Ted Watter doesn’t look like a Pakistani folk musician. Brian Tilley doesn’t look like much of a Pakistani folk singer, either.
Yet they are the Pashtones, a band that takes popular Pashto folk songs and adds undertones of Western music to their sound. The songs are still sung in Pashto, and have a distinctive, foreign sound, yet the additions, like violin harmonies, add a distinctive signature to each song.
Even Watter has a hard time describing the exact sound, saying, “Americanized? Westernized? I don’t really know, to be honest.”
Like many creative ventures, the Pashtones started due to a simple matter of circumstance. Watter and Tilley were both attending Pashto language immersion classes at UW-Madison last summer and decided to adapt a song for one of their presentations on Pashto culture. The approval they received from others was welcome, but it was their online popularity that forced them to think more seriously about what they could make of their talent.
“We put it up on YouTube and it got 1,000 hits in the first day, and then we decided we should do something with this,” Watter said.
By October, the pair released their three-song EP, with the help of their Pashto professor. Their self-titled EP is available online for $3, with all of the proceeds going to Oxfam’s flood relief in Pakistan. Their musical project began almost simultaneously with the start of the disaster overseas, and they felt inclined to help the people they were trying to learn so much about.
“We had been embraced by so many Pashto speakers…and we wanted to give back,” Watter said.
But despite the band’s unforeseen success and benevolence, their burgeoning popular has not been without considerable difficulties. Watter is a graduate student at UW and is graduating at the end of this semester, while Tilley lives in Baltimore and is currently doing field work in the United Arab Emirates. Communication is delayed and far from fluid between the two.
“That’s the biggest difficulty,” Watter admits.
And then there’s the easily forgotten fact that neither member of the Pashtones is a native Pashto speaker.
“We need a lot of assistance in, well, figuring out what the songs mean, and how to pronounce them properly,” Watter said.
While their end goal has developed as the band itself has progressed, Watter now appreciates the opportunity they both have to expose people in the U.S. to a small sector of Pashto culture.
“The fact that we’re not of Pashto culture is an interesting opportunity to provide a cultural middle ground,” Watter said.
Though the Internet’s influence has obviously been significantly felt in the Western world already, many parts of the Middle East are just beginning to gain access. Efforts like the Pashtones, though physically localized, can reach out to more people in that particular region of the world than before.
Watter claims the band has a certain level of notoriety in Pashto-speaking areas. “From what we can tell, of people who speak Pashto and are on the Internet, we’re decently well-known.”
The future of the Pashtones is currently unknown. Watter believes the band has an interesting opportunity to provide a cultural medium with their music, and regardless of the size of their audience, it’s a connection worth keeping.
With both members being graduate students, their lives are already mired with uncertainty, but they seem set on continuing to produce music together. Given their unexpected success and unique origin, they’ve gladly embraced everything this journey has offered so far.
Watter maintains a positive outlook for the future, and gratefully looks back on the road so far.
“We didn’t expect it to be anything more than the one performance,” he said.
More information can be found at www.thepashtones.com.