By Samira Noorali, exclusive for Ismailimail.
Sarosh Mawani, Aly Panjwani and Mehak Noorani are members of a musical trio and respond to the catchy band name, Conchord. Over the last four years, the group has created a body of work that expresses their understanding of Islam - an Islam that they hold true to their hearts. Now, with the release of their seventh YouTube single, “Stand As One,” they hope to inspire listeners into peaceful action and meaningful dialogue.
Conchord’s work forges a sense of unity within the Muslim Ummah, especially among the new generation of American youth. However, it also stirs contemplation about who can and should speak out on social concerns surrounding faith-identity.
“It is every Muslim’s responsibility to interpret their faith for the contemporary era rather than blindly believing what they have been taught,” said Noorani, a lyricist and singer who strongly believes in engaging in personal search when it comes to faith.
Composer, producer and singer Sarosh Mawani says music gives him and his fellow musicians the ability “to convey a more positive message about Islam than what we hear in the media through art.”
For Conchord, music is a platform for self-expression and discussion regarding misconceptions of Islam. The group’s message about a peaceful Islam comes out through lyrics like, “Gentle words honestly explain, turn a cheek our virtues remain,” and resonates strongly among young listeners. Their videos have also attracted thousands of online viewers.
Islamophobia is an emotional topic for the trio and is the basis for the lyrical content in “Stand as One.” Lyrics like “Muhammad preached peace and harmony, but our message is under scrutiny,” express their vulnerability as American Muslims, while statements like “Islam is love, love conquers fear” demonstrate a willingness to confront the ignorance that characterizes the current times.
Part of combating Islamophobia is “sharing the beauty of Islam through music,” said Aly Panjwani, a lyricist, composer and singer.
“You apply music to yourself and the context of the time,” said Panjwani. “Music can elicit feelings that language alone can not. The entire global community can be affected and understand one person’s expression because music is universal. The sounds I hear are the same sounds others hear. The beauty is we can interpret them in our own ways. My musical theater director used to say characters sing when words alone aren’t enough to fully express emotion.” Panjwani is currently pursuing a degree in Culture and Politics at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Certificate in International Development. He is interested in utilizing the arts toward justice and diplomacy efforts. He is also a member of a university theatrical production called “God and Country” which speaks to issues of racial inequality and discrimination around the country. Panjwani believes that the arts make the experience of faith at once more personal and more universal.
Conchord’s music emphasizes messages that resonate with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They focus on core values of Islam, such as peace, love and hope, which are common among people of many other religious backgrounds. These fundamentally similar values provide a bridge into the hearts and minds of the people Conchord is trying to reach - people who may or may not understand the message of Islam. While Panjwani suggests that looking at differences may shed light on the ways in which different people connect with God, Noorani believes that looking at differences first is no more than “the psychology of protection.” Noorani is a member of an organization at New York University called Muslim Jewish Interfaith Dialogue. In this setting, she uses Conchord’s music as a means of demonstrating the commonalities between people of faith.
That Interfaith dialogue is of interest to Noorani comes as no surprise considering she is studying to be a speech-language pathologist. With a major in Communicative Sciences and Disorders and minors in Multifaith and Spiritual Leadership, Nutrition and Dietetics, and Public Health, she is finding ways to incorporate her passion for the arts into her career path. While on an academic plane she is interested in the intersection of linguistics and healthcare in the geriatric domain, she also has a personal vision of improving race and faith relations through her practice. Noorani was involved in her high school theater department as a teenager and currently sings in NYU Masti, an all-female South Asian a cappella group.
Mawani, whose upbringing was split between Pakistan and Texas, composes and produces Conchord’s tracks. He also graces a few pieces with neumatic vocal phrasings that transport listeners to the East. Although Mawani is responsible for bringing together the components of both Eastern and Western music in production, he asserts, “I’ve never been formally trained.” Mawani self-trained in piano at an early age and played percussion in his high school’s Drumline. He is now a singer and Music Director for Swaram A Cappella at Texas A&M. His compositions make use of Sufistic elements, a style which is all the rage in many parts of the world – especially in South Asia and the Middle East.
Mawani is a melody-first-and-then-the-lyrics kind of guy, and the group agrees that the sonic feel of a piece should determine the overlying message. Conchord’s process of composition makes evident their priorities as musicians and Muslims. For example, their piece, “Sawm” began with few key ingredients: a melody, a commitment to involving as many participants as possible and an intention to help their peers understand the foundational principles of fasting during Ramadan. Once the message of unity and solidarity was apparent in the musical composition, it came naturally to streak the manuscript with lyrics that celebrated fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Conchord’s vision of a more accepting and diverse world comes through in their music videos as well. The video for their song “A Dream” contains several Muslim and non-Muslim participants. Some of the lyrics call upon the entire international community to join in solidarity to spread the positive messages inherent in universal values, while video images show participation from people of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
A wave of music coming from Muslim artists all over the world has taken on various stances in the last decade. Some popular songs offer a cathartic response to particular acts of violence like “Mujhe Dushman ke Bachon ko Parhana Hai” penned by Major Imran and “Khalipan” by Salim-Sulaiman. Others praise the Prophet like Sami Yusuf did in his huge hit, “Al-Mu’allim.” Many have also addressed the issue of Muslim identity in creative ways, such as taking older cultural texts that would normally be sung in unison (i.e. Naat), and giving them lush harmonies and counterpoint, essentially “westernizing” the expression of devotion.
Conchord is taking a different approach and wants to share their “clash of cultures” experience with other first generation American Muslims. “We’re writing our music as millennials,” said Noorani. “We’re not like our parents; we’ve been raised in a very different culture. Our interpretation and our understanding of our faith is different as well.” With music, Conchord imparts what they have learned about the complexities of Islam in a contemporary context, and in turn, helps others to navigate what it means to be Muslim in this day and age.
The group looks to Sami Yusuf, Hussein Janmohamed, Fez Meghani, Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, A.R. Rahman and Jon Bellion among other artists for inspiration. They aspire to reach larger and larger audiences in the future with their hopeful message of a more peaceful and just world.
Samira Noorali (samiranoorali.com, Facebook) is an Indio-based writer, musician and lecturer. She has published creative work in various literary magazines and journalism in ITL News and Ismailimail.