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Sounds of peace in a troubled land
A group of musicians from both the East and West have come together to seek a better future for the people of Pakistan.
Last Modified: 29 Sep 2010 15:10
 In so many ways, Pakistan is a fractured land, but the collective resilience of the natives of the Swat Valley in the face of catastrophic natural disaster and political instability, tenders hopes of a more positive future [EPA]

Calling themselves the Sonic Peacemakers, rather than just sit on their hands and watch the world sink further into violence and disrepair, a group of musicians have decided to come together and put their music and even their bodies on the line to remind people around the world, from the US to Pakistan, of their common histories, dreams, and future.

The Sonic Peacemakers has brought together some of the most talented and well known artists in their respective countries, including members of the original Guns N Roses, South Asian pop icon Atif Aslam, Turkish rock legends Mogollar, and Iranian guitar virtuoso Farzad Golpayegani. The project began in Los Angeles when Aslam met up with Guns N Roses alumni Matt Sorum and Gilbey Clarke and producer Lanny Cordola to record a song "For Pakistan" that would help build bridges between the United States and Pakistan, "reminding everyone that they're not so different in the end," as Aslam explained it to me.

Sleepless in Swat

But going into a plus LA studio was only the beginning of the journey. Less than a month later, Cordola found himself in the middle of Swat Valley with Aslam and guitarist and disaster relief organizer Todd Shea, whose organization SHINE Humanity is providing desperately needed relief to Pakistanis in upwards of a dozen flood-ravaged locations across the country. There they staged the first live performance of music in the once Taliban-dominated valley in over five years.

"They didn't tell me what could have happened until after we finished performing," Cordola joked to me while resting briefly in Lahore before heading back up north to help with relief efforts. "But really, it was just an amazing, eye opening experience. I came to Pakistan because I knew that there was a very different side to the country than the largely violent and backwards image of it that dominates the media in the US. But I didn't expect to be so moved, to see so many people working together to create a new pakistan. The children were so happy to see us and hear the music. The people were so warm and inviting amid such devastation it was an inspiration that I'll never forget."

Shea chimed in, "What Americans don't understand is that we're talking about a river comparable to the Mississippi, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, becoming an inland sea that covered one fifth of the country. Crop lands scrubbed down bo bedrock in the north, people swept away in the plains, and a flood from Vancouver to LA in the south. And yet people have by and large retained their dignity and humanity. Could we do that?"

"It's more though," he continued. "Pakistanis know America much better than we know their culture. But there's still so much education to be done. So when that Florida pastor threatened to burn a Quran, we declared that for every Qur'an he burned we would hand out ten to children here. That kind of statement can really make a difference." In the end, they handed out Qur'ans and Eid packages for kids in the disaster areas in which they visited.

Music marks the way back

For Aslam, the exuberant reception in Swat points to a sea-change in Pakistani cultural attitudes towards music and musicians. "There has been such an opening in the last decade towards musicians.  There's not even a category on a Pakistani ID card for a musician. For a beggar, yes, but not a musician. And so when your son became a musician you'd mention it as if it were a disgrace."

One of Atif's musical collaborators, Sameer Shami, jumped in, "The stigma against music is a cultural thing that has become religious. In rural villages you have the ruler on the top of the hill and way at the bottom of the food chain is the musician. We're 'marasis,' a most derogatory term, and so when I introduce myself as a musician people think 'marasi' and say 'Poor you, you should move up and be a street cleaner'."

"But today," Aslam continued, "our parents say were musicians proudly."

The increasing acceptance of music, even in areas that have fallen prey to the Taliban, is not strange to Pakistani culture, which indeed has one of the richest musical traditions of any country on earth. The Taliban attacked music as part of a broader attack on anything not purely "Islamic," but as most Pakistani musicians will tell you, there's nothing unequivocal in Qur'an against music.

But why bother with music, especially a collaboration with a bunch of Western rockers, when 20,000,000 people are in such desparate straits? "We are musicians," Shami explained, "The one power we have is that we can reach and communicate at many different levels instantly.

Perhaps one of the main messages that musicians can bring is that, contrary to all the reports about how Pakistanis have failed to address the situation or to support each other, on the ground incredible and inspiring things are happening. Well known artist Ali Noor of the band Noori believes it's a signal moment in Pakistan's history: "There's no denying the corruption and all the wrong things that will happen in this time. But i will tell you that how this disaster has brought the people of Pakistan together is amazing, creating an urge to come together I haven't witnessed in my entire life. Artists, everyone is doing their share."

Grass roots activism the key

Shea, who came here in the wake of the 2005 earthquake and fell in love with the country, believes that the it's impossible to underestimate the value of small, person-to-person interactions on the ground in Pakistan, even against the forces of historic floods and ongoing war. "More Americans need to come here, not less. One of the goals of the Sonic Peacemakers is that the global band of artists involved in the project can educate people within and between the many cultures, and help them to change misperceptions about each other. "Only then might they open their hearts. When that happens, compassion and respect will follow."

Back in Istanbul, guitarist Farzad Golpayegani laughs about taking the train back home to Tehran from Istanbul. Traveling back and forth across the old train line that was once supposed to link Istanbul to the East is still an experience that brings out the commonalities in people. But for him, the musical links between Anatolian, Persian and South Asian cultural traditions are even deeper.

Golpayegani and I first played together at a huge "Rock for Peace" festival, Barisha Rock, in 2007, in a band that featured Iranian, Azeri, American and British musicians at one of the highest points of tension between Iran and the West in a long time. When percussionist Arash Jaffari urged the crowd, 'Muslims, Christians and Jews, together for peace!" 35,000 people screamed in support as one.

One of the founders of "Anatolian Rock," perhaps the first "global" rock genre, Öngür teased Golpayegani and myself for imagining that ours was the first generation to bring musicians and styles from such different traditions together. As the three of us sat around his small studio not far from the Bosphorous Straits trying to figure out how to do an Anatolian-Persian take on Pakistani Sufi rock, the idea of once again using music to start a much needed conversation remained as appealing as it was when Mogollar started, 40 years ago.

"What I dream of now is all the Middle East's peoples living together with a new way of thinking. We don't need bridges, or trains or whatever. Music is a universal language," he explained, which is why it is so powerful.

As he prepared to leave for Kenya for a show, Atif Aslam heartily agreed. "I play all over the world and people don't understand the [Urdu] lyrics to my songs. But we connect and create the right energy."

And with that energy, he and Cordola concluded, anything is possible, even a sustainable and peaceful future for Pakistan.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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