When I decided to use “Danatum Passu” as part of my presentation, “Off the Page” in February, I had no idea that this charming and poignant poetry video was the product of a chance meeting between strangers in the remote mountain area of Northern Pakistan. Shehrbano Saiyid and Zoheb Veljee met at the Gulmit Continental Hotel in the Upper Hunza (Gojal) in late spring/early summer of 2012. Shehrbano is a documentary filmmaker and amateur mountaineer; Zoheb is a music producer intent on recording the music of the people in the Hunza Valley.
“I was amazed by Zoheb when I met him,” Shehrbano said. “Here was this man who had such a feeling for the culture and for doing something good for Pakistan. It’s because of him that I made the film.”
Zoheb contacted me in early March 2014. As I told him in my response, this was the first time I had received a communication from Pakistan. I spoke with Zoheb and Shehrbano via Skype; it was midnight in Karachi, but neither showed any signs of fatigue.
“We wanted to show the positive aspects of Pakistan. No one hears about that, only the violence and bloodshed. Even now, Karachi is one of the most dangerous cities in the world,” Shehrbano told me. This is certainly a contrast to the peaceful, smiling villagers who populate the Hunza region, living almost as simply as their ancestors must have, connected by the Karakoram Highway. This highway, also known as the KKH, follows one of the paths of the ancient Silk Road.
Zoheb, who worked as a management consultant for Deloitte in California from 2004-2007, returned to Pakistan and began making iPhone recordings in remote villages.
“No one has ever recorded the people of the Hunza – at least their music – before,” Zoheb said. The video tells the story of a poem written by Hunza poet Shahid Akhtar, transformed into a song, and sung by the children of Passu and nearby small towns. “Danatum Passu” loosely translates to “Passu’s Open Field.”
The poet, Shahid Akhtar, writes in Wakhi, a language derived from ancient Persian. He worked in obscurity until now, and has never before been published. Zoheb and Shehrbano discovered him via a tip from a local cab driver. “There are few land lines and limited cell connectivity where Shahid lives,” Zoheb said. “I had to wait for him for hours after I arrived, drinking tea with his relatives.” Akhtar’s song, “Danatum Passu,” is the theme of the video, and carries a message of the danger of losing one’s culture. “It has a strong impact when children sing it,” Zoheb said.
“Danatum Passu” is part of a longer documentary that Shehrbano is working on about spirituality and music in this part of the world. “Theirs is a singing community: music and religion are wound together. The children gain confidence through music and performing. They have exposure to music through early religious training,” she said. “The story is about the musicians of Gojal, the socio-economic challenges they face in their daily lives, and in bringing their talent to a wider global audience. The documentary focuses on children – two in particular – with a love for music, and shows Zoheb’s process of discovering and recording music, poetry and artists. He is the thread that binds together the musicians, the unity and diversity of music across Gojal.” The documentary uses music to demonstrate the area’s people and their “deep sense of pride for their land and heritage,” especially in the face of repeated natural disasters; for example, the 2010 landslide that hit the Gojal village of Atabad.
Making the video involved many challenges: lack of reliable roads, extreme cold, and limited connectivity. “For some reason we visited the area in December, more than once,” Zoheb laughed. “A few times, we had to pass each other notes via the car that travels the Karakoram Highway, once per day,” Shehrbano added. “And that’s only if the car has enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile for the driver.”
The children and their parents embraced the project with enthusiasm, as did the schools and the community at large. “All were extremely supportive and welcoming,” according to Zoheb. “The Girls Choir,” who you see wrapped in colorful shawls giggling outside the recording studio, “was a lot of fun to work with. Sometimes false starts would trigger bursts of laughter, but we loved that about them.” Faiza, the girl who sings solo in the video, is from Shimshal, which has “no cell connectivity, no landlines, and no electricity, but some solar panels. It has been the most isolated for a long period. The first road was completed in 2003, before which it was 2-3-4 days of trekking to get from Shimshal to the KKH.” Gulbaz, the boy who sings solo, lives in Chapursan, which has no cell or landlines, but “decent electricity and satellite TV.”
The Hunza Valley is bordered by China, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. The villages that Zoheb and Shehrbano visited range in elevation from 7800 feet to almost 10,000 feet. “Brain drain is a problem,” Zoheb said. “Children are well-educated and attend local schools until the 10th grade. Most get sent to another place for the rest of their school years.”
“Some of the village men complain that even though their sons have good jobs somewhere else, they lose the physical stamina they had as children living in the mountains. And the language is changing as children go off to cities and stop speaking with their parents as much,” added Shehrbano.
“Danatum Passu” – part documentary, part poetry video, gives us a glimpse into the lives of the Hunza Valley people:
Zoheb said, “I didn’t even know I was following a dream. I just had this idea to record children singing.”
“I wish everyone could meet these people,” Shehrbano added.
For more information about the poet Shahid Akhtar, visit here. To hear the song in its entirety, here. Also, be sure to visit Umang Poetry, the site that first published “Danatum Passu:”.