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The impact of Laal’s inspiring music

By Anwar Akhtar
June 14 2016


‘You have got to get Laal over here. Meet up with them and work it out.’ That was the recurring request from John Pandit, founding member of Asian Dub Foundation, each time I went off on one of my work trips to Pakistan.

Last April we had just completed a very successful co-production of the play Dara at the National Theatre with Lahore’s Ajoka theatre company, and upon my next trip to Pakistan plans were immediately set afoot to ‘get Laal over here’, culminating in the concert with Laal and Asian Dub Foundation at Royal Festival Hall as part of Alchemy on Friday 27 May.

Laal’s music is quite extraordinary in its range, incorporating rock, electronica, dance and folk. What gives their songs added depth is that many are based on the work of the great Urdu poets Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz from the 1930s South Asian progressive writers’ movement, as well as songs that not only challenge but charge headlong and attack the sectarian hate politics that have cursed Pakistan for at least the last two generations.

Their songs include ‘Fareeda’, a celebration of Sufi poetry, song and dance in response to the numerous Taliban attacks on precious historic shrines in Pakistan. Laal know what is going on here – an attempt, sponsored by hate fuelled fascist movements often bankrolled by Gulf oil money, to wipe out an indigenous culture, tradition and heritage. Their championing and reimagining of classic Sufi poetry, music and dance is perhaps one of the most compelling examples you will see of artists today bearing witness and producing work of the most important kind.

In ‘Dehshatgardi Murdabad’ (‘Death to Terrorism’) they rage at not only the idiocy of the media apologists for the terrorists in Pakistan, but also the pernicious Faustian pacts and Dr Strangelove foreign policy that led the USA, Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani establishment to invest in the Taliban to defeat Russia in Afghanistan and supposedly end the Cold War – a military strategy that ranks with the follies of some World War I generals.

‘Utho Meri Duniya’ (‘Arise My People’), based on the poetry of Allama Iqbal, and ‘Mainay Uss Say Yeh Kaha’ (‘So I Said This To Him’), based on the epic work by Habib Jalib, represent the depth of Laal’s work best to me. Imagine a British band reworking ‘Kim’ or ‘Jerusalem’ to contemporary beats for a British comparison.

As someone British who has spent a lot of time in Pakistan, I can’t avoid the comparisons with Britain – they come thick and fast. Listening to Laal’s versions of ‘Mainay Uss Say Yeh Kaha’ and ‘Dehshatgardi Murdabad’, I hear similarities with other bands that had a huge influence on me, such as Massive Attack and the Manic Street Preachers. Laal are from a similar genre of musicians who can not only put out a brilliant composition, but bring something else that captures a moment, history, a time, a struggle or an injustice.

It is fitting that this concert is a collaboration with Asian Dub Foundation, who for years have carried a torch for music that is blistering in both beats and beauty, carrying a political message about who and what we are as a country. Given the recent deplorable campaign tactics of Zac Goldsmith, this is as important now as it ever was.


The political context in Pakistan is of course different, more urgent and more extreme. Laal’s courage in being at the forefront of Pakistan’s human rights activism, leading campaigns on minority rights, gender equality and child labour, standing against sectarian violence and political corruption should earn them the respect of all of us in the UK.

Lead singer Mahvash Waqar is a role model not just for women in Pakistan but for everyone, given Pakistan’s industrial-scale gender inequality, where men, including the leaders of various sectarian parties, often talk about women in a language and tone that is reminiscent of how slave traders used to justify the violence of slavery.

Mahvash’s reworking of Eddy Grant’s ‘Give me Hope Jo’anna’ as a tribute to Malala Yousafzai is one of Laal’s most loved recent works, and gives short shrift to the pernicious libel that what happened to Malala was in any way the fault of young girl demanding her right to education and free will, a view sadly widely disseminated by right-wing media in Pakistan.

One of the more tiresome arguments in Britain in recent years has been a succession of privileged, usually white cultural commentators, bleating about the need for the arts to be free of politics. Like Picasso responding to Guernica, and James Baldwin novels and plays set in the USA, Laal take the opposite stance. Now more than ever, we need artists, be they musicians, writers, painters, sculptors or singers, to bear witness.

Laal’s music and their voices are powerful and clear. It sends a shiver through the room. The clarity is not just in the tone but in the message: confrontational, challenging, and at times dark, but also filled with an optimism that, from what I have learnt from my time in Pakistan is genuine and necessary if you want to work in the arts in Pakistan. Supported by rhythmic bass and percussion, the power of Laal’s music drives on, complemented by melodic guitar sounds. The sound is not shrill, it is eloquent. It conveys a sense of anger but also of hope.

Perhaps we have a duty and a responsibility to support those artists from countries such as Pakistan, that have suffered so much because of the Cold War power games often at the behest of Western powers,  that inflicted such misery and suffering on a country and region that many of us from Britain have cultural and ancestral links to. We got Laal over here. We met up with them and we worked it out.

Anwar Akhtar is Director of The Samosa, a culture and politics site with a focus on Britain and South Asia. He also co leads RSA Pakistan Calling.

Originally published by South Bank Centre 

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