(Even as the Pakistan-based band Laal is busy painting the Indian cities ‘red’, the original vocalist and co-founder Shahram Azhar’s absence is being felt by fans. Admirers of the band are wondering why the band split. In this interview to the The Express Tribune, Shahram Azhar candidly describes the circumstances that made him leave Laal.)
How did you and Taimur meet?
As an undergraduate at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) I took a couple of courses with Taimur during my freshman year in 2002. We developed an intellectual bonding because it was obvious that both of us wanted to change Pakistan. Even before the formation of Laal in 2008, Taimur and I used to go to working class quarters in Lahore and sing revolutionary poetry to inspire workers towards change.
What was the concept of the band?
The idea was simple: use music, art, and poetry as means of furthering the cause of workers’ rights in Pakistan. We took inspiration from the Progressive Writers Association and the great Marxist thinkers and intellectuals that changed the course of social and political action. Music would become the medium through which we took revolutionary poets like Jalib and Faiz’s message to the masses.
What is the Laal Brigade and how did it fit into your plans for politics?
While Taimur was away in the UK for his studies, I decided that it was time to consolidate whatever work the band had done in the form of a youth organisation. The youth organisation, Laal Brigade would be a socialist platform dedicated to the emancipation of the working class. I wrote the charter, the programme and the document for the Laal Brigade and invited students to become a part of this organisation in Islamabad.
You are predominantly known as the original voice of the band, why are you no longer the lead singer?
My reasons for disassociating myself from Taimur stem from the philosophy that drove me towards Laal. The philosophy of the band, as I saw it, cannot be understood without understanding two things: 1) It was not just another musical band, and 2) It was not just about us.
In 2010, I had to go to the US to pursue doctoral studies in Economics so we decided that I would travel back and forth between the US and Pakistan during my summer and winter breaks. This arrangement was not new for us since there was a time (from 2008 to 2009) when Taimur was pursuing his PhD in the UK and I was in Pakistan and we agreed to the same settlement.
However, once I had left for my PhD, Taimur began producing a series of music videos with his own vocals. In summer 2011, I planned a three-month long trip to Pakistan and emailed Taimur some ideas for our second album beforehand. Taimur replied saying that he had struck a deal with Times of India regarding the second album and wanted to “give his vocals a go”. The cross border deal made it apparent that the original plan of galvanising a youth movement had been shelved. It was frustrating to see “Neend Aati Nahi” replace “Jaag Mere Punjabi” as Laal’s latest release.
Additionally, the members of the Laal Brigade were treated like subordinates and a patriarchal system was forced on them rather than invigorating their potential and urging them to speak up. The brigade members were converted into cheerleaders for the band.
We had promised to play our part in rebuilding girls’ schools in Swat. We had also decided that any funds we would get we would use them to promote Laal Brigade and its objectives. However, much to my dismay, thousands of dollars were devoted to increase likes and fake popularity of Laal’s Facebook page.
And only recently I discovered that Taimur has removed my name from the band’s Facebook page and Wikipedia. I don’t understand even if there were differences between me and Taimur, why couldn’t there to be two Laals?
Asad Haroon recently resigned from Laal. He accuses Taimur of favouritism and bias. What is your take on these allegations?
Asad Haroon joined Laal at a time when I was in the US. I did not know that he had volunteered himself to the cause after having been inspired by the revolutionary message. Asad is only one of hundreds of people that have become disgruntled by the difference between what is preached and what is practiced.
What are your plans for the future?
I continue to perform here in the United States for various charity events. I am going back to Pakistan next month and have various plans for the summers as well.
(Published in The Express Tribune)