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.”

‘Our media outlets are completely focused on foreign music’ – Strings

Image © Strings

Published in Slogan (August 2010)

In a lively discussion with Ayesha Hoda, lead vocalist of Strings, Faisal Kapadia comments on his band’s popularity, on endorsing brands and on the factors threatening the survival of music artists.

How did your music career begin?

The same way as that of other bands usually begins. Bilal and I were in Government Commerce College, Karachi and of course we both were inclined towards music. Bilal had a background because of his father, Anwar Maqsood, one of the most popular names in Pakistan’s entertainment industry. So he was raised in an environment that encouraged him to get into music. I became inclined towards music as I was part of Sohail Rana’s programme Sarey Dost Hamarey.’

In college of course we just wanted to have a good time so we used to play music together. But rather than wasting time here and there, we decided it was good to make our own songs and do some concerts and shows. Of course we never thought we would make it our profession but yes today it is our full time profession.

Which national and international awards has Strings won so far?

God has been really kind and we have worked really hard. The band was formed in late 1980’s and we won our first ever award around 1991 or 1992. At that time there weren’t many awards. I remember there was one ceremony – Wahid Murad Awards – held every year and we received the best musician award.

One of the most prestigious awards we have received was at MTV Asia Awards in Bangkok. We were nominated from India as the best band. And of course we have been honoured at the Lux Style Awards, by MTV Pakistan etc. We have received numerous other awards, which is really good because they motivate us to work harder.

What factors have made Strings popular not only in Pakistan but across the world?

Number one is hard work. Luck is number 2. Then, of course, since we sing in Urdu our main base/ territory is always Pakistan but releasing an album from India takes you to other countries like Bangladesh, Nepal; places where Indian / Pakistani music is loved. The Indian industry is huge and its reach is much wider.

Then, when you go international, you go towards different projects. For instance, we were approached by Columbia TriStar Films to do a song for Spiderman 2. And then we also became brand ambassadors for UNICEF, for HIV Aids.

I personally believe that if you focus on something – when you are not trying to actually become someone great – and just working hard, you are eventually recognised because of your work.

What are your views on Coke Studio and what it means for music enthusiasts plus musicians/singers in Pakistan?

Coke Studio is a brilliant concept. I still remember when Rohail Hyatt was starting this project: we met him and he shared the whole idea with us. He launched Coke Studio with Strings, Ali Azmat, Rahat Fateh Ali, Ali Zafar etc. and we all did not know what exactly was going to happen as it was a brand new concept.  Audiences were not sure either. But when we actually recorded, it was a totally new and wonderful experience. We started off by collaborating with Ustad Hussain Bakhsh and it was fabulous working with him.

When the second season came, people had an idea of what exactly it is. Even performers had an idea of what could be done there. A whole new line of singers was included, such as Atif Aslam, Zeb and Haniya etc. and people really, really liked it. I think the best part of the show is live music with perfect sound matched with perfect conditions and musicians. Generally, whenever you see performers on TV, it is a recorded programme and people don’t want to spend money on production quality. Coke Studio is different and Rohail has done a great job. Now the third season is being aired and I think the show will go on for a long time.

Etihad Airways recently signed Strings as its brand ambassador. In what ways do the two connect or complement one another?

Actually, it’s been a long journey. Strings has been the brand ambassador for brands like Pepsi, Warid, Mobilink and Motorola. These brands and their approach focused on Pakistan’s market, even if they were international brands.

With Etihad, it’s slightly different. It is of course an international brand but they do not work internally in Pakistan, meaning that they do not fly domestically, from Islamabad to Karachi, etc. They fly from Pakistan to other countries. So their approach is different. They want to use Strings and their own brand name to promote Pakistani music and culture outside the country, particularly amongst Pakistani communities living abroad. So this time we have to play a very different role than the one we had earlier. We had more work to do in Pakistan. This time we have to do more work outside Pakistan.

What kind of initiatives are being planned to promote music and culture?

We are planning a series of concerts in different countries, mainly in Europe and America. We should be starting from March and before that, we are planning to do some activities after Ramadan also. But it’s still in the planning process because this is the first time we do not have an example – of an airline signing up a music band – which can guide us and tell us exactly what we are supposed to. So we have to brainstorm and come up with new and innovative ideas.

Are there any other exciting projects or albums in the pipeline?

We just did a concert in Houston one in Chicago. Other than that an industry project which has come up is the latest single that we did ‘Khudi kuch karma padey ga’ with Atif Aslam. The video has been directed by Jami and we are excited about this. Of course we have done a lot of collaborations earlier but this is the first time Strings and Atif are working together.

How do you see the music industry in Pakistan shaping up? What challenges is it facing?

Unfortunately, right now, the music industry is going through a very bad phase. Reasons can be many. First of all, the current conditions of our country are such that people are really going through a very hard time. And, at this point, nobody’s bothered about entertainment or music, to be very honest. The layman is bothered about stuff like electricity, gas and petrol prices etc.

Another killing factor is that our media outlets are completely focused on foreign music, that is, Indian and English music. So they are no more trying to promote Pakistani music and they are not even giving much space to Pakistani music, which is really sad because at the end of the day, it’s all about working for Pakistan, in Pakistan. Nowadays if you listen to radio, until and unless it is a paid spot, a paid song or a company like Coke is involved, you don’t listen to any Pakistanis songs which are independent. That is one thing which is rapidly killing the industry.

Have you used your music to forward any cause?

The song I just mentioned, ‘Khudi kuch karma padey ga’, with Atif this is basically about today’s situation and conditions in Pakistan. Apart from that, we are working for UNICEF for a cause so we do a lot of other stuff besides singing. For instance, we go to schools and sing with kids over there. We also dedicated a song and paid tribute to all Pakistani legends called ‘Titliyan.’

‘…where life will take you’

Published in Slogan (April 2010)

In conversation with Ayesha Hoda, S.M. Shahid revisits his childhood, recalls his days at Oscar Advertising and reveals how glorious old age can be.

Seventy five year-old S.M. Shahid sits casually in what seems to be his favourite room in his simple and cosy home in Karachi – with shelves lined with wonderful books, some memorable photographs, CDs of classical music and a few cups of tea.

Though humble about his achievements and contributions, the man takes great pride in speaking of them and of the struggles of his early life – immediately drawing one into his world and his life story.

“I was born in 1934 in Bihar – a time when India was in great turmoil,” he says, vividly describing the situation at the time and the tragedies resulting from a massive earthquake, WWII, Hindu-Muslim riots and partition.

In the midst of all this, personal tragedy struck as ten-year old Shahid’s father passed away. Being the eldest amongst the sons, responsibility fell on his shoulders but he was ready to face life and was supported by his paternal uncle. It was the latter’s decision due to which the family migrated in September 1947 to Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then to Karachi, West Pakistan in 1951.

During these years, Shahid attended railway school and studied up to intermediate, after which he had to drop out due to financial constraints. This comes as a surprise looking at the depth of knowledge this man possesses but he cheerfully points out that he is self-taught – giving one all the more reason to be impressed.

Shahid initially earned his living by giving tuitions to kids and working on low-profile jobs. He has no regrets though – the result of being brought up in a family that believed in simple living and leading a dignified life defined by strong work ethics and sincerity.

In 1959, he began writing short stories, which were published both in English and Urdu publications. But despite his excellent writing skills, he could not get a job as a journalist since he was not a “graduate.”

The other option was a career in advertising as it did not require technical knowledge or very high qualifications. Competition was not very intense in the ad world of those times and his younger brother Mazhar Hussain had already gained experience in the field while working for Orient Advertising in Dhaka. So they got together to establish their own agency – Oscar Advertising.

Whoever hails from that particular era of Pakistani advertising remembers Oscar as a very creative agency. It remained a small agency throughout its existence but handled a number of big and important clients like the Export Promotion Bureau, State Life, First Women’s Bank, etc.

Eventually, Shahid’s best friend and mentor, Irfan Haleem, also became a partner, and together they produced a number of great campaigns. Their lives were once again affected by the political unrest in 1971, when Mazhar left for Libya and only two partners remained to run the agency.

However, they still did extremely well. “Irfan was not only my partner but my dearest friend,” Shahid reminisces. “He was a philosopher and guide. I learnt a lot from him. Like me, he was also a college dropout from Aligarh. But he had a lot of knowledge about English and Urdu literature, music, etc. We had shared interests and we truly enriched each other’s lives. Our partnership lasted for more than two decades.”

In 1987, Irfan said he could no longer take the pressure of work due to failing health. He passed away in September 1994. In October that year, Shahid decided to retire from advertising, handing over charge to his younger daughter and son-in-law.

“Young blood made the agency very successful,” says Shahid. “But around 1999, it suffered some setbacks due to changes in government. Plus, bribery was rampant but we never engaged in such unethical practices. Then my son-in-law took on some partners who turned out to be dishonest and incompetent – they brought bad business. For instance, the agency released a campaign worth 50 lakh rupees but the client never paid.

“As a result we defaulted in 2000 with All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS). All efforts on my part to recover the money were fruitless. I went to APNS and the newspapers and told them what had happened. They were quite understanding but as a rule, APNS had to suspend the agency and we lost a number of big clients because of that.”

S.M. Shahid had been a good paymaster and thus had a very good reputation in the media. In an unprecedented move, all newspapers – with the exception of one – wrote off all the money that Oscar Advertising owed them. Only one newspaper took action but that too half-heartedly.

Shahid once again got involved in the affairs of the agency but could not revive it or retrieve the lost money. So Oscar had to be shut down. “It still exists on paper,” he says, not in a sentimental way, but as a man who has learnt to cope with the highs and lows of life with a smile.

His next revelation is quite startling, “My old age is the best time of my life even though I lost all my money when the agency closed down.”

One rarely hears that.

“I believe you make half of your life yourself and half of it is determined by destiny. I firmly believe in destiny. You never know what is going to happen next; where life will take you. I could never imagine the amount of respect I earned even after my retirement.”

Then he sheds light on the other, more interesting aspects of his life.

The only thing that Shahid formally learnt in life was classical music. From 1972 – 1992, he was taught by Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan. But he was not interested in going on air on TV or radio and projecting himself as a singer. Instead, he shared his passion for music only at home or at social gatherings with friends.

He is also fond of photography and likes to explore different subjects, wildlife in particular. He documented Karachi’s old buildings in 1983 and ran a column in Daily Star for eight months, called ‘Vanishing Karachi’, in association with Ghazi Salahuddin.

After retirement in 1994, Shahid ceased to be an advertising man and dedicated his time to his other interests and hobbies. As a freelance writer, he shared his knowledge on classical music and other subjects.

Shahid also had experience in book publishing as he had published some very artistic books for Export Promotion Bureau. His first book on music – Classical Music of the Subcontinent – was sponsored by Dr. Shahid Hak, the Managing Director of PARCO, in 1999. That was the turning point in Shahid’s life as he found a way to impart his knowledge to the next generation.

With the success of the book, Dr. Shahid Hak agreed to sponsor a number of other titles that included Madam Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, the greatest folk singer of Pakistan – Tufail Niazi, and one of the finest composers of songs, Kamal Das Gupta. In just seven years, S.M. Shahid published 38 magnificent books. He terms this as a very small contribution.

After Dr. Shahid Hak’s demise, S.M. Shahid did not pursue any other sponsors although he has a number of unpublished manuscripts.

“When Shahid passed away, I gave up. After a certain time I tend to give up. Like I had said goodbye to advertising. In the same way, I never went to anybody for sponsorship. I did not search for another Shahid Hak. I thought I would never find somebody as supportive as him. I will publish more books if a sponsor comes along.”

Shahid is now content with writing columns. His satirical and humorous pieces – under ‘Two’s Company’ – appear in Dawn magazine every Sunday, sometimes prompting fierce feedback from across the globe.

“My childhood was bad. Young days were full of struggle (which is a good thing). But my old age is glorious! I live in a joint family system – with my younger daughter, son-in-law and their three children – which is a great blessing.”

His three grandchildren – two boys and a girl – have inherited his aesthetic sense and interests in writing, music and visual arts. He spends a lot of time with his grandson Hasan, who is a special child and shares Shahid’s interest in classical music. Like his grandfather, the 13-year old has gained a lot of knowledge of classical music and BBC Urdu Service has made a documentary film on him.

Gladly absorbed in his world of literature, music and family, Shahid says that he would be a total misfit in advertising today.

“Everything has changed in advertising. It is a totally different ball game now. Plagiarism has become very common. They used to copy earlier as well but they had some original ideas… now a lot of things are simply ‘copy paste’. We copy India in everything. We mix Urdu and English and can speak neither language very well. The entire culture has changed.

“People have much more exposure these days, especially because of the internet. Our knowledge was limited. But the new generation is going so fast that it is missing a lot of things on the way. People don’t have the time to stop, observe and appreciate the good things in life.”