Science fiction fans may remember how humans and aliens communicated with one another using a five-tone musical motif in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie was also one of the first to portray space aliens as friendly – albeit different – neighbours, rather than enemy invaders.
The idea of music creating a bridge between real-life cultures was evident last year when I had the privilege of producing radio shows featuring performances by two jazz quartets from the United States – The Ari Roland Quartet and Cultures in Harmony.
Besides performing American jazz music for a Pakistani radio audience, The Ari Roland Quartet, originally based in New York, held live classes and workshops for Pakistani youth and music enthusiasts and encouraged discussions on the similarities between jazz and South Asian music – essentially using music to communicate across American and Pakistani misunderstandings and stereotypes.
The quartet performed for the American Independence Day celebrations in the American missions in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad over a period of two weeks.
Unfortunately, the reach of the live programme was restricted to ambassadors and guests due to security concerns, but the magic of The Ari Roland Quartet still came alive for a wider audience through the CityFM89 radio station for Karachi audiences as they performed on the air during the station’s jazz show – “Take 5 with Zahir”. They took a Pakistani pop classic called “Dil Dil Pakistan” (“Heart, Heart Pakistan”) by Pakistan’s legendary pop group Vital Signs and added cellos and saxophones.
Their version of the classic song received a fair amount of airtime on the cities’ radio stations.
The quartet brought a typical American musical art form to Pakistan and let Pakistanis make it their own. As Ari Roland himself said, “The history of jazz has to do with taking songs that everyone knows and making jazz performances of them.”
The same melodies, different instruments. The same thoughts, different languages.
A few months later on Pakistan’s Independence Day – 14 August – The Citizen’s Foundation, a local charity in Karachi focusing on providing education to the nation’s youth, brought a jazz quartet from the US non-governmental organisation Cultures in Harmony to Pakistan. Cultures in Harmony is led by Julliard School graduate William Harvey, who performed with fellow musicians Ethan Philbrick, Chris Jenkins and Emily Holden. The quartet performed at schools run by The Citizen’s Foundation in some of the country’s poorest areas and collaborated with some of the most acclaimed and popular musicians of the country.
The quartet traveled extensively in Pakistan and received a great deal of media coverage and great responses to their music. In fact, their string quartet version of the Pakistani national anthem is now available as a cell phone ring tone in Pakistan. And when they performed the national anthem for radio, I felt my eyes tearing up. What resounded in my ears was a passion for my nation that was shared by four Americans.
These performances demonstrate that the coming together of cultures does not mean that one be overpowered by the other. The practice of American musicians performing alongside Pakistani musicians demonstrates the reality that Americans want to learn from Pakistanis and their culture.
Pakistanis feel that Americans have travelled abroad in recent years only to tell people what to do. But it is these kinds of cultural exchanges that help foster the notion that the vast majority of Americans are respectful and willing to learn from their counterparts in Pakistan and beyond.
Music will not stop the conflicts in our northern territories or in our neighboring Afghanistan. But it brings with it the hope that when Pakistanis think of America, they will also remember the American quartet that played Pakistani music for them. And, when Americans hear of Pakistan in the news, they will hopefully remember Roland and Harvey’s stories of the intelligent, hospitable people of a beautiful country.
* Sundus Rasheed manages and creates content for the English-language radio network CityFM89 in Karachi, Pakistan and also comments on various social issues and pop culture. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).