Laal: music of dissent

Much has been heard, said and opined about the band that surged on a tidal wave in the aftermath of a fresh exit of dictatorship. Sometimes, the most vocal and opinionated being the band members themselves who mask themselves under no pretences, and openly declare their motives to be revolutionary and incendiary to the saturated status quo. Of course, this leaves them open to criticism from old-school critics who look upon such plucky, naïve statements with doubt. However, being very much the emotional, passion-driven target market the band caters to, I find its mission statement endearing…and workable.

Laal debuted with the album Umeed-i-Sehar, opening with the melting vocals of Shahram Azhar serenading the listener with Habib Jalib’s satire.

The album can be defined as a musical score to the socially-conscious literature of Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Faraz. A sort of tribute band to the nation’s poetry of dissent. Take the rebellious spirit of The Who’s earlier works and simmer in a tarka of a classically trained flute player and the delicate aural trajectory of a lead singer specialised in the North Indian classical genre. The album is surprisingly uplifting; its subject matter largely focusing on the optimism of overturning rather than plaguing the listener with the anguish of the actual.

The strength of the band has been its belligerent brand association with Aag/Fire Records. Its videos have been continually played to the backdrop of an ever-changing political landscape, gaining more-than-average airtime in the form of rockumentaries, televised concerts and interviews. And what videos they have been!

A special mention must be made of the more recent and very brilliant Umeed-i-Sehar directed by Azfar Ali and Umar Amanullah. The video, passed along excitedly through Facebook links and emails, had unprecedented approval from both viewers and critics: a simplistic tale representative of the social hierarchy and the apathy of the political bourgeois.

Though realistic and hopeful without falling into the easy trappings of corniness, the video flowed from choppy handheld shots to smooth overheads. The beauty is its focus on small eccentricities and detail rather than a huge, overlying, loud theme — after the credits roll on and you sit in shocked brilliance.

The band is a quartet comprising of Shahram Azhar as the vocalist, currently teaching at Iqra University in Islamabad and recently admitted to Oxford University for a Ph.D. Taimur Rehman is frontman and guitarist for Laal, member of the Communist Mazdoor Kisaan Party and currently completing a Ph.D on the class structure of Pakistan amongst other things. Haider Rehman is a classically trained flute player and in possession of a Masters degree in Economics. Mahvash Waqar, a familiar voice from the radio, rounds up the Laal sound with backup vocals.

Perhaps the most alluring element about Laal, even more so than its obviously socially-compelling music and strong sociopolitical branding, is the personality of the band itself. This is a group of intellectual, extremely well-educated, and probably well-connected young people with the smarts to get them to the top of whatever career path they choose. Yet, they remain true to their conviction of social contribution by making practical steps.

This is not a bunch of bored boys who decided to pick up a guitar one day, after listening to The Smiths for a few years. They are vigilant of their mission statement of a band and claim that the socio-psychological outputs of the band outweighs the music: they openly admit to be more desirous of stoking an interest in young listeners towards political symbolism than the actual business of making records or making money. ‘Our goal is social change, the means is music.’

The band involves its target demographic — the young and the firebrands scattered around the country — in a series of meetings to pool together ideas and conduct discussions regarding the socio-political developments that face the country. One sees the fledging beginning of an underground movement driven by the charisma and ingenuousness of the band members.

Readers should keep an eye out for Democracy in Flames; an upcoming documentary based around Taimur Rehman’s observances of the events that rattled the country after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Rehman’s documentary brings some stark visuals that lament on the extent of the grief and rage felt from the grassroots and upwards. A 10-minute clip is available at www.whocaresaboutpakistan.com, harrowing images of the riots that followed, children smashing bricks into cars from atop bridges, while men openly declare they would not rest till the country was burning, in revenge for the complacency in investigation.

The band’s sound is devoid of the elitist trend of growing a pseudo-conscience overnight. Singing for a social cause isn’t a trend they’ve latched on to, but is a devoted focus. One would assume that the songs would be harder for today’s Urdu-degenerate youth to understand, but most of the songs are singable and register quickly in the psyche. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to open a lughaat, as one band member puts it.

Tracks of special significance include Jaago, a transliterated and localised version of the famous proletarian anthem Internationale (by French worker-poet Eugene Pottier), easily recognisable as one of the most famous communist songs in history. Kal Aaj Aur Kal, based on the poetry of Aitizaz Ahsan — the veritable bastion of the recent lawyers movement — a poem proclaimed to be the manifesto of the lawyers’ movement. Though with the current security situation preventing large gatherings for entertainment purposes, the band makes occasional appearances at press clubs and protests, and is certainly something to keep an ear out for.

The Laal album is up for download from the official website. This sense of creating a social archive free of access to those who wish to listen to its music is, in the band’s view, a logical corollary to the fact that all proceeds from the sale of the album go into a fund to promote the works of the very artistes whose poetry they sing. In spirit as in theory, Laal seem to be true to its word.

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