11 Aug 2010
Arieb Azhar is one of my Pakistani music heroes. He is out to discover great ideas and share them. Even in my little conversation with him over email, as you will see below, and through the many interviews I used to research (read: stalk) Arieb Sahab, his love for poetry became obvious. He has delved in folk not just in Pakistan, but is now back from his stay abroad and digging through a repertoire of ideas presented through the poets that have graced this land before and after it was named Pakistan. He has been featured in Coke Studio this year and last, but all of his work outside of the platform is equally inspiring, if not more. His studio album Wajj, has been out for a while, and there are more recordings on the interwebs for those that seek them. I embed here Husn e Haqiqi (The beauty of truth), the version from the album, and Sagar Kinare (On the shore), which is yet to be released officially but is one of my favorite discoveries over the last year.
Azhar has now become one of Pakistan’s Sufi Music icons, but talking to him, you realise the label is just that, a label. There’s more to the Sufi story. Its definitely authentic, but the label is almost restricting, once you realise what Arieb is out to do. Read on to enjoy Arieb’s music and his insights in this exclusive interview.
You don’t appear in the media that often. Is that because you’re based in Croatia? How do you manage to reconcile your life in Croatia with the very roots of Sufi mysticism of South Asia that is so prominent in your music?
I shifted back to Pakistan 6 and a half years ago from Croatia after having lived there for 13 years. I had been exposed to Pakistani folk music as a child, because of my father’s involvement with the foundation of PTV. Later on i developed a love for folk music from all over the world. While in Croatia i also used to play Balkan and Irish folk music and a bit of Bolivian folk as well. But I only started to actually listen and ponder on the poetry of our folk music much later on.
During the war years of the break up of Yugoslavia I became interested in the spiritual aspect of things. There were a couple of years during which I would go and listen to any group of people claiming to possess some kind of esoteric knowledge. I became interested in Indian Philosophy and Yoga, Shamanism, and of course Sufism. In my last few years in Croatia I knew that in order to develop ‘soul’ in my music I had to return to Pakistan and immerse myself in the authentic music of the Subcontinent. Now living in Pakistan I know that Sufism is understood relatively by different people. I do not claim to be a ‘Sufi’ musician myself. I compose, try to internalize, and sing any poetry which i find inspiring and relevant to myself and the world around me. I find a lot of the poetry that people call ‘Sufi’ to be deeply inspiring, uncompromisingly truthful, refreshingly direct, inherently rhythmic and imperatively relevant to our times.
I remember seeing an interview where you related the story of being introduced as someone who sings the Sufi kalam. You said that it’s often answered with an introverted, almost condescending ‘Oh’. Has that changed as you’ve gained more acclaim? Where is the point where music as a profession won’t be treated with that ‘Oh’? (You can see the interview here, it’s a great interview, unfortunately I only shared it with Arieb after we were done, but the point comes across anyway)
I don’t remember the interview in question. But generally people base their judgments on conditioned appearances. In Pakistan we are used to hearing Sufi Kalaam performed by our folk artists in rural accents that are often unintelligible to us. The beauty of music is that one does not have to fully understand the poetry in order to comprehend the ‘feel’ and ‘essence’ of the song. But when people see someone like myself from the modern world, they don’t expect an ‘internalized’ rendition of this poetry. They are used to seeing people who dress like me to play some sort of pop music or something. Gratefully once they hear me they start looking at me with a new sight.
In an interview with PRI you said “I’m not trying to spread any religious message around the world. I don’t care about preserving folklore. I’m just trying to express myself and in expressing myself. I have to keep expanding myself to include more life around me and more of humanity around me.” And then in the bio you got on the Coke Studio Season 2 website, it states “It was Arieb’s desire to reconnect with his roots and heritage that led him back to the country and in 2006, he launched himself with the release of single Husn-e-Haqiqi (Beauty of truth) from his debut album Wajj. This record is heavily inspired by the poetry of Sarmad Sehbai, Khawaja Ghulam Farid and Bulleh Shah and Arieb’s genre has come to be recognized as spiritual lounge music.” On the surface their seems to be a clash here, what is the deeper connection between the two statements?
It’s true that it’s not my job to preserve folklore. Folk lore or the knowledge of a people is something that needs to be alive, to grow, to evolve… The place for the preservation of folklore is in the museum. And my message is one of humanity and the acceptance of humanity. I believe that this is actually the essence of religion, which has become distorted in the mainstream around the world. So to say that this is a religious message is true in one sense, but this can be easily misunderstood. So I say this is a human message, what it means to be human – which cuts through the mainstream understanding of religions and connects humanity. Also I believe that the more rooted something is, the further it can grow. So, though i am not concerned with preserving folk heritage, I am connected with, and accept the positive aspects of my heritage. And the heritage of this land goes back to more than four thousand years. So i believe that we from this land have the possibility of growing, evolving and reaching new heights in our understanding of life, and the only thing stopping us is ourselves.
So what exactly is this new genre, spiritual lounge music?
I think that you should ask this question from those who have termed my music as such.
Where is Pakistani Sufi music going? It’s only a matter of time where most notable poetry will have received some musical treatment. Do you think modern Sufi thought will make it to your music?
I don’t really classify music as ‘Sufi’. For me Bob Marley is also Sufi, and Fela Kuti is Sufi, Leanard Cohen is Sufi. In Pakistan we have a huge reservoir of poetry that has gotten termed as Sufi. It’s so vast that though nearly all folk artists have partaken of it, the majority of it is still unknown to us. And it is growing. People are writing and expressing themselves today also. Our Qawaals and folk musicians often mix contemporary lyrics to classical poetry. But since our classical poetry is in the common toungue, and the contemporary lyrics are as refined, few notice the additions. This is the beauty of our oral tradition. The tale keeps growing in the telling. I don’t know what you mean by ‘modern Sufi thought’ but of course there is a mix of old and contemporary poetry in my songs. As I said I am not involved in the preservation of something.
Sufi music is slowly making the rounds into households which might not share Sufi religious beliefs. In that respect, which do you consider your music to be more inclined toward, religious or spiritual?
This is a very personal matter. And people in Pakistan specially get very sensitive about matters concerning religion. For me religion is spiritual. None of the prophets had anything against each other. It is those who claim to follow them that wage endless war in the name of religion. And im talking of all religions here. The prophets and the saints were concerned with humanity. Their actions were rooted in a deep love for humanity. So since I try to sing poetry which concerns humanity, it is safer for me to say that I consider the essence of my music more spiritual. For if I was to say ‘religious’ then the next question would be, “which religion”, and I would only say the religion of Humanity which goes by many names.
More often than not it takes a local gimmick to get Pakistani music going abroad. Be it female artists, or sufi poetry. Perhaps its not a gimmick, more a selling point. Do you think if you make music that isn’t Sufi, it would receive the same acclaim?
Again, I’m not the one who calls music Sufi or not Sufi. I think any music which is genuine and has soul will reach far. Whether people call it Sufi or not.
While musical experiments are often seen in the industry, do you think there’s actually a music listening culture in Pakistan? Is producing lounge music sustainable for artists?
I think that there is definitely a music listening culture in Pakistan. What we lack are the institutions to make the industry work better. I think if someone was to create ‘lounge music’ it would probably be as easy or difficult to make a living as with any other form of music. But i don’t create lounge music.
Pakistanis are strong to catch on to artists that make it big internationally. You’ve done a lot of work abroad, even released two albums of Irish music. Why was it that the Pakistani media only caught on to you after Husn e Haqiqi or Coke Studio?
One reason is because while living abroad i was never in the mainstream. We had our cult following but we were not big enough internationally to be well known in Pakistan. Also, though I find many similarities, for most people the Irish experience is very different to the Pakistani experience. Most Pakistanis tend to associate themselves more to the ‘rap’ culture or the ‘metal’ culture. For me folk music is the ‘coolest’ music.
Sufi thought has its inherent refutations to extremist thought, and has recently been under attack with the Data Darbar attack and such. Do you think Sufi music is similarly under threat?
Music that seeks to speak the truth is always under threat by those who are insecure and afraid of facing the truth. But such music seeks to connect, enlighten, reconcile, empower and relieve the suffering of humanity.
Do you think modern pop and rock, even Sufi pop and Sufi rock are big all over the country? Outside the urban centres? Is it perhaps safer to keep your audience limited to a certain tested audience to prevent violent opposition? Peaceful religious scholars have been under threat, is it the same for musicians? (whose work is perhaps more taboo)
Most of what people call Sufi pop and Sufi rock is simply Pop music which incorporates some classical verses of well-known poets of the Sufi tradition. But if the verses are ‘felt’ then of course they hold the power to heal, and some people will always feel threatened by this. Usually genuine musicians in Pakistan are not threatened by anyone, because they are not out to oppose anyone, though there have been a few instances in some parts of the country. In the words of Mian Mohammed Baksh, “Daanishmando suno tamaami, arz Faqir karenda. Jo koyi aape changa hove sabb nu bhalaa takenda!” “Oh, listen you wise ones to what the Faqir is saying. He who is himself ‘good’ sees the ‘good’ in all!”