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din and Murtaza

The concert was done in a truly independent way. There was no politics, just music and cross cultural exchange. There was no outside money or international funding and support. My previous efforts for such support were denied. We teamed up with a local Kashmiri group of young intellectuals and academics who call themselves One Young Kashmir. These guys truly are the future of Kashmir and give their own time and energy towards changing things in Kashmir -- not in a political way, but in a social and developmental way. While it was not easy for us to get a zerobridge rock and roll show off the ground in a place like Kashimr, we patiently fought for it and it is now happening. The program we created, in partnership with OYK, involved collaborating with local Kashmiri musicians of the such incredible and sincere talent. These artists were Bilal and Irfan, and Zahin, and MC Kash. The cross cultural collaboration was a true highlight of the program where Kashmiri artists and us played both traditional Kashmiri songs as well as zerobridge tunes. The process of rehearsing the music pieces with the artists in advance truly transcended all politics and cultural differences and language barriers. These Kashmiri artists left us humbled.

In addition to the music programs we are putting together in Srinagar we have been leading music and film workshops with the children of CHINAR orphanage in Barzulla, which has opened our eyes to the perspectives of brilliant young orphans in Barzulla, Kashmir. Through the Lollipops Crown Initiative, founded under my Fulbright Scholarship in Morocco last year, these kids have learned how to read and write music and created films on social topics of their own choosing. Interestingly, they have so far completed films whose topics range from environmental pollution to corruption in Kashmir.

Millions of thanks to Kashmir; to Murtaza (askaboutk.com) and to OYK and Naseer at Z studios and the Kashmiri artists: Bilal, Irfan. Zahin, Adil, Mamoo, and Ronnie.

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