(This article first appeared in The Times of India Crest edition, dated April 28, 2012)
Pakistani protest band Laal uses music and satire to take Marx to the masses.
When the Pakistani band Laal walked into Hard Rock Cafe Mumbai hours before their performance there, they were clear about what they wanted - a clean stage without many props. "It would be amazing if we could project the video of Dehshatgardi murdabad (Down with the perpetrators of mayhem) while we play live. That video says it all, " says Taimur Rahman, the man behind the music, videos and politics that makes Laal a progressive and rebellious band. After years of free performances for workers and peasants, singing the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, receiving hate mail but also thousands of internet hits - especially for Jhoot Ka Uncha Sar, which had an all-woman crew wearing moustaches to mock the system - the band recently toured India to launch their second album Utho Meri Duniya (My World, Wake Up).
"In a way, we follow Gramsci's position on warfare: using the little space available for dissent and pushing the boundaries to expand that space, " says Taimur. "Laal has been successful because we have managed to get our voice into the mainstream media. Even if we do not agree with the mainstream entirely, we can find a common ground. Strategy is the key. "
Taimur is accompanied by wife, Mahvash Waqar, who was a journalist with a news channel until November 2011 when the channel was pulled off the air. "I am jobless now but a fulltime singer for Laal, " Waqar smiles. Then, there is banker Haider Rahman, Taimur's cousin, who takes the place of third vocalist with his flute. Taimur, Mahvash and Haider have kept Laal alive, with sessions musicians joining them whenever there are funds available to pay them.
Taimur grew up in an environment where Marxism was part of the air he breathed - his father is a well-known Left-wing intellectual while his mother is a founding member of the Women's Action Forum. "I grew up listening to Bob Marley and songs of protest, so my path was an obvious one, " says the 36-year-old assistant professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), who is also the General Secretary of Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (Pakistan) and is associated with various trade unions and peasant organisations.
The band is excited by the impact of the Dehshatgardi murdabad video, a montage with a rock-and-roll feel to it, with the lyrics exposing the role of the US in supporting the early Taliban. Taimur wrote the song and directed the video. They got plenty of hate mail and comrades from the party advised Taimur to absent himself from public meetings for a while. "The state is more predictable;we know the triggers for state action. But the vigilante phenomenon from the last few years in Pakistan is much more dangerous, " says Taimur with a serious voice. A moment later, he loosens his shoulders and smiles, "But I cannot be talking of my little fears compared to what is happening in Karachi or north-west Pakistan. "
"We would shout and sing out slogans, and that was in a way our training. Our songs were slogans, and our slogans were songs, " he says. The video of Maine Unse Yeh Kahaa (I said to him. . . ) was shot outside his room and uploaded on Youtube. It was an overnight success and Laal was formally born in 2008. Geo TV released their first album, which was a huge hit.
"It seemed like the media was hunting for artistes and musicians who were ready to speak aloud, especially after the veil of Emergency and censorship by General Musharraf had disappeared, " says Taimur. "The media was ready to go beyond its role of reporting. Today, we do enjoy freedom of speech. The newspapers are doing their job. The surge of news channels has meant more space. We have taken up that one per cent space for free speech;taking up the 99 per cent space won't be long. "
When he is not practising with the band or lecturing at LUMS, Taimur conducts seminars on labour rights for workers and trade unions. Then, there are the free performances across the country, throughout the month. "Somehow we manage to do at least one concert a month to bring home some money, " says Waqar. They are only too aware of the big money that they could have made if they had a corporate sponsor. "But our mission is not to make money. We are very happy to do the free performances among peasants, " says Taimur. Recently, Laal toured through Europe and none of the performances, except for one, earned them anything. Whatever profit they possibly make is reinvested into making videos. The video Doob gaya was used to raise funds after the devastating floods of 2010.
Despite being an internet sensation, Taimur knows that the band's real stomping ground is at the grassroots level, where issues like growing religious extremism need to be tackled. "We should remember that without grassroots action, there is no other alternative. We made the video of Utho Meri Duniya during a rally of 10, 000 people. We sang with them using loudspeakers from the village mosque. Our work in the last 15 years has been with the grassroots;it is only now that we are doing albums. The one who doesn't go work with the grassroots will have his work only floating in the air, " concludes Taimur, with a 'Laal Salaam' instead of 'Khuda Hafiz'.