Instep uncovers the origin story of a commendable project called Lyari Stars
There are several parts of the country one simply hears about in the news. These are areas that are ceaselessly violent, replete with stories of death, chaos, confusion and unbearable despair. One such area is Lyari in Pakistan’s jewel crown of a city, Karachi. For residents of Pakistan, the area usually resurrects a mental image starring gang wars, crime, violence and political tension. But like most things in Pakistan, be it education, health or the arts, there are always purposeful initiatives taken by brave, thoughtful citizens who fill in the need with efforts that help and to some degree, even heal the deteriorating fabric of society.
One thinks of these individuals as wild cards; they are more than pop culture heroes, leaping from one prolific project to the next without a care in the world or shooting from the hip on social media (we seem to have plenty of those). These wild cards are conscientious artists, if you will, who through unwavering resolve and awareness take on social causes that seem impossible, difficult and dangerous. They have a sense of empathy and hope to create a space – through the arts – that is tolerant, inclusive and provides young people from an impoverished background a chance to get involved. Sounds simple enough but for a kid in Lyari, it’s a rarity.
In the world of entertainment, there are some such heroes who provide communities with opportunities through determination and kindness. One such duo is that of Nida Butt and Hamza Jaffri. On the surface they are known for colourful, peppy musicals like Chicago, Grease, Mamma Mia as well as Hamza’s musical alter ego, Co-Ven and lately, Hamza/ Rubya. And while those theatricals deserve the applause accorded to them, their greatest achievement is a project called Lyari Stars.
Starting in 2013, this project has featured students’ aged between 8-25 years and has received participation from 150 youth. And all of those 150 students belong to different parts of Lyari. For these students the program has provided them with opportunities that many of us take for granted. To know more, Instep caught up with the founders of Mad School, Nida Butt and Hamza Jafri.
Here is an excerpt from that conversation:
Instep: How did the idea for Lyari Stars first originate?
Nida Butt: We got acquainted with Kiran School in Lyari in 2013 and were very impressed with their efforts in empowering the Lyari community through quality education for children and their families. In the spirit of supporting Kiran School’s efforts we offered to provide free arts education to their students.
Instep: Where does the funding come from and how did you fund the first initiative?
Hamza Jafri: Initially we funded the project ourselves and partly by ticket revenues from live Jam sessions held at MAD School with support and participation from established industry musicians. Later when we expanded the project we approached donor agencies and were successfully awarded a grant to conduct Lyari Stars.
Instep: What was the selection criterion to qualify for Lyari Stars in its various phases?
Nida: We conducted open auditions in five Lyari schools, the selection criteria for applicants was to be residents of Lyari, with a strong interest in the arts along with some raw talent.
Instep: How many applications did you receive and what has this experience been like for you?
Hamza: Around 500 youth from Lyari auditioned. It was truly heartwarming to see such an overwhelming response and interest in the arts in a place that has been marred over the years by gang violence. Every school we approached was more than happy to help us with audition arrangements and even convincing some skeptical parents. We had to make a selection of 60 children, which was tough indeed looking at large numbers of talented youth we came across.
Instep: How important, in your opinion, are such initiatives that provide arts education to children from difficult backgrounds?
Nida: Art is valuable for every human as it promotes creative thinking and expression. A healthy society not only requires a good number of technocrats, medical professionals and machines but also artists, writers and people from the performing arts to emerge as a complete, rich and a healthy society. Children from underserviced backgrounds are most vulnerable to fall on negative life choices. Therefore we feel it is of key importance to support and empower these children, and gaining arts education is a wondrous tool for developing a conscious creative and passionate mind.
Instep: Who are some of the other people who have made this project possible?
Hamza: The entire MAD School team has a hand in the success of this project and the all the musicians that participate in MAD JAM. The people directly involved are Project Manager Nadeem Baloch, instructors Aamir Zaki and Mustafa Rizvi for Guitar, Sunil Shankar for Acting, Muhammad Ghani for Dance.
Instep: When we think of Lyari, we think of political tensions, crime, bloody gang wars and all-around violence. Given this, how did you go about this initiative? Was there fear and hesitation?
Nida: We had ventured into Lyari before during our research for Karachi the Musical, which was a story about the Lyari boxing scene. In our experiences there we found the community to be very friendly, helpful and hospitable. We did however limit our activities to daytimes.
Instep: Can you give us a timeline on all the projects, plays, events that have taken place since the inception of this program?
Hamza: In 2013 we began music classes with 12 children from Lyari, and very soon an international film company took interest in the program and began filming the project ‘fly on the wall’ style.
In May 2014 we received our first grant to teach a total of 60 children from Lyari; 30 boys and 30 girls.
In November 2014 a few students from Lyari Stars performed at the Karachi Youth Support Network’s event titled "Fankari". One boy student of Lyari Stars named Kaifi Khalil, a budding singer/ songwriter/ guitarist’s performance was applauded by chief guest Tina Sani.
In January 2015 the 60 students performed an end of project show; a musical play titled A Bunch of Clowns at NAPA Auditorium for public viewing. The success of the show generated public interest by which we were able to secure a private donation for carrying out a second phase of arts education with the Lyari students.
In February 2015 we began another arts education project titled: ‘Confidence Building Through Theater Education’. This four-month project was carried out in Hingoraabad UC2 Lyari at Usmania Public School for 26 girls and 34 boys. The children had an end of show performance in May 2015 at Usmani School attended by the student’s families and community elders. The theatre instructors were Muneeb Ur Rehman and Sunil Shankar.
During this time five dance students of Lyari Stars established their own dance group titled ‘We Are One’.
In May and June of 2015 the We Are One dance group was contracted to perform three shows at MAD School’s Karachi Mubarak Festival (a three district travelling performing arts show). At this festival all of the Lyari Stars students signed up as volunteers to assist in festival on ground management.
In August 2015, We Are One dance group and singer/songwriter/guitarist Kaifi Khalil performed at the I Am Karachi Music Festival inaugural ceremony attended by Karachi City dignitaries. All Lyari Stars students along with students from the Usmania School theater education project signed up as volunteers for the festival on ground management.
After a new round of auditions conducted in Lyari and at MAD School, classes for Lyari Stars Phase 2 began in October 2015. This four-month project was attended by 32 select students.
In January 2016 Lyari Stars showcased their end of term performance at MAD School by staging an Urdu Musical Play titled ‘Hai Abba Jaan’ written by Samina Nazir.
Preparations for Lyari Stars Phase 3 are underway with MAD School searching for potential donors.
Success stories, the children speak
Kaifi Khaleel Baloch, a student of guitar/singing is an inhabitant of a place that is known for its precision with which target killings persist. But he still finds reasons to smile. Talking about his participation in the project, he says: "I love music, it is in my blood and I can fight all odds to learn music I was looking for these opportunities to learn singing and guitar playing for many years but opportunities were not there. I used to play guitar and sing at home and in friends circle and never gave up hope to succeed. So when it comes to learning music under Lyari Star’s Project I opted instantly with a promise to myself that I will never quit no matter how difficult the law and order situation is in my mohalla Lyari."
Describing how music can benefit his community, Baloch says: "I will spread the message of love and peace by singing, and after completion of classes of Lyari Star’s Project, I will try to release my songs on a CD, spreading the message of love and peace amongst the inhabitants of Lyari."
Mishal Shaikh, a grade eight student describes herself as a troubled student and how this initiative turned the tide for her. "I used to frequently get into trouble for my disruptive outbursts in class. My inability to channel my inner energy in a productive manner was impacting learning across disciplines until I joined MAD School for attending singing classes."
She adds: "Coming to the MAD School is a great experience for me. Learning with teachers that push you to perform at a higher level definitely makes you a better student. When you are here you are constantly learning and are involved in music. It really is an intense full-time music situation that gives you another mind-set towards your life. It gives you a lot of options to choose from and helps you learn music in many different ways."
Bilal Raza who bravely walks 25 minutes every day from his home in Aath Chowk to Aga Khan High School in Kharadar, finds inspiration and happiness in music. "I like the way music inspires people…and makes you smile from within.
"The audition at school for Lyari Stars Project helped me uncover that there is nothing to be afraid of, [you] just have to get out there and enjoy what you do."
For this young man, the experience is transformative and self-revealing.
For another young man, a football enthusiast, Shahzaib, dance and music is an internal force. But the opportunity to explore it further only opened up when he joined Mad School’s program.
"I was born with music inside me. It was a force already within me when I joined MAD school. It is a necessity for me – like food or water."
Before Lyari Stars, most of these students who have a flair for the performing arts -be it acting, singing, dance, or playing an instrument like a guitar – had no place where they could develop or display their skills and struggled to find an avenue. And as the program heads into phase three and continues it search for donors, one can only hope that other conscientious individuals step up generously and donate to a cause that will help in healing a community. In the mean time, here’s to the students and teachers for not giving in to fear.