Communal living. Pacifists. Anti-war music.
by Maria Amir
Just a simple song of freedom,
He was never fightin’ for,
No one’s listenin’ when you need ‘em,
Ain’t no fun to sing that song no more.
Just a broken song of freedom,
And the closing of a door,
No one’s missin’ till you need ‘em
Ain’t no fun to sing that song no more.
—‘Broken Freedom Song’ by Kris Kristofferson
Some say it’s the word itself that puts people off. Over the years, ‘hippie’ has become synonymous with everything from nymphomaniacs and drug addicts to rabble rousing mobs and a notoriously poor fashion aesthetic.
The ‘hippie movement’ traces its roots as far back as the Mazdakist movement in Persia, whose leader—the Persian reformer Mazdak—was amongst the first known advocates of communal living, the sharing of resources, vegetarianism and ‘free love’ translated to sexual freedom. In truth, most tend to center themselves around an offbeat, avant-garde branch of humanism that goes beyond most established definitions of freedom to encompass a more universal free-for-all. Amidst all the slurs pertaining to their allegedly poor sanitary habits and general inertia, what remains constant and compelling is the music.
While drugs may have been the common denominator uniting the 60s global atmosphere, the other was always the music itself. Wartime seemed to run seamlessly with revolution, resistance and anti-war campaigning. It is perhaps the latter that is acutely missing today.
Some argue that ‘protest songs’ were a product of the Vietnam War and that the pioneers of Woodstock, followed by The Beats in literature and ground activists continued their crusade long after the war against oppression was over, wherever and whenever it was is in the world. “The world cared back then. It doesn’t any more. I don’t know why and I don’t know if it ever will again but I know that right now no one cares to take to the streets singing songs anymore. No one really believes in the power of a song the same way they did when Dylan took the stage or when Seeger sang ‘This Land is Your Land’,” says a musician friend Ethan, who performs in Washington Square Park, New York.
Either way, there is a gaping hole in sentiment in the world today. The outpouring of grief following 9/11, the distinct lack of it for global disasters before the twin towers came tumbling and its subsequent rehashing has somehow failed to provide enough impetus to spark some life back into the arts. This is surprising, and oddly, it is also a historical anomaly. Traditionally, for both better and worse, hard times have always provided a flourishing ground for counterculture and artistic expression. Today, we seem to be waiting for an ear-piercing rallying cry for peace and met instead by an overwhelming silence.
This doesn’t mean of course that no one is singing, or writing, or drawing against oppression. What seems to be missing is the symbiosis of intention and action. “There are just so many causes these days that it has become nearly impossible to unite under one. We are all fighting so many battles, against poverty and ignorance and against terrorism and tribalism on the other. Women are slut walking to prove a point and men are camping out on Capitol Hill to take down Wall Street. Where do we fit in music and poetry?” says history professor Ammar Siddique.
One would assume more causes would mean more art by default. One would also think that this much rage would give birth to a generation of artists giving voice to the cause of their choice in the medium of their choosing. Collectively, as the human race, why are we not yelling for all the killing to stop? Or better put, why are ‘enough’ of us not yelling for it to stop. When did the ones vying for blood and vengeance swell to such sizeable ranks that the remainder decided it was no longer even worth the effort to keep up appearances? Why aren’t there enough pro-peace rallies today? Why aren’t little girls stepping up to army tanks and pushing in freshly plucked daisies to mortar mouths? Why are there no young men sporting Woodie Guthrie ‘this machine kills fascists’ guitar cases? And, why do none of us really believe that any of it could still work? What changed along the way and when?
As far as Pakistan is concerned, our music has never really been political. It has been patriotic, but that is never really the same thing. “Protests and politics were always the domain of poetry. When it came to protest poetry ours was incomparable. We had Faiz and Jalib and they have Lawrence Ferlinghetti beat any day,” says poet and historian AK Khaled. Today’s Pakistan is flanked by battles on every front. One need only step out of their house to pick a cause and each cause we pick will unearth ten more. There is a veritable cesspool of coppers to complain about: beggary, corruption, illiteracy, patriarchy, fundamentalism, terrorism, lawlessness… the road goes on forever and the party never ends. And yet considering the flux of material to work with, art has fallen drastically short of the task. The poetry, prose, films, paintings, music…have all shied away from saying anything really big. Sure, there have been gems here and there and the most recent resuscitation of the National Student’s Federation to promote the voice of the progressive youth, films such as Bol and bands like Beghairat Brigade and Laal have tried to stand against the tide, but their voices are simply not as loud as they need to be.
Some might say the problem lies in the nature of ‘protest songs’ themselves. By definition, protest songs are songs associated with a movement for social change…they tend to be topical and it is hard to narrow down a topic today. Wars are no longer fought against nations or along borders. The 21st century is the age of ideological battles calculated and cultivated on land. War on Terror, Occupy Wall Street, War on Drugs, War on Poverty, each of these cosmic battles encompasses global audiences and theoretical principles but sets them on a chess board manipulated by financial overlords. Previously, movements were time bound and often the spark of one cause ignited elsewhere in the world where it was needed and it spread on its own. This was clearly the case with the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. Today’s world works in reverse; the cause starts globally and slowly begins to splinter into smaller and smaller target zones. This usually means that nations having nothing to do with the origins of the ideological battle get stuck with the baggage of other countries along with their own.
“In Pakistan, pro peace rallies have a hard time finding any support, because if we’re honest peace isn’t really what we’re after. The people want peace but it’s not a pacifist kind of peace…they want justice and retribution. They want someone to pay for what has been done to them and this is a place where ‘an eye for an eye’ will always, always trump ‘turn the cheek’ notions,” says malang and part-time cobbler Habeeb Shah.
If there is a peace narrative to be found in Pakistan, it is perhaps best located in Sufi music. As is the case with most things in the country, religion will always be one corner for most kinds of art. At least, most kinds of art that have any long term, grass root appeal and yet the version of ‘faith’ that does make it into revolutionary thought or art tends to be in a league of its own. Sufi songs inspired by centuries old poetry by Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu, serves as a vehicle against both bourgeois detachment and orthodox involvement in battle for the public sphere.
Bulleh Shah has been quoted as saying:
Pee sharaab te kha kebab, heth baal haddan di ag
Bulleha bhan ghar rab da, ais thuggan de thug noo thug
(Drink your wine and eat your kebabs, roasting in the fires of bone
Oh Bullah, break into God’s house and cheat the cheat of Cheats)
Over five centuries later, Canadian born legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen, in his anthem ‘Democracy’ echoes the sentiment:
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat
And honestly, who would ever undertake the futile task of trying to pinpoint the effectiveness of one verse over the other. Still, given the dearth of voices reacting to violence today, both the East and the West seem floundering in the discontented waters of their respective pasts. We all seem to be feeding off of this “great art of yore” theory rather than sustaining and regurgitating our current bitterness effectively. “People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties. They are still being passed around – the music and the ideas,” Dylan once said.
I am unsure of whether this is because we are too scared of creating something new in this bitter, ugly world or because we are simply too apathetic to believe in something new. After all, art is above all else, a process of giving birth and there is too much anger out there for most newborn creations to survive the impending assault of censure, ridicule and bitterness that lurks behind every corner and in every critic.
No matter where we are coming from, we need to push past this ominous, ever present silence. Silence was once what terrified people most but today it seems to have set in and congealed in the collective human conscience. Nearly the entire human race is engaged in war today, in one form or the other and still most of this race also appears to have separated itself from the affects of its condition. Many of us have retreated behind silicon screens that allow us to post tidbits of ourselves and thereby prevent us from actually working long and hard to give voice to our rage in a cohesive and- more importantly- common voice.
In Pakistan, anti-war sentiment is viewed largely as a flailing Western past-time. It tends to be viewed as that luxury only available to those who have the choice to choose their own battles. For the rest of us, war is here whether or not we like it and ‘peace mongering’ has been dismissed as the cowardice of those unwilling to take a stand. In Pakistan, we tend to think of protest songs or pacifist songs as inherently American and thereby suspect by nature. The whole ‘yes-we-canness’ of classics like ‘Blowin in the wind’ and ‘This Land is My Land’ seems rooted in the seemingly arrogant notion that good things will always come your way. It involves a hope that we in Pakistan lost a long time ago and have since been struggling to recapture.
After all the best protest songs are by definition a perverse mixture of feel-good, feel-guilt and feel-motivated. Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ both emanated from a deep-set belief in universal brotherhood that many in the world today separate themselves from in favour of tribalism, nationalism or multiculturalism.
Is it just that romanticism is dead and that no one is willing to cling to hope over lost pride any longer? Are we apathetic?
Or are we all too willing to lump all our inertia into the ever-widening public discourse of post-modernism that prevents us from needing to give it any voice beyond the white noise that already persists?
Because that is what a protest songs really is.
It is the noise that puts an end to all that white noise.