Posts Tagged ‘ A.R. Rahman ’

India, Pakistan and the Musical Gurus of Peace

By Varun Soni for The Huffington Post

In July, India and Pakistan will begin a new round of talks in hopes of reviving their diplomatic efforts and renewing their peace process. While there are many pressing political issues to discuss, these talks could also be a remarkable opportunity for an innovative public diplomacy initiative between the nuclear neighbors. Although public diplomacy is often thought of as a form of state-to-state engagement, it also has the power to engage populations on a person-to-person level as well, especially in the age of social media and networking. Given the fact that many Indians and Pakistanis sing the same songs and listen to the same music, there is a unique opportunity now to promote popular music as a form of public diplomacy.

Although India and Pakistan are politically divided, their cultural roots still bind them together. Nowhere is this more apparent than Punjab — a region that was partitioned to create the modern nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947, and further divided into the Indian states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in the 1960s. Despite these geopolitical divisions, Punjabis in both India and Pakistan remain united by “Punjabiyat,” a shared cultural heritage that has developed over millennia.

The historical Punjab is the only region in South Asia where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are all represented in large numbers. Even as Punjab’s history is one of conflict and communalism, it is also one of overlapping musical and religious traditions. For example, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh canonical text, contains within it not only the devotional compositions of Guru Nanak and his Sikh successors, but also verses from poets now considered Hindu and Muslim, such as Namdev and Baba Farid. Likewise, the Sikh devotional music of kirtan draws from similar lyrical sources and employs a similar instrumentation as Hindu bhajan music and Sufi qawwali music. For contemporary musicians, the devotional syncretism of Punjab remains a powerful model for how music can provide an encompassing framework for both unity and diversity.

Earlier this year, I interviewed the Sufi rock star Salman Ahmad as part of a USC book launch series focused on religion, popular culture, and diplomacy. As the founder of Junoon, Pakistan’s most popular rock band, Ahmad discussed his experiences performing in both India and Pakistan and explained how rock and roll empowers and connects the youth in both countries. In the name of rock-and-roll diplomacy, Ahmad organized last year’s Concert for Pakistan at the UN General Assembly Hall as a way of raising money and awareness for the three million internally displaced people of the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Inspired by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s famous Concert for Bangladesh, the Concert for Pakistan brought together prominent Indian and Pakistani musicians, diplomats, and entrepreneurs in solidarity and support for Swat.

Another powerful moment in India-Pakistan musical diplomacy occurred in August of 1997, when India and Pakistan celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries of independence as nation-states. In order to commemorate this occasion, the virtuoso Indian music composer A.R. Rahman recorded with the late great Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Together, the most famous musician from India and the most famous musician from Pakistan composed “Gurus of Peace,” an impassioned plea for peace between India and Pakistan. “Gurus of Peace” proved prescient, as the following year both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, prompting President Clinton to call the India-Pakistan border the world’s most dangerous region. But A.R. Rahman and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had reminded the region the year earlier that India and Pakistan could unite through musical fusion instead of divide over nuclear fusion.

In the 1950s, the US State Department began sponsoring jazz luminaries, such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, to perform concerts overseas and serve as American cultural ambassadors. This public diplomacy initiative was aimed at winning the hearts and minds of potential allies in the Cold War, but the concerts also connected communities and ideas at a person-to-person level, and inspired artistic movements throughout the world. Likewise, India and Pakistan should sponsor and promote a series of musical concerts, workshops, and exchanges as a way of creating connections and engaging communities on a non-state level. Musical diplomacy certainly has its limits and should only be one part of a broader public diplomacy strategy, but after more than 60 years of missed public diplomacy opportunities, it’s time for India and Pakistan to follow the lead of A.R. Rahman and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and give music a chance.

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Pakistani Muslim Rocks Against Extremism

By Richard Allen Greene for CNN

Salman Ahmad is a devout Pakistani Muslim on jihad — but his holy war is a rock ‘n’ roll battle against intolerance, he says. He’s the frontman of the band Junoon. He’s sold 30 million albums. And he says music is a powerful weapon against extremism. “My own personal narrative tells me that arts and culture is mightier than the sword,” he told CNN during a tour of the United Kingdom Thursday.

Ahmad, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in New York, has set himself an ambitious goal — not only fighting Muslims’ own misconceptions about their religion, but reclaiming the very word “jihad” from extremists.

It’s come to mean violent holy war of the kind waged by al Qaeda and the Taliban. But Ahmad says that’s not its true meaning”There has been a sinister case of identity theft where the extremists have hijacked not only language but culture,” he said. “Jihad means to strive, to overcome your ego, to work for social justice and peace.” That may be why his new book and album are called “Rock & Roll Jihad.”

He insists his long-haired, guitar-driven rock music is entirely compatible with Islam.

“Anybody who says that music is un-Islamic is a poser,” he said. “Muslims have expressed their faith, their lives, their hopes, through music, through poetry, for 1,400 years.”

His own music is a fusion of the wildly disparate influences he grew up with, he said. “I was a 13-year-old from Pakistan (when I) arrived in a suburban cocoon like New York,” he recalled. “My exposure to rock-and-roll was watching Led Zeppelin in Madison Square Garden.” Frontman Jimmy Page “had a two-headed guitar and dragons painted on his pants, and I said: ‘That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.'”

“My music takes equal inspiration from classic rock like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and also Sufi poetry,” he said, citing a mystical Muslim tradition. “We are in the same tradition of musicians who are sending out a message of love, a message of joy. “And while he may seem like a trailblazer — and be one — he said he is not alone. South Indian Muslim composer A.R. Rahman won an Academy Award for best song for “Slumdog Millionaire’s” anthemic “Jai Ho,” Ahmad observed. And Ahmad’s mentor, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, performed with Peter Gabriel and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. “He said to me, “The Quran promotes cultural diversity, so why not play with rockers?'”

Ahmad’s done some high-profile collaborations of his own, including recording a song with American rocker Melissa Etheridge. “I saw him perform at the concert and was amazed by his vocal and guitar abilities. Here was this traditional Eastern sound that was rocking hard at the same time,” Etheridge writes in the introduction to Ahmad’s new book. They traded ideas, resulting in the song “Ring The Bells.”

She remembers listening to some tunes he recorded to kick off their collaboration: “I found in one track a haunting guitar part that I kept playing over and over until finally the words started to come. ‘Whose God is God? Whose light is light? Whose law is wrong? Whose might is right?'” The message is resonating, Ahmad said.

He has played rock concerts in the disputed territory of Kashmir, with “thousands of kids braving death threats going to hear concerts,” he said.

“It’s a way for people to vent their emotions. Junoon’s sold over 30 million albums,” he said. “That music wasn’t bought by a fringe. That’s a mainstream majority.”

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