South Asian Music's Booming Beat Drives A Mogul in the Making

Fiaz Anwar, left, and Raakin Iqbal mingle during the Pakistan Day Festival at George Mason University, where Iqbal tried to get some business advice.
Fiaz Anwar, left, and Raakin Iqbal mingle during the Pakistan Day Festival at George Mason University, where Iqbal tried to get some business advice. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006

Raakin Iqbal walked into his Woodbridge office and flipped on six lights, each darkened to a specific calibration to create what he calls his "European cafe theme." Surrounded by how-to-get-rich books and a black leather couch, Iqbal swiveled from his desk to his glass-and-marble coffee table and began working the cellphone.

"Hi, is this Chai Desai? This is Raakin from Huqa Entertainment," he said, speaking to a concert organizer out West. "Were you able to receive my e-mail about the Bombay Rockers? I can lower the price down from $10,000 to $8,000 if you book them."

Raakin Iqbal is 17, a clothing store employee, high school newspaper editor and up-and-coming mogul. His office is his bedroom in his parents' Prince William County home, and next to the entrepreneurial accouterments are a few youth basketball league trophies.

Iqbal is getting in on the ground floor of the nation's South Asian entertainment scene as it matures with a booming immigrant audience. Half Pakistani, half Indian and born in the United States, Iqbal is trying to position himself in the industry as a promoter -- an indispensable middleman who connects overseas music groups with concert organizers in this country and abroad. A rising senior at Woodbridge Senior High School, Iqbal finds himself at that precise moment when the South Asian music business is big enough nationwide to make money but also small enough that a high school student can elbow his way in and become a mini-player.

Without enough Pakistani and Indian bands to pack stadiums or widespread coverage on local cable television or radio, the South Asian music industry in the United States is still fragmented and grass-roots enough that entrepreneurs of all ages have emerged in immigrant-dominated areas. In Prince William, for instance, where Iqbal's parents moved in the 1990s -- his dad is a software designer, his mom is a bank loan officer -- Urdu is second only to Spanish as the school system's most-spoken foreign language.

Indians, meanwhile, have become the largest Asian ethnic group in the Washington area, surpassing Chinese, Koreans and other Asian groups that haven't been growing nearly as fast.

So at the moment, Iqbal's company, consisting only of Iqbal, is trying to land its first major deal: a contract with Bombay Rockers, a Danish rhythm-and-blues male duo who sing in English, Hindi and Punjabi. He hopes to become one of the band's handful of promoters when it tours the United States in November.

"Because the scene is developing and it's in its infancy, there's every opportunity to get in now. And maybe five years later, Raakin will become quite a big player," said Steve Hogan, the Bombay Rockers' live music agent, who said he will decide about giving Iqbal the business in another few weeks. "So far, he's definitely full of confidence, and if he talks the right talk and if everything checks out right, there's a good chance we'll do a show with him."

In the Washington area, the South Asian music scene is largely concentrated in Northern Virginia, with top Bollywood acts performing about five times a year at venues including the Patriot Center at George Mason University. Those attract between 5,000 and 10,000 people -- mostly Indians and Pakistanis. Smaller acts tour about twice a month at local high schools and community college campuses and lure about 1,500 people, according to concert organizers.

Nationwide, such metropolitan areas as Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Atlanta have more concerts featuring Indian or Pakistani acts than Washington.

Despite his age, Iqbal is not just a wannabe with lofty talk. He's a precocious upstart who, in the past year or so, has been steadily building his company and working for local promoters to learn the business. He already has a pending contract to set up the Web site for a local television production company co-owned by Sarah Hasan, a freelance correspondent for Bridges TV, a lifestyle network for American Muslims. Iqbal met Hasan while she was covering a South Asian concert this spring.

Huqa Entertainment, though, hasn't yet made money. But it has given him contacts. Iqbal has designed the Web site for a new Pakistan-based band, Gammak, and helped the organizer of a concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium sell tickets at malls for a show featuring Strings, a popular Pakistani rock group.


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