Verbal tantrums of a writer & an anxious spectator of life.

Category: White-shoe Interview Series

“Hope Through Music” by Mekaal Hasan Band

Ten years ago, I believed my calling to be guitar playing. I convinced my parents, that after my classical dancing, classical singing, swimming, tennis, piano and other varying passions, this was it. I was going to be a guitarist. Little did I know, it takes talent such as Mekaal Hasan’s, to revolutionize the sound of each string being pulled – to create an enduring essence of sensational music.

Mekaal offered my sister and I lessons that summer. We would all sit in his studio with eager eyes, all strumming to ‘One’ by U2, testing our rhythms, pulling one string far too long than it needed! His unstoppable jokes, endearing nicknames for each one of us in the studio, smooth Punjabi sarcasm and unquestionable talent left a longing to hear the Mekaal Hasan Band play forever.

Here’s Mekaal speaking to us, through his music:

When did you begin your career as a musician? What informal and formal education and training have you received?

I started playing when I was nearly 16 and I guess you could say my professional career started around 1995 when I came back from Berklee College of Music and set up my studio. I was primarily self taught (I learnt from books and had a teacher for a short time from LAS who taught me some basic songs and how to read music) but I did receive a formal education in music at Berklee where my Major was Jazz Composition.

What have been some of the toughest moments for you:

The music business is extremely tough to survive in because there are so many variables and I guess in the case of people like myself, there’s also the issue of contending with a very unstable environment, which is at best indifferent to the arts and at worst hostile to liberal values. Realistically I always knew whatever work I’d do would have it’s challenges and I guess the realization of how tough the survival aspect is in the music business be it in Pakistan or anywhere else has pushed me to develop skills beyond the typical guitar player. I believe it will never be easy to do exactly what you want artistically and commercially, but it does pay to be well rounded so that one is always surrounded by the challenges of either making music, or by either shaping music, by it’s treatment and management.

What have been the most rewarding times?

I feel the fact that there are people out there who emotionally connect with the music and the personal pleasure of having played with some of the best musicians in the country are very rewarding. I just wish we had more opportunities to bring the music to more people more often, and it seems a shame to not have played more more often, for playing such music with such amazing musicians is a goal for me and remains a priority as such.

There seems to be an underlying Sufi theme in your music. Is this true, if so, why?

This has largely to do with the ‘traditional roots’ aspect of the band. A lot of our material is from traditional Sufi poetry and an equal amount from non Sufi poetry. The other material is made up of Classical bandishes (traditional melodies with traditional lyrics based on a particular raag) and is found in songs such as Huns Dhun, Sampooran,Albaella,Darbari etc. We also cover contemporary poets when the subject matter extends itself to such occasions such as Amreeta Pretum’s ‘Waris Shah’ which was written on Partition of the Punjab in 1947. But if I understand correctly, the sole focus is not Sufi music at all, rather just a due acknowledgement of the traditional forms of lyrics that existed in the subcontinent and which can (in some cases) be claimed to have found a birthplace in current geography of Pakistan.

Do you intend to spread a message of hope through your music to fellow Pakistanis?

 Well I sort of intended to start with just some decent music :)

What difference can that make, do you think?

I’m not sure that’s for me to say. I’m really just a guy trying to create some good music and stay true to my values, musical and otherwise. I believe music has the power to move us and make us think positively and to make us experience and bolster different emotions, and if I and the guys in the band have done that for anyone, then I think that’s a powerful influence to have. In many ways, our work today is the soundtrack to many people’s memories or moments and that’s a great feeling to experience. The quantitative difference I believe the band has made, is that it really allowed people who had immense talent to come to the public eye. People like Papu or Javed Bashir and currently, Asad Abbas, were not known to many before they came into the band. It’s just a nice feeling to have, that one actually worked with and invested themselves in the best musicians regardless of any kind of background and social stigmas and we all created something that not one of us, on their own, would have been able to do.
 

Do you encourage the youth to participate in the music industry in Pakistan? Yes, no? Why?

I would encourage the youth to educate themselves about music and art and familiarize themselves with not popular trends but with solid information about a particular styles’ history and it’s evolution. To really learn music, you must be aware of many things and exposure is very necessary in order to become an effective communicator for that is exactly what music is.
You can follow and buy Mekaal's music on the band's website: www.mekaalhasanband.com
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About: White-Shoe Interview Series

Pakistan is brimming with talent.

The media is saturated with violence.

What a pickle, really.

Therefore, the purpose of my interview series is to highlight the ‘good’ that is being done by fellow Pakistanis, at home and abroad. To reshape the perspectives of the ‘outside’ world, of the vibrant positivity oozing in Pakistan’s ‘inside’ world. After all, these artistic, lively and capable minds are singing:

All We are Saying.. is give Peace a Chance.

White-Show Interview series featuring the best of the best:

1. Moin Khan – Young man from Lahore, Pakistan, motorbiking his way from San Francisco to Lahore

2. Mekaal Hasan – Leading Pakistani musician and record producer

3.Sudaif Niaz –

Thank you for your time!

“Motorcycle Diaries of a Pakistani: Moin Khan from the US to Pakistan”

Interview with motorcyclist Moin Khan

A friend from Lahore, the shy, proud Pakistani boy, Moin, has taken a colossal leap of faith, shed his shy demeanor and taken up a task that will surely offer him enduring exhilaration. His family, friends and fellow Pakistanis are behind him, all the way!

I have the privilege of knowing this young chap from several years ago. He was always a free-spirited daredevil. His humble nature enthused me to interview him of his incredible and unprecedented journey from the United States to Pakistan on none other than a motorcycle. Currently he is in Toronto, Canada on his bike, eager to make his way to the homeland without any prescribed itinerary. “There is no Plan B, so there is no Plan A”, says Moin. That’s just how he rolls.

Moin informed me: “I haven’t written this elaborately for anyone else up till now. Not even for NBC” 

From San Francisco, U.S.A to Lahore, Pakistan

1. Did this start as a personal desire or was it always rooted in wanting positive change for Pakistan?

I was actually thinking about a motorcycle ride within the US. Maybe a trip from San Francisco to Alaska or something. I didn’t even start planning for this yet and the bad news about Pakistan kept getting worse and worse. Everyday I was waking up to bbc.com, dawn.com and other news media showing only negative stories about Pakistan. It was just torture to read this stuff every single day. Not a single positive perspective on Pakistan for almost half a decade since I arrived in the US. I started thinking, there has to be at least one person who can do something positive that would make it on the headlines. And then we students here can be proud of it. After a few months I decided to change my plans of riding to Alaska and just move back to Pakistan and look for a job there, and I thought I would go on my motorcycle. I never planned on being on the news though. Till the day of my departure on July 10th, 2011, I had not called or even told anyone about this journey. Not a single news channel, not a single media person. It just went out of control after I uploaded the first set of pictures and videos on my Facebook fan page and it was then that I realized I WAS THAT GUY. Well, at least I would like to think that.

2. How old were you when you sat on your first motorcycle? Have you received any formal training?

I don’t remember how old I was when I first sat on a motorcycle but what I do remember is that I was 11 years old when I stole my family carpenter “Younis Bhai’s” motorcycle who came to our house for some wood work estimates. It was an old Honda 70cc 4 speed single cylinder that I rode all around Lahore. The freedom, the danger, the overwhelming feeling of going between cars and swerving in and out of traffic, it was just something I had never experienced. I smiled from ear to ear for maybe a week.

3. How do you intend to use this journey, exactly, to shed positive light on Pakistan?

The introduction video does answer this but I’ll say it again briefly. The idea was to talk to people on the road, complete strangers, tell them about Pakistan, answer any questions they might have about Pakistan to the best of my ability and show them that we Pakistanis are as peace loving as the rest of the world. We can also ride motorcycles around the world, be adventurous and take up challenges many just dream about.

4. How do you intend on crossing the waters? I understand in your interviews you claim spontaneous thought to be your leading light, but have you thought of crossing the water yet?

Being spontaneous is the key ingredient to ADifferentAgenda, I didn’t book a single campground or a motel and that was because ‘what if I meet somebody and they say, “oh, that one city you’re going is boring go south and hit that other spot,” then I’ll be stuck because I’m booked somewhere else. So the main idea was to be free, be free without a deadline, without a schedule. However, I did do my research about the logistics, paper work, transportation over water, visas and a bunch of other stuff.

I found a company called CIS – Carex International Shipping, and I booked a spot for my bike with them in one of their cargo ships. Two days before departing out of San Francisco I received an email from Mike (the customer service representative) stating that they have stopped shipping motorcycles internationally due to some silly reasons. I didn’t have time to look for another one, so I left the house without any booking of any sort. I found some other options, I emailed these companies couple of days back, haven’t heard from any yet but hopefully I will soon and it will all be a breeze. I’m very positive about this whole journey, there is no plan so nothing can really go wrong. There is no plan B as there is no plan A.

5. When the going gets tough, what keeps you going?

Well I knew from the start the US-Canada leg will be easy, the European and the Asian leg would be tricky. So up till now,  everything is pretty smooth, the bike did fail a few times but I’m glad it did because it makes the journey a bit more interesting. I don’t want everything to go perfectly, it wouldn’t be fun then. A few hurdles here and there and that’s when the real fun begins.

6. Whose support has meant the most to you and why?

Nadir Minhas (www.wikisanjose.com) and Ali Khan (www.khan-artist.com) are two of my biggest supporters, they help me update the website and the Facebook fan page. They also helped me with a lot of the pre-ride preparation.

Thomas Evans’ support (www.StuntRide.com) has meant a lot to me. Stuntride.com helped me before I even started the ride, they were with me when I didn’t have a website or a Facebook Fan page. They believed in me and ADifferentAgenda from the start and that’s what matters.

Novelty Software also helped me with the website and they still update it everyday whenever I send them footage. Great guys, keep up the good work.

7. Were you aware of the media attention you would receive when you first started your incredible journey?

I was not. I had no clue this would turn out to be something this crazy. I thought the website would be just for my close friends and close family. I thought I would get maybe 20 clicks per day but it’s a different story right now. Im confused but excited.

To follow Moin, check out his website: http://www.adifferentagenda.com/

Interview with Silbi Stainton, President of Marshall Direct Fund

The Marshall Direct Fund works towards Education Reform in the impoverished areas of Pakistan

13 Question and Answers that provide you with a thorough map of making a difference in the educational sector of Pakistan.

Although we find it hard to believe, there are, indeed, a handful number of individuals who share a keen interest in helping the impoverished in Pakistan. Whether that’s through social work, charity or offering a few hours of tutoring the poor students of the nation, or it’s creating and maintaining an organization, the people of Pakistan are not completely asleep when it comes to bringing change.

However, the restrictions brought forth due to the highly corrupted institutions makes success hard to achieve. Going through Government officials, who are suffering from harsh budget cuts, where Education is barely receiving any funding, is not an easy labyrinth to rummage through. But the hope is not lost.

Silbi Stainton from the United States of America, came to Pakistan with an informed vision to do something. Her practical and inspirational approach has resulted in the opening of two schools, with another one on the way. She is a prime example of how if one truly wants to gain something, one must take matters into his/her hands and overcome all obstacles. This admirable woman teaches us a great lesson of fearlessness and relentless optimism.

Here is the interview I carried out with her – I do hope after reading, you will take away something substantial from her impressive, dogmatic and realistic approach. Her experiences teach us not only what we can do, but how we should do it.

Learn where to begin, how to maintain and achieve success in the educational development sector of Pakistan.

Interview:

1. What precisely about Pakistan appealed to you and lured you to work with this nation?

I was concerned about the magnitude of the crisis in education there. There are 75 million children out of school globally, and nearly 10 percent of them reside in Pakistan.

2. Could you outline some of the biggest obstacles you faced in your journey of setting up schools here?

One must have a good sense of humor and patience to negotiate the numerous obstacles in the way of setting up schools in Pakistan. Our biggest obstacles are the lack of coordination amongst agencies working in the sector of education and development and on occasion dealing with local interests in proximity of the schools who attempt to stop education, particularly of females, at any cost.

3. What has been the most rewarding experience for you in this journey?

Seeing the faces of children after they completed their first year of school – for many their first year of school ever. It was like seeing brand new children. Bright eyes where hopelessness loomed just a year before. Sing songy voices and the happy chatter of young inquisitive people, where a quiet had prevailed when they began. Children sitting up taller where a lack of confidence had been just a year before. And smiles on the most beautiful little faces.

4. How many schools have you established/locations/student enrollment/teacher enrollment/specifics about results?

We have two schools operating and another one planned. The operating schools are in Sheikhupura and Barakaho. These schools serve 240 plus students. They employ 12 local teachers. Over 1,200 meals a week are served to these children further boosting the local economy. An additional 100 children are reached in the United States via our partner classroom project that connects the schools in Pakistan with classrooms in the U.S. The premise being that a lack of understanding only promotes hostility. Friendships between the children are strong. These are children who will not nod their heads if someone tells them the ‘other side’ is all bad. This is something needed for the American children every bit as much as the Pakistani children.

The results are determined via traditional testing and site visits for monitoring and evaluation. The schools are thriving. I am very proud of the teachers and children. The proof is in the pudding as they say. This year we had to turn away an additional 120 applicants who had learned of the schools via word of mouth. Funding alone stands in the way of our capacity to deliver education to all of those worthy young children who apply.

5. What academic curriculum do they follow? What made you choose that?

They follow a modified and augmented version of the Govt. of Punjab curriculum. We chose that so the children would be getting an accredited education but we also wanted more for them. We utilize modern pedagogic approaches to learning in the classrooms. More why and how questions in place of what questions. Critical thinking in place of rote learning. The teachers receive training in these areas and they are rewarded for any additional education/schooling they receive on their own.

6. Who was the first person in Pakistan who took a step forward to assist you, and how did having this local connection help you with your endeavor?

The first person was Hassan Abbas who is currently the Quaid-i-Azam professor at Columbia University. He was a classmate of mine at Fletcher School and Kennedy Government School nearly 10 years ago. He taught me a lot about Pakistan during our time in school together. And then five years later, when I grew tired of waiting for the U.S. government to do more to prevent the growth of extremism in Pakistan by supporting education, Hassan Abbas encouraged me to start Marshall Direct Fund. He then connected me to a trusted group of contacts in Pakistan to help me with the endeavor. Today our team is 98 percent Pakistani and comprises the most spirited and committed group of individuals you will ever see.

7. How can average Pakistani youth attending schools and Universities participate in your cause?

We urge university students to launch Marshall Direct Fund Circles at their schools. These support circles can work together with MDF. Students can raise funds to support our programs. And of equal importance, we are very open to having students come to our schools as guest speakers. They can serve as something akin to a big sister or big brother to the students in our schools… keep the children motivated to work hard. University students can also help with book drives and with technology. They can donate used computers and computer programs to the schools. And if they are so inclined, we welcome them to provide training in the computer sector. The children and the teachers would love that! Being in an MDF Circle helps young students feel engaged in their world and their country. We are the biggest proponents of getting young people involved. They have so much to gain from the experience….especially leadership and capacity building skills. And seeing the smiles on the faces of the students is pretty memorable too.

8. Why do you believe investing your life in education would make a difference?

Because I have seen the change in these children’s lives with my own eyes. And if that was not enough, studies show that investment in education has one of the highest payoffs to society of all possible expenditures. Did you know that for every 1% increase in education there is a .3% increase in economic growth? And for every increase of one year in the average schooling of a population, the risk of civil conflict is reduced by 3.6 percentage points?

Education of girls is especially rewarding to society.

When a girl in the developing world receives 7 or more years of education, she marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children. She can then provide greater attention and investment in each child she does have.

An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20%. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25%.

When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40% for a man.

Educating a girl reduces the infant mortality rate and ensures better healthcare for each child a girl has in her future.

Can you think of a better asset to invest in than a girl in the developing world when considering this immense returns to society?…Especially a girl in a country facing conflict as these children have the least amount of access to international economic support.

9. What do you, with your honorable experience and expertise, believe that Pakistan requires most in the education sector? A revised curriculum? More teachers? Female teachers? Incentives? Better teacher training programs? More parental involvement?

Well, I must say that I believe the people of Pakistan are in the best position to answer that question. I can offer that in our experience community involvement is the key to success for a school. A ground-up, community support system must be in place to ensure the longevity of a school and prevent the growth of ghost schools. The teachers and families of the students will notify you if something is not going well in the school and a good administrator always wants to know what is working and what is not. Local, community food producers and seamstresses should be used whenever possible. Additionally, the style of learning must be exciting and one that promotes critical thinking skills. More science, less rote learning. And yes, female teachers are statistically proven to be the best choice for teachers of young people. Statistically they engage their students more effectively and they are not as prone to using corporal punishment which does nothing but teach a child shame.

10. During your work, you must have come across families who refuse to send their daughters to work due to conventional reasoning – How did you deal with this?

We do come across this on occasion although surprisingly less frequently than one might think. Usually the decision not to send a daughter to school is an economic one and/or out of concern for her privacy and safety. Having female teachers and bathrooms for the girls helps give families confidence that their daughter will be safe and respected at school. In the most resistant cases, we can take the son to school first. The family becomes comfortable with the school via their son and then the next year they send their daughter too. We have affirmative action, yet applied gently and carefully so as not to shock a system already in place. But quite honestly, I have witnessed proud Pathan fathers fight quite firmly for their daughter’s right to go to school or for their daughter’s right to be a teacher. These fathers would make any daughter proud. The key is engaging the families.

11. How can the upcoming generation of Pakistan follow in your foot steps? Where should/can they begin if they would like to establish schools as well?

I urge the rising generation of Pakistan to place education as the centerpiece of their country’s development. Students can and should insist that all children have a right to attend school and then do what they can to make that happen. If they want to set up schools, I encourage them to work with other reputable NGOs and/or to partner with govt. schools to help bring about improved educational quality and access. MDF welcomes all students and other supporters of our cause to reach out to us via email at info@marshalldirectfund.org . Our team will facilitate all offers to help.

12. How can Pakistani students studying abroad help you and your organization? Any specifics?

Same as local students (above) but not as practical to visit the schools I realize. In place of that can still help with fundraising and awareness raising about the need to improve access to quality education in Pakistan via MDF Circles (which can be launched at any school, we have supporting materials and ideas). Some students show films about Pakistan to increase awareness. Others read books as a community. And some meet monthly for coffee or tea and discussion of the current events. Any of these ideas can be a part of fundraising by just asking people to give $10 to attend. Anyone interested in starting an MDF Circle group can email info@marshalldirectfund.org .

13. If you would like to share any advice/suggestion with Pakistan today, what would that be?

Make as many investments as you can in advancing access to quality education for all of your people. This is paramount in unlocking your country’s full potential.