A rapper and a rock concert in Isloo
I met Adil Omar during a rehearsal at Nysa Lounge, which was recently pronounced "the center of gravity for Islamabad's hip young set" by no less than the bureau chief of one of the largest international news organizations. Adil brought his iPod cued up to the song he thought would work with violin, and to my delight, it was immediately clear what I needed to play.
Later, I rehearsed with my old friend Taimur Khan, creator of the world's largest website devoted to the sarangi, his beloved and extraordinarily beautiful instrument, in which the bow releases the haunting resonance of numerous sympathetic strings. The sarangi is a sound to express the innermost longings of the spirit, and I enjoyed the fact that my two collaborations on the benefit concert for Afghanistan National Institute of Music would feature South Asian classical music on sarangi and tabla...and rap.
Kuch Khaas is a new venue that has done much to contribute to the dynamism of the Islamabad social and musical scene by offering classes, concerts, a cafe, and a venue to hang out and express yourself. They attracted a good crowd of about 50 to fill one of their rooms for the benefit concert. After my first piece, a caprice by the fiddler Mark O'Connor, I introduced Mursal Sarmast, the niece of Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, founder of ANIM. She gave an eloquent speech about the need to support the sponsorship program there.
The collaborations with Adil Omar and Taimur Khan provided a unique and varied way to show the audience and my community back in Afghanistan that Pakistanis stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan in its quest to bring back the musical culture.
After the concert, I was prepared to settle in for the night when my host got a phone call. A rock concert was going on at the Open Air Theater. Did I want to play with the band Irtaash in front of a couple thousand screaming rock fans?
I threw on a Cultures in Harmony T-shirt, grabbed my fiddle (it was no longer a "violin" for tonight), and hopped in the car. We had to park quite a distance from the venue, and the roar of the screams, whoops, and hollers from the stadium did nothing to calm my nerves. As we threaded our way past smokers, families, and couples to the entrance, I glanced at the black-shirted security team.
Then, I glanced again. Their shirts did not say "SECURITY," like they would at a rock concert in the US. They said "ANTI TERRORIST SQUAD," and these men, way taller than me and with faces and bodies that meant business, toted assault rifles.
The lead singer of Irtaash talked us past security and to the backstage area, which was crawling with stage crew, musicians, and groupies. I met the band for a quick rehearsal. One song: C-sharp 9 chord and F-sharp 7 chord. Cool, got it. The other song: E major, A Major. Nice, I'm with ya. Ready? Ready. Let's go.
We stood backstage as the previous act finished up. Clearly they were very popular: the crowd was on its feet, swaying back and forth, clapping. A little boy had squeezed through the barbed wire to clap onstage until security gently tossed him back to a waiting parent. The crowd chanted and stomped as the previous act finished, and before you knew it, it was time for our soundcheck.
Not only was this the first rock-and-roll concert I've played in, it was the first I've attended. My experience of the aesthetic is limited to glimpses of movies and TV shows. So I figured out that simple tuning wouldn't do, and did a G Minor riff for my soundcheck, hoping I wouldn't sound too much like a prim and proper classical musician. It seemed to do the trick: the crowd roared their approval.
I stood back while Irtaash did their first song ("make some noise, Islamabad!"), and then the lead singer gave me a lengthy introduction in Urdu, speaking about how 9/11 inspired me to use music to create peace, and then asking the crowd to "give it up for William Harvey from Afghanistan!"
Do I bow? Probably not. Just a head nod. There. Do I look cool? Probably not. Whatever.
The songs went very well, especially considering that we had about 10 minutes of rehearsal and we played the songs half a step lower than we had rehearsed them. During my first solo, I sensed that my bucolic ramblings based on the two chords were not really thrilling the crowd, so I kicked it up a notch with rapid-fire octave tremolos, ascending in a complex rhythmic pattern towards the stratosphere. The crowd screamed and roared, and for the first time, I understood what rock music has to offer the performer that classical music never can. I rapidly slid down to an open string and closed out with a fast arpeggios on all four strings before relaxing into the entrance of the singer.
All in all, it was a thrilling experience and an honor to perform with these guys, who create beautiful, soulful music and also happen to be really nice people.
We were to be followed by the biggest Pakistani rocker in the world, Atif Aslam, so my host recommended that we head out. "Can we stay long enough for me to acquire a groupie?" I pleaded, looking longingly at the large crowd of glamorous girls hanging out backstage. "Come back next year," he smiled, and we headed off for a delicious, cold milkshake at The Hot Spot.