“This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last forever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilisation itself. Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.”
In his powerfully evocative book exemplifying tribal life “The Wandering Falcon”, Jamil Ahmad writes about a nomadic tribe which is asked by the border forces between two countries to desist their travels. The tribe’s head tries to reason with the directive, explaining simply that their movements have always been dictated by the course of nature – their cattle, crops and the need to follow seasons – and not due to arbitrary borders, but the guardians of the state do not relent.
In a similar way, I have always resisted having either my writing or my own self be defined by the vile and yet simplistic, arbitrary divisions which politics, nationalism and borders dictate. This is particularly the case when it comes to writing on Coke Studio; yet here I am today, unable to avoid discussing them. I have stopped running, and turned around to face that very demon which I have been avoiding thus far.
In developed nations, more often than not the construct of who you are is expected to be informed by the concept of ‘individuality’. This translates into working on one’s own personality, weighing opposing perceptions carefully, and ensuring that one’s choices reflect a cohesive vision. In contrast, we are a people whose political views are almost inevitably at odds with the life choices we make. It is extremely difficult to explain this contradiction to an outsider, and just as taxing to try to explain it to one’s own self. More often than not, we reconcile ourselves to the fact that many of the contradictory choices we make are part of the life we had “no-choice-but-to-lead”.
Inevitably, the decisions where we feel we have no choice but to make them are the ones that carry forward traditions which have long been at odds with the individualist ethos which informs our intellectual and ethical worldviews. Perhaps the reason we cannot seem to abandon them is because they represent such a core facet of our identity, one which has been forever fraught owing to the nature of how our nation was conceived and created.
Yet the very conflict of ideas which emanates from trying to balance these contradictory forces is one which regularly spills over into the physical world – much like the tribesmen above, there are many other peoples in the history of our “country” (region) whose hopes and dreams have been trampled by the dictates of a modern state. The fact that the world unfairly perceives us as nothing more than a source of terror makes us ever more reluctant to confront our mistakes, because we are loath to further indemnify our own image.
The people of Bangladesh and Balochistan have both been victims of the Pakistani state; victims of attempted genocide and widespread terror, at the very least. Yet these are facts which feel impossible to own up to – partly because the turmoil which fed them still persists, and partly because they further contribute to the monstrous reflection we see.
Music allows Pakistan to be ‘viewed’ in a different light – it allows the emergence of a Pakistan which is open, diverse, influential and most importantly, at ease with blending its traditions with modern concepts. It allows us to pry apart the suffocating hold of borders and politics to release fragrant ideas and create space for this diffusion (although when diffusion is via a semi-permeable membrane, like a border, it’s osmosis).
Whilst the entire oeuvre of Coke Studio represents this idea repeatedly, this episode in particular represented it in the most overtly political way seen so far. Both Alamgir’s Aamay Bhashaili Rey and the reworking of Laila O Laila are insights into our own chequered past, yet rather than demanding penance they allow us to forget (not regret) that which politics picks from ‘apna’ and throws out as ‘parayaa’. In that sense the songs become subversive and even radical, since they manage to soften hardened political stances; much like basking in a winter sun melts the cold from your bones, leaving them pliable.
[quote]Aamay Bhashaili Rey is a splendidly mournful song[/quote]
Aamay Bhashaili Rey is a splendidly mournful song, with the simple beseeching lyrics rendered timeless by the iconic Alamgir’s evocative performance. A man who defied the conventions of borders and passports throughout his career, his performance is suitably exemplary, as are his purely delightful captures in the BTS. The sweeping grace of the orchestral accompaniment fluidly sews the two vocalists together, as the effortlessly soothing vocals of Frieha Pervez contrast with the angst separation offers. The sense of struggle in Alamgir’s lyrics as well as the lament for union in Frieha’s both coalesce to represent an idea of what it means to find identity and one’s own self in a situation overcome by chaos and hardships. In doing so, it forms a remarkable relation between our personal and national contradictions, and offers a path towards envisioning the sort of choices which can allow us to move past these.
[quote]Laila O Laila persists as a cultural alam for the decimated and divided land of the Baloch[/quote]
Much like the wandering falcon, Laila O Laila is unbound by the whims of borders and states, persisting as a cultural alam for the decimated and divided land of the Baloch. Rostam Mirlashari’s encounter with Coke Studio was facilitated by the ease modern technology provides, but their musical union was the consequence of ties which are far older and meaningful. What was particularly fascinating was how the rustic charms of the Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle instrument – reminiscent of highland bagpipes – complemented the Balochi Dumboora; testament to how the wordless voices of the instruments captured the desolation and stoicism that both the frozen tundra as well as the barren desert evoke. The song’s lyrics are from Majnu’s perspective as he has been separated from his love (Laila) whom he has not beheld for so long, that in a distraught state, he keeps poring over every little detail of her existence – which too provides him with some comfort. After all madness is not to be ridiculed, for the proximity of one who is in love and clings to a world considered less sane is closer to the Divine than others. Further, there is also a political meaning to this song, and like Alamgir’s track it offers a way of imagining a future not dictated by overwrought ideologies alone.
The ability to imagine beyond our confines is a great insight into appreciating the gorgeous Ishq Kinara by Zoe Vicaji featuring Sumru A??ryürüyen. Zoe’s song is an example of a confident piece of Pakistani music finding its own meaning in the world. The song is influenced by a Turkish melody, Üsküdar’a Gider Iken which has travelled across the Balkans and been adopted by other cultures. Zoe’s song immediately showcases the versatility of our music in that it readily feels at home in the foreign melody, and allows the influences of the other cultures to exist through the esoteric, otherworldly charms of Sumru’s voice and the sharp plucks of the inexplicable Qanun. The song also features Zoe’s own growth as a musician, with her pitch-perfect voice maturing to reveal the sort of depth which elevates the song from a fun sassy number to a statement of discovering one’s own self as a woman in the aftermath of a loss. Once again, it feels impossible to escape from the profound meaning this song generates once we juxtapose this message onto our political reality, where both our genesis and our evolution has repeatedly known loss.
Finally, Asad Abbas’s Mahi Gal represents the denouement of this discourse on balancing modernity with tradition. The song consists of a succession of resolutely traditional ideas and constructs arranged and introduced in ways which seem as splendid as the spectral, aging bark of a Eucalyptus tree. Asad’s voice, which feels untainted by time and space and exists as a gateway to the past, is rendered anew when set against the cascading, elegiac ambient guitars – I think it’s a voice we ought to watch out for in the future. Frieha’s astounding version of the raag as a taraana feels provocative in its usage, showcasing the versatility and variability only the canopy layer within a rainforest boasts. Then there is the elegant, cultured Oud which is played in a rollicking blues style reminiscent of the sitar performance in last season’s Seher. The contrasts across time and culture, the divisions propped up by metaphorical lines in the sand are swept away, and each is allowed to stand its own ground – a harmonious chorus.