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Mookuhdur

This was my ninth blog entry from the ShantiSalaam tour that I co-organized with Hawah and V:shal in 2006-2007 to promote communcal harmony in South Asia.

2:55 am – So many experiences on this trip have left me uncharacteristically speechless that I'm starting to feel as I'm crying (or writing, perhaps?) wolf.  But this evening was simply spectacular, ending with a random encounter that blew away my wildest expectations.  The whole day, in fact, has been straight up off the chain.

Friday in Mumbai offered a fitting send-off, starting with our visit to the Haji Ali mosque for jumaa prayer, and ending with a fantastic meeting with a series of activist groups interested in working together in the future.

None of us slept that night, as a 3am drum jam in the laundry room on buckets gave way to several hours of organizing work and getting Purvi, our new outreach manager, up to speed.  I felt like a zombie come morning, having slept only 4 hours the previous night, but despite catching only a 3 hour nap in the car today, I somehow feel right now as if I'm walking on a cloud.

We got to Pune in the early afternoon, and met with the Directors of the International Relations and History departments at length.  After introducing ourselves and our work, we spent perhaps an hour and a half interviewing them on camera, gaining immense insight into the history and challenges facing secular activists in India.  We also nailed down plans for a workshop for university students next Wednesday, when we'll return from Nasik before heading back up north to Ahmedabad.

Alok handled the video, which offered a drastic enhancement to our capacity.  In addition to his camera and video editing skills, he also happens to be an experienced actor, director and playwright, and has been sharing insight into the Indian arts & culture scene all day.  Purvi, who joined us yesterday to focus on helping us with our outreach, turns out to have extensive contacts and has offered both excellent company and immediate help with more or less anything we've needed. 

Earlier tonight, at our DJ gig at Soho, she distributed flyers, took still shots of the crowd while we performed, and helped us kick off the dance floor.  Our plans seemed unfortunately doomed, as the club manager apparently failed to follow up on either our numerous phone calls, or our introduction by the club's capital partner, who'd invited us to come through and drop a set.  Vishal seemed dejected at one point, and while I thought at first it was because it was probably his last chance to gig with us before heading to London, he mentioned frustration at disappointing his 16 and 20 year old cousins.  They're both into electronic music and had apparently been looking forward to hearing him spin.

Much like Hawah (who's been feeling ill lately) did during our relatively unplanned appearance on the stage at the Tibetan Freedom Movement's "musical extravaganza" in McLeod Ganj several weeks (which feel like several months) ago, I deployed: finding the manager; asking to have a word with him; sharing my feedback about the club's tremendous physical setting; and securing our invitation to the decks.  It really was a sick space: there's an outdoor restaurant, next to an outdoor bar with a side lawn featuring several small tables and benches on the side of a small hill, all surrounding an indoor space with a great marble dance floor overlooked by a balcony offering an unobstructed view of the festivities.  The music was decent, though not remarkable, and we soon got Vishal behind the DJ booth after having milled around for the better part of an hour.

He rocked it, launching the set with a series of sick house and trance beats before turning to some Asian fusion tunes that – just as in Mumbai a few days ago – prompted one of the managers to come waving his hands in consternation about playing "Indian music."  It's actually rather amazing.  We play sets back home prompting people to go apeshit over the fusion between traditional South Asian and contemporary electronic music, and then come to India, only to be told that only "western" music is welcome. 

It seems to reflect some sort of weird cultural inferiority complex pervading Indian culture, that depressingly replicates the colonial dynamic by parroting whatever emerges from America and Europe.  I'm absolutely positive that if any of the club owners and managers we've met visited New York and heard the Dhamal or Subswara crews play a set, or checked out the beautiful fusion work done by the Asian Dub Foundation in London, they'd come back amped at the chance to explore the genre.  But instead, they're trapped in this small minded perspective that places value only on the worst, most unimaginative elements of electronic trance.

The university professors we interviewed had commented about that in other contexts.  For instance, India's economic development has historically followed a trajectory mapped by the Western example, prompting the Indian Diaspora to fund efforts preserving the traditional culture…that ultimately spawned right-wing Hindu nationalism.  We're pursuing the similar (but also quite different) objective of defending India's more recent history as a diverse, secular democracy.

Incidentally, Hawah and I wrote a column appearing in this week's Friday Times in Lahore comparing the rise of a violent, so-called "religious" right-wing in each of the countries we're addressing: Muslim fundamentalist terrorists like al-Qaeda, the state-sponsored Christian terrorists running the U.S. government, and Hindutva organizations in India like the RSS or BJP – which controlled the government until only recently. They're all the same: movements led by self-interested, ignorant, small-minded egoists seeking to promote their careers by encouraging division and hatred.  The struggle against the nefarious aims of such religious zealots is shared by all of humankind.  We can see throughout history how a common enemy has united divided factions, leading me to wonder whether the zealots in our various cultures might ultimately inspire broad-minded people to recognize their common challenges, and even unite across borders.

During our interview at the university today, Hawah also observed that inferiority complex in his own personal experience, articulating it in a far more coherent way than I've ever managed.  Growing up in the U.S., we each wanted to "fit in" as children, leading us to reject our culture and actively seek to avoid learning about our families' and cultures' histories.  As adults, we discovered ourselves lacking a connection with our ancestry, leading us to…well…this trip, among other things.

Anyway, the managers at the nightclub didn't want us using the mic, either, which struck me as absurd given the bland shouts dropped from time to time by the house DJ.  I ended up approaching the manager again and fixed that, but although he approved us taking the mic, Vishal was just getting off the decks by the time I reached the DJ booth.  I wasn't sweating it, since we got a chance to share creativity on the dance floor (which was fun, since no one there seemed to have ever seen anyone rock the Chicago house hip bump, happy raver skip, old-school hip-hop step touch, liquid, or my bouncy aerial ball-change kicking madness that combines all that), but it was at least mildly disappointing since it was my last chance to spit rhymes with Vishal before he leaves next week.

So when I stumbled upon the idea of kicking an acoustic set outside on the lawn, I ran to Hawah (on the balcony) and then Alok (who was packing up our video equipment in the parking lot), arranging to meet each of them by the front door to the club.  Even if we couldn’t get our rhymes on the sound system, we could capture some audio on our own mic, and maybe even inspire a spontaneous jam with whomever was around.  This is where things started getting really good.

I got to the rendezvous point first, and having nothing better to do, vibed out raver-style for awhile on the porch.  People started staring, which I didn't mind, and I put on a show before coming up for air and taking a break.  I found myself standing next to a groovy-looking brother with a hat I rather liked, and we struck up a conversation about the club scene in Pune, which prompted him to ask where I was from, which got us into a discussion about our project.

Mohammed (who shares his name with a dear friend of mine back in DC who may yet decide to join us for our remaining two weeks here, as well as half the Muslim world) turned out to be the lead singer in a sufi rock (!) band, and was down for a spontaneous interview.  Alok set up our mic and video camera in a gazebo near the front of the club that offered the best lighting, and Mohammed sang a few songs that he wrote in Urdu on tape.  He grew up in Kashmir, calling the azzan (the Muslim call to prayer), and his voice reflected that unique style – but fused with a rock sensibility to create a gestalt far, far greater than the sum of its parts.  His vocal range is strikingly broad, his presence assertive, and his voice as clear as a bell.  We had one dazzlingly fun jam that left me so excited that I tripped over my own rhyme, which then prompted a stunning collaboration in which he sang, beatboxed, and ad libbed underneath my freestyle.  It totally blew my mind.  Then things escalated….

As it turns out, he's a student with a flexible schedule, and after ascertaining his support for our peace-building aims, we stumbled upon all kinds of synergies among our respective efforts.  First, we're hosting a workshop here next Wednesday to help inspire students to write creatively about their experiences and social concerns…and he happens to be a student here.  Second, I asked if he might be interested in singing a few songs at the workshop, and not only was he down for it, but he even asked whether it would be okay for them to be in Urdu…when we'd initially hoped to hire established musicians singing in indigenous languages, before having to resign that aim when our fundraising proved insufficient.  We might not have the money to pay established talent, but he's an emerging artist willing to do it out of a shared commitment to our aims.  Third, we're trying to inspire students to express themselves and see the beauty in all people…while his songs tend to center of themes about exploration and inspiration.  Fourth, he's from Kashmir…which we just visited a few weeks ago, and where we helped pull together a group of emerging artists who could really benefit from the influence of someone with his skill and training.  Finally, we're traveling starting tomorrow to the first of three remaining cities on our tour, after having just arranged this very afternoon to come back next week for this workshop…while his schedule leaves him free to jump on the ShantiSalaam train and roll with us once we return. 

We're going to Nasik in the morning for a series of events at Yoga Point, where Hawah received his certification as a yoga instructor, before returning to Pune next Wednesday for that workshop.  Mohammed plans to meet us then, gig with us, and then throw himself and a bag of clothes in our car to travel with us to our last stops: Ahmedabad and Jaipur.  And then there were 6….  

Vishal will be on his way to London by the time we pick up Mohammed, so Hawah, myself, Purvi and Alok won't ever get the chance to have them both around at the same time.  On the other hand, that means our crew will always be able to fit in the car we hired. 

I suggested to Mohammed at one point that our meeting each other – out of the hundreds of people partying at Soho tonight – reflected kismet (which translates roughly to divine luck, and happens to be the title of one of my previous blog posts).  He schooled me, explaining that he saw it more like mookuhdur: a foretold destiny, as if written on our foreheads at the time of Creation.

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