For The Pakistani Communist Rock Band Laal, A Plugged-In Protest It's not uncommon for Pakistanis to sing poetry and use it in political protests. So when the Communist rock band Laal appropriated decades-old verses about hope, the music accompanied a new movement.
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For Pakistani Rockers, A Plugged-In Protest

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For Pakistani Rockers, A Plugged-In Protest

For Pakistani Rockers, A Plugged-In Protest

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Political protest in Pakistan can take the form of poetry and music. So when Pakistan's first communist rock band set old verses about hope and equality and power to music, their songs became the soundtrack to Pakistan's lawyers' movement. Now the band is focusing on the millions of Pakistanis displaced by the military's campaign against militants.

Shomial Ahmad reports.

SHOMIAL AHMAD: In Urdu, the word laal means red, and the band Laal takes itself literally. In a Lahore newspaper parking lot, a crowd of a couple of hundred wave dozens of red flags, symbols of the band's communist politics.

(Soundbite of clapping and song, "Umeed-E-Sehr")

AHMAD: The 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 to the song "Umeed-E-Sehr," - hope of a new dawn. It's the title track to Laal's debut CD.

(Soundbite of song, "Umeed-E-Sehr")

AHMAD: Taimur Rahman is Laal's lead guitarist. He says the band's songs have recently gained a new relevance.

Mr. TAIMUR RAHMAN (Lead Guitarist, Laal): These are times of both hope and despair, simultaneously. 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 commercialism, then really people are saying, you know, this is really not worth our time.

AHMAD: A couple of 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 the Supreme Court chief justice, Pakistan's lawyers took to the streets. Protests 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 CD. The band played on the roof of one of their 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 never imagined the band would become so big so soon.

Mr. RAHMAN: We never expected that the mainstream media would pick us up in this manner, and that they would support us in this manner, that they would invest in us, that they would say, come make an album. We'll give you all the coverage that you require.

AHMAD: 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 the chief justice was reinstated this spring, after two years of protests, Laal set up outside his home in the pre-dawn hours and performed the title track, "Hope of a New Dawn."

Abdur Rauf works for the media conglomerate that released Laal's CD. He's seen Pakistan's other political movements, and listening to the band reminds him of past struggles. During the soundcheck at the parking-lot concert, he translated some of "Umeed-E-Sehr's" lyrics.

Mr. ABDUR RAUF: If you want to change the system, listen to your inner voice and talk about the pain that you have inside you. So, it talks about that. This is not romantic poetry — this is purely revolutionary poetry.

AHMAD: The band takes a 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.

Mr. RAHMAN: One of our most successful numbers has been a song called "Musheer," which as translated is advisor. It's a satirical poem by Habib Jalib, a satirical song. Some of the lyrics are, for instance: I told him — him meaning the president — that, you know, these millions, these millions of people, their social conscience is dead. They are asleep. And you are the light of tomorrow. You are the word of God. Only you can save the country. All, of course, very tongue-in-cheek and satirical.

(Soundbite of song, "Musheer")

Mr. LAAL: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

AHMAD: And 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 verse describes the night-bitten dawn of partition and the bare-faced lies of a military constitution.

Mr. RAHMAN: These were poets that spoke of a new society that would emerge in the future — a socialist society, a society with equity, democracy and so on.

AHMAD: 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 their literature would address issues like hunger, poverty and political and social inequality.

Rahman says performing the poetry in its traditional way, to the beat of a tabla and the sound of a harmonium, would sound stale.

Mr. RAHMAN: And young people couldn't relate to that stylistically. It became something that old people were involved with. Old people would listen to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and so on and, you know, talk about Habib Jalib, and young people were more into other things.

AHMAD: So Rahman plugged in and Laal made protest poetry electric.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LAAL: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

AHMAD: They introduced a new generation to the poets and their politics.

Mr. RAHMAN: I think one of the things that people have consistently underestimated about the public in Pakistan is their affinity, their love for music. People love music, and I think music at this point in time can be a great binding force against, you know, religious extremism.

AHMAD: This summer, Laal is releasing a song dedicated to the millions of Pakistanis displaced by the army's campaign against insurgents in Pakistan's North West 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.

AHMAD: For NPR News, I'm Shomail Ahmad.

(Soundbite of song, "Ghum Na Kar")

Mr. LAAL: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

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