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Music vs. militancy

Published Jan 21, 2010 01:56pm

Even though Pakistan is bleeding from terrorism and suicide bombings, no mainstream pop music artist has come close to condemning or questioning the spread of militancy through music and lyrics. A recent video from The New York Times highlighted this issue, showing how pop acts such as Ali Azmat and Noori were keeping quiet on the subjects of terror, religious extremism, and the Taliban, while railing against America through their songs. In this context, 25-year-old Daniyal Noorani‘s debut effort ‘Finding Heaven,’ which was released on YouTube a few days ago, is encouraging. The daring single takes the Taliban and religious extremists head on, creating quite a buzz online. Dawn.com speaks with Noorani to find out what prompted him to fill the ideological vacuum in our music scene.

Q. Are you a musician by profession or is it something you do as a hobby?

A. I’m a 25-year old Pakistani who grew up in Lahore, studied at Aitchison College, and later did my undergrad at a small liberal arts college called Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. I graduated with a math and economics double major in 2006 and I am currently doing business development at a biotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I am not a musician by profession. I actually started playing the guitar a couple of years ago at the insistence of my younger sister, who also plays the instrument. I began playing a right-handed guitar, left handed; in fact, I still play the guitar upside down. I do not have a band. Right now, it’s just me writing music and having friends help out with the instrumentation.

Q. What are you trying to convey with your song?

A. I wrote 'Find Heaven' at a time when I felt there was no clear public consensus on suicide bombings. At that point, the urban centres of Pakistan had not been as hard hit as they are today and I felt that the country didn't know how they felt about these activities, whether they were sympathetic or condemning of it. It was around that time I started writing the lyrics. The song tells the story of a confused  young man seeking answers about life's important questions and traces how an individual lures this young man by saying he has the answer to life's ultimate question, how to find heaven or zenith? The lyrics convey the young man's journey and the events that lead to the conclusion he comes to.

Q. Is there anything autobiographical about the young man in your song?

A. The confused man is any person of my generation who is questioning and thinking about what’s been happening in our country. It’s autobiographical in a way that we the youth are confused about a lot of things, like the injustices we see all around us, our corrupt society, and incidents of terrorism taking place all over the country.

The realisation (of how bad things have become) dawned on me over the last few years. Before, frankly, when we would hear about terror incidents like those in north-western areas, it wouldn’t affect us much or maybe we wouldn’t think too much about it. But now that terror is hitting close to home in our cities, it shakes us up.

Q. How did the concept of the video evolve? Why did you choose to animate it rather than shoot a video with real people and places?

A. I think the concept of the video came while writing the song, so that is one reason why they are so interdependent. From the start, I had a pretty clear vision of the final version of the video. I think that the audio and video together are much greater than the sum of the individual parts. The animations were done by my cousin Marria Khan, who is a very talented artist and graduate of the National College of Arts. She did a fantastic job coming up with the character designs and giving them a life of their own.

I chose animation to limit the element of personal bias that may be associated with an actor so that the focus remains on the story and the message. Black and white sketches don't allow for the focus to shift from the story to what a said actor may stand for. Also, this video could be misinterpreted by some people, which may have resulted in consequences for actors playing the roles - I didn't want to endanger anyone.

Q. Did it strike you that you might endanger yourself through this effort?

A. Yes, the thought did cross my mind. In fact, while making this song, I even discussed [possible repercussions] with my family. Having said that, even though the song might be controversial in nature, I don’t think I’ve done anything to offend anyone, especially anything that would give me negative feedback of a violent kind.

Q. What feedback have you received?

A. The feedback has been predominantly positive with a smattering of negative comments. I am not very concerned about the negative feedback as part of the goal of the video was to have the people who hold opposing views to communicate with those who have positive feedback, and start a dialogue. I hope that after seeing this video, people will question things and not just take things at face value; the more we question, the more we learn. On another note, my friends have interpreted the lyrics in a multitude of different ways, so I think the song has more character than I am highlighting in the video.

Q. If the goal was to initiate dialogue, why not compose Urdu-language lyrics?

A. I do realise that it’s rather elitist of me to have done the song in English, which limits the audience in Pakistan. At the same time, the song now has global reach and can be understood by people the world over. Also, my control over the Urdu language is not as strong as I would like it to be. Despite that, I am working on an Urdu version of 'Find Heaven' and soon, if nothing else, I will at least have the same song with Urdu subtitles. At the moment, though, I’m trying to figure out what the Urdu word for redemption is.

Q. In the video, we don't actually see the young man conduct a suicide bombing. Is there a particular reason for that?

A. I think showing the events that lead up to the climax are more important than showing the bomber explode himself. You see that the main character has taken all the steps to commit an act of terrorism, but what is more important is to look at the events that lead the character to that point. Also, one thing I wanted to highlight was the cyclical nature of these events. At the end of the video, one pretty much ends up at the beginning, except there is a man walking into a mosque in the background. The idea was to highlight the fact that unless there is a change in the events leading up to the climax, this horrible cycle will continue.

Q. Did you deliberately keep the composition and structure of your song very simple?

A. The song is just a simple four-chord progression with violins. The lyrical structure of the song is just divided into three sections to show the different phases of the character's journey. Compositionally, I wanted to keep it simple so that the lyrics stand out, while at the same time I wanted to use violins to build the tension for the climax.

Q. Are you planning to launch an album any time soon?

A. I have made other music besides this, which I am currently refining. When I write music, I just try to write about things that interest me and hope that someone else will also find them interesting, so my other music can be drastically different from 'Find Heaven'. As for plans to launch an album, I did not release this song with the hopes of releasing an album. It was just a story that I thought needed to be told. But based on the response on this first endeavor I do plan to continue releasing music. Whether this will be in an album form or just via singles, I haven't yet decided.

Salman Siddiqui is a staff reporter at Dawn.com

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