The partition of India in 1947 may have led to the creation of two countries, but India and Pakistan share a centuries-old music tradition. Today, both share a fondness for the slick pop epitomized by Bollywood soundtracks. But the music scene in Pakistan is also home to some independent bands. One whose acclaim has spread beyond the country's borders is The Mekaal Hasan Band.
Mekaal Hasan was born and raised in Lahore — city of kings, home to painters and poets, and today, the hub of Pakistan's fashion and music industry. But Hasan says that Lahore, circa the early 1990s, was not the ideal place for a budding rock star.
"You couldn't even find a guitar pick," Hasan says. "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."
Today, Hasan leads Pakistan's most respected rock group. But this is Pakistan, after all — the fault line of the war on terror.
"We've had no shows," he says. "No concerts, 'cause people are too scared to put up open-air events because of the security situation, bomb threats."
That means that Hasan has had plenty of down time to put the finishing touches on his band's second album. He also has time to work with other musicians, producing and recording their CDs in his home studio and mentoring younger players. In fact, Hasan has become something of a bridge between Pakistan's new generation of musicians and Lahore's older classical players. His own band features electric guitar and bass, drums, traditional wood flute and a classical South Asian vocalist.
Not A Traditional Story
Hasan's mother is Christian; his father, Muslim. Their house was full of jazz records when he was growing up.
"The influence of the liberal arts is really heavy in my family, so they really encouraged me to get into music," Hasan says. After some on-again, off-again attempts at piano, he taught himself to play guitar when he was 15, listening to bands such as Led Zeppelin.
There wasn't much opportunity to advance his craft in Lahore. So Hasan, like many of his peers, decided to leave Pakistan. He applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and got in.
"That jump was just insane," Hasan says. "It's like going to another planet and watching people play unbelievable stuff. I had never seen anyone play that way before. I would just listen to music all the time. That's all I did. I never felt more at home than when I was in Boston, 'cause I was surrounded by so much great music and so many great musicians. I think all creative people need an environment to flourish in."
But Hasan was on a student visa, and his parents bribed him to come home early by offering to build him a studio. In 1995, he returned to Lahore.
"For a while, a good two to three years, I was massively depressed and really angry, as well," Hasan says. "I was like, 'Why am I here? What am I doing here?' Then you had to reconcile yourself to the fact that, 'Well, hey, man, you've always lived here.' 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."
Finding Local Musicians
"Classical musicians," Hasan says, "are unbelievable improvisers. That's a common thing that jazz and [South Asian] classical has: 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."
The lead singer of The Mekaal Hasan Band, Javed Bashir, and flutist Papu are part of the older community of classically trained musicians living in Lahore. Many of them have been relegated to playing backup for the country's glossy pop stars. Hasan reversed that arrangement and brought those musicians to the forefront. Still, even he admits that even he didn't always understand traditional music.
"To be quite honest, I don't even know what the lyrics mean most of the time," Hasan says. "I'm just going by the sound of the melody. So I'm looking to find the perfect setting for it to flourish in so you can really hear the sweetness of the melody."
The Mekaal Hasan Band's melodies clicked, and the band 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, a professor of music at the University of California-Irvine who's spent the past few years profiling rock musicians across the Muslim world, says that many of those musicians cite Hasan as an inspiration.
"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," Levine says. "The challenge that he faces is the same challenge that great musicians who aren't really compromising face in any culture. It's his very ability to defy categorization that makes him so good and so special."
More Than A Musical Challenge
This should have been a defining year for The Mekaal Hasan Band, with a new album and a tour in neighboring India. And there'd been a surge of optimism among the public after the election of a new democratic government. But Hasan says that little has changed.
"Democracy or dictatorship, the situation on the ground stays the same," Hasan says. "It hasn't changed for anyone."
That cynicism is widespread among the younger generation of Pakistanis. But Hasan says that there's no space for politics or cynicism in his music.
"I feel that music of this nature is actually going to do Pakistan proud, because it represents the best of what our traditional music has," he says. "And it's done in a way where people can actually relate to it. Young people can relate to it."
Years after returning from Boston, Mekaal Hasan has found a community among his bandmates, even if the world outside isn't too welcoming right now. He says that, while the political seasons may change, he finds his inspiration composing, playing and recording in his Lahore studio.
"When it comes down to making music, you shut out the world outside," Hasan says. "You're doing what's right for that piece of music. I can't change the way I approach a given musical situation just because there's a bomb going off in Peshawar. That cannot and will not affect me."