In Urdu, the word "laal" means red. The band Laal takes its name literally. In a newspaper parking lot in Lahore, Pakistan, about 200 fans wave dozens of red flags, symbols of the band's Communist politics.
Nighat Chaudhry/for NPR
Fans listen to Laal perform in the parking lot of a Lahore newspaper building.
Fans listen to Laal perform in the parking lot of a Lahore newspaper building. Nighat Chaudhry/for NPR
Nighat Chaudhry/for NPR
Laal performs in Karachi, Pakistan. Lead singer Shahram Azhar and guitarist Taimur Rahman take a curtain call with key leaders of Pakistan's lawyers' movement, Ali Ahmed Kurd (left) and Aitzaz Ahsan.
Laal performs in Karachi, Pakistan. Lead singer Shahram Azhar and guitarist Taimur Rahman take a curtain call with key leaders of Pakistan's lawyers' movement, Ali Ahmed Kurd (left) and Aitzaz Ahsan. Nighat Chaudhry/for NPR
The group's classical flutist wears a T-shirt with a picture of Che Guevara on a red star. The lead guitarist wears a buttoned-down crimson shirt.
In the damp night air, the audience claps along with the song "Umeed-E-Sehr," or "hope of a new dawn." It's the title track to Laal's debut album.
Taimur Rahman is Laal's lead guitarist. He says the band's songs have recently gained a new relevance.
"These are times of both hope and despair simultaneously," he says, "and if you're not talking politics, if you're not talking social change, if you're not trying to do something that goes beyond crass commercialization, then really people are saying, kind of, that this is not worth our time."
It's not uncommon for Pakistanis to sing poetry and use it in political protests. So when Pakistan's first Communist rock band re-appropriated decades-old verses about hope, its songs became the soundtrack to Pakistan's lawyers' movement.
A couple years ago, Laal was a small-time band, playing mostly at workers' rallies and student centers. But when Pervez Musharraf, then the president of Pakistan, removed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from power, Pakistan's lawyers took to the streets in protests that sometimes resulted in violent clashes with authorities. Laal joined the movement.
That's when the record label of one of Pakistan's largest media conglomerates signed Laal and promoted its album. The band played on the roof of one of the company's television stations. The parking lot where it played to a sea of red-clad fans waving red flags belongs to one of the conglomerate's newspapers.
Today, Laal's concerts are televised and broadcast to millions. Rahman says he never imagined that the band would become so big so soon.
"We never expected that the mainstream media would pick us up in this manner, and they would support us in this manner," he says. "That they would invest in us and they would say, 'Come make an album. We'll give you all the coverage you require.' "
That album was released this spring as the lawyers continued their protests. On one track, Laal takes a poem written by one of the movement's leaders and sets it to music. When Chaudhry was reinstated this spring after two years of protests, Laal set up outside his home in the pre-dawn hours and performed "Umeed-E-Sehr."
Abdur Rauf works for the media conglomerate that released Laal's CD. He's seen Pakistan's other political movements, and he says listening to the band reminds him of past struggles. During the sound check at the parking-lot concert, he translated some of the lyrics to "Umeed-E-Sehr."
"If you want to change the system, listen to your inner voice and talk about the pain that you have inside you," Rauf says. "So it talks about that. This is not romantic poetry — this is purely revolutionary poetry."
At The Show
Laal's concerts are free and, because of security concerns, often spur-of-the-moment. One concert was announced on television just hours before it was set to start. A couple thousand fans showed up.
"When we have this type of concerts, we see a mixture of people, ranging from lawyers to political workers to labor class to socialists," Rauf says.
Here in Lahore, a huge rainstorm before a concert meant that only the most committed fans showed up.
Mian Mohammad Mumtaz came from a neighboring city. He's 80 years old, a lawyer and a fan of the band. He says Laal's music makes people politically active.
"When they sing, people are happy, and they sing and dance, and they take out their stress and pain," Mumtaz says in Punjabi.
The band takes the verse of some of Pakistan's most famous leftist poets and sets it to tabla, classical flute and electrical guitar— a blend of Eastern tradition and modern rock.
"One of our most successful numbers is a song called 'Musheer' — it means 'advisor,' " Rahman says. "It's a satirical poem, a satirical song by Habib Jalib.
"Some of the lyrics are, 'I told him' — him meaning the president — 'These millions, these millions of people. Their social conscience is dead. They're asleep. You are the light of tomorrow. You are the word of God. Only you can save the country.' All, of course, is very tongue-in-cheek and satirical."
The Words Of The Poets
Rahman knows his political poetry. He taught political science at a Lahore university, using the works of Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in his lessons. Their verses describe the "night-bitten dawn of partition" and the "bare-faced lies of a military constitution."
"These were poets that spoke of a new society that would emerge in the future — a socialist society, a society with democracy, equity and so on," Rahman says.
Poets like Jalib and Faiz were part of South Asia's progressive writers' movement, which began in the mid-1930s. The movement's founders wrote a manifesto, stating that their literature would address issues like hunger, poverty and political and social inequality.
Rahman says that performing the poetry in its traditional way, to the beat of a tabla and the sound of a harmonium, would sound stale.
"And young people couldn't relate to it stylistically," he says. "It became something that old people were involved with. Old people listened to Faiz and talked about Jalib, and we as young people were into other things."
So Rahman plugged in — and Laal made protest poetry electric. The band introduced a new generation to the poets and their politics.
"I think one of the things that people have consistently underestimated about the people of Pakistan is their affinity for music," Rahman says. "People love music, and I think that music at this time can be a binding force against religious extremism."
This summer, Laal is releasing a song dedicated to the millions of Pakistanis displaced by the army's campaign against insurgents in Pakistan's northwest frontier. They've composed music for a Faiz poem called "Ghum Na Kar," or "don't grieve." It's a song about clouds bursting, night ending and a new day beginning.