“The more you absorb music, the more you express,” said Mohammad Muneem, lead vocalist and songwriter of the Pune-based band Alif. Muneem’s songs defy genre. From blues to soft rock, each song is a unique blend of Kashmiri and Western genres, merging together to create an unusual range, one which even fans of traditional Kashmiri music are surprised by. “We have a large bandwidth – call it our strength or disadvantage,” he said. “We are a little loud, rough. We are out there. We are extrovert but the lyrics are introverted.”
Muneem’s compositions evolved over time, with his understanding and awareness of his surroundings. From covering songs by Guns N’ Roses, System Of A Down and Pink Floyd, the 34-year-old finally decided to make Kashmiri music.
An engineering graduate with a degree in business administration, Muneem quit his job to take up a permanent career in music. In 2008, he joined other artists to form the band Highway 61, before rechristening it Alif. Muneem’s fusion of Kashmiri and contemporary instruments have been featured on Coke Studio, Kappa TV and several festivals across the country.
Naturally, the music of the Srinagar native is influenced by the events around him and reflect the spectrum of life in Kashmir. He witnessed violence as a child, and then again in 2003, when a hate crime left him with stitches on his wrist and on the back of his head. The thought that humans were ready to kill one another drove Muneem to listen to music with deeper messages.
“I started listening to U2 to absorb what Bono wants to say in Where the Streets Have No Name,” Muneem said. “I liked listening to Pink Floyd’s words on society, time, money, and politics. Being a Kashmiri, political awareness comes with birth. I started reading about Kashmir, understanding the nuances and how people have been so resilient. Every song that I’ve written, every poem has come at the right time.”
Muneem sings about Kashmiri folklore, political churnings and the trail of destruction the two decade-long conflict has left on the state. One of his songs, Ikebana, named after the Japanese art of flower arrangement, is dedicated to those whose loved ones were forcibly made to “disappear”.
During his live performances, Muneem is known to abruptly halt his song midway to ask the audience if the song felt incomplete. That, he will say, is to give people a sense of the sudden emptiness the half-widows and mothers of the missing children and men feel in Kashmir. Some of Muneem’s compositions are rearranged folk songs. After initial criticism and taunts online, Alif’s listener base has grown. One such folk song, Cheerith, composed by Bashir Dada, is about heartbreak. Muneem, however, turned it into a song of celebration.
“I celebrated heartbreak,” he said. “Some despised it, made fun of it, but in the process started liking it.”
While both traditional and popular Kashmiri music can be heard in the Valley, Bollywood music is still the loudest and the most easily available. To get around this, Kashmiri artists have begun to use the internet and social media to draw larger audiences.
In the past decade alone, Kashmiri musicians have created renditions of Kashmiri folk tales and poems blended with Western percussion instruments. Parvaaz, a Bengaluru-based band with a lead vocalist from the Valley, has produced songs that struck a chord with audiences all over the country. The band’s first extended play, Behosh, featured a song in Kashmiri. Lead vocalist Khalid Ahamed said the intention to sing in Kashmiri was a happy coincidence which occurred when guitarist Kashif Iqbal, a fellow Kashmiri, played a folk tune on his guitar.
“It stuck with us, we did three songs in Kashmiri,” said Ahamed. “It was never intentional that we wanted to do Kashmiri. It just came to us naturally.”
Ahamed’s fascination with music began in his childhood, when he listened to his father play songs on a tape recorder. In 2010, Ahamed got together with Iqbal in Bengaluru to set up Parvaaz. Both musicians are self-taught. Since then the band has performed at major festivals across India and are becoming an important part of the nation’s live music scene. Parvaaz has also produced two albums.
Like Alif, their music doesn’t stick to a single pace or genre. The band produces progressive music in a mix of folk, blues, and rock.
The band’s rendition of Kashmiri poet Mahjoor’s Gul Gulshan Gulfam, a poem which describes love, longing, and hope, blends the verses with progressive rock. Another song, Roz Roz, came about when the band experimented with the guitar, playing it the way the traditional stringed instrument rabaab is played. The melody, Ahamed said, came before the lyrics sometimes.
The fact that a majority of Parvaaz’s audience are non-Kashmiri speaks of the acceptance of Kashmiri music and art. Both Alif and Parvaaz depend on live gigs more than album sales. Producing original music, they said, is a slow but steady process.
While Alif recently released its new album Sufayed, Parvaaz is recording music for an upcoming movie, Vodka Diaries.
There are several other Kashmiri musicians captivating audiences with their music. Mumbai-based music director and singer Jaan Nissar Lone’s song Jugni is a rendition of the poetry of Mahjoor. Mehmeet Syed, one of the few female singers from the Valley, has won many awards and gigs at home and abroad. Touring abroad with two other Valley-based musicians, Irfan and Bilal, the trio have played renditions of lullabies and traditional songs to foreign and diaspora audiences.