Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

In war-torn regions, music brings hope

From Pakistan to Afghanistan to Syria, musicians are taking the lead at standing up to injustice and violence

January 10, 2016 2:00AM ET

Music is the weapon of the future.” So declared Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat legend and one of the 20th century’s most powerful political artists.

I discovered these words a few years after Kuti’s untimely death in 1997. I was traveling in the Middle East, exploring how young musicians and fans of ostensibly Western forms of popular music such as heavy metal and hip-hop were challenging their countries’ conservative and authoritarian political cultures. These bursts of creativity eventually produced the soundtracks of the revolutionary upheavals that shook the region from Morocco to Iran in the past few years.

Throughout the Islamic world, music was indeed a weapon — harsh, loud and condemnatory of the corruption, violence and lack of voice for the rapidly expanding youth population of the Middle East and North Africa. Young artists were on the front lines of protests, and because of that, many wound up jailed, tortured, exiled or killed. Yet even as the Arab Spring was sapped of energy by brutal governments and counterrevolutionary forces, artists have kept fighting, whether at home or increasingly in exile, to produce music that inspires their peers to continue the struggle.

But what happens when the struggle becomes ineffectual and even pointless? What happens when there’s no room for politics, either because the corrupt system is too stable to change or because violence and war have made protest impossible?

Sometimes, when change at the political level seems hopeless, the most beautiful and powerful music can emerge, providing a seed from which transformative visions for creating radically new ways of seeing and living in the world can grow.

Reuniting a region with music

Consider Pakistan: Despite its return to democracy in 2008, it remains one of the world’s most politically dysfunctional countries. But beyond politics lies a culture whose richness and complexity are especially apparent in music, in particular the country’s rock and fusion scenes. During the last 20 years, bands such as Junoon, Mizraab, Aaroh, Arieb Azhar and Sajid and Zeeshan produced fluid, high-energy hybrids of rock and South Asian pop, metal, electronic dance music and Qawwali styles. Although rarely heard outside the country, these groups pushed the boundaries of rock further than most anywhere else on earth.

Even in this company, American-trained guitarist Mekaal Hasan has long stood out as an innovator, melding jazz, traditional South Asian music and metal into some of the most powerful world music produced in a generation. When I first met Hasan in his Lahore studio in 2007, his band was working through live arrangements of its 2004 debut record, “Sampooran,” and the musicality and power were head spinning. But it was with the departure of virtuoso singer Javed Bashir in 2012 that the music took on even more dimensions, as Hasan took the unprecedented step of bringing Indian and Bangladeshi musicians into a Pakistani band.

Reuniting the subcontinent in one group was both a musical and an implicitly political act. “Today we have a Bengali Hindu, Sharmistha Chatterjee, singing Sufi/Qawwali lyrics. My rhythm section happens to be two Indian Catholic jazz musicians from Bombay, and the inestimable Muhammad Ahsan Papu remains on flute,” Hasan says. “Such a lineup forces people to see — hear — what unites rather than just divides us.”

For Hasan, music can’t be just or primarily a weapon. “On the one hand, Fela understood what we now realize — musicians can’t wait, we have to take the lead. But Fela was working in a different situation. He didn’t have to deal with suicide bombers and the kind of difficult relationship that India and Pakistan have. We need to focus on collaboration more than competition, a message we take on the road from Bombay to Boston.”

From Long Beach to Kabul

Halfway around the world, in Long Beach, California, guitarist Lanny Cordola couldn’t agree more with Hasan’s sentiment. An original Lord of the Sunset Strip, Cordola spent the first 20 years of his career working with the likes of House of Lords, Gene Simmons, Guns N’ Roses and Cypress Hill, his tastes moving farther to the East as his career developed. While it’s certainly not uncommon for Western artists to become entranced with foreign styles, few are brave enough to travel through the badlands of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and into Afghanistan with nothing but a guitar, a smile and an endless faith in the power of music to heal people.

Even the most tragic and desperate situations contain seeds of change. Music is still a weapon in the struggles for freedom.

For the past five years, however, Cordola has been traveling across both countries, bringing together Pakistani pop stars such as Atif Aslam with Guns N’ Roses while taking music and aid to children in both countries, beginning with his first visit toCharsadda and the Swat district in Pakistan in 2010. As he traveled through areas that are supposedly hotbeds of anti-Western sentiments, he noticed that people loved to hear him playing guitar and that girls in particular were desperate for the chance to play music.

During his first visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, he met the family of Khorshid and Parwana Hawa, two poor Afghan girls who, thanks to the project Skateistan, became fixtures on the burgeoning skateboard scene before being killed in a suicide bombing in 2012. He was so moved that he created a project, Miraculous Love Kids, to raise money for the girls’ family and their community. His peace jams have brought the plight of Afghanistan to fans of the many well-known artists who have joined the concerts and the larger project.

Cordola’s newest and most powerful initiative, Girl with a Guitar, is taking guitars to Afghanistan and putting them in the hands of children, in particular girls but also boys, who have been deprived of so much. “It’s always about the kids,” he says. “When you go to places like Charsadda or Kabul and you see the smiles amidst all their pain, the music just flows. And it’s not really rock, even if we’re using the quintessential rock ’n’ roll instrument, the guitar. Playing in Afghanistan is like playing in a whole new tuning. It becomes much easier to expand your musical and cultural horizons, to become open to other cultures. The more you can share this feeling on all sides — Afghans or Americans — the harder it is for people to support violence.”

Singing for Syria

The Syrian rock group Khebez Dawle is an embodiment of this philosophy. Formed in the ashes of a band torn apart by the Syrian civil war, the band coalesced in Beirut in 2013, recording what is surely one of the most original and sonically uplifting rock albums in years. But the music and the band members’ stories would have gone unnoticed had they not made the fateful decision to attempt to reach Europe through Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. The moment they reached the Greek island of Lesbos, they famously began handing out their albums to stunned tourists on the beach and, after an impromptu performance at a refugee processing center, quickly found themselves being invited to perform across Europe. Presently residing in Berlin, lead singer Anas Maghrebi explained to me how the hopelessness of a revolution “assassinated by the regime and outside forces” could ultimately produce music of hope.

“I didn’t have a band at that moment but had recorded and uploaded some songs,” he says. “I was desperate to try to say something and put things online and get people to listen. In Syria then, you could die at any minute without knowing how you died. There was no more chance for protest. I came up with the name Khebez Dawle, which means ‘state bread,’ the bread that the government provides very cheaply to everyone and symbolizes safety, stability and living OK, because without bread, you have nothing. But my generation realized the hard way that khebez dawle is not the way to build a stable, free and independent country. We must be the khebez, the bread, because if we are not healthy and free, then a free, independent and safe country will not exist.”

How to nourish fellow Syrians when the country is being torn apart is something it has taken a long time for the members of Khebez Dawle to figure out. But Maghrebi says that for artists, the most important thing is to “keep telling the story, keep talking for the people who aren’t heard now. The revolution was so promising before it was destroyed, before the world let us down. This is a sacred message for me, to tell this story, because I still have hope in the people. And so the music has — must have — hope.”

In fact, for him, the civil war has made Syria a much bigger place. He says, “Syria is now all over the world, wherever Syrians are. So I must stay honest and true to this story. At least if it doesn’t die, after 50 years, it will be a kind of origin narrative for the future, the way stories of the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide are still so important today. We can save what we can save, educating Syrian kids and everyone else about peace, human rights and freedom of expression, which were the values of our revolution.”

It is telling that it was the journey across the Mediterranean, so dangerous and even traumatic for most passengers, that gave the band the most hope. Maghrebi says, “This journey has taught us that people have nothing to do with their governments. Western and other governments let us down, but people here are as sick of the war and the money games as we are. Somehow there’s a huge amount of people sick of this game, and all of them want change. This is enough to give me hope as we start to spread our message across Europe and to our fellow Syrians as well.”

Even the most tragic and desperate situations contain seeds of change. Music is still a weapon in the struggles for freedom, and the experiences of artists such as Hasan, Cordola and Maghrebi remind us that at their best, music and art enable us to imagine that another and more hopeful world is still possible.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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