Inquilab Zindabad, the music of Laal.

In “Taqwacores-The birth of Punk Islam”, the documentary about Michael Muhammad Knight and his book Taqwacores, a band member from one of the Taqwacore bands laments the absence of music of relevance in Pakistan. Pakistan has a very vibrant music scene there are all sorts of outfits out there who keeps churning out kick ass songs again and again. Among these brilliant musicians Laal belongs to a different breed and is a reactionary force to the socio-political scenario in Pakistan. I am sure that the musician featured in the Taqwacore film can no longer say that bands in Pakistan are oblivious to their realities.

Laal means red in Urdu. And it stands for the color of revolution, the color of Communism. Yes, Communism has roots in Pakistan; it has survived there despite strong opposition from the state and religion. Leftist thinkers as early as Marx have been looking at the subcontinent with anticipation of a people’s movement which will unsettle the skewed social structure prevalent here. Among the sub continental countries, Pakistan especially was believed to be a very fertile land for Communism given it’s smaller size as opposed to India and the wide disparity between the landowning gentry and the peasants. Undivided Punjab has had it’s share of red heroes like Bhagat Singh. And I hear that he is still revered in Pakistani Punjab. But for whatever reasons Communism never thrived there. But like elsewhere in the world it did influence the intelligentsia of Pakistan. Poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib were Marxists who were brave enough to stand up against the successive repressive regimes and openly criticize their policies. Laal belongs to this tradition and borrows its words from these prophets of revolution. They are one of the flag bearers of Communism in present day Pakistan.

Laal is a four piece band spearheaded by Taimur Rahman, Pakistan’s own Tom Morello. Shahram Azhar is the lead vocalist of the band. He is classically trained in Hindustani Classical music and also revels in singing Punjabi folk. The band also has a flute player, Haider Rahman. Mahvash Waqar a former RJ does backup vocals for the band. According to Wikipedia, the band was formed as a response to Musharaff’s sacking of the judges in 2007. Laal is a band of intellectuals and activists, they don’t limit their activism to just writing protest music and are actively involved in organizing protests. Taimur has a PhD and Shahram is currently pursuing one, Haider is a post graduate, Laal is a very unique music group in this respect, the only other PhD I know had made it real big in music was Brian May of Queen and Laal potentially has two PhDs!!

So far I have listened to their music posted in their youtube channel redpak2000.”Utho meri Duniya” is an open call to arms. The song is the anthem of Land Rights movement and was written by Allama Iqbal. At a Mumbai press conference Taimur explained the story behind the song. This is how it goes, when Lenin died and left his body behind to be embalmed and preserved for posterity, his soul went to heaven, there he asked the all knowing God whether he knows what is happening with the poor of the world, the God apparently didnt have a proper answer and ordered his angels to go and wake up the poor of his world from their slumber and fight for their rights.

Here is a couplet from the poem:

“jis khet se dahqan ko mayassar nahin rozi

us khet k har khosha-e-gandum ko jala do”

That farmland which doesnt feed the tiller,

burn every corn of wheat that is growing there!

This inspirational poem has been beautifully set to music, the arrangement is simple, but it is very effective. Fareeda is another song that I enjoyed listening to. It was written by an early Sufi poet, Ghulam Fareed. The song was composed when the Taliban attacked the Sufi shrines and murdered innocents who were offering their prayers. The Sufis, according to the band represents a progressive strain of Islam and were persecuted for their outrageous opinions. They were the rebels of their times and this song is a tribute to this tradition. “Jhoot ka Uncha Sar” is a satire written by Habib Jalib and has a very funny video which pokes fun at US-Pak diplomancy, US Aid, PAk military establishment and Pak politics. “Mere dil mere musafir” is based a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem about exile which Laal re-interpreted to depict the struggles of an industrial worker in Lahore.”Umeed-e-sahar” is a beautiful composition, probably one of their best songs in terms of listening pleasure. It is a heart wrenching poem written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and has a hard hitting video which complements the emotion of the song really well. One of my favorite Laal track is “Maine Usse ye Kaha”, again a poem from Jalib. It is rendered beautifully by Shahram. The satirical song berates the Pakistani public for their irresponsibilty and for not rising up to their potential.

Laal is quite impressive in their sheer output of material and they have created a discography of some amazing music without straying from their ideology. Their music is quite minimalistic, whether it’s the guitars of Taimur or Shahram’s singing or the flute solos of Haider. I think it is a very conscious decision not to overdo their act. I am sure that the band is quite capable of creating complicated progressive music. But then it will defeat the whole purpose of their music, which is to connect with the masses.

The music created during times of trouble are special and more than often they are the only signals of sanity emanating from these zones. And in Pakistan’s case, programs like Coke Studio had done wonders in changing people’s perspective about what is happening there. And ever since Pakistani cricket team stopped playing, Coke Studio Pakistan has been their only source of soft power. But then Laal is not just creating good music, they are advocating social change. Their music may not go down well with some powerful people and given these times of turmoil one feels truly concerned about their safety. But then what has to done should be done and what should be sung must be sung. And to Laal, I have only this to say “Inquilab Zindabad”.