Laal take off on an ideological musical odyssey
With their debut record, Umeed e Sahar, Laal is all set to revolutionize Pakistan’s musical landscape.
The band talks to Instep about where they see this revolutionary road taking them.
By Saba Imtiaz
Think Laal, and the first memory that pops up is the video for ‘Mainay Uss Se Yeh Kaha’, which received heavy airplay on Geo News, featuring a montage of notable political moments from last year. The band, comprising of Taimur Rahman, Mahvash Waqar, Haider Rahman and Shahram Azhar, have just released their debut album, Umeed e Sahar. But this is no ordinary band, nor an ordinary album. Set to the hard hitting and deeply insightful poetry of Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, as well as the band’s own poetry, Umeed e Sahar may just well be one of the most important records to have ever been released in Pakistan. It is revolutionary and relevant to its core, and speaks of an honest desire to truly inspire change. Moreover, it has revived verses that have been enclosed in dusty books for far too long, and are a befitting soundtrack to our current socio-political landscape.
Currently based in the UK and Pakistan, Laal came to Karachi on a whirlwind media tour last month. For over two days the band members waltzed in and out of media organizations to talk about their album and they performed two songs at The Second Floor as well as a full-fledged live concert for Geo TV’s show Applause, which had Aitzaz Ahsan sitting in the front row. Their music had the audience in raptures – and one witnessed people all around singing along to the infectious chorus’ – yet at the same time trying to decipher the loaded meaning of their songs.
Interviewing Laal is another experience in itself. Taimur Rahman, also known as a rather popular teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), acts as a spokesperson for the band, with the others content to listen on and interject at will. His jovial nature infused the mood of the room and their unabashed honesty – from their political leanings to their musical preferences – was truly refreshing. So how did Laal make it to our TV screens? Taimur and Shahram were being filmed by Taimur Khan for a documentary, and as the two started singing randomly, Taimur Khan thought it would be great to shoot a video for their song – and the song became such a YouTube hit that it was noticed by Geo TV who offered them an album deal as well as used their songs for videos
How do they feel the events of post-Emergency have affected the music landscape in Pakistan?
“Its great!” enthused Taimur. “There’s been a transformation, and there is an effort by musicians to inculcate some sort of political commentary.” Laal cited Azal’s ‘Aisi Taisi’ as an example. “The media lifting us (Laal) up is an advantage of the November 3 emergency. There has been a politicization of youth. Earlier if you’d be somewhere talking to people about politics, someone would say ‘don’t talk about politics, its very passe’. Now if someone says that, the reply is ‘not talking about politics is passe’.” Taimur added, “Arguably, we are the most politicized youth out there, something that was lacking in the 1990s.”
When quizzed about Laal’s history, Taimur laughed and wondered whether we’ll be going back to the 1900s. He made the story short though. “I was teaching at LUMS and I would often bring my guitar to class and sing during classes. I met Shahram Azhar there, who’s a classically trained vocalist, who’s studied with Mehfooz Khokhar. We connected ideologically, musically, as comrades and researchers. So for six years we’ve been playing music and we were utilizing music to raise awareness. So we’d play at small gatherings, for workers, in their houses, gatherings of 20 to 50 people and even a 100 people. We performed at the Media Rally in 2006, and had a repertoire of songs, Jalib and Faiz’s poetry, original songs, songs by others. But the emphasis was always on activism.”
After the imposition of emergency in Pakistan on November 3, 2007, Taimur and Shahram mobilized their students and friends in the UK respectively, to build up a network and organize protests at Downing Street against the emergency. The band was also invited by the Pindi Bar Association to perform at the Long March last year.
Given the politicization of youth, then, does this mean that Laal is catering to that particular segment of music aficionados only? Laal disagreed as Mahvash quoted examples of parents of friends who listen to Laal’s music. Taimur added, “We’re operating on a universal campus. We see ourselves as a continuity of the progressive artists and writers’ community. We’re appealing to the intelligentsia, who is anyone willing to listen to our message. Saying it’s youthful is unfaithful to our other listeners. Our music talks about the oppressed. It encourages thought, to think about the fetters and hindrances. To talk about social issues is beneficial. We’re intent to bring forward a message of social change to anyone who’s ready to listen.”
And how do they intent on bringing that message to the people, given that the concert circuit has evaporated with the worsening security situation? “Guerrilla concerts!” said Taimur emphatically. “That’s our niche. We don’t have any commercial considerations or sponsors. We’re ideologically motivated that our message reaches – chahe humein har chappay chappay pind pind jaana pade! (even if we have to go to every corner, every small and big town) We’re not scared”. This rhetoric is truly refreshing given the number of artists who have shied away from performing in Pakistan in recent times. Taimur reinforced that sentiment, “We’re not a big name who’ll think that ‘if I perform for less money, my market value will go down’. We’ve had an enormously positive response, from the youth, Pakistanis, communists, socialists, progressives…and also, we’re bloody damn good musicians!”
One can’t disagree, having heard them perform live with an ensemble of musicians and to boot, Shahram and Haider are both trained musicians. Shahram has been trained as a classical singer, while Haider (who plays the flute) has trained with India’s flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. The band’s musical preferences range from Pathanay Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shiraz Uppal, Abrar-ul-Haq, Junoon’s early work, Jawad Ahmed to a diverse slew of classical music.
Umeed e Sahar features the poetry of Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Aitzaz Ahsan as well as the band’s original work. Taimur waxed lyrical about Shahram’s poetic abilities.
“Shahram understands poetry deeply. He’s a poet himself and he has a big role to play in the original songs.” Why pick Jalib and Faiz? “They were natural choices for us,” said Shahram. “Theirs is Urdu poetry filled in progressive thought, anyone with similar ideas is naturally attracted to it. And music is such a progressive medium. No one has really sung Jalib in the past 20 years.”
With their debut record, Umeed e Sahar, out in stores now and released at such a tumultuous moment in Pakistan’s scarred history, we bet everyone will be singing along to Jalib with Laal now!