One of the young among the Kashmiri musicians and singers, Mohammad Muneem, born in 1983, is the lead vocalist of a Pune based Ethnic/Sufi band called ‘Highway 61’. He is well known for giving a fresh voice to the Kashmiri songs, both as solo and also with Kashmir’s first rapper, MC Kash – whose songs pierced through the political fabric of the region. Muneem says that Kashmiris are using their talent to express their views through poetry, journalism, filmmaking, photography, music and other such fields of art for which they’re also earning acclaim. In this interview, with The Kashmir Walla’s Sarthak Maggon, he talks about music, politics and Kashmir.
What is your first memory of being inspired by music?
I remember a time when people thought I couldn’t do it. Even when I went on stage, it was thought that I had no vision I loved singing solely because it was the best way to connect with people and also due to the feeling of confidence it used to instil in me. Moreover, when I used to see people perform, the thought of being on stage used to inspire me. I remember vividly, my first concert was that of Jagjit Singh. I am a huge fan of ghazals and the depth that goes into their lyrics and composition. The man on the lead vocals of my favourite band, Queen was my biggest inspiration, a British musician called Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury) who was raised in Panchgani, a small town near Bombay.
You sang with MC Kash. How was it?
It was brilliant. MC writes amazingly, and is very firm in his belief. Few of the things that I particularly like about him are that he has very strong opinions on the content of what he believes in. He’s one of those free souls who goes where his belief, faith and heart takes him. . ‘Beneath the Sky’ was out there but definitely commend the sentiment. I think he has immense potential. [Highway 61 and MC Kash collaborated in two songs, Valley of Saints and Listen, My Brother]
What has been the hardest part about getting into the field and about getting your music out there?
I think the biggest hurdle for me has been acceptability of the choice I made in my personal life and the fact that my family wasn’t comfortable, merely because they want things to be easy for me. In fact every parent wants his or her children to rise and shine. Saying that the secret is I know deep inside they kind of would be proud of me. As a challenge, it had always been my dream to share my thoughts back in Kashmir, however even now there are only about 10% of the people who’d know me. People say dress well, look well, but what all this matters if you are not a good human being. I would love to do a concert in Kashmir. You will always come across people who wouldn’t relate to, your passion and the way you want to do it. But they are the ones who make you. I’ve spent time with people in music industry who will feature you in songs as a singer but will take credit for the lyrics and composition. There are few who would tamper with it while you still can’t rebel, whether it’s right or wrong. However like always there are also people who respect your work and give you complete freedom to express what you want to. And I have recently met quite a few too.
What was the inspiration for Highway 61?
It all happened in 2008. I read the newspaper about a guitar teacher but didn’t want to learn. I had written around 3-4 songs. We got other people and a few of us met at Patio in Aundh (Pune) and started jamming. We have a song Called ‘Mukhtalif’ which talks about the political situation all over, be it Kashmir or any part of the world. The music resounds with contemporary references and an informed understanding of the two-faced times we live in. There’s a certain similarity between water and music and how both of these can flow to the masses in the same manner and that is the motto of Highway 61. All this lead to our debut album, which is called ‘Alif’. But the most beautiful thing about the band is the people in it. All the people in the band are non-Kashmiris, Hardik is from Gujarat, Rahul is from Calcutta, Anant is also from Gujarat, Jatin is from Pune and Rohit is from Kerala. It’s all within the concept of Azaadi “ Freedom “ of speech. Azaadi is about having a voice. Situations and day-to-day instances inspire.
It’s about getting inspired and inspires people. Six different people bring six thoughts and visions. Rohit vasudevan who is the lead guitarist of the band is also a singer/ songwriter in his project called “ Rohit Vasudevan Daries”. Anant Joshi is a brilliant drummer and has a very expressive style of drumming. Jatin Kale on guitars brings in the metal sound to the band. Rahul Majumdar plays the bass for the band. Hardik Vaghela plays the keyboard for the band. All of our respective experiences and us inspire the sound of highway 61.
How would you classify, if you can, your music?
I would characterize our music as ‘Ethnic Sufi’. It has a live raw feel to it. It’s loud yet not. Our music, however, blends various genres which include rock, ethnic rock, alternative, metal, sufi rock. Sufi metaphorically implies ‘mystery’. Coming for the word called “ Tassawuff “ It’s all about the energy, some do it through faith, some through jobs. The interpretation exists for the channelizing of individuals to oneness which reminds me of these lines ‘Nashe mein hoon, nasha hi nahi; khud mein hoon, khudi mein nahi’.
I still at times think I have no idea what I talking about when I write something but that’s the idea. Each time I read back what I write a different reflection comes.
What is your hope for the future of Kashmiris in the world?
I’m way too small to talk about this but I also have a point of view being a Kashmiri. I’ve seen us grow into a very talented lot leading wonderful lives. However, we should always find ways to stay connected to our roots. Very small things like the fact that I love wearing the pheran. We should always carry our culture with us. I wish to see Kashmir free of propaganda, hasad. A place where, we don’t have to prove your identity to an army personnel on patrol and knowing that your sisters and mothers would be treated with respect in their own state. But who is to blame?
But all this having been said, it is these things that have made be stronger in my belief ‘to be heard’.
What makes you sing songs that reflect the political situation of Kashmir?
I don’t write only about political situation of Kashmir. I want to express the things that I have felt within me, something that makes me think about. It does not have to be just around one thing. In our live set we do songs like Cherith and Sahibo (Sahibo by Mehjoor ) and thats not about politics. We have song about hope called “ Umeed”. We have a Song Called “Fitna Futoor” which talks about the eagerness within all of us to win this world. However Before I answer the question you asked, I’ll tell you a few instances I’ve experienced personally which led me to express and share my thoughts through music. I remember going to Bombay few years back and looking for a hotel to stay in. When I asked for the room, I was asked for a passport, which mentioned “Issued at Srinagar Kashmir” which is ok. What happened next, I wouldn’t blame the hotelier for that. He quite humbly explained and said Sir, Police ka problem hoga, Aap please verification karade, police station say (Get a verification done from Police station). I didn’t say anything, smiled and went to another hotel.
But these are the moments where you realize that you always have your music, no matter what and it helps to express. And like this many mores instances. The political scenario, as it exists, is one that also includes an ongoing identity crisis. And its very important people outside Kashmir should be aware about the situation in Kashmir, which is free from being monitored and which is firsthand and which people read themselves, before forming an opinion. The concept of Azaad Kashmir is an ideology existent that even I support. Free of being militarized, free of being frisked every alternate stop, and People have faced discrimination. People are just not heard. I’ll also be truthful within Kashmir there are a number of confused sections. Some people have being direct victim of the unrest and some indirectly. Now lets see if I was a victim of being disappeared in the unrest like thousands and lakhs have been. I’m sure my mother would have a different opinion around it. But parents who form APDP [Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons] have a lot to say. [Watch Ikebana.] There have been mass rapes and intolerable assaults on our mothers and daughters in places like Kunan Poshpora; villages at large like Dardpora have been left barren without a single male inhabitant. In the midst of all this, there is the mainstream media, which has not highlighted these human rights violation instances substantially.
Someone recently asked me have I heard about the girl band ‘Pragaash” controversy. I smiled and thought to myself, how hypocrite I am, we are. We all have music on our mobile phones and Television sets at own homes. So, I rest my case saying this.
Do you like Kashmiri songs, singers?
I thoroughly enjoy Kashmiri music. I absolutely love Kashmiri Kalams. I like Cholhama Roshay by Haba Khatoon . Sahibo by Mehjoor. Infact we feel humbled to have performed our own rendition of Mehjoors Sahibo in an event called Leap frog to Coke Studio.
There are many bands with young people coming up from Kashmir. What would you tell them?
I think this message to all the young bands that aspire to be musicians. First of all, you have to get your basics right and you have to learn. One needs to know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and for that they have to be comfortable in their own skin. There will always be fame and money, but it is most important that we have to have a honesty to share. Do good inspire each other and us.
Do you think Kashmiris are changing the ways of communication to the world?
The credibility to do something with Kashmir has been under suppression since the times of Yusuf Shah Chak when the state was continuously under the dominance of the Mughals, the Dogras and so on. You tend to get confused when no one listens to you. It’s like ignoring when the baby cries, which one must not do. The first outlet that people take to this oppression is through education. Education is hardly a 50-year-old concept in Kashmir. But people are picking it up quickly. There are a number of creative ways through which Kashmiris have started to connect with each other and voicing their opinions outside. There’s definitely the contribution of social media and facebook. But the talent that Kashmiris have gathered through their inclination towards education has allowed them to express their views through poetry, journalism, filmmaking, photography, music and other such fields of art for which they’re also earning acclaim.
Any final thoughts you want to share with your fans before leaving?
I would like to thank by band mates from the core of my heart. I love and respect each one of them.
I’ll end with a few lines:
Ik fitna hai ye duniya
Kya kya tu sahayga
Bikhri Shama mein hai roushni churr
Jalnay dey isay roushani ko jalnay de isay
( Fitna Fitoor – Highway 61 | Alif )
Singer: Freddie Mercury
Song: ‘Make Me Strong’ by Sami Yusuf