Musician Todd Shea has developed a reputation for being the ‘go-to guy for relief’, an accolade that has come with his unique dedication for helping out with disasters around the world from places like Sri Lanka and India to Japan and Pakistan. His life and work make for a great narrative as he traipses all over Pakistan with medicines and music to bring not only physical relief, but emotional and psychological too. The Express Tribune caught up with Pakistan’s knight in musical armour to discuss his vision and work for the future.
What was the vision for the Sonic Peacemakers at the project’s outset?
It was to make music with Pakistani musicians and highlight my relief work in the country and use music to open up people’s hearts so that they could see the truth about Pakistan. The American media never talks about their responsibility towards the people here. Our foreign policy has gone from dumb, dumber to dumbest since the starting of the Afghan war. This music shows what the government and the media aren’t showing.
How did your interest towards Pakistan develop?
I had been working in disaster relief in places like Sri Lanka and at home with 9/11 and the hurricanes as a logistics volunteer. And so when I heard about the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, I just hugged my son, said goodbye and hopped onto a plane. Initially, I was planning on staying for just 15 days but ended up extending my trip to two months. I realised that I could better use my life and music this way than pursue my selfish career. I now spend an average of seven to eight months every year in Pakistan.
How do you gauge the influence of your work?
Well, so far, we’ve helped 600,000 people through my NGO Comprehensive Disaster Response Services. My music project with the Sonic Peacemakers is just getting off the ground, so the measure for how effective my work has been is through what the NGO achieves. All my employees are Pakistanis; we come to people with the message of peace and love, and we live within the communities where we serve. We don’t show up with expensive vehicles and guns but just love and medicines.
How have people, including musicians and the media in the US, reacted to this project?
My pal musician Lanny (Cordola) and I went to Guns and Roses and asked them to do a project with us in Pakistan and although they were initially apprehensive, once they came down they saw for themselves how amazing Pakistan was. The New York Times ran a story on me titled ‘Improbable American’, based on my relief work in Chikar in Kashmir. That resulted in new avenues of support from ‘goras’ but apart from that, the US media largely ignores me and this side of Pakistan.
What’s your opinion on the Pakistani artists?
Pakistan has amazing musicians and great diversity within its musical community. The musicians and artists that I hope to work with are those who wish to utilise their artistry and their time, helping the less privileged ones. I have deep respect for Arieb Azhar, Abrarul Haq, Shehzad Roy, Quratulain Balouch, Jawad Ahmed, Salman Ahmad and Farhan Saeed.
Any collaboration in the pipeline with local music acts?
We are currently working on two projects, ‘The Sounds of Pakistan and Beyond’ and ‘The Dreamer Awakes’ that will include songs from various artists. Musicians including Strings, Ali Zafar, Qayaas, Sanam Marvi, Saeen Zahoor , Mekaal Hasan, Zoe Viccaji, Call, Noori, Laal, Sketches, Haroon, Usman Riaz, Overload, Overdrive, Abbas Premji, Reza Abbasi, Adil Omar, EP and many folk and classical musicians are among the performers who will be collaborating with The Sonic Peacemakers on recordings, concerts and fundraisers in Pakistan and abroad. We also have a partnership with the Children’s Academy for the Performing Arts to give guitars to kids and we are always willing to work with like-minded individuals and organisations.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2012.
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