The Words of Development

It struck me for the first time when I saw them playing in San Francisco… I don’t know what you should call them… a troupe? They were seated cross-legged on a giant carpet on the middle of the stage, about a dozen of them arranged in rows facing the audience. There was a big guy in the middle with a lap piano in front of him, belly all over the place wrapped in a creamy vest. The rest were neatly arranged around him thin, dark, and mustached, wearing pure white. There was a guy in the corner with drums and a guy on the other corner with something that looked like a guitar. Then it started… or at least some of it started. The big guy sang, palms in the air, head tilted back… Urdu love songs, squeezing his lap piano every once in a while. The drummer, fingers flying, furiously tip-tapping his drums. The rest of them just sat there, big eyes open, staring right back at us. Every once in a while they clapped, synchronized rhythmic clapping.

So why does a Pakistani Qawali band cart its audience around and why do they take them out on stage? I think it has something to do with the completeness of the experience. See I think we’ve gotten used to the isolation of human experience. In our “modern” or “western” world, the performer performs and the audiences absorbs. Quiet, unreactive, outside the process. The performer re-creates an experience and the audience listens to it passively, transformed perhaps, but they are outside the experience itself. Sure we have all of these immersive experiences where there are no chairs, there is no stage and actor and audience run along side by side. There is still a division, a separation. The actor is there to create and the audience to consume.

For them the situation is different. The musical experience itself is meaningless without an attendant co-creation and co-reaction by the audience. This isn’t unique to Pakistani Qawwali music, it was just the oddity of seeing an audience carted along with the the performance that struck a cord. Think of the last time you saw a video recording of a “jalsa” from the 70s or 80s… more than half the people are just sitting around, listening, clapping and every once in a while doing a shuffle dance. Or think of one of those line dances from Ireland, or a drumming circle in the Carribbean; bunched up people crowding around a circle, waiting for their chance to rush, to dance. There is no audience, there are no observers, there is no performance. There is only a shared experience in which everyone plays a different role.

This exactly is development. A collective, communal, transformative experience. As a poet once said, “the jokers joke, their coffee cups clinking, smokers perfume us with your smoke, the snaps of the black seeds moves our souls.” We don’t always recognize this. We sometimes think that development is a set of activities that needs to get done, measured in terms of outputs. We choose to build this many kilometers of roads, this many metro stations, this many hospital beds per person. It doesn’t matter how we do it. It doesn’t matter if every person that contributed to this project, its planning, its design, its execution and its operations is transient. It doesn’t matter that the rest of us are relegated to lighting, make-up and support. The what of development trumps the how and the why.

Without this deep engagement and participation, all we end we end up with bits and pieces of kit, which like the ticket stubs of a good movie, do nothing are nothing more than reminders of a good show. Development is a process that aims to transform by participation. Otherwise, its just words.