The odd fusion of electric guitar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poetry at the Laal concert somehow worked, and worked well

Driving back from the Laal concert last week, there were a few things playing on my mind. First, of course, the music, created by this revolutionary Pakistani rock band, led by political activist, musician and academic Taimur Rahman. But more significantly, the message; a message that is as relevant in India where religion and corruption have indeed dented our political space — as it is in the reactionary atmosphere that Rahman sings in across the border.

At the concert, it is easy to get caught in the contradictions that are most immediate. The communist band from Pakistan performed at the posh and upscale Hard Rock Cafe. As you watch Rahman share with the audience his perspective on the role the United States' Central Investigative Agency played in funding terror and supporting the Mujahedeen in Pakistan, and encouraging his audience to shout slogans against terrorism, during the track “Dehshatgardi Murdabad” (down with terrorism), you can't help but see the irony in the choice of venue. But what's admirable is that neither the venue nor sponsors managed to dilute the content of his messages. In the brief intervals between songs he quoted Lenin, talked about socialism and the need for peace on our sub-continent and informed the audience about Pakistan's tradition of resistance poetry.

Part of album launch

Laal is touring India as part of the launch of their second album, Utho Meri Duniya, a collection that pays tribute to revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in his birth centenary year (2011). Laal's songs feature lyrics of progressive poets, Faiz and Habib Jalib, both left-wing writers who wrote against the establishment, the military and religious extremism in Pakistan. Rahman and his band set these words to rock tunes, the kind that young people — many of whom who may not have heard of these poets or their progressive discourse — can relate to.

Singing and playing his guitar impeccably, Rahman cavorted through the set-list while occasionally breaking into friendly Punjabi chit-chat, reminding everyone of the Punjab on the other side of the Indian border. What one realises soon is that this odd fusion of the electric guitar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poetry somehow works, and works well.

However, the acoustics of the Hard Rock Cafe are not really meant for arena music. The band needed to tinker with the sound almost throughout the concert. The sound quality was poor towards the sides of the hall and close to the stage. Hard Rock Cafes, around the world, are probably best suited for the acoustic sessions that they are famous for hosting. Despite this, the band managed to put up a captivating performance playing almost all of their biggest hits and even taking a request from the enthusiastic audience. Whether it is the lyrical and melodious “Umeed-e-Sahar” or “Masheer”, or the more rock n rollish “Jhoot ka Uncha Sar”— a track that was banned in Pakistan because its video featured a spoof that criticised the military, the audience sang along to the chorus. Many of the songs, written in chaste Urdu, were of course difficult for the audience to follow. Even those who did not quite understand the meaning of these songs enjoyed the guitar riffs, the engaging solos and the melodies.

Speaking to The Hindu after the concert, Rahman, and his wife and vocalist Mahvash Waqar, described the response as “awesome”. The seating arrangement, where the stage is at a considerable height from the dining arena, made it difficult for them to interact with the audience, said Waqar. “So we couldn't get a sense of how the audience was reacting. But when we came down we realised that it had gone well,” said Rahman, adding that he was indeed worried that language would have been a “bit of a barrier” in South India. “But people were listening to us, what we were saying and responding. It was fantastic,” he said.