The first time I went to Peeru’s Café, my landlord Sajjad of Lahore Backpackers insisted I take a rickshaw – “for security”. When I told my driver my destination, well-known for its qawwali performances, he proudly announced he was a qawwal himself and sang all 25 kilometres of the way there. Welcome to Pakistan.
Reaching the place, I was a little surprised by the high, barb-wired fence with the steel gate and armed guards – not just your regular guys dozing in chairs with shotguns in their laps, but uniformed men in bulletproof vests and complex-looking weapons – all dull black angular metal instead of the usual simple steel barrel on a wooden handle. After my bag and I were screened and searched and declared acceptable, I was shown into the compound – a beautiful, quiet, and relaxed place that I later found to be much bigger than what I saw just then: a glass house where juices were made, a small stage, and a number of tables where waiters served food and drinks that were presumably prepared in the building in the back. Only later I learnt that Peeru’s had been attacked several times in the past – with bombs and arson, terrorists attempted, in vain, to disturb and discourage the lively cultural scene promoted there.
When I was preparing my visit to Lahore, Pakistan, my invaluable friend Neil van der Linden had put me in touch with the Peerzada family, who run Peeru’s Café and the Rafi Peer Theatre Group. Peeru’s is part of a compound that houses the café-restaurant, an auditorium, various artist-run arts and crafts shops, the puppetry museum, and the offices of the RPTG. While I was still in India, Mr Faizaan Peerzada kindly helped me obtain my visa for Pakistan, and invited me to come over to discuss what we could mean to each other as soon as I reached Lahore. Meanwhile, playing with Maarten Visser and Keith Peters at the Global Music Festival in Madras, India, I met Sam Mills and Susheela Rahman, who adviced met to get in touch with one Hassan Qureshi in Lahore. Hassan responded enthusiastically, and mentioned his family’s auditorium and their many musician friends. We agreed to meet and talk about possibilities for elephant songs – and Hassan turned out to be married to one of the Peerzada daughters and having an important function in the Rafi Peer organisation. The world is small. Like everywhere.
After meeting them at Peeru’s that first night, the brothers Faizaan and Saadaan took me back to their home right for a lovely evening of chats and drinks and brainstorming about what we could do during my time in Lahore. I was excited to hear them suggest I’d play with the famous dhol players, the sufis Goonga and Mithu Sain. We discussed ideas and set some things in motion and then went back to Peeru’s for dinner – Punjabi food (the cuisine that is served in most so-called Indian restaurants in the west) of such a refined quality that it redefined my opinion on the north-subcontinental kitchen. Contrary to my earlier judgments, I think I actually like it.
The following days many things happened. Sajjad took me around Lahore, showing me the old town and some sufi shrines, including lots of qawwali, and also the Badshahi Mosque. I wandered around a lot, went back for juices at Hafez’s, had almost-vegetarian biryani for lunch. For dinner I often went for the fantastically spicy lentil-and-eggs concoctions served in a small place close to my room, usually dark because of the frequent power cuts (one hour on, one hour off). The boy who cleaned up usually brought me a candle so I could still read my book on the Great Game. I met many more musicians and I had the great honour of playing with Goonga and Mithu Sain on several occasions, including, interestingly, a French cultural evening at LUMS University. (A post with clips of several of these collaborations is coming up, check back or subscribe.)
On Saturday 7 April I was at Peeru’s again. I’d brought my drums, and played for two hours with maestro Mian Meeri and his qawwali troupe. I’m looking forward to what’s next. Apparently, there’s something coming up with the Sain brothers and UK dhol sensation Rani Taj. And I’m working on putting together a dedicated elephant songs show with a lot of different local musicians here in Lahore. Stay tuned.