STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If Pakistan really is among the most dangerous nations on earth, it's a country worth understanding. And if you want to get beyond the basic facts that it's a Muslim country that has the bomb, its worth understanding Pakistan's music. Some of it comes from bands with a Western flavor. One band whose acclaim has spread beyond the country's borders is the Mekaal Hasan Band. NPR's Bilal Qureshi visited Hasan at his studio in Lahore to see how an American-trained guitarist is dealing with the turmoil in his homeland.

BILAL QURESHI: The city of Lahore circa early 1990s was not the ideal place for a budding rock star.

Mr. MEKAAL HASAN (Pakistani Musician; Front Man, The Mekaal Hasan Band): You couldn't even find, like, a guitar pick, OK. You had to ask someone from abroad to get you a guitar pick. You had to ask people to get you guitar cables, guitar strings. That's how bad it was.

QURESHI: Today, Mekaal Hasan fronts Pakistan's most respected rock group, a quartet aptly called the Mekaal Hasan Band.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: But this is Pakistan after all, the fault line of the war on terror.

Mr. HASAN: We've had no shows, no concerts, because people are too scared to put up open-air events because of the security situation. You know, bomb threats and whatever.

QURESHI: On the other hand, Hasan has had plenty of downtime to put the finishing touches on his band's eagerly anticipated second album.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: On this particular afternoon, he's cooped up in his home studio. The power's out, and Hasan's wired on a steady stream of cigarettes and chai. Hasan has long, curly, black hair, and his lean frame is hunched over in a computer chair. He's meeting a beginning musician to offer some much-needed guidance. Mekaal Hasan has become something of a bridge between Pakistan's younger generation of musicians and the older classical players.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: For someone whose own music is rooted in tradition, Mekaal Hasan's story is anything but traditional. His mother is Christian, his father Muslim, the house full of jazz records. Hasan taught himself how to play the guitar when he was 15, listening to bands like Led Zeppelin. There wasn't much opportunity to advance his craft in Lahore, though. So Hasan, like many of his peers, decided to leave Pakistan. He applied to the Berklee School of Music and got in.

Mr. HASAN: That jump is just insane. It's like going to another planet.

QURESHI: What was particularly alien in this new planet, otherwise known as Boston, was the living, breathing world of music, concerts, performances, and impromptu jam sessions.

Mr. HASAN: I never felt more at home than when I was in Boston, because I was surrounded by so much great music and so many great musicians. I think all creative people need, like, an environment to flourish in.

QURESHI: But Hasan was on a student visa, and his parents bribed him to come home early, offering to build him a home studio. So in 1995, Mekaal Hasan returned to Lahore.

Mr. HASAN: For a while, like a good two to three years, I was just massively depressed and really angry, as well, because I was like, why am I here? What am I doing here? And then you had to reconcile yourself to the fact that, well, hey, man, you've always lived here. But I resolved to make the best of it. And in some ways, this turned out to be a good exercise in just practicing the concepts that I'd learned in music school.

QURESHI: And practicing eventually led him to local musicians, people who played in the eastern classical tradition.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HASAN: Classic musicians, as it turns out, are unbelievable improvisers, and that's a common thing that jazz and classical has, that they're both improvising art forms. But the language varies within each particular art form. It just depends on how much they're willing to stretch.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: The Mekaal Hasan Band's lead singer, Javed Bashir, and flutist, Papu, are part of the older community of classically trained musicians living in the old city of Lahore. Many of them have been relegated to playing backup for the country's glossy pop stars. Mekaal Hasan reversed that arrangement and brought those musicians to the forefront, though he admits that sometimes even he didn't understand traditional music.

Mr. HASAN: To be quite honest, I don't even know what the lyrics mean most of the time. I'm just going by the sound of the melody.

QURESHI: The Mekaal Hasan Band's melodies clicked, and the group swept onto the Pakistani music scene in 2004 with its debut album, a record that integrated old and new music with Islamic poetry. Mark LeVine is a professor of music at the University of California-Irvine. He has spent the last few years profiling rock musicians across the Muslim world, and he says many of them cite Hasan as an inspiration.

Dr. MARK LEVINE (Professor of History, University of California-Irvine; Religious Scholar; Musician): They have nothing but respect, and they look up to him and that band as sort of the highest plateau that you could reach in rock music, in terms of creativity and talent.

QURESHI: This should have been a defining year for the Mekaal Hasan Band. There's the new album, a tour in neighboring India, and there had been a surge of optimism among the public following the election of a new democratic government. But Hasan says little has changed.

Mr. HASAN: Democracy or dictatorship, the situation on the ground stays the same. It hasn't changed for anyone.

QURESHI: That cynicism is widespread among the new generation of Pakistanis. But Hasan says there is no space for politics or cynicism in his music. And years after returning from Boston, Mekaal Hasan has found a community among his band mates. And he says that while the political seasons may change, this is where he finds his inspiration now, in his studio in Lahore.

Mr. HASAN: When it comes down to making music, you shut out the world outside, you know. You're doing what's right for that piece of music. I really don't have a choice, to be quite honest. I really don't have a choice in what I'm doing, because this is the music I do and this is how I do it, you know. I can't change the way I approach a given musical situation just because there's some bomb going off in Peshawar. That cannot and will not affect me.

QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can hear songs from Mekaal Hasan's new CD, as well of some of his earlier work, by going to our Web site, npr.org, in fact nprmusic.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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