Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Rethinking Our Ideals: Multiculturalism

Originally published in the Daily Princetonian November 22, 2011 as Thoughts from abroad: Rethinking our ideals.

Europe seems confused about multiculturalism. David Cameron and Angela Merkel have both proclaimed in the last 12 months that multiculturalism is dead. This is the same David Cameron that four years ago was celebrating how much immigrants had given the UK. His rationalization now is not that multiculturalism was wrong all along or that a European identity in the 21st century does not include immigrants. In fact, if predictions of population demographics in the coming years are to be trusted Europe needs immigrants now more than ever.

So what is Europe’s argument for letting multiculturalism go? For the most part politicians seem to highlight continued segregation in communities, a lack of cultural integration, tensions between state and nongovernmental community groups — especially Muslim ones. European governments feel they have failed to realize and promote a vision of multiculturalism that is accepted and embraced by all stakeholders.

Point taken. But ground reality suggests the situation might not be as bleak. Ignore for the sake of argument the violent, at times racist, rhetoric that European politicians have employed. In Britain at least that leaves a society with a heavy immigrant population that oft lives in its own areas, keeps its own systems and inhabits little cocoons in larger England. It’s not integrated in the traditional sense, but it’s not hostile in the traditional sense either. You don’t walk into these communities fearing covert political action or underlying violent sentiment. As a South Asian visitor from America studying abroad in England, I feel both immigrants and hosts seem to realize that they are dependent on each other and so both live their lives and do their jobs. You have a pleasant conversation, exchange business, and that’s all.

There are differences in how immigrants and hosts relate to national identity. But it is no longer black and white. Second- and third-generation immigrants are now trying to forge new collective identities for themselves. They see both their own cultural past and Britain’s heritage as things they derive from but don’t belong to. Their identity is fluid and in a process of major reimagination. And the question is: Are they still immigrants? In fact, this question is pertinent to all sorts of individuals who have claim to broadly transnational identities — such as international students, who often integrate into larger societies as part of an academic culture but still aren’t naturalized.

New reports from America have revealed that the NYPD is spying on Muslim students and even on Muslim partners in the community. There is mistrust everywhere, and ethnic and racial profiling is rampant as ever. The new government line for security procedures says that flags are raised not because of ethnicity but because of activity that fits certain patterns. There is little clarification on what that means, but it seems like it could mean this: We don’t target you for a security check because you’re from the Middle East and Muslim; we do it because you take frequent trips to the Middle East and because you have activity with Muslim communities.

That is twisty logic that might work in courtrooms but shouldn’t work in moral debate. For some reason security policies are no longer about protecting fundamental rights — they are targeted solely at combating terrorism. There is a subtle but important difference there. If the moral justification for security policy is to protect human rights — specifically the right to life and protection from external aggression — then racial profiling would be unacceptable, itself being an infringement on equal treatment and non-discrimination policies. But when we make security policy just about anti-terrorism it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting anything that might be politically correct at the time.

Compared to America spying on even its own Muslim citizens, multiculturalism hardly seems as big a problem in Europe. But then I have to stop in my tracks and think of how I answer the question: “How are things in America? Have you ever felt targeted?” I always answer: “Not outside of airports, no.”

That makes me question my viewpoint as a student in both America and Europe. Politicians have made strong statements, governments have taken Islamophobic positions, but I don’t feel targeted in everyday life. I assume that debates about immigrants would be as explosive in regions other than the West if they were important political issues there. I understand that xenophobia is not unique to the West.

But aiding that xenophobia with charged political rhetoric is unique to the West, and it is this that turns xenophobia into racism. It is the difference between an uneasy query into understanding other cultures and specifically targeting them because we are afraid. Somewhere along the line a knee-jerk uneasiness with immigrants has become a more organized, structurally racist viewpoint of national identity.

My question to policymakers is simple: If multiculturalism is dead, what do we replace it with? My claim to a transnational identity is motivated by the feeling that I have learned more and furthered a stronger human understanding by living in different cultures. For me multiculturalism is a romantic idealization of all our principles about human rights and equality coming to fruition. It is not just demographics but something much bigger. I hope others too see reason to protect it.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Review: Pakistan – Folk and Pop Instrumentals

This is a review I wrote over the summer for a blog that still hasn’t materialized. So I thought I’d put it on here before it dies in the depths of my soon to be obsolete file system. I shouldn’t really call it a review as much as my thoughts aloud.

A ghazal-like alaap is interrupted by an excited call of ‘Take over Panthers’, and the rush of a slightly ear-splitting powerful guitar sound very like the 60s rock that the world has heard. The first few seconds of the Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals (1966-1976) LP are a signal of something challenging, perhaps powerful, perhaps revolutionary, but who knows whether it ever got there. It takes only a few more minutes to realize that the interruption is not meant to be a call to reject the East and embrace the West, but a mere reinterpretation of both. It’s quite shocking how little we know about Pakistani rock from the time, and one wonders if it suffered the consequences of being misinterpreted itself; an energetic call to enjoy ourselves being heard as the revolutionary twangs of violence and immorality.

The album is a compilation put together by Stuart Ellis of Radiodiffusion International, and both his blog posts on the Radiodiffusion website and the album itself reflects his fascination with this genre of South Asian experimentation from the ‘swinging 70s’, a title celebrating Karachi’s avid night life before the Zia regime had its ways. As much as the album is a signal to Pakistan’s famed and fabled ‘other side’, it is also a look into the music that film industries from both Pakistan and India did not care about. The Zia regime’s views and the film industries disinterest seem to have completely removed record of this music from our cultural history. As rock re-emerged post Zia, there is little reference to this material, but what is interesting is how similar trends seem to have popped up again. In many ways then, perhaps little has changed from the time.

Fusion goes back farther than Coke Studio and Junoon, and the message hits home with the Panthers’ electric sitar, that is supported by a pronounced bass in a sound that always gives the feeling that it wants to move forwards, expand. The Mods go beyond instrumentation, recording folk melodies with western instrumentation, not without a twist or two. It is suspected that record labels perhaps only let them use limited recording facilities to record folk tunes, not more experimental stuff. The Blue Birds again extend a playful flirtation with folk melodies, and like most modern Pakistani rock, there’s something very local, very obviously desi about their sound even as they take on a ride with less traditional parts to their music. A slightly more hummable electric guitar takes over as you delve into The Bugs.

Interestingly these are not unfamiliar techniques for fusion. Adding an eastern instrument to a guitar, bass and drum sound or playing an eastern melody on western instruments, both have been rediscovered this decade.

Renowned film composers Sohail Rana and Nisar Bazmi are also featured on the album but in a slightly different persona than expected. Sohail Rana’s sound could be an electric rock anthem from Liverpool but happens to be Lahori, and features some truly psychedelic sitar work. An acoustic guitar finally makes its way through courtesy Nisar Bazmi, and it seems like there’s some Zeb and Haniya in there. Perhaps fitting considering his affiliation with new talent. And then there’s some mad bass again. There’s nothing quite like the way the sitar fits in with everything else here.

It’s funny perhaps that we might look at this music in reverse, trying to find references to modern music in sounds from the 60s and 70s, a handicap arguably the result of our cultural ignorance and hysteria. Our lack of connection to any of this music is a signal of the drain the Zia era seems to have given us, and like the songs on this album, have rendered us voiceless, merely instruments of the many battles we face.

Slightly less depressing however, are the songs by The Aay Jays, The Abstract and The Fore Thoughts, that round off the album. There is the slight familiarity of shaadi or ‘function’ music in all three, perhaps because of the powerful organ sound, which is powerful because of its mere presence and the slight drain it might give your ears. The instruments themselves take you back to the PTV days (where in this case, back is forwards), but the function sound masks a strong groove, played on bass and an ensemble of percussion instruments that vary in most songs. It’s a different sort of mood setting sound, a conversation, a suggestion and a celebration all at once.

Many western reviewers have highlighted the bands’ nightclub audiences, but whether they actually played at raving dance parties or as polite entertainment at tamer diner parties is not completely clear. Perhaps both are true. For now however, their sound is conveniently classified into garage rock, surf rock, fusion rock, or folk rock, whichever you may find easier to push into your listening vocabulary.

Hearing the album is bittersweet, in some ways. There is more to us than we thought, more to us than anyone may still think. Yet our voices remain under threat as they were forty years ago, and like the musical traditions that we rediscovered, we’ve rediscovered other, less pleasant things too. Ellis dug up old records and found the original masters that have been featured on this album. He also tracked many of the musicians down, along with many others that seemed to have never recorded at all. The musicians all relocated to the West, leaving what appears as no trail behind.

But, if things haven’t changed much at all, than we can be happy that things haven’t taken as bad a down turn as we think they might have, and there’s less to worry about. Like always, let the shaadi music ensue.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Coke Studio’s Possible Timelessness.


To Kia Hua played on shuffle on Monday and got me thinking on the levels of interaction in Coke Studio. I thought I’d write a short post before I forget what I was thinking.

The process represented by To Kia Hua epitomizes what makes the Coke Studio discourse compelling and revolutionary.  It’s perhaps best to point out here that this is not my favorite Coke Studio song, not from this season, certainly not from the ones past but the process was illustrative.

Here’s a look at the levels of interpretation in the song:

  • Bilal Khan takes emotional sentiment from college-aged fellows around him and writes a song of lost love and discovering your way. He said once that this was perhaps the one song he wrote about general feelings not necessary those of his own.
  • The original underground aesthetic of the song is presented in a bootleg video of trademark Khan on acoustic guitar. It’s a style to me, made necessary by expensive studio time, lack of studio space, perhaps even lack of electricity to plug an amp (although that’s stretching it I admit)
  • Rohail Hyatt listens to presumably a slightly more semi-professional recording of the song, and his head starts whirring with ideas
  • Khan plays it live for Hyatt, Hyatt brings in Babar Khanna
  • Babar Khanna formulates a dhol groove to accompany the song, this becomes it’s new centre. So the process thus far has changed the focus from Khan’s guitar to Khanna’s percussions, orchestrated by Hyatt.
  • The House Band builds off of Khanna’s dhol groove. The more I listen to it the more I realize what Rohail Hyatt said in an interview. The entire song is based not on a reworking of Khan’s underground recording, but on Khanna’s improvised dhol groove. Sure, Khan’s song remains, but it is Khanna that runs it now.
  • Hyatt then reinterprets the whole process in his own vision, mastering and producing to a final version, emphasizing the dhol groove, creating strong emotional starts and stops. It is the flamingly progressive look to Khan’s original which was deep but stationary.

Of course there’s other stuff going on too. Watching the song with the visuals is so much more powerful than the audio. The amount of people and effort (and money) involved shows. The bridge (arguably the most interesting part of Khan’s compostions) is more prominent.

And the simple fact that Coke Studio itself can be so many different things. It is simultaneously a curated look into Pakistani music, a massive Coca-Cola ad, a Rohail Hyatt thought experiment, and a window to Pakistani music for internationals and estranged locals alike. To many others it’s sheer power stalls the music industry by being the centre of attention and grabbing all the big names, and more importantly telling everyone who the big names are and should be. Many are estranged but I tend to take the Studio’s side, not theirs.

What makes Junoon timeless to me is the discourse that goes on there. The east meets west persona is not a reinterpretation of one musical genre, it is many people’s takes on many ideas put together, and packaged with one strong emotion. Similarly Coke Studio, orchestrated by Hyatt is packed with cycles on decoding everything around us and then putting it back together in a nice package that sells ridiculously well.

Sure it’s somewhat formulaic now. Pick new starts, a couple of old timers, put a few together, add traditional elements to Western Rock, package with high quality video and good sound and that good old disclaimer before you download. Part of the charm of Seasons 1 and 2 is gone because the formula appears to be turning static. I’m sure Hyatt himself would disagree. But some greatness remains.(I wrote this Monday but delayed to put it up because I wanted to put up something on Imran Khan’s rally first, too much emotion there to let go with my random Coke Studio analyses)