Is it a miniature piano? An amputee organ? A strapless accordion? Accustomed since childhood to the piano and recently enamored of the accordion, I am intrigued by the harmonium. Like many other Americans growing up in the late 1980s and early ’90s, I dimly associate the instrument with South Asia, no doubt owing to video images of the great Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, introduced to Western mass audiences by Peter Gabriel.
Not long ago, I sat down with the harmonium in a basement of a private home in Queens, New York. We were joined by several music lovers and musicians, among them one of Pakistan’s best-known singers. He was here in Queens, playing and singing to this small weekly gathering of friends, because he had been forced to flee his native Peshawar last year in the face of threats and intimidation by Taliban militants who oppose his music.
Music (particularly of the Pashtun ethic group) was one of the first casualties of the Taliban’s recent campaign to take over Northwest Pakistan. In December 2008, militants shot and killed the harmonium player Anwar Gul as he was traveling with his colleague, popular Pashto singer Sardar Yousafzai. In January 2009, extremists murdered the female dancer and singer Shabana and threw her body into the square of Mingora town. Journalist Shaheen Buneri has estimated that more than 800 music shops have been bombed or attacked in the Northwest since 2006. I spoke with a man who had personally witnessed Islamist thugs destroying traditional instruments in front of the players whose lives depended on them.
It was against this backdrop that I put some questions to the man at the harmonium. Because of continuing danger at home, he wished to remain anonymous, at least for now, out of concern for the safety of his family.
Why were you targeted by extremists?
I was targeted mainly because of the lyrics that I selected for my music. Many of my songs negate the fundamentalist and rigid agenda of the religious extremists. They rather have a very strong message of love, liberty, and peaceful coexistence.
Although the Qur’an and the Hadith say nothing about music per se, some conservative scholars interpret injunctions against “idle talk” or “forbidden pleasures” to encompass music. What do you make of the argument that music leads to sin?
I strongly oppose this notion. Had it been a sin, God would not have gifted me with this very special gift; i.e., the ability to understand sur (tune) and lay (beat). These conservative and uneducated mullahs have wrongly interpreted the Qur’an and Hadith, and have thus confused ordinary Pashtuns, of whom, unfortunately, a big majority are uneducated. There are verdicts from some very learned Islamic scholars who consider music bad only when it becomes vulgar in its lyrics and/or presentation.
After the advent of Islam, Pashtuns have been staunch Muslims while listening and dancing to their music. A rich heritage of their folklore testifies to this fact.
You’ve pointed out that even the Taliban have a musical tradition of their own. What is that?
They are Pashtuns and therefore cannot live without listening to their own melodies. That is why they have crafted their own hymns, based on all-time popular Pashto tunes.
You identify yourself as a Muslim. What is the connection in your own personal experience between your musical and artistic life and your religious or spiritual life?
Islam and music have never been in conflict. Many people agree with the idea that Islam came to the Indian subcontinent as a result of some great literary and musical work of the Sufis. Pashtuns also have a number of great poets and saints, who always used music as a strong medium for spreading their message of peace and love.
The Saudi-funded Wahabi sect, however, is said to be against this philosophy. The heart of every Pashtun bled when the tomb of the great Pashto poet and mystic, Rahman Baba, was brutally attacked by the disciples of the Wahabi sect recently in Peshawar.
As far as my music is concerned, I don’t believe it has ever created obstacles in the way of performing my religious duties.
Is there anything people in other countries can do to improve conditions for musicians in Pakistan?
Unfortunately, very little effort has been made to promote Pashto music in the past. Now that popular Pashto music and culture are diminishing, it’s high time to work seriously for its preservation and promotion. We can consider the following steps in this regard.
*Create awareness regarding the plight of Pashtun artists in international media.
*Organize cultural exchange programs, wherein Pashtun artists could get opportunities to present their music and rich heritage of folklore to the world.
*Pressure the government of Pakistan through international human rights and other aid organizations to ensure the safety of local artists.
*Encourage and fund local non-governmental organizations to work for the betterment of the affected artists and their families.
*Sponsor and promote Pashto music to eradicate the menace of terrorism.
*Conduct research on Pashto music and its effectiveness to combat religious extremism.
Upon hearing the harmonium in person for the first time, what struck me most was the softness of its timbre. Neither the anguished stab of the bandoneon of Argentine tango nor the nostalgic lilt of the musette of the French cafe, it was a voice tender and steady, grieved yet resilient, made wise by the years; the voice of a teacher, a traveler. Now even this humble instrument has been enlisted as an unlikely combatant in the struggle for the future of a nation.