Pakistani rock band Khumariyaan gets Connecticut College dancing — and thinking

Members of the Pakistani folk-rock group Khumariyaan talk about their music and give a demonstration for Connecticut College music students.
Members of the Pakistani folk-rock group Khumariyaan talk about their music and give a demonstration for Connecticut College music students.

They were scheduled to play for only 75 minutes, but after two hours the Pakistani folk-rock group Khumariyaan still had the Connecticut College community rocking out to its fast-paced fusion of traditional Pashtun and modern sound.

Saturday’s electrifying concert was the culmination of a four-day visit to campus by the quartet that also included a jam session with local musicians, a dinner with faculty and students, a discussion with students taking global Islamic studies courses and a performance at a local middle school.

Khumariyaan is touring the United States through Center Stage, an exchange program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. The band was selected for the program by a four-person talent scouting delegation to Pakistan that included a representative from Connecticut College.

The tour’s purpose is twofold: entertain crowds with pulsing rhythms produced through a blend of sitars, guitars and clay drums, and bridge cultural divides between the U.S. and Pakistan.

“We came here to tell Americans that people are people,” said Sparlay Rawail, the band’s lead guitarist, who also plays Ghungroo percussion.

Throughout their visit, members of the band discussed their efforts to keep the indigenous folk music of their region alive. They explained that traditional instruments are considered “for the poor,” and that Pakistan’s deeply rooted class system makes it difficult — if not impossible — for musicians who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds to succeed.

During a discussion with global Islamic studies students, the band also talked about the power of the media in shaping public opinion and asked students to think about why many Americans have a negative view of Islam.

“I think that the more people are educated, the more tolerant they become, especially toward Islam, which many people don’t understand,” said Kaitlin Cunningham ’16.

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Sufia Uddin said even among the educated, many Americans conflate the problems of the Middle East with Islam.

Calling the band “a beacon of tolerance,” Rawail explained that each member has a different interpretation of Islam and practices accordingly. During the discussion, Rawail and another member of the band, Farhan Bogra, debated different interpretations of Quran and Islamic teachings related to dress, marriage, prayer and the judgment of others.

“I loved their personal stories about their beliefs and practices,” said Lea Perekrests ’15. “We learn about the culture and the beliefs in class, but these personal stories really bring that to life.”

Anique Ashraf ’17, who is from Lahore, Pakistan, described meeting Khumariyaan on campus — and having a bit of Pakistan in New London — as “surreal.” He attended the dinner with the group.

Another dinner guest, Mesut Sallah ’16, said it is great to see Khumariyaan representing the Pashtun culture through music. “Pashto music is a product of the unique social and cultural life of the Pashtun people,” he said. “They produce tunes that have a sentimental and soulful tone.”

In addition to the concerts, Khumariyaan shared its music with local musicians during a campus jam session. “They were extremely gracious and made it easy for us to follow what they were doing musically,” said musician and activist Hugh Birdsall, a teacher and member of a New London-based band, The Reducers. Khumariyaan taught the jam participants several of the chord progressions and melodies they play, and played along on some bluegrass and blues numbers. “Music truly is a universal language,” Birdsall said.

Director of Arts Programming Robert Richter ’82, who manages the College’s popular performing arts series, onStage at Connecticut College, travelled to Pakistan in the spring of 2013 as part of the Center Stage delegation that selected Khumariyaan for the program. Richter said he didn’t know what to expect from his trip to the war-torn region, and that friends and colleagues worried about his safety. Conversely, when he arrived in Pakistan, Richter said people there had misgivings and fear of the United States, especially “Connecticut” because they had heard of the state only in the context of the tragic Newtown school shooting.

“We just hear the negative stuff about each other,” Richter said. “The goal of the Center Stage program is to use music and art to build cultural bridges.”

The American delegation visited Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad in search of artists that could appeal to American audiences. The moment that Khumariyaan began to play in an Islamabad music hall, Richter said, he knew he had found the right act.

“As soon as Khumariyaan took to the stage, everyone started dancing. In Urdu, the word khumariyaan means ‘intoxicators,’ and their sound was truly intoxicating for me.”

Khumariyaan’s appearance at the College was part of the onStage series. Last year, the series included a visit by Haitian singer/songwriter Bélo, one of the first Center Stage artists selected to tour the U.S.

“These types of cultural exchanges are what we are all about as an institution,” Richter said.

October 17, 2014