A good addiction

As a musician in the US

Published in Slogan (August 2010)

Todd Shea, an American musician running a health facility in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, talks about his life, music and disaster relief, in conversation with Ayesha Hoda.

Todd Shea is not only casual; he is ultra-casual. He converses in a friendly and frank manner, sipping a glass of lemonade and using a few words of Urdu, which he has learnt during the last almost five years in Pakistan. Clad in a simple t-shirt and jeans, he wants people to see him the way he is high up in the mountains with the children of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

Last year, Adam B. Ellick did a video story for The New York Times on this “Improbable American”, which shows Todd enthusiastically singing “Dil Dil Pakistan” in his strong American accent for a highly impressed Pakistani audience.

Living near the Line of Control, his health facility, Comprehensive Disaster Relief Services (CDRS), provides high quality health services to people in remote and quake-affected areas.

Todd was recently in Karachi for his first major fundraiser in Pakistan – a simple evening, like the man himself, where his songs entertained the audience and his talk enlightened them about ongoing activities in Kashmir.

Preparing for a disaster

Childhood troubles led 12-year old Todd towards cocaine addiction. But at the age of nineteen, Todd decided to distance himself from the crowd of drug addicts and serve his country. He joined the US Marina Corps, surviving there for about six weeks before he was inevitably sent for drug rehabilitation. During his teenager years, music was always a companion and it saved his life.

Post-rehab days, Todd put his life together and played rock and folk music for the next 15 years, in a group and as a solo artist, travelling across the United States. Side by side, he also helped disillusioned teenagers who had drug problems. His songs are mostly inspired by life’s various tragedies and injustices. But he wants to give a positive message and inspire young people in particular.

On 12th September 2001, Todd was to play at CBGB, one of New York City’s popular nightclubs, where bands like the Rolling Stones have also performed.

Then 9/11 happened. Todd was staying in a hotel situated only a few miles away from Ground Zero and he volunteered to help. For five days or more, he made logistical arrangements, ‘making supplies of small things available to whoever required them’. And he realised that he was actually good at this: “I am good at disaster relief perhaps because my life has been a disaster,” he rationalises.

Perhaps God was preparing him for the future because more opportunities came for Todd to fulfill his new commitment to help people. With his 9/11 experience, he was welcomed by Global Crossroads, a group teaching English in developing nations, which moved towards disaster relief when the tsunami hit the Indian Ocean.

Thus, Todd travelled to Sri Lanka where he helped at orphanages and at a medical unit, and also rescued animals. This was followed by rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

With the children of Kashmir

And then the mountains moved

Todd had just returned from his work of helping displaced residents in the aftermath of Katrina, when another catastrophe struck. An inner voice compelled him to leave home and fly to Pakistan where a major earthquake had been witnessed in Kashmir and northern areas. Todd helped with the immediate relief efforts and saw that a lot of work needed to be done here so he cancelled all his gigs and shows. He was no medical doctor or disaster relief expert, but he was the one who stayed on and established CDRS.

Since 2006, this health unit has assisted the government with its budget for medicines and extra supplies, repairing ambulances etc. It serves a population of 200,000 and assists 12 government facilities. The unit is more like a shack but Todd believes in having a good team of doctors rather than spending on huge structures that serve no purpose.

Todd also does not spend on his security and feels quite at home in Pakistan, admiring various aspects of Pakistani culture and society. He lives simply because he wants his donors to realise that their funds are being spent on providing healthcare facilities. Individual donors, mostly Pakistan-Americans, have been giving various amounts for running this project.

Todd has also initiated a community-based sustainable healthcare project where people of the local community contribute small amounts to help with their healthcare. This will ensure that the community gets the services it needs, even when Todd is not around.

CDRS has also extended support during other trying times in the country. Immediate cash was given to the Marriott blast victims in Islamabad; medical camps have been organised on coastal Sindh; and 3 months last year were spent helping tackle the Swat crisis.

Media-driven myths

In his early years, Todd could never have imagined living in Pakistan. Highlighting how important a role media plays in shaping perceptions, he says, “I find that US media only tells 2 percent truth about Pakistan most of the time. They only tell the bad side. This leads to skewed perceptions and opinions. In NYC, there are couple of neighbourhoods in the Bronx where you hear of murders, shooting, drug problems etc. every other day. If you took only that news and said that’s what America is all about, that would be a really wrong reflection because it’s happening in only one part of the City. That’s what they are doing to Pakistan just because there are a couple of bad people in the neighbourhood who are demonising the whole country.”

Todd feels he has earned more goodwill for America in Pakistan than the billions of dollars that have been poured in as aid for the country.

“Why would Pakistanis trust America? I love the US but whatever Americans have done so far for Pakistan, they haven’t done it right. It isn’t enough. And the common American can help put things right.

“Even if they cannot come down here and work, they can always write about it; use their social networking skills to spread information about people who are working in social development; raise funds. People back there can dedicate a few hours each work to make a difference by collecting money for donation, writing stories on various issues or NGOs, etc.“

A musical bridge for peace

Life has been much more fulfilling for Todd while running CDRS, but music has still remained a part of his life. Todd’s entry in the Pakistani music industry happened when a friend invited to him to play at a new year’s party. There, a person from MTV Pakistan approached him and asked him to play on a show. Todd thus appeared on MTV, once with Ali Safina and Anoushey, and another time with Dino.

“Then I was on some radio shows and I got a lot of emails from young people in Pakistan,” says Todd. “They loved my music and the work I was doing. Then it occurred to me that I could write an album of songs and sing it with some Pakistani musicians. It would be a cultural bridge of peace; a battle against wrong perceptions.”

Todd got together with some people in California. He talked to the members of American hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. One of them had read the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, on humanitarian work in Pakistan. He was very inspired and eager to do something. So they decided to do it in a big way. Todd contacted a lot of musicians in Pakistan. Members of Guns ‘N Roses, Atif Aslam, Rohail Hayat, Shehzad Roy, Areeb Azheir, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and his son Rustam Fateh Ali khan, Strings, Noori and Salman from Junoon have come together and they are not only going to make a music album but will also film the interaction between Pakistani and American musicians while they work together and visit different places such as shrines etc.

“I hope this project can bring people closer together and erase misconceptions,” Todd says. “If it touches the hearts of Americans, may be they will realise the truth about Pakistanis; they may become more willing to give money to projects in Pakistan that are helping children and other underprivileged people.

“I believe that the only thing that can change this world is love; not bombs or weapons. We also want Americans to understand that a handful of people, with their own agendas, are spreading wrong information about Islam and Muslims. This project may turn out to be highly popular or it may fall flat on its face. But it’s definitely worth a try.”

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