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SOUNDCHECK: MUSICAL WANDERLUST

September 10, 2017
Photo: Mercury Classics/Marino Thorlacius
Photo: Mercury Classics/Marino Thorlacius

It doesn’t happen very often that an artist from a Scandinavian country takes a shine to Pakistan and its diverse culture. But in contemporary times, cyberspace has made it easier for people to interact with those who come from a different cultural milieu.

Olafur Arnalds is a renowned Icelandic musician and composer. It is by sheer coincidence that he befriended a Pakistani through the internet and then came to Pakistan at her invitation. Below are excerpts from a conversation Icon had with the Icelandic artist.

Can you talk us through your journey to Pakistan?

Olafur Arnalds: The wonders of the internet! I became pen pals with a Pakistani girl in 2006 on Myspace. We became good friends and met in London when she was in school there. Afterwards, I came to Lahore to attend her wedding.

Did you have any concerns? How did your friends and family feel about going to Pakistan?

OA: I did not. My mother was maybe a little concerned but my father wanted to come with me! Thankfully I have travelled enough around the world to realise that it is not black and white. There is a whole spectrum of people and possibilities, but the mainstream news media tends to only represent a small fraction of that.

Visiting Icelandic instrumentalist Olafur Arnalds’ thoughts on Pakistan and its diverse soundscape

What was your first impression after you arrived here? I imagine it must’ve felt a little chaotic.

OA: It’s true it takes a little while to get used to the surroundings, but I was mostly fascinated by it. I arrived late at night but stayed awake so I could watch the sunrise over the city.

How different did you find Pakistan from Iceland?

OA: Oh, it’s very, very different. Iceland is a slow, calm place with very few people; no traffic and nobody carries guns. So, the culture shock was quite big. But that’s what makes it important to experience.

What were the places in Lahore that you liked most?

OA: We mostly did wedding activities, but I had a couple of days to explore and went to the walled city, Badshahi Mosque and Wazir Khan Mosque. I think Wazir Khan is my favourite.

What are your thoughts on Pakistani wedding music? Did you get to learn any bhangra moves? What about other kinds of local music?

OA: Our group of foreigners attending the wedding learned a dance routine that we performed at the mehndi to much amusement of the locals. But in general, I loved the music at the events, and found the Bollywood remixes of popular Western songs particularly amusing.

You’re a vegetarian and Pakistanis love their meat. The only guaranteed vegetarian food you will find in every Pakistani restaurant is French fries. Did you have any trouble with the food?

OA: There were a couple of events where I could only eat naan. But generally, there were always great vegetarian options. I liked the Pakistani spinach dish in particular.

You have mentioned somewhere that you were trolled and received a lot of hateful comments because of your visit to Pakistan. I personally can’t imagine why anyone would send you hate mail for travelling. What kind of hate mail did you get?

OA: The world is a strange place. I mean, people voted for Trump.

Do you plan to return to Pakistan?

OA: Yes. I’m already planning a trip to the north to visit the Hunza Valley.

Other than wedding music, have you had a chance to explore the diverse soundscape of Pakistani music?

OA: I did not get a chance to discover the real local music scene, unfortunately. I do know of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble in Lahore. They are great!

When I first started listening to bands from Iceland (around 15 years ago), it seemed like a place that was a little harder to get to and relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Which is also what made Icelandic music so unique — now and then, there is a certain silence in its sound, peaceful spaces and just a hint of stirring melancholy. Iceland is currently one of the top destinations in the world for tourism. How do you think that has changed the country? Has all of this exposure changed the character of its music?

OA: There is more pop music now, for sure. The world has become smaller and we have more influence from other countries, so many artists sound more ‘American’ now. I think it also has to do with the fact that people now believe they can make it in the ‘big world’, so they try to fit into the worldwide mainstream scene. Whereas in the past people were more tied to Iceland and didn’t try to be commercial and mainstream. That being said, there is still a lot of amazing music there.

In the middle of all of this tourism madness, is it easy to find peace and space to create music like before again?

OA: It’s not like the place is packed with people. It’s just more active, more busy. But with that comes also a bigger audience for what you do and a lot of new activities for the locals to do in the city. It’s still easy to go a little bit outside the city and find complete calm and quiet.

In the course of recording Island Songs, was there anything that you learned about your country that you were previously unaware of?

OA: It was most interesting for me to see how people do music for different reasons. On my travels, I met a lot of people who were simply doing music for the sake of music, almost as a community service. They would do music in order to bring their small villages together, to celebrate, to mourn. Serving a very important role in their community but not in the sense of standing on stage and playing in front of thousands of fans.

Do you have any plans of going towards the East with your musical collaborations? If yes, would you elaborate on that?

OA: No real plans, so far. But I have noticed a lot of Persian musicians making mash-ups with my music and I find that fascinating. Nothing Pakistani so far though.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 10th, 2017