MUSIC NAVbarz 2

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Polar Levine Interview
by Indian journalist, Vatsala Kaul

VK: That is a really touching poem Salman turned into song. When did you write it? Much after 9/11 or just after? Or did you write the poem at Salman&Mac226;s behest?

PL: Thank you. I live ten blocks from Ground Zero. So when we hear about the attack on America, I also experienced it as an attack on my neighborhood, about two blocks from the field where my son plays soccer. When the dust from the collapsed towers started to collect on my window sills and on my floors it was upsetting in a mundane kind of way. Even war has its mundane side. The ongoing TV coverage had a report on the composition of the dust Id been inhaling for days that was giving me some respiratory problems. It was mostly crushed concrete and wallboard. Along with that there was plastic from computers and the bones of the people who were in the towers when they collapsed. Id been inhaling the remains of the victims of September 11. My lungs were filling up every day with underpaid firefighters, police officers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, mail room workers, word processors, graphic designers and overpaid executives. I had, in my body, Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, liberals, conservatives, women and men from hundreds of countries, heterosexuals and homosexuals. I was together with them. We had nothing to disagree or fight about. They were part of my body and came in with the air that keeps me alive. The planet Earth is one body that houses us all in the same way. That realization gave added texture to the whole nightmare. I wrote the poem then, a few days after the attack.

VK: You saw it happen. It must have been like watching someone stop breathing in front of your eyes. What was the foremost thought in your mind at that time?

PL: I don't think I had thoughts. Events that are so large and immediate create a kind of nirvana state, for better or worse, where thought is not a possibility. Only experiencing the moment is possible. When I took my son to his friend's house I could not get back home because the police blocked off the main street that borders my neighborhood. Nobody knew if the attacks would continue. So I was homeless for most of the day. I wandered around the streets all day in a thoughtless, numb daze. Like being drunk. But it was drunk from too much incomprehensible experience rather than too much alcohol.

VK: How do you feel about a Pakistani band making a song about 9/11, seeing as how inextricably entwined that region seems to be with 9/11?

PL: Because of my journalism work I'd been introduced to Junoon a few weeks before September. When my country sought out Pakistan as an ally, I knew that Pakistan would become a very dangerous place. I emailed Shehryar Ahmad, Junoon's manager, to voice my concern for their safety and hope that we would somehow create a personal bond whatever happens.

I feel that Junoon, by pure circumstance, has become maybe our most important cultural force for peace and sanity in the coming years. They are both Pakistani and American and have lived in both places. They are both Muslim and Christian. I'm jewish, by the way. They are politically aware and highly moral and their musicianship is truly excellent. They have experience on all sides of the cultural divide. I think they can foster understanding and compassion in people whose only awareness of the issues is from TV which exists only to sell products, not to inform people.

VK: What kind of journalist are you? Have you written poetry before?

PL: I am actually new to journalism. I author and edit a website called popCULTmedia.com which is part of MediaChannel.org. MediaChannel is dedicated to independent journalism free from the constraints of commercial or state pressures. Half of its traffic is outside the USA. I cover media issues concerning pop culture. But I am mainly a musician and have written poetry as well as songs.

VK: How long have you known Salman? What do you think of him as a person, guitar player and composer? What do you think of Junoon?

I have known the band personally through email communication with their manager, Shehryar, Salman's brother. I met Salman and the rest of the band when they played last year near Ground Zero. Salman is a person who has dedicated his life to seeking truth in a very complex world that would prefer that the truth not be sought out at all. He probably could be making lots more money with his talents if he wrote corny love songs. But he and the rest of the band have risked a lot by trying to communicate larger issues.

The band is really impressive musically. I am very hard to please musically. Since I was a child I have listened to every kind of music from every part of the world. When you grow up listening to the Beatles, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Miles Davis it is very hard to listen to pop bands that do not have high standards or talent. There are very few rock bands that have the quality of Junoon's musicianship and songwriting. I never would have offered Salman my poem if I did not trust his talent and intelligence. I knew that Junoon would create a song that I would be proud to be part of. What I love most about Junoon is that they have created a seemless blend of American rock and South Asian music. It does not sound like one style stapled on top of another. In their case it is in their blood and very natural. I love to hear their percussionist and Ali's Qawwali style of singing in the mix as much as the American rock.

VK: The best thing about No More is that there IS more after it -- a tag of hope, a reconfirmation of the will to survive. Do you really think there is hope for the world yet?

PL: My poem was written in a state of shock with no message other than to express the shock of a person who discovers he is still alive and breathing -- breathing in the dead as the dust falls around him. Salman added a note of hope in his version that is fine with me. We need it.

I look around and see a world on the brink. India and Pakistan are ready to throw nuclear weapons at each other which would provide more lethal stuff for me and my family to breathe in. Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to kill each other forever. My country is ready to start a war with Iraq based on the president's personal political interests and not much more. A whole region is ready to implode and take much of the world with it. At this time in history we have some of the lowest quality world leaders than at any point in history. Bush and Cheney, Sharon, Arafat, Mubarak, the Saudi royalty. America currently is the driver of the global economic bus and our interests are, unfortunately, only in the well-being of American corporations. The muslim world is driven by its most insane fringe and its leaders are happy with it as long as they stay in power and point their people's bombs in my direction. Much of Africa is a constant state of civil war and pointless slaughter.

Do I have hope? We are a species that builds as well as destroys. I raise my son to be a person who will live a long life and work to make life better for everybody. I introduced him to Junoon and I expect them to be role models for him. If I did not have hope for the future I would let him sit in front of the TV all day and enjoy an easy life, expecting it to be a short one. But he is not permitted to watch broadcast TV and I am very invested in his future so, yes, I have hope that there will be a world for him to grow into.

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See a BBC article on Salman Ahmad and Polar