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08 Oct - 14 Oct, 2011
Mag The Weekly
Rock & Roll Diplomacy

When one first meets Todd Shea, a burly and gregarious Pakistan-based American, 'statesman' is not the first word that comes to mind. His choice of atifaslamattire is always t-shirt and blue jeans, and he is given to blunt talk. Yet Shea, a long-haired humanitarian worker who has helped launch a new US-Pakistan music supergroup, may just offer a salve to the acrimony that ravages America's relations with Pakistan.
When nations find themselves at loggerheads, they often attempt to reduce tensions via non-official channels. Consider the Seeds of Peace program, which brings young people together from conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Balkans. Recall the "ping-pong diplomacy" efforts between American and Chinese table tennis players in the early 1970s. And witness the professional wrestling matches undertaken between the United States and Iran after the rupture in ties back in 1979.
gilby clarkeIndeed, sports diplomacy is a popular tool for goodwill promotion. For years, the Olympics and the World Cups of cricket and football have been billed as efforts to transcend political tensions by having avowed enemies – Soviets and Americans, North and South Koreans – compete peacefully on the same field. Readers of these pages need not be reminded of the much-ballyhooed 'cricket diplomacy' between India and Pakistan earlier this year.
Sports diplomacy, however, is no silver bullet. Sometimes the political discontent festering beneath the veneer of athletic comity is too strong to stay bottled up. Additionally, the competitiveness of athleticism can sometimes spark hostility – even in cases where countries generally get along. Americans and Chinese alike were shocked by the brawl that broke out this summer in Beijing between basketball teams representing Washington, DC-based Georgetown University and China – yet given the raw emotion stirred up by fierce competition, it is not immensely surprising.
By contract, music provides a more appropriate vehicle for cultural diplomacy. Yes, some genres – punk, hip hop – have evinced violent tendencies, while others – especially death metal – have been accused of todd sheainspiring suicides and occult killings. Yet by and large, music enjoys a fundamental ability to bring people together in common, worthwhile causes. The 1970 Concert for Bangladesh – hosted by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, and featuring performances from rock's biggest acts, all to support those affected by the Bhola cyclone – set a precedent for humanitarian music projects, manifested in later years by the likes of Live Aid and Farm Aid.
Music, however, has the potential to serve a diplomatic purpose as well – and particularly in the context of America and Pakistan, nations with rich traditions of civic-minded musicians. Shehzad Roy and Salman Ahmad, arguably two of Pakistan's most successful musicians, run a charitable organisation for underprivileged children and serve as UN's goodwill ambassadors, respectively. In 2009, a New York Times video report argued that many Pakistani cultural figures do not speak out enough against militancy. Perhaps so. Yet many others – including musicians – are progressive-minded artists who want to promote peace and goodwill, including through musical collectives with counterparts in the United States.
Enter the Sonic Peacemakers – a collaboration featuring Shea, Los Angeles-based producer Lanny Cordola, Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke (formerly of Guns 'N Roses), Atif Aslam and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. Rohail Hyatt (formerly of Vital Signs) is also involved. The group hopes to "show the true Pakistan," according to Cordola. This is an objective ably achieved in a music video filmed of the band singing a song in Swat last year – at the time, the first live musical performance in the formerly Taliban-controlled area in Rohail hyattmore than five years. The video for We Will Rise Again focuses little on the musicians (and even less on the remnants of Taliban influence), and more on the faces of local children – faces long invisible to most Americans, and, in all likelihood, to many Pakistanis as well.
The Peacemakers also hope "to spread peace between Pakistanis and Americans," Cordola says. This is an admittedly more ambitious goal. Songs, after all, do not end wars. And there is always the risk of a failure-to-be-inclusive effect; when one views footage of a concert of Shea and Atif Aslam at Washington's prestigious DAR Constitution Hall this past July, it is apparent that much of the audience was of Pakistani (or more broadly of South Asian) origin.
Yet all this misses the point. The US-Pakistan relationship is effectively being held hostage by political factors – mistrust, opacity, and starkly divergent interests. If this paralysis is truly to end, it will need to be dislodged by the efforts of private citizens – non-political forces untethered to the need to promote national interests at all costs, or to the dictates of any leader or official. This is why there is something encouraging – not to mention intoxicating – about a group of prominent Pakistani and American musicians getting together to play rock and roll, owing to a love of music and to a desire to demonstrate that the two countries can, in fact, get along.
And don't dismiss the Peacemakers' project as a fleeting effort by several opportunistic musicians to satisfy a whim. Given those involved, there is good reason to believe this project will be a lasting one. Shea, more than the vast majority of Americans, has selflessly dedicated his life to Pakistan. After being moved by television images of the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, he came to Pakistan, as a private citizen, to assist in relief efforts – and he has been in the country ever since, where he now runs a hospital. His jolly visage is frequently captured on television, whether conferring with Imran Khan, or chatting amiably with VJs in Karachi.
What impresses one about Shea is not only his unabashed admiration for the Pakistani people, but also his desire to pass such sentiments down to the next generation of Americans – a generation coming of age in what arguably constitutes the most virulently anti-Pakistan environment in US history. The first time I met Shea, back in 2009, when I hosted him for a talk about his humanitarian work in Swat, he brought his teenage son along – an intelligent and polite young man who listened quietly yet intently during his father's presentation. He has joined his father in Pakistan on several occasions.
Shea's decision to get his child involved is fitting, given a third goal of the Sonic Peacemakers: to aid Pakistan's children. The band has announced that proceeds will be provided to organisations that focus on the country's millions of vulnerable kids. "I don't think there's any higher purpose than helping suffering children," contends Cordola.
Corny? Perhaps. Idealistic? Absolutely. Yet given the unrelenting anger and bitterness that swirl around the US-Pakistan relationship, the Sonic Peacemakers generate something that the best efforts at political legerdemain cannot: Hope. It is a word heard rarely in the power corridors of either capital when discussing the relationship. But without it, one cannot reasonably expect bilateral ties to improve.
Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

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