‘Sing for all you’re worth’

A musical programme helps Indian and Pakistani artists pursue their passion

The first performance by the Dosti Music Project at the Timucua Arts White House in Orlando, Florida, in March this year. PHOTO CREDITS: ORA DEKORNFELD

Struggling through his degree in Urdu literature at a public college in Lahore, Imran Fida never imagined being able to pursue his life’s passion — music — full time. While he was too intimidated to learn formally from him, singing was nevertheless something he’d picked up from his father Ustad Fida Hussain, a well-respected but impoverished musician. Well-known among those who loved his rich, soulful voice, Imran sang frequently at his college’s musical events, and at wedding receptions for a trifling sum.

Around this time last year, a friend of Imran’s from college told him about the Dosti fellowship and residency programme in the US, designed for Indian and Pakistani musicians. The application was online, and Imran didn’t have personal access to a computer, much less the Internet. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to fill out the multiple essay-style application, because of his rudimentary English. His friend filled out the application for him; Imran’s sole contribution to the application process was the accompanying video. “Sing,” his friend told him. “Sing for all you’re worth.”

So, he sang for his friend’s cheap cellphone camera, and was shocked to learn a few months later that he’d been admitted into the programme. Still deeply skeptical, Imran admits laughingly now that he thought it was a scam, especially once the organisers asked him to pay $70 for his health insurance, an almost prohibitive sum for him. On his friend’s insistence, he paid it, but remained unconvinced, even after speaking to somebody from the US embassy. It wasn’t until he received his airplane ticket in the mail that it hit him. The four weeks in the US that followed was a period Imran describes as “life-changing”.

Violinist Tatiana Silver Hargreaves, horn player Jeremy Thal, and Imran Fida.  PHOTO CREDITS: ORA DEKORNFELD

This year, Dosti held its very first residency. The idea behind the programme is simple: to use music to help collectively build healthy communities and a more peaceful world. The Indian subcontinent remains fractured, with its constituent nations beleaguered by mutual mistrust, despite tremendous cultural commonalities. Dosti aims to bridge just this fracture, with the most powerful tool in South Asia’s cultural arsenal: music. Music has always enjoyed cross-border popularity, whether it’s poetry-turned-song in the form of emotionally resonant ghazals loved equally in both countries, Bollywood music that managed to make its way into Pakistan on pirated, black market cassettes even when deemed illegal, or Pakistani pop music icons becoming playback sensations in the Indian film industry despite strained political relations and barriers to cross-border mobility. By creating a positive template of cross-border, people-to-people cultural collaboration between Indians and Pakistanis, with participating American musicians, the founders of this programme hope that such change can also happen at the political level.

Dosti begins with a three-week residency in Florida, focusing on methods of collaboration and workshops with local schools & community organisations. PHOTO CREDITS: ORA DEKORNFELD

“There’s something so incredibly powerful about modeling these realities, seeing their existence within the wordless laboratory of the artists, for example the positive collaboration between two politically-divided nations,” explains Chris Marianetti, the programme’s co-founder.  “Once it exists here, at this level, its transition into society at large becomes suddenly possible.”

Dosti co-founders Jeremy Thal and Chris Marianetti are both highly accomplished musicians and music teachers. Jeremy routinely records and performs with the likes of indie rock heavyweights Neutral Milk Hotel and The National, and Chris’s work as a producer and composer has premiered at the International Gaudeamus Competition, Merkin Concert Hall, Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art, among others. They are both owners of the company Found Sound Nation, through which they have done work similar to Dosti all over the globe: working in collaboration with music festivals around the world, and working with prisoners, and underprivileged youth in inner-city schools. Why South Asia? I ask. Chris laughs: “For the last 10 years, I’ve been living in Jackson Heights, a predominately South Asian neighborhood in New York. So, I guess you could say I’ve been courting these associates for quite some time.”

The 2015 Dosti fellows were a truly diverse set: four Pakistanis, four Indians, and two American musicians. PHOTO CREDITS: ORA DEKORNFELD

The 2015 Dosti fellows were a truly diverse set: four Pakistanis, four Indians, and two American musicians from a wide variety of traditions, ranging from Sufi singing to beatmaking to avant-garde jazz. Dosti begins with a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, focusing on methods of collaboration and workshops with local schools & community organisations, and culminates in a week-long tour with performances and social engagements throughout southeastern United States. This year, they s at South by South West, the largest music festival in the world. For Chris though, the most enjoyable performance was a show they played in a little town in Florida called New Smyrna Beach. “Our audience at this particular concert was, for lack of a better description, mostly elderly white folks, many of whom had never seen these instruments and by most accounts heard music from these regions of the world.  After the concert, and in particular a rousing tabla solo by Surojato Roy from Kolkata and deeply moving ballad by Imran Fida from Lahore, many people in the audience came up to us with tears streaming down their cheeks, thanking us for this experience and for our music.  It was touching to see people with no connection to this part of the world, or culture, be so greatly moved by this music.”

Surojato Roy is a percussionist, specialising in tabla, from Calcutta. PHOTO CREDITS: ORA DEKORNFELD

For the founders, the programme’s greatest achievement has been the creation of an incredible network of musicians who are continuously working together to affect positive change locally and globally. The most gratifying aspect of the programme is to be a witness to the connections and life-long friendships that have developed as a result, and seeing in person how music can bring people together, and how learned practices are being sustained after the programme. “Natasha Ejaz (from Islamabad) is hoping to create a music education initiative in her city that addresses the needs of older music traditions while exciting young people about music. Surojato Roy and Mirande Shah have been collaborating to work with disadvantaged kids in Kolkata.  Bilal Khan (from Karachi) has a dream of creating a spin-off musical festival like Dosti for Indians and Pakistanis to continue collaborating,” Chris tells me.

The Dosti fellows describe the duration of the programme as a period of intense, immersive musical collaboration. “The Dosti fellows became like family to me and by the end we were calling each other bhai, chacha, mama, etc,” says Tatiana Hargreaves, an American violinist deeply influenced by Appalachian music, and one of the Dosti 2015 fellows. ”As a result, the music we created came out of a place of deep friendship and love. And I think you can hear it in the music.” Like the others, she describes it as an experience that has left an indelible mark. “I’m still discovering new ways in which Dosti has impacted my life every day. Whether it’s a free improvisation that has elements of a raga I learned, or whether it’s meeting someone else from India and Pakistan and connecting because I was a part of Dosti, or writing a new composition with Dosti in mind.”

Tatiana Silver Hargreaves is a violin player from Oregon. PHOTO CREDITS: ORA DEKORNFELD

These days, Imran is busy scouting rural Punjab for talented local musicians on behalf of Dosti and facilitating their applications. He left his job to travel and participate in the programme. When I ask him about his employment prospects, he tells me he’s been offered a job, but didn’t take it up. After the validation and acknowledgement he received in the US, he feels he can make a career out of his music. Before, he was content with a day job that had nothing to do with music, but now, he says, his heart only wants to sing.

Hira Azmat is a full-time freelancer, part-time poet. She tweets @caustichazmat

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 11th, 2015.

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