June issue 2009
Interview: Taimur Rahman
“We want to appeal to all generations, all classes and all nations” — Taimur Rahman, Laal
Taimur Rahman of Laal is a musician, academic and activist. As a teenager, he was involved in theatre and worked simultaneously as a director, producer and actor. His plays included Miss Saigon (adaptation of the famous Broadway musical); RAW (an original pantomime); And You Are Mine (an anti-fascist rock opera). Gaining political maturity while studying abroad at Grinnell College and then Sussex University, he returned to Pakistan in order to become an academic and an activist. A former teacher of economics at the Lahore School of Economics, and then political science at LUMS, Rahman is currently doing his PhD. on the class structure of Pakistan from the School of Oriental and African Studies. As an activist he has worked for the last decade to revive socialist ideas within workers and peasants all over Pakistan. His band, Laal, is creating waves both at home and abroad. Taimur Rahman talks to Newsline about his ideals, his music and his activism.
Q: How was Laal formed?
A: I teach political science at LUMS and I used to take my guitar to my classes and play music for my students. Shahram Azhar was one of my students at LUMS. We hit it off artistically and intellectually. For six years we played together at various workers meetings and corner meetings and demonstrations. Finally, we made a video while we were in London against Musharraf’s dictatorship (my wife Mahwash Waqar sang backing vocals). It became very popular on the internet and as a result we got signed up. We then hooked up with my cousin Haider Rahman, who plays the flute, and my younger brother on the guitar (with whom I had been playing the guitar for a number of years before).
Q: What was the concept behind your album Ummeed-e-Saher?
A: It is the poetry and music of resistance. It is resistance to imperialism, military rule, and religious fundamentalism. These are the evils that have destroyed democracy in Pakistan.
Q: Do you think the youth of today can understand and relate to Habib Jalib’s poetry?
A: Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib were Marxists. They popularised socialist ideas through poetry. Their life and struggle against various military dictatorships and religious fundamentalism is well recorded and an inspiration to all. Unfortunately, this tradition was somewhat lost on our generation as a result of the sudden turn towards crass consumerism in the 1990s. But the success of Laal shows that the essence of their progressive message is just as relevant today.
As activists, it is aimed primarily at the young and working people because they have the power and numbers to change society. But, really speaking, our music has a universal canvas. We want to appeal to all generations, all classes and all nations. So far, we are focusing on people inside Pakistan. Perhaps, at a later date we can also think of building international appeal.
Q: What is the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party. How do you contribute to it?
A: The Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party is a Marxist-Leninist party. Its aim is to bring about a socialist society. I have been a grassroots activist for the last 11 years, promoting the platform of this party.
We were opponents of military rule from October 12, 1999 (when Musharraf took power). But our message received a mass audience with the lawyer’s movement. We were involved with that movement from the word go. However, at first we were involved with it as activists who would mobilise workers and lead slogans. The slogans turned into songs. The songs then turned into videos and the videos into an album.
We set up the organisation that brought everyone together to protest the imposition of Emergency in London. In fact, we were the first to organise protests in London. We led the slogans, the chants. It was very important to do that at a time when there was a media blackout in Pakistan. It encouraged people to know that there were solidarity protests outside of Pakistan. The largest of such solidarity movements was in London. So many people have asked me to write an account of this struggle. I will, at some point. But for now, I need to finish my PhD and do something about the Taliban.
Q: Are you planning to do fundraising concerts to help the displaced people of Swat?
A: Absolutely. We would like to take the band to every factory, every field and every street corner of Pakistan to raise funds for the IDPs. The only thing that is holding back our band at the moment is my absence; I am in London finishing my PhD. But we are currently working on a project related to the IDPs.
Q: What’s next for Laal?
A: The next step is not only to do more videos but to reach audiences more directly with performances. Also, we have organised the Laal Brigade, which is full of young people who want to change Pakistan. This is gaining momentum and mobilising a core group of committed activists. I’d say, we have been more successful than we could have ever dreamed. Who knew that we would emerge at the national level in such a short time?
Q: Do you feel the Pakistani music scene today is different to that in the ’90s?
A: Yes. I think there is something about the Pakistani public. We are really crazy about good music and poetry. The film industry is not very strong, so, unlike India, music bands are not overshadowed by playback singers.
And I think an element of rebellion against Zia’s fundamentalist repression has also found expression through music.
Q: How did you manage to create a rapport with your audiences?
A: We never planned any of this. It just fell into our lap. We were geared towards politics and music was a means to an end.
But I think it is harder for other bands. We beat the pack because of our politics, because we connected with what people were thinking and the way they were feeling. Good musicians are often left behind because they fail to think about what it is that they are singing and hence do not make that connection with people.
On the whole, it’s easier today than it was a decade ago. With TV channels that have a voracious appetite for new material and entertainment, the canvas has expanded enormously. I still remember the times when musicians used to play at small venues and wouldn’t even get a mention in the papers.
Q: Does the warm welcome you received from almost all quarters make you nervous, as a lot of expectations are riding on your shoulders?
A: No, not really. We are developing as musicians. And we have a lot of ideas in store that we want to try out. I guess we would be nervous if we had run out of ideas and creativity. But we are quite keen to produce a lot more and reach out to a broader audience.
Q: Is singing a full-time career for you now or will you revert to teaching?
A: Teaching is my full-time career. I have taken up music in order to use it as a teaching tool. Teaching is very important to me and I wouldn’t want to give it up. When I finish my PhD, I will be teaching at LUMS.