U.S. and Pakistan coming together in music

October 3, 2011

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is back on track. Musically speaking, that is.Washington and Islamabad may have traded accusations and veiled threats in recent weeks, but a series of joint concerts here by an American jazz band and a Pakistani soft-rock group demonstrated that in nonpolitical spheres the two countries can have a productive and at times — does one dare say it? — harmonious relationship.

For the past two weeks, the New York-based Ari Roland Jazz Quartet and Pakistan’s popular band Fuzon have performed together in the country’s major cities, seducing appreciative audiences and drawing rave reviews from local newspapers. The two outfits also collaborated on a “Friendship Song,” whose lyrics mention neither Pakistan nor the United States but seem nonetheless pertinent to the current situation.

“Let’s forget all indignations and traverse all distances between us,” goes a line of the Urdu-language song.

After the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in January and the raid targeting Osama bin Laden in May, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship went from bad to worse; it reached a new low this month when Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declared in a congressional hearing that Pakistan had aided a militant group blamed for attacks against Americans in Afghanistan.

Pakistan strongly denied the allegations and warned it would not tolerate potential U.S. violations of its territory.

Syed Azfer Iqbal, who works on cultural exchange programs at the U.S. Embassy here, said the music tour was not specifically designed to soothe frayed tempers, as it was planned more than a year ago.

“It’s a coincidence,” he said. “But I believe it’s very timely.”

The Ari Roland Jazz Quartet has visited more than 35 countries in tours often sponsored by embassies or the U.S. State Department. This is the band’s second tour of Pakistan; the first was in 2009, and double bass player Ari Roland said American jazz and traditional Pakistani music are a natural fit.

“The thing about the music in Pakistan is that the beat is very similar to jazz,” Roland said. “It’s like a cousin to us.”

In this tour’s last concert, the jazz quartet won over spectators with adaptations of popular Pakistani songs and the incorporation of a Pakistani percussionist. The jazz performance was followed by a Fuzon concert before the two bands united to perform the friendship song.

Western dress prevailed among the listeners; judging from comments made after the concert, this audience was friendlier to American interests than might be found in the rest of Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is the norm.

Asked what he thought of U.S. policies in Pakistan, Shahzaib Khan, a 25-year-old student, said they were “a bit strict.” He was unconvinced by the friendship song but said he enjoyed his first jazz concert.

“They should arrange this again and again,” he said. “So many people want this to happen.”

Brulliard is a special correspondent.

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