Tuesday, May 01, 2012
A Diplomat Whose Language Is Song
Sometimes it takes the efforts of a few highbrow arts organizations to bring cultures together through music. In the case of Arif Lohar, it also doesn’t hurt to have some help from Coke.
A famous folk singer in Pakistan, Mr. Lohar is in the United States as part of Caravanserai, a tour bringing traditional Muslim performers to mainstream American audiences to share their artistic heritage and to challenge stereotypes. After stops throughout the Northeast and even Montana, the tour comes to Asia Society in Manhattan on Friday and Saturday.
“The mission of Caravanserai is very beautiful,” Mr. Lohar said. “I feel that it is very necessary at this critical time. It allows us to gather people together, using art as a bridge, to extend our hand in friendship to Americans, and to share our love and our wish for peace.”
Mr. Lohar sings Sufi music, a devotional style with centuries-old poetry that is layered with allegory, and performed with all the transcendent passion of a love epic. At home his performances can last six hours or more. His shows in the United States may be more conventionally structured but have still had their emotional moments. Last week in Helena, Mont., John Bohlinger, the bow-tied, septuagenarian lieutenant governor, danced onstage and grabbed a microphone to express his feelings.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the audience that understood a word of what you said,” Mr. Bohlinger told Mr. Lohar, as he recalled in a telephone interview this week. “But we understood in our heart what the message was. And the message was joy; the message was peace.”
Mr. Lohar absorbed Sufi music and the art of the chimta, a long percussive instrument like a pair of tongs, from his father, Alam Lohar, also a renowned singer. But he is no rigid traditionalist. Over his career — which has included some 150 albums and dozens of films — he has, like the Pakistani musical patriarch Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan before him, dabbled with pop sounds, including Bollywood-style song-and-dance, rock guitars and electronic beats. After his father, who died when Mr. Lohar was 13, and Mr. Khan, who died in 1997, Mr. Lohar lists Michael Jackson as one of his biggest influences.
That folk-meets-pop sensibility made Mr. Lohar perfect for “Coke Studio,” Pakistan’s most popular TV show, and gave him the biggest hit of his career. A slick performance showcase in the “MTV Unplugged” vein, “Coke Studio” featured Mr. Lohar two years ago in his signature song, “Alif Allah Chambley Di Booti,” with a rock rhythm section and guest vocals by Meesha Shafi, a young model and actress. Surrounded by Coke branding, the two praised what Mr. Lohar calls “the beautiful essence of Allah,” and the video got eight million views on YouTube.
“Before I did ‘Coke Studio,’ the audiences who knew my music were those who had heard me in concert,” Mr. Lohar said by phone from Montana, speaking through an interpreter. “After that it reached a whole new generation. It reached teenagers, people who had never heard my music before. I felt lucky.”
Caravanserai was put together as a multiyear project by the nonprofit group Arts Midwest, and began last fall with Pakistan as its first focus; next year it looks at Morocco. The shows in New York this weekend also intersect with one of Asia Society’s own series, Creative Voices of Muslim Asia. Both programs are supported by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
When artists of Mr. Lohar’s stature perform in cities like New York, the audience is often members of their own ethnic group. Tickets to Mr. Lohar’s shows here sold out quickly, said Rachel Cooper, Asia Society’s director of cultural programs and performing arts, and a majority of the crowd will probably be Pakistanis and other South Asians. (Saturday’s show will be streamed live on Asia Society’s site.)
But Caravanserai, which in addition to Mr. Lohar and his group includes a young Pakistani-American singer, Arooj Aftab, has mostly been playing to audiences unfamiliar with the culture. At each stop the musicians have been holding workshops with schoolchildren and community groups, as well as soaking up local customs. Last week in Helena, Mr. Lohar celebrated his 46th birthday in a hotel lobby with quesadillas and chocolate cake.
“The artists have their own notions of what America is,” said Zeyba Rahman, the tour’s artistic director. “They are discovering that it’s not a monolithic block. They are discovering that Americans are just like the people back home. So they are being transformed by this process too.”
Speaking in Urdu dotted with sunny English expressions — “love blessing,” “very happy,” “peace message” — Mr. Lohar summed up his role on the trip by calling himself “both a fakir and a safir”: a wandering mystic and a cultural ambassador.
Mr. Lohar’s tour is only the latest of many efforts at cultural diplomacy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ms. Cooper echoed others involved in the project by saying that with most Americans’ view of the Middle East and the Muslim world being shaped by news media images of war and terrorism, the arts have become a critical avenue for communication.
Not that Mr. Lohar’s itinerary is all super-serious. In New York the other day, MTV shot a video for its international platforms featuring Mr. Lohar playing in a beauty salon on the Lower East Side, to “take Arif out of the polite ‘world music’ wrapper,” said Nusrat Durrani, the general manager of MTV World.
Nor is “Coke Studio” all light entertainment. The show, whose first iteration was in Brazil, has had a wide influence on pop culture in Pakistan since it began in 2008, and it is now expanding to India and the Middle East. In Pakistan many of the performers have been adherents of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that has come under attack from hard-line militants. That and Coke’s involvement have drawn some controversy to the show, said Rohail Hyatt, the producer of “Coke Studio” in Pakistan.
But the blend of traditional and pop styles, and the accessible spirituality of many of the show’s musicians, have made it a voice of mild opposition to radicalism in the region, said Mr. Hyatt, a former rock musician. “This is a more moderate spirituality coming into play,” he said, “and part of the acceptance of this was about this massive need for people to relate to something.”
For Mr. Lohar, the messages of peace and harmony in his music speak for themselves.
“All the world over, the language is music,” he said. “The styles are different, the nuances are different. But the language is the same. I am here representing my country and my culture. I have connected with people, and it feels so good to connect in that way.”
And like many musicians in the West, Mr. Lohar seemed fully accustomed to the idea of performing alongside an advertisement for soda.
“Many famous artists are sponsored by big multinational companies,” he said. “So when I was approached by ‘Coke Studio,’ I didn’t think it was unusual. I did the show just like any other.”
[Click on the title to the original article with many more links. (ed.)]