Saturday, October 12, 2013

Damn if I do, damn if I don't!

Malala Yusafzai

October 11, 2013 is the day marking one year and two days since I first heard the name Malala Yusafzai.  Before that date last year, I had no clue and no need to know Malala. It reflects poorly on me since BBC Urdu, for which Malala wrote her diary under the pseudonym ‘Gul Makaee’, is the home page for my laptop but I use it for headlines and more than often, bypass the opinion pages.  October 11, 2013 is also the day when Malala Yusafzai did not win the Nobel Prize for Peace and AFP reported that TTP (Tehreek-e- Taliban Pakistan) is "delighted over Malala's Nobel missing".

Malala Yusafzai did not win the Nobel Prize for Peace. Good for her! As it is, these are not the best times to be associated with (arguably) this most esteemed and coveted honor, primarily because of the controversial nature of its two previous winners. US president Barack Obama and the European Union will certainly go down in history as the worst decisions ever made by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

Just a day before the announcement by the NPC, Dhiya Kuriakose in her article for The Guardian, wrote “...the Nobel is a prize, and prizes should be handed out at the finish line... 1

I almost agree. If only Kuriakose would adjust the finality of her statement by replacing ‘at the finish line’ with ‘for achievements’ she'll have my vote because surviving an assassination attempt with the help of good quality modern medicine and after care is perhaps similar to reaching a finish line but not an achievement; neither is having a will strong as steel to survive. The latter however, is certainly an extremely worthy trait which can be employed very usefully for achieving greater goals but an achievement on its own it is not.

The fact is that from the day Malala started writing Gul Makaee’s Diary for BBC Urdu Online until she received a bullet in her head, she was a ‘nobody’. For most Pakistanis she was just another eleven years old in terror stricken Sawat of 2009.  Incidentally, until that time the terror stricken Sawat of 2009 was also just another city in the Taliban ravaged North West Frontier of Pakistan. In other words, before the bullets entered Malala, Pakistani public and media did not find her interesting enough to mention in their conversations, their publications or in their heated social media statuses. The public specially was oblivious of BBC’s eleven years old reporter and the severed heads hanging in public squares in Sawat Valley.

But lo and behold; as soon as the "western media" picked the story about Taliban targeting a teenage girl, all hell broke loose and opinions, criticism, analyses and mysterious background revelations found their way to the forefront turning Malala into a heroine overnight… at least for a few days.

I do not like to judge or rush to conclusions but humans in general and Pakistanis in particular have a history of honoring the dead and ridiculing the living. Had she succumbed to the attack, Malala would have stayed a heroine, BUT she survived; and her glory became controversial. During the first four days in which she went through a decompressive craniectomy at CMH Peshawar, was shifted to AFIC/NIHD Rawalpindi and transported to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, the media overflowed with real time updates and reports. Parallel to that was another kind of overflow; or something more like a race on social media to prove the following:
  • The attempt on Malala’s life is a set up.
  • It is the doing of an ‘outside hand’ with a ‘hidden agenda’.
  • Her father is a CIA agent.
  • Malala is a CIA agent.
  • The shots were not real.
  • The bullets were not real.
  • The Taliban were not real.
  • The girl who got shot was not Malala.
  • The girl who was flown to Birmingham was not Malala.
... so on and so forth.

Malala recovered.  Not only did she recover she started voicing her thoughts through interviews. BUT the Pakistanis/Pakistani media had once again receded into their shells. Why would you allow airtime and print space to someone/something which was simple but not intriguing, which was sensible but unceremonious and which was relevant but not sensational?

And then somebody's mad, semantically challenged idea of recommending Malala for the Nobel Peace Prize sent everyone amuck again. Once again the media and the sociopolitical glitterati in Pakistan rattled with a multi-speaker x  debates. The points of concern this time were:

  • Western media is using Malala to forward their own agenda.
  • Her speech in the UN was rehearsed.
  • Malala's interview with Jon Stewart was scripted.
  • Why doesn’t she talk about the ‘drones’?
... and my favorite from a dear one’s Face Book status
  • If Malala is Peace Prize worthy then what about the children who have been a casualty of the same terrorist war?

Malala responded to some of these ‘points’ to Abdul Hai Kakar in an interview for The Atlantic(2) but here is what I have to say.

  • If one is able to look beyond black, white, pink AND west, east, left, right, top and bottom, one would discover that all media has some agenda and it comes forth in all they do. Accusing the ‘west’ of using Malala is simply venting out the regret that the ‘east’ (??) failed to use her first.
  • Even the mightiest of the mightiest rehearse before opening their mouths in the UN.
  • Jon Stewart is a delightfully mean host and it just makes sense for a sixteen years old to write down her thoughts specially when she’d be speaking in a foreign language.
  • She doesn’t talk about drones because her subject of choice is female education.
  • And last but not least; being a casualty is certainly different from being a target. Many die in wars with causes and their sacrifice is by no means trivial but only those are honored who contribute a little extra and have a slight edge. Malala was and remains a contributor and that gives her that ‘slight’ edge.

  For more on Malala Yusafzai and Sawat From 2007 to 2009:
Diary of a Pakistani School Girl (english)
Diary of a Pakistani School Girl (urdu)
Malala Yusafzai
Sawat 2007

Sawat 2009

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Can We Listen to Your Bleeping Music Please?

My son raps! He's pretty darn good (if I may say so myself). His subject matter and lyrics are quite substantial and he raps it out with significant ease. Last week he brought home his first amateure recording. We listened to it on the car stereo. Through rendition he kept his quick fingers on the skip button on his IPod and uttered the bleep sound every time he had to press it. The recording was two minutes long and he bleeped three times in all; not bad for a seventeen years old rapper writing his lyrics towards the end of 2013.

BUT, what do I know of Rap and Hip Hop? I entered this scene only through my kids. Before them I was limited to the classical lyricism of Indo-Pakistani singers and, to a minute extent, western duos and bands of the 70s & 80s like The BeeGees, ABBA, Simon and Garfunkel and The Carpenters. The common denominator here was not the kind of music but the choice of lyrics. 

Traditional Indian and Pakistani singers do not sing songs; they sing poetry. To me Paul Simon's 'the sound of silence' is poetry; poetry sung beautifully well. So is 'Eventide' by Karen and Richard Carpenters (though not as beautifully sung).
But no parallels can be drawn when it comes to the frequency with which the Indo-Pak singers choosing from traditional poetry. If I were to put in a number I'd say that over 90% of Indian & Pakistani (not Bollywood) songs are, in fact, poetry. Penned by the master poets through the long history of Hindi and Urdu literature, these verses are, to say the least, 'serious stuff'. That is precisely why  serious listeners gauge qualitative merit of a singer by his/her selection of poetry. In other words the choice of poetry determines the 'artistic intellect' of a singer; and it doesn't end there. Think Spider Man... having found a great poetic piece brings with it the great responsibility of creating a strong and suitable musical composition for rendition. For most singers the first step is easy, thanks to the extremely rich and abundant poetic content of Indo-Pak literature. However, a substandard musical composition and/or a listless rendition doesn't just receive a bad review, it sends forth a message that the singer obviously lacks the intellectual finesse required to understand the depth of his/her poetic selection and therefore unworthy of any serious consideration.

With such a poetry focussed orientation in vocal music, who can blame me when X-Bitches leaves me shell shocked, speechless and surprised... perplexed, perturbed and puzzled... alongwith alarmed and appalled. Those of you who are not familiar with this 1998 Ice Cube number from the album 'War & Peace (vol 1)'.  For better understanding, below is a picture of the first 1:30 minutes of this track ... the full song runs five minutes:

Please note the ninth line which is 39 seconds into the song... apparently the singer has a problem with 'cussin'!

Yes I do recognize how relativity contributes towards each and every aspect of human life, be it science arts or philosophy. Therefore the atypical lyrics, as in the example above, might very well be liked, appreciated and enjoyed by many who are not me. BUT, I also understand that it doesn't take very long for the 'atypical' to become the norm; especially in a society governed by political correctness. How this political correctness actually allows and nurtures political incorrectness in a debate for another time. Right now my dilemma is that my son raps very well but, owing to the usage of certain words which have become typical to rap, he remains uncomfortable about sharing his talent to the fullest with his parents and grandparents.

My parents and my parents in law are all in their eighties. They'll probably not be around long enough to witness profanity laden music become the norm. A less sentimental person might suggest that maybe its not for them and thats that, which could be (debatably) true; but that also means that they won't be enjoying their favorite grandson's talent, which, to me, is a shame. My son on the other hand is seventeen and hopefully has a lifetime ahead but does that give him enough time to become comfortable with something which has a certain negative connotation in his moral makeup? I'm afraid that a less sentimental person will have the same suggestion for him too... which, to me, is double shame!

Profanity in Vocal Music is a debate that can involve a lot of 'should've, would've, could've' but its not a debate that I intend to start here. All I intend doing through this little write up is to ask a simple question. The most beautiful thing ever said about music is that it has no boundaries. Going by that isn't it ok if one questions the authenticity of such music which has to be scanned, controlled, edited and blocked depending upon the social territory it is within?