India Rocks, SAARC Style

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Here's a little-known fact about India's capital: the seemingly conservative, old-fashioned Delhi is also the undisputed rock capital of the country. From head-bangers to guitar-strummers, half a dozen acts play at local nightclubs every week. And this weekend, ten rock and pop bands from across South Asia will get together to jam in Delhi's Central Park, thanks to a rather unlikely sponsor — the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. The idea for the concert originated at this year's summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), when South Asian leaders agreed — rather belatedly — that they needed to get young people more enthusiastic about South Asian cooperation. SAARC, throughout the two decades of its existence, has been perceived as a yawn-inducing talk shop whose main purpose seems to be giving South Asian first ladies a good excuse to go shopping. To beat this image, the Ministry has gathered some of the region's best-known musical acts to spread some cheer and camaraderie — and, through song, to further the goal of regional cooperation.

Coming from a region with rich and varied musical traditions, the festival will be big on fusion of instruments and themes from east and west, and will touch upon a myriad of topics ranging from war to political oppression and sexual liberation. The opening day, Friday, will feature the fusion band Bangla from Bangladesh, who mix folk themes and tunes with modern instruments to bring 100-year-old compositions to young people. Coming from a country increasingly under the sway of Islamist fundamentalism, the group's bass and guitar player, Buno, says they will "sing of the turmoil facing the entire region, and the rivalry between fundamentalists and us regular people." Also playing will be blues/jazz band Soulmate from Shillong, the picturesque capital of the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, which hosts annual music festivals dedicated to Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. The highlight of the first day will be Pakistan's pop-rock group Strings, one of the first South Asian bands to be featured on MTV (one of their songs, Na Jane Kyun, can be heard on the Spiderman II soundtrack).

The second day features heavy metal act Stigmata from Sri Lanka, and more fusion in the form of Bhutan's Norling, Bangalore's Raghu Dixit Project and Delhi's Indian Ocean. But Sunday's headliner is the piece de resistance: the Afghan band Aryan, formed seven years ago by Afghan exiles in Pakistan and Iran determined to continue playing despite the Taliban's ban on music. "We sing timeless Sufi and Afghan folk songs rearranged in our own style," says violinist Siddiq Ahmed Sohrab, who classifies their style as folk rock. "At the festival, we will sing about solidarity between the peoples of the world, about war, about life without music."

Bollywood Bigwigs Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy can be counted on to draw crowds on the final day, as can Zero Degree Atoll from the Maldives, legendary in the archipelago for their eclectic blend of Arabian, Indian and indigenous Maldivian music with reggae and jazz influences. Guitarist and lyricist Ahmed Nashid says they will sing of freedom and camaraderie, to show that "we Maldivians are the peaceful and modern face of Islam." Also featuring on the last day will be the Nepalese firebrand Abhaya and the Steam Injuns, whose gut-wrenching Nepali and English lyrics speak out against sexual and political oppression.

At a practice session on Friday, the assembled bands seemed fired up for the concert and enthusiastic about their mission. "It's beginning to sink in that we're all a part of a giant family," says Indian Ocean percussionist and vocalist Amit Kilam. "This festival is a great first step to involve people through music. And it'll be wonderful if similar gigs are organized in all other SAARC country capitals." Letís hope the SAARC secretariat is listening.