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Left and right in Pakistan

At a time all political power in Pakistan seems to be arraigned on the right, it’s good to be reminded of the country’s once-thriving leftist culture. Enter Laal, which is perhaps the subcontinent’s first self-confessed ‘Communist pop group’.

music Updated: Apr 28, 2012 14:33 IST
Amitava Sanyal

At a time all political power in Pakistan seems to be arraigned on the right, it’s good to be reminded of the country’s once-thriving leftist culture. Enter Laal, which is perhaps the subcontinent’s first self-confessed ‘Communist pop group’.

Music has always been at the centre of the Left’s communication strategy in the subcontinent. Not long ago, Indian Ocean’s Susmit Sen produced Songs of Resistance, an album of songs written by members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and sung afresh by Sumangala Damodaran. Piyush Mishra gave us a glimpse of his work at the movement’s Act One theatre group in Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal.

LaalIn contrast, Laal is a pop band from modern-day Pakistan. They swear by the revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, some of which they have set to tune for their latest album, Utho Meri Dunya. The title is from a song based on Allama Iqbal’s call for an enlightened equality.

After some shape-shifting, the band is now a trio. It’s led by Taimur Rahman, guitarist and vocalist who has taught economics and political science at some of Lahore’s most prestigious institutes. The other vocalist is Mahvash Waqar, who studied design and has worked as a radio jockey. Flautist Haider Rahman, who has trained with Hariprasad Chaurasia, also studied economics.

You can question whether Laal has rendered some of the poems with fitting melodies, but it’s difficult to doubt their words as good conductors of electricity. For example, ‘Bedam huye bimaar, dawa kyun nahin dete’ is Faiz’s sarcastic volley against Pakistan’s first military government. Jalib’s ‘Jhooth ka ooncha sar’ is a strong satire on hypocrisy.

Melody isn’t the band’s strongest suit. Even when the arrangement, a curious mix of modern and traditional instruments mostly set to two-two beats, is refreshing, the singing is not. Such a balance may work better in all-out rock, but is more difficult to pull off in pop.

For a free taster, check out some of their live performances at bit.ly/laalpak. If you still need an excuse to get the album, you can always say you are welcoming International Workers’ Day, May 1, with a collection subtitled ‘Workers of the World, Unite’.

Jazz, by the way

RagaThere was a time in the 1960s when newcomers like RD Burman were trying to say, "We can compose classical too," while some of the older composers were saying, "We too can do jazz and rock-n-roll." Raga Jazz Style was such a crossover moment for the era’s superhit duo, Shankar-Jaikishan.

The album’s 11 raags, from Todi to Jaijayanti, stand for almost all seasons of the year and all times of the day. The most discordant of the transmogrifications is when the magisterial Malkauns is turned into a saxophone-led, peppy bossa. The most attractive change for me is of the flirty Kalavati.

There’s one serious problem with the title’s claim: Shankar-Jaikishan lean on western instruments like guitar, sax and drums, but they do not arrange the melodies into harmonies. Nor do they dangle any blue note. In comparison, Lahore’s Sachal Studios Orchestra — which does the opposite by playing jazz standards on Indian instruments — has a far better hang of such sound.

Single of the fortnight
It’s a song that has inhabited my soul for days now. It was written originally in Malayalam for a Tamil film that was remade in Hindi recently. It’s ‘Aromale’ (‘My beloved’) from Gautham Menon’s film Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya, set to music by AR Rahman.

There are two versions of the original song — a full-fledged one by Alphonse Joseph with lyrics by Kaithapram, and a shorter, single-word one by Shreya Ghoshal. For the film’s Hindi remake, Ekk Deewana Tha, Javed Akhtar took the longer version — which celebrates a moment auspicious for a union — and rewrote it in his own way.

But I am hooked on the other version, Shreya Ghoshal’s wisp of a song (bit.ly/aromale). She sings ‘Aromale’, the only word, with such a twist from the heart that it settles as a lump in the throat. If Alphonse’s rendition of this tune based on raag Bageshri is a celebration, Shreya’s is a longing. The waft of her taans is like a breeze across a lake, as if she’s gazing at the reflection of the sky. Let me know if it fails to hook you.