Changing The Tune: How Pakistanis Unite Around Music At The Grassroots To Challenge Violent Extremism

Changing The Tune: How Pakistanis Unite Around Music At The Grassroots To Challenge Violent Extremism
For quite some time, I’ve been deeply concerned about what I’d been reading about Pakistan, which described a country very different from the one I’ve come to know and be a part of these past forty years. Sparked by the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, I set out to discover what Pakistanis are really doing to recapture indigenous cultural identity and create alternative narratives to violence and extremism. I found many ‘sparks of hope’ who are asserting they want their cultural identity back, their society intact, and throw off the bondages of hatred, violence and fear that at least for a while seemed to break out at any time in Pakistan. I found so many people who are engaging in powerful actions that transform how people think about their own society while acting on envisioning a future without violence. While I didn’t set out to do so, the resultant book also celebrates what is flourishing in cultural performances, music, social activism, and the like in Pakistan today because of peoples’ commitment to take stands to counter violent extremism.

In earlier pieces here, I have written about efforts by religious leaders to promote interfaith harmony, and new kinds of educational institutions that not only prepare students well for future careers but also instill values of social responsibility, tolerance and aversion to violence. Today, I am writing another one of the themes I explored in the book, that is how musicians are deliberatively using their art to counter violence and extremism and reassert identity, cultural values and social meaning. Music provides a vital way for Pakistanis to recapture local culture and values and to state definitively that something - their authentic identity - has been taken away from them without their consent. There are numerous instances of music as a ‘performative resistance process’ despite the extremist trope that secular music is un-Islamic. Most musicians singing about social life and political transformation have been silenced, especially since the time of Zia-ul-Haq. While songs about love and religion can be aired and performed on Pakistan television, ballads of conflict, trauma and even recapturing indigenous cultural sentiments are incongruously missing.

I met with musicians throughout the country who are using their craft to make social statements to counter violence and extremism, declaring that Pakistanis have been mischaracterized and misrepresented and using their music to rectify what they perceive as social distortions. Today I am writing about Gulab Khel Afridi, Saif Samejo and Taimur Rehman, three musicians who celebrate their communities, bring them closer together, promote peace, and take a stand against extremism.

Gulab Khel Afridi, Rabab Master

The rabab remains pervasive in Pakhtun society, played in every village throughout Pakhtun areas. Gulab Khel Afridi questions how it happened that Pakhtuns have come to be more closely identified with guns than with the rabab; he is seeking to revitalize the rabab as a symbol of Pakhtun identity,

“Where did the idea come from that the Pakhtun cannot live without his banduk [gun]? We can live very well without the banduk; we cannot live without music and dancing.”

He considers the rabab to be a special instrument in Pakhtun culture, going back over 5,000 years. The rabab captures the soul of Pakhtuns, and holds great cultural importance,

“There was a time when three items were always present in a hujra (area for male visitors): a rabab, a janamaz (prayer mat) and a chehlum (hookah). If you look at a rabab, you will see that it includes slight etchings of nearly all the prominent animals found in the region.”

He began to perform at weddings and other cultural festivals, including on PTV, but his passion lies in teaching the rabab, especially to children. He launched his Gul Rabab Academy in 2016, including offering online classes. He sees music as a language in itself, and the rabab is a symbol of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa “in its entirely.” He feels he is helping pass on an important aspect of cultural heritage.
Saif knew his music could be powerful, saying that “We were fighting against extremists, and we didn’t want to give them this society"

Gulab has joined with other musicians to promote peace between India and Pakistan under the ‘Aman ki Asha’ project. He also joined a multinational delegation of musicians and traveled along the old Silk Road to promote peace and represented Pakistan in the CPEC Culture Caravan in November 2017. He is proud he can represent a true cultural image of Pakistan especially when he performs for an international audience. He is using music to show that Pakhtuns are a peace-loving people,

"People now realize that we are a peace-loving people. We love our musical instruments and music. The people who are thinking of Pakhtuns as violent – we are showing, through music, that we are peaceful and peace-loving. We are showing other Pakhtuns, too, that we are peaceful. We don’t want violence. Our message goes through music. We play good music so people can see we are peaceful."


Gulab Khel Afridi playing the rabab during the CPEC Cultural Caravan, November 2017

Saif Samejo, Sindhi Sufi folk rock singer

Saif Samejo, founder of The Sketches band in Jamshoro, Sindh, draws his inspiration from the poetry of Sachel Sarmast and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai as well as from Sindhi culture itself. He was influenced by Sufi singers whose message is very different from the orthodoxy that had permeated Pakistan. He credits the poetry of Sachal Sarmast as teaching him resistance, and Shah Latif Bhittai helping him realize that everything in the world is a story; the world is ruled by storytellers who can take people in any direction. Saif considers that Sachel Sarmast is talking about the people of the earth, of Sindh, and Shah Latif’s poetry continues to tell their story. While it was easy for him to sing in Urdu, the national language, he felt he needed to sing in Sindhi. He said, “Sachel felt us closely, Latif felt it even more. None of our Sufis gave us weapons. The people with the weapons wanted them killed.”

Saif knew his music could be powerful, saying that “We were fighting against extremists, and we didn’t want to give them this society.” The band’s distinctiveness is captured on the cover of a Sketches DVD,

“The Sketches is a poetic rebellion. They brought music out from the comfortable, air-conditioned chamber rooms to the open skies of the desert, singing songs in the language of common folks, marinating them in the brine of indigenous melody . . . they realized that news media carefully crafted an image of Pakistan which didn’t do justice to the essence of his country at all. Yes, there was violence, there was insecurity but alongside there was also enormous resilience and faith in humanity. Their music spontaneously embraced this resilience, this faith and the dialects of the common folks who had preserved the history and essence of the country in their poetry and instruments, which had no room in the projected image of Pakistan carried out by the media.”

In 2013, Saif invited local villagers to join them in new Lahooti Live Sessions. He took the concept Lahooti – a traveler having no destination, a seeker of the truth -- from Shah Latif’s poetry. People came together to sing Sindhi poetry from hundreds of years ago, telling the pain of the soil: how a man sitting on the ground feels; how a village poet knows about the ecosystem and knows not to kill trees. They were soon doing two monthly sessions with over a hundred people each night. They did these sessions for three years, until 2016, recording and preserving the music of hundreds of Sindhi poets and singers.

They decided to go all out and put on a musical performance in April 2016. This two-day Lahooti Melo in interior Sindh -- attended by over 30,000 people -- became an annual event, an opportunity to talk during the day about critical subjects -- thus far peace, women’s rights and the environment -- and celebrate culture, peace, unity, and harmony through music at night. Saif considers that the Lahooti Melo is an opportunity “to keep our music and art traditions alive, the traditions of this land […] it has become a journey to bring poets together to tell a story that is not written in Pakistan Studies.” His motive was to show that Pakistan “is not a threat to the world. We say, let Pakistan be a country for everyone. Let everyone breathe free here.”

The euphoria throughout each event has been profound. While each year has had different themes, they have all promoted communal harmony and cultural appreciation, especially sharing “indigenous knowledge and wisdom.” Planning is now underway to hold the Lahooti Melo 2022. Building on the heritage of Sindhi Sufism, Saif Samejo and fellow performers are defying those extremists who try to suppress such actions and transform local culture into something it has never been.


Taimur Rahman and the Laal Band

In Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, another musician has started a band defiantly opposed to extremism and efforts to distort local culture into something it has never been. Taimur Rehman, a child of liberal, socialist activists, grew up believing in a progressive Pakistan and sees music as having a distinct ability to touch people’s sentiments and capture their values,

“Pakistani people LOVE music! It’s in their blood, in their heart. None of the maulvis and all understand how much people love music. It’s cathartic, when they can clap, sing, dance with it.”

The Lawyer’s Movement was an inspiration for him to start his band in 2006, as people began to believe a progressive Pakistan was possible. There were few opportunities to perform in Pakistan because of the violence and bombings that were occurring in the mid-2000s; live performances had essentially stopped. So they began to play music in support of the lawyers’ demonstrations.

The band initially sang the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, and then Taimur started to write his own songs so he could build momentum to mobilize people to stand against terrorism and extremism. Taimur notes that the Laal Band has always embodied social goals, writing songs to spread the message of peace, tolerance, freedom of expression, and the idea of being secular. His music provides a counter-narrative that they want a progressive Pakistan, that Pakistan’s future is in children’s hands if they stay in school, and also to enjoy life. He says that,

“In Pakistan, we’ve started rationing happiness. You can’t do Valentine’s Day, no besant, no dancing […] it makes for a very unhappy society. People say “we are just so happy to see these children singing and happy.”

In 2013, the Laal Band started playing in colleges and universities and soon expanded to primary schools, performing at roughly 130 schools a year. He wanted to perform in government schools as that’s where his working-class audience is that is often overwhelmed by religious extremism, but the provincial Punjab government never responded to his request. But the reception that Laal receives at schools, Taimur says, is great,

“It’s been through the roof, fantastic! These are people who have never seen a concert, a rock concert, at their school. They think it’s something only upper-class people can enjoy. There’s been a remarkable follow through by the students – they contact us on social media, they write notes, they stay in touch on Facebook.”

When the band goes to perform at a school, students have a transformative experience,

“Kids who have never witnessed a live performance before, and they don’t know what satisfaction you get from a live performance – and these kids are exposed to all the darkness there is in sexism, religious stuff, etc. – they’re forgetting all of that and they’re just dancing like crazy people, and they’re free.”

Their work, though fulfilling, is not without its frustrations. He must constantly explain what they hope to accomplish when they contact schools. He tries to convey the message that they are striving for a more open, secular, democratic, enlightened society, but he feels that some people in Pakistan still don’t want to hear that. When they do, they enthusiastically invite the Laal Band to perform.

Taimur says that while Pakistan has “rationed happiness,” there are small ways they can break through that and develop a popular culture that could be robust against extremism. The Laal Band and other musicians profiled here are trying to do just that.


Note: This has been excerpted from Anita M. Weiss – Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices (Oxford University Press, 2020)