A Soft Drink and a Song in the Hills of Pakistan
In 2012 my bluegrass band, Della Mae, auditioned for a program called American Music Abroad.
The American Music Abroad program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Association of American Voices.
Every year American Music Abroad auditions and carefully selects 10 American bands to travel the world for cultural exchange, and to target populations with little to no access to American music. These bands, ranging from Jazz to Cajun and folk to Blues, perform concerts embassies and orphanages, teach at schools and give master classes, they learn from local musicians and then collaborate with them at public shows.
We were encouraged to audition by another band we knew who had traveled throughout Indonesia with American Music Abroad. And we thought, why not? We needed a gig, and this paid well and if we were lucky they'd send us somewhere with a beach during the coldest parts of the New England winter.
After anxiously awaiting the news we found out that we were chosen to go on an extensive 6 week tour of 6 countries!
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan.... our first stop would be Islamabad, Pakistan.
I won't lie, I had to look up where most of these countries were located.
When we announced the tour the concerned messages poured in from our somewhat protective fan base.
At that time in 2012 we were one of the only all female bluegrass bands in existence. Don't go! They said. Think about your safety, its too dangerous for a bunch of women.
After all it was just a year before that the US had killed Osama Bin Laden in his Pakistan compound. Things weren't exactly friendly between the nations.
I won't lie, some of these messages started to get under my skin.
I read the news obsessively.
I even wrote my own will that I sealed in a small envelope and left with my boyfriend at the time (my husband now).
After much thought we decided that this was an opportunity we couldn't pass up. We said our goodbyes and packed our bags, ready for the sweltering heat in Pakistan, to the below zero temperatures we'd find in Kazakhstan.
The flight to Pakistan was uneventful until we changed planes in Qatar.
As I entered the cabin a hush fell over the plane.
Almost all the passengers all the way back to the bathrooms were men in traditional Pakistani dress. Many of them had just returned from a trip to Mecca and were wearing Ihram clothing, which looks like similar to a toga made out of terry cloth material. Something I had never seen before.
I uncomfortably lowered my eyes and walked to my seat, feeling the stares of these strange men.
Immediately after we sat down a worried stewardess rounded us all up and relocated us us to an “all female” area of the plane.
There wasn't much we could say to one another, but it was obvious we were all feeling
like we could have made a mistake.
What if those people at home were right?
Hours later we landed in Islamabad to a milky evening sky, and thousands of people straining against the airport gates looking for family members who had made the pilgrimage.
We were picked up by our Public Affairs Officer and some other foreign service officials. They ushered into a government bomb proof vehicle, and drove us to our accommodations.
Along the way they told us our hotel rooms had been cancelled because of a bomb threat, but not to worry, we were staying in the beautiful little cottage on their compound.
That night in the middle of our half hallucinatory jet lag we heard the call to prayer and ventured outside on the balcony to listen.
The man who was care-taking for the cottage quickly shooed us back inside, “It's too dangerous.... women can't go out after dark”.
Later as I tried to sleep I couldn't shake my uneasiness....
Everything felt so strange and so foreign to me; a woman who grew up in rural Vermont. I had gotten an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, but nothing had quite prepared me for the culture shock I was experiencing.
I tried to push away the uncertainty that kept nagging at me. But, at this point, there wasn't much to do but tell myself to be open to whatever should happen.
Our first show was at a women's college in Islamabad.
I was standing backstage when I heard a low rumble followed by screaming.
The sound would repeat itself every couple of minutes.
Fear washed over me and we gathered together to try and figure out what was going on.
Just then one of our hosts ran in and said they were going to open the doors to the auditorium early because the girls were about to tear them off their hinges.
Turns out I had mistaken the screams and pounding for protest and anger, when in reality it was excitement!
The next moment we found ourselves in front of hundreds of school girls who sang, hollered and clapped to our music having never heard Bluegrass before in their lives!
We were told later that this was likely the only live concert they had ever seen, and to watch five women onstage was mind blowing.
Little did they know that it was equally as incredible for us to perform for them.
Afterward we gathered together and talked excitedly in groups.
There was no resentment, there was no hate.
There were just excited and curious women, getting together to share something of themselves.
It was at that moment my fear and uncertainty started to fade.
In the next week during our day off we drove to the base of the Margalla Hills with our Public affairs officer, Rob and our translator Azfer.
We were given strict orders to stay in the vans, but somehow that day we finagled a little walking trip through a village.
We meandered through winding stone streets with “grey” water flowing down a chute in the middle and jokingly took selfies with goats.
Soon we noticed that almost no one was outside their homes, and felt like perhaps it was time to leave.
Just then an older man with bright orange henna colored hair came out of his compound holding a pitcher of water and two glasses. He asked if we wanted some water.
We accepted his offer, and immediately afterward noticed that people had started standing outside their gates.
After we were done with our water a young man came up to us and asked if we would come and see their house. So, we walked with him up a rocky path where we came to a small house with a tin roof.
We were invited inside and the young man's father pulled a large bottle of Mountain Dew ceremoniously from their fridge. He poured us each a glass as his young daughter offered us candies.
With our translator we talked to the family about who we were and why we had come to Pakistan. We sang them a traditional bluegrass tune, “I'll Fly Away”
“Some bright morning when this life is over, I'll fly away, to a land where joys will never end, I'll fly away”
...And then something happened that changed the way I saw the world.
The father asked his young daughter to sing a song for us called “Lab Pey Aati Hai Dua” It is a poem written by the national poet of Pakistan, Alama Iqubal.
School kids often sing this song, and the first verse translates from Urdu to this:
My longing comes to my lips as supplication of mine
Oh God! May like the beauty of the candle be the life of mine
May the world's darkness disappear through the life of mine
May every place light up with the sparkling light of mine
She sang in a small child's voice, and when it ended there was reverent silence.
The Father stood slowly and said “I want to ask you, to please go home and tell the people of the United States that not all Muslims are bad people. We are not bad people.”
The moment brought tears to my eyes.
Here I was having enjoyed the hospitality of this family, having shared songs and food with them... but they still felt the need to tell us they weren't bad people.
I felt so much shame for all the fear I had felt before coming; before I had met these people face-to-face.
Since that trip in 2012 I have been to 16 countries with American Music Abroad and programs like it on a mission of cultural diplomacy.
I've been to Saudi Arabia, Guyana, the Marshall Islands, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Bangladesh and many more.
There are many other bands like Della Mae who travel every year, bringing American music and friendship to far flung parts of the world.
I have met foreign service families who have devoted their lives to the idea that sharing parts of American culture will build safer and happier communities globally.
I believe this kind of “soft diplomacy” is the key to stabilizing our increasingly scary world, and may be the key to deflating future conflicts.
Sharing a song and a soft drink as the key to world peace might sound idealistic, but when you have no language to share, music creates the bridge which we can meet one another upon.
So now as a parting gift that was once given to me, I'd like to sing you just the first verse of the song Lab Pey Aati Hai Dua, sung to me first by a young Pakistani girl at the base of the Margalla Hills.