Preview: Pakistani Singer-Songwriter Arieb Azhar Gives New Life to Old Texts

Arieb Azhar. (Shahzad Ali Mirza)

On Tuesday evening, New Yorkers have a chance to experience the music of Pakistani singer-songwriter Arieb Azhar when he performs at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in lower Manhattan as part of the River to River Festival. Azhar's concert is part of Asia Society's ongoing initiative Creative Voices of Muslim Asia, made possible by support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Following the performance tomorrow evening, Azhar will shed light on his music when he engages in an artist talk with Asia Society Director of Cultural Programs and Performing Arts Rachel Cooper. In the meantime, those less familiar with the artist may be interested in learning some of the context behind his work. 

Azhar was born in Rawalpindi, grew up in Karachi, spent much of his life in Zagreb, and is currently based in Islamabad. Irish blues, Croatian gypsy music, Panjabi kafi, and Urdu qawwali are only a few of Azhar's many inspirations. During Azhar's 13 years in Croatia, he spent six years playing Irish music in a band called the Shamrock Rovers. There he also started becoming interested in qawwali and other Sufi styles of South Asian music. Although Azhar often sings Sufi music he is very careful not to identify himself as a Sufi. He has previously stated, "I'm not officially initiated into a Sufi order, though I have many friends from orders who encourage me in my music, and I feel that connection is strong enough for me to continue growing in my work."

One of Azhar's most acclaimed songs, "Husn-e Haqiqi," which he translates as "Beauty of Truth," is adapted from a Panjabi kafi (poem) by Khwaja Ghulam Farid (1841-1901) from Chachran in modern-day Pakistan. Farid's genre, the kafi, is a form of classical Sufi poetry that is mainly written in Panjabi and Sindhi. Throughout "Husn-e Haqiqi," Farid questions what he should call "the beauty of truth, the eternal light." Azhar translates, "Do I call you necessity and possibility? Do I call you the ancient divinity? The One, creation and the world." At the end of each line Farid repeats the word kahoon, which means, "Do I call you?" The repetition of "kahoon" throughout the song builds the sense of wonder and possibility for what this "Beauty of Truth" is. Azhar's rendition of "Husn-e Haqiqi" features diverse instrumentation ranging from the sitar to the piano, which presents a fresh sound that defies categorization.

Video: Arieb Azhar's Coke Studio performance of "Husn-e Haqiqi" (5 min., 38 sec.)

In several of his other songs Azhar breathes new life into old texts and songs like "Husn-e Haqiqi." His song "Saif Ul-Malook" makes use of excerpts from Mian Mohammad Bakhsh's (1830-1904) Panjabi The Journey of Love, and in his "Mecca Gyaan Gal Mukdi Naain," he adds his own beats to the same Panjabi Sufi piece that the qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang decades before him. Azhar approaches his understanding of South Asian traditions with a global perspective, at once paying homage to his South Asian heritage and creating a sound that crosses borders.

The presentation of Arieb Azhar is part of Center Stage, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, with additional support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

This post originally appeared on Asia Blog.