It all started with Kevin Costner. One night a few years ago, Saif Samejo was at home in Jamshoro, Pakistan, watching The Postman, the actor and director’s 1997 futuristic epic about one man’s struggle to rebuild civilization in a post-apocalyptic America. But it was the film’s soundtrack that caught Samejo’s attention—particularly the song “Almost Home.” The artist? Santa Fe musician Jono Manson.
From then on, Samejo was one of Manson’s biggest fans. “I loved the music of Jono Manson,” says the 28-year-old Samejo, who was just 11 years old when Manson recorded the Postman soundtrack. “I still remember [the] impact his voice left on my ears…His music is universal. His vocals and melodies reminded me of music of my region—somehow, they were like the folk tradition here. It was the simplicity in voice and feel of devotion almost identical to the vocals I had been listening to while growing up. The feeling was the same.”
Manson’s pop-folk sensibilities also appealed to Samejo, who lives in the Pakistani province of Sindh, near the Indian border. His own band, the Sketches, attempts to honor traditional Sindhi folk music while giving it a 21st-century twist.
“We musicians have always believed in the power and beauty of our roots and culture, and we describe our music as a connection between what is preserved in our land and how to promote that hidden treasure—not only to our upcoming generations, but on greater level to entire world,” Samejo writes in an email, adding that the band adheres to the philosophy of peace, harmony and tolerance espoused by the Sufi poets of the region for centuries.
Samejo found Manson on Facebook and emailed him, fully expecting him not to respond. After all, Manson might be famous, he thought. But Manson—who, oddly, is better-known in Italy than in the US, despite several well-reviewed albums and collaborations with national artists such as Blues Traveler and Crystal Bowersox—was moved by Samejo’s note and his music and wrote right back.
“I admired his work and still can’t believe he answer [ed]me back, and I can’t describe in words how I was feeling,” Samejo says. “That reply was a dream come true. We started writing each other and slowly, gradually understand many things about each other’s culture and country.”
Manson and the Sketches soon began collaborating on songs by sharing files over the internet.
Finally, after working together virtually for eight months, they realized their collaboration would benefit greatly from being in the same place at the same time. Since US visas are often hard to come by in Pakistan, they decided that Manson would travel there. They had big plans for those two weeks: record more songs together, tape traditional folk musicians in the desert and make a video for the song they had already completed, a Sindhi folk song writ large upon slabs of electric guitar.
And so, last summer, Manson bought a plane ticket for Karachi.
Days after his arrival on Sept. 12, though, protests would spread across the Middle East over an anti-Islam film made in the US. (The jury is still out on whether a Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that took the life of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, was a terrorist attack, a protest over the film or both. While the attack was carried out by a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariahhe, suggesting it was a terrorist attack, they told bystanders they were angry about the video.) Within a week, the wave of protests would reach Karachi, two hours from Samejo’s home in Jamshoro.
But when Manson boarded the plane in Albuquerque, all was peaceful in Sindh, and all he could think about was finally getting to play music with these talented 20-something musicians in a strange land he had never seen.
To Samejo, Manson’s trip to Pakistan was a very big deal—not just because one of his musical heroes was coming to play music with him and his band, but also because it was an opportunity to show his new American friend that Pakistan isn’t just a place of strife and violence, as Western headlines sometimes suggest.
Most of the US press coverage of Pakistan, bordered to the southeast by India and to the northwest by Afghanistan and Iran, paints a picture of a country besieged by conflict. From the recent shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl shot in the head by the Taliban as she was leaving school on Oct. 9, to the 2011 attack on the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan by the Haqqani crime family, which US officials have said was supported by the Pakistani secret police, the region seems, to the casual Western observer, like a place to stay far, far away from.
Pakistan is also where US forces killed Osama bin Laden, who had been “hiding out” for years in a major city with a strong presence of Pakistani government forces that are supposedly US allies.
The violence in the country even led cricket players from abroad to take their game elsewhere, despite the popularity of the sport there. No international team has played in the country since a 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore, which killed eight people. (In recent weeks, in an effort to entice foreign teams back to the country, Pakistani cricket chiefs approved the purchase of bulletproof buses.)
But Sindh, which borders India, is a largely peaceful region, Samejo says, and he wanted Manson to experience its rich culture—a culture that had found its way into Manson’s music from 8,000 miles away.
“As we are working on a collaborative project based on Sindhi and English language and land of Sindh we wished to show him its actual life and color,” Samejo says. Sindh is the cradle of the Indus Valley civilization, dating back 5,000 years. It didn’t become part of Pakistan until 1947, and because of its rich, independent history, the people of Sindh are “very different” than people of other parts of Pakistan, he adds.
“Islam is the religion of majority, but here you will see a beautiful shape of [the] religion because of Sufi message,” Samejo says. “Sindh has not only Muslims, but Hindus, too—and some other religions, too—under one language, Sindhi.”
The region also has a long musical tradition, he adds. “It has large number of Sufi shrines where [a] different sort of music is played…So we believed that this invitation would be the best gift for him, as a musician, to explore and travel and for us to host him and show him this shape of Pakistan, too.”
As an American, Manson was a little wary of how he would be received when he arrived in Pakistan. And yet he felt compelled to go from the first time he heard the Sketches’ music, after Samejo sent that life-changing email. That Samejo is one of his most ardent fans probably didn’t hurt, either.
And so, on Sept. 10, Manson boarded a plane for Pakistan.
Two days and several flights later, he arrived in Karachi, the nation’s capital. He was exhausted, but after working together long-distance for eight months with Samejo and his bandmate, Naeem Shah, Manson was excited to finally meet them and be able to play music in the same room together.
Getting off the plane, the first thing he noticed was the heat. Even at 4:30 am, it cooked the jetway. Then, almost immediately, a loud voice jolted him out of his jetlagged stupor.
“In the jetway, there were speakers announcing the Muslim call to prayer,” he remembers, sitting at his dining room table just a couple of days after returning to the US. “Even before I got from the plane into the airport, I realized, ‘OK, you’re in a Muslim country now.’”
Manson soon realized he was a minority of one. “I did not see another white person the entire time I was there,” he says. Despite a bad case of jet lag, his eyes brighten when he begins telling his story, and he uses his hands as exclamation points. When he tells you his life was changed by his experience in Pakistan, you believe him.
Manson soon found out what many travelers know: Regardless of the type of government they live under, people everywhere want pretty much the same things—fairness; the chance to make a decent living and put food on the table; and the freedom to say what they really think.
“Not every Pakistani is extremist,” Samejo writes in an email. “Things are very different than newspaper and TV. And [the] common man is more worried for his…family, future, etc.”
And almost everyone is curious about people who show up in their midst who are clearly “from away.”
“While I was there, I met so many beautiful people who did not care where I came from,” Manson says. “Quite the contrary—they were honored that someone like me had come so far to visit their country. Even in some of the little villages, people stopped me and wanted to give me gifts. They were extremely welcoming.”
Among the first Pakistanis Manson met—besides Samejo and Shah and the two bodyguards they had brought along to help Manson feel more at ease during the trip—were Samejo’s parents, with whom he lives in a two-story house with a courtyard and a rooftop deck in Jamshoro, about two hours from Karachi. (In Pakistan, it’s typical for adults in their 20s to live with their parents.) Soon after Manson arrived, Samejo’s mother cooked a sumptuous feast in his honor—palo fish from the Indus River spiked with masala spices and okra, spinach and rice.
“It was one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever had,” Manson says.
But not everyone was so welcoming.
“There were times—when we went into Karachi, for instance—where I got eyed very suspiciously, and I got very nervous,” he says. “Even just going out to a restaurant, there were people who looked at me and made me feel uncomfortable.”
And, Manson admits, certain things about the culture made him a little uneasy. Stray dogs are everywhere, and it’s common for people to hit them and just keep going. And women are expected to stay within well-defined roles.
“I didn’t socialize with any women while I was there. In that society, men and women don’t hang out. Saif’s mother brought food out for us—we were outside—and, while we ate, she fanned the flies away from our food. Things like that were hard to get used to—we don’t want our moms shooing flies away from our food.” But in Pakistan, he says, “It just is the way it is. You can’t go in there with a sense of judgment.”
One of the trio’s first priorities after Manson’s arrival was to record songs in the same room together. For months, Manson and the Sketches had been laboriously building songs one track at a time. Making good use of internet file sharing, Samejo and Shah recorded individual tracks—just the vocals for a song, for example, or the rhythm guitar part—and sent them to Manson, who downloaded them in his studio in Chupadero, just outside Santa Fe. Manson would add more tracks and they’d send the content back and forth until they had a finished song.
“We worked the thing back and forth over the internet and added to one another’s ideas until we had finished it,” Manson says. “Some of the instruments were recorded here, and some were recorded there.”
In some cases, the Sketches would send Manson works in progress that just needed a few more embellishments. With other tracks, they’d shoot Manson the skeleton of a song, and he’d record the parts needed to put flesh on the bones. Santa Fe musician Mark Clark contributed drum tracks to some of the songs, and Peter Williams threw down bass lines.
“Some of the things that would take a half an hour to accomplish if we were in the same room at the same time took a month to do,” Manson says.
Aside from the glacial pace of collaborating virtually, Manson and Samejo also faced technical and logistical difficulties. For Samejo and Shah, the nearest studio is four hours away. And if they wanted to record a traditional folk musician for a particular part, they’d often have to travel to remote areas where Sindh folk music is still part of daily life.
But the collaboration went well, and the Sketches—who have close to 72,000 Facebook fans and are fairly well-known in their home country—asked Manson to co-produce their next album.
It was a musical meeting of the minds—and the musicians saw their collaboration as a way to breach the cultural and political walls between the Middle East and the US.
“Music is the universal language,” Samejo says. “It is the language of oneness that flows from border to border and from one heart to [another] without any barrier, and so that music has a potential to build the bridges between East and West,” he says.
The first song the collaboration produced, called “Khahori (the Seeker),” features vocals by both Manson and Samejo, as well as instrument tracks from both hemispheres. It’s the first girder of the sonic bridge the Sketches and Manson envisioned when they decided to work together.
“That first recording went really well, and it was extremely well-received by their fans,” Manson adds. “And we were struck by how much we had in common—not just musically, but also philosophically. Real friendships started to grow.”
It wasn’t long before they realized they could get a lot more done by being in the same place. And they did: By the time Manson left, they had recorded three new songs for the new Sketches album, which will be the group’s second release, due out in January 2013.
Musically speaking, one of the most memorable parts of Manson’s trip was the time he and the Sketches spent in the Thar desert, jamming with Sindh folk musicians through the night.
“We got there at dusk, and they prepared a meal for us, and they played for us,” Manson recalls. “Then I played for them, and we played together. The instruments they’re playing, and the melodies they’re playing, are ancient.”
Samejo says he took Manson to the desert so he could experience Sindhi folk music firsthand, in the place where it originated.
“We felt it was important for Jono as a musician to meet these fellow musicians,” he says. “We sang all night in open sky with stars, trees and breeze of the desert along with various instruments and musicians, and that joint experience is beyond words.”
For the desert musicians, it was the first time they had met a westerner—and quite possibly the first time they had ever seen one. The eldest of the musicians, Sahar Fakir, marveled at Manson’s strange six-stringed, hourglass-shaped instrument—a guitar.
“They loved my music,” Manson says. “They couldn’t understand what I was saying, but they would say, through the translator, ‘There’s pain in his voice.’ They could understand the feeling of it.”
When the group had reached the edge of the desert and prepared to part ways—Fakir, despite his age, insisted on accompanying Manson and Samejo across the sands “to make sure we could find water,” Manson says—the elderly musician gave Manson his instrument, a well-worn three-string tambur with copper patches on its base, which most likely began its life as a cooking pot.
“Words can’t describe how welcoming and warm they were to me, and how genuinely honored they were that I had come there,” Manson recalls. “In turn, it made me feel honored to be there.”
Sitting in his house in Santa Fe, Manson picks up the tambur, a type of lute, and plays a few licks. The sound is exotic yet accessible.
“It’s got major scale in it, but then it’s got this drone through it all,” he says, plucking the low string.
A couple weeks later, Manson used the instrument to add a tambur intro to a song on the Sketches album.
“It’s one of the things it needed, and we were going to have this guy play it, but we didn’t have a chance to have it done before my forced departure,” he said. “So now I’ve got this guy’s instrument, and it’s up to me to find my way around it. But in a way, I think it’s really beautiful that it’s happening this way.”
The song begins with the tambur lick, and then, like teenagers crashing their parents’ party, the rest of the band comes in with electric guitars—loud ones.
To Samejo, the song is the realization of a dream: East meeting West on a six-string and a three-string.
When news of the protests hit the networks, Manson and the Sketches were still with the Sindh folk musicians in a remote area with no electricity.
“We were out in the middle of the desert and had no idea of what was going on,” Manson says. “It wasn’t until we got somewhere where there was a television that we found out what was happening.”
That night, at a hotel in a village on the edge of the desert, the group had some unexpected visitors. In the middle of the night, officials from the Pakistani secret police knocked on their door and advised Manson to leave by mid-morning the next day. A while later, the local police stopped by to issue a similar warning.
After staying up most of the night discussing the protests and weighing the warnings, the group—Manson, Samejo, Shah and the two bodyguards—decided to heed their advice.
Back in Jamshoro, they debated whether Manson should stay or go.
“We were waiting to see what would happen in Pakistan,” he says. “There were protests happening, but it seemed relatively peaceful.”
“For me, it was fine, as I knew that these protests wont be affecting Sindh that much, and we were expecting peaceful protest[s] against that idiot video,” Samejo recalls. “But…I was worried for Jono Manson. I placed myself in his scenario, and I was feeling somehow he was worried too—more for his family, especially [his] daughter.”
Manson probably wasn’t in any real danger, and they were only halfway through their planned visit, but in the end, the musicians decided not to take any chances. Manson changed his flight.
Having to cut the visit short was disheartening for both Manson and the band. But not long after he left, nationwide rallies against the anti-Islam film and the US left at least 19 people dead—including some in Karachi—mainly in clashes with police, according to press accounts. According to those reports, protesters at a rally in Karachi chanted slogans such as “Hang the American filmmaker” and “We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the honor of Prophet Muhammad.”
It’s still unlikely that any harm would have come to Manson, who was staying two hours from the capital with Samejo’s family in Jamshoro. But Manson is glad he didn’t take any unnecessary risks.
And, while his time in Pakistan was brief—just a week—it affected him deeply.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been affected by and involved in something like this,” he says.
Manson now has a more nuanced understanding of life in Pakistan, and he knows that violence and anti-Americanism is only part of a much larger tapestry of ideologies, history and culture. Ultimately he came away from the experience feeling more connected to the country and its people.
“We don’t necessarily see the human side in our media,” he says.
Since Manson came back to the US, the collaboration has continued via the internet, and Manson hopes to go back at some point. Samejo says he and Shah hope to come to Santa Fe to record at Manson’s studio, the Kitchen Sink, too.
Meanwhile, in Jamshoro, Samejo continues to speak out for justice through song. After the Taliban shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy of women’s education, he wrote a song about the incident. He named it “A Peaceful Musical Journey of Four Minutes Twenty-Four Seconds.”
“We dedicate this song to all those victim[s] not only in Pakistan but everywhere in the world who are fighting for humanity, human rights, education and revolution which must take place whatever circumstance,” the group writes in its description of the song on Soundcloud.
Galhiyoon Har Keh Goth Main ڳالھيون ھر ڪنھن ڳوٺ ۾ - Live - The Sketches by sketchesart
“We condemn violence either political, feudal, religious or [of] any kind…against innocents, minorities, education, women, poor, child and we salute all those who are fighting for humanity, fighting for their rights,” the group goes on to say. “We condemn the system and state which can’t provide even one time bread, shelter, protection to their common people. We salute all those who sacrificed their lives for bringing positive change in their society and all those who are still in continuous struggle being jailed, harassed, kidnapped by forces who claimed themselves as guaranteers of peaceful society but badly failed and keep on harming their own people.”
See photos and videos of Manson’s collaboration with the Sketches in Pakistan, and hear the group’s song about Malala.