Have you ever wondered how a Pakistani pop star ends up performing in a small town in Vermont?
The road may have been a winding one, but Arieb Azher and Acoustic Ensemble will play at the Immanuel Episcopal Church in Bellows Falls on June 22. The performance will be a part of the Eugene Friesen String Institute’s weekend of classes and musical improvisations in Bellows Falls that will feature a duo concert, plus participatory performances, classes, discussions, and food.
Azhar is a Pakistani singer who has made appearances in Coke Studio’s Season 2 and Season 3, a Pakistani music television series produced by the Coca-Cola Co. that features live studio-recorded music performances by various artists. The show made him famous in his home country.
Azhar is a also world-class troubadour whose sets pay tribute to Irish balladeers, Croatian gypsies, Punjabi traders, and ancient Sanskrit texts. Born in Islamabad, Pakistan, and defying easy categorization, he leads a quartet of musicians in an eclectic mix of urban and folk-based songs grounded in Sufi and other humanist poetries from across Eurasia.
As Azhar states on his website, www.ariebazhar.com, both his parents were involved in television and theatre. So, he was exposed at an early age to different musical expressions. The early folk and classical music he listened to influenced his later love for traditional music.
At the age of 19, he went off to Croatia, just as it was breaking away from Yugoslavia, and spent the next 13 years of his life there. In the city of Zagreb, Azhar was exposed to Balkan and gypsy music and his musical discoveries led him to perform on the streets, in pubs and clubs, concert halls, and festivals, with musicians from Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bolivia, and Ireland.
Finally, in 2004, he returned to Pakistan to immerse himself in the local music.
“I felt I needed to reconnect with my roots in order to continue my musical journey,” he said. “In spite of (or perhaps because of) social repression of all kinds, the street schooling that artists go through in Pakistan is very intense, and only the most dedicated artists can survive. Here one is forced to be highly self-critical and brutally honest about oneself. And those who survive this process become great musicians."
Azhar said, “true music is the union between the individual and the universal; a release, rapture, celebration, quest, lament of the human spirit. If I am able to touch that in moments of my life, I consider myself fortunate!”
What led Azhar from Pakistan to Vermont is an interesting journey that involves many nonprofit agencies helping to foster both the arts and good will between countries.
A diplomatic departure
At the beginning of this chain lies the U.S. State Department.
Azhar’s concert in Bellows Falls is part of groundbreaking cultural diplomacy initiative, CenterStage, which brings performing artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan to the United States to engage American audiences in 60 medium- and small-sized towns and cities.
State Department spokeswoman Katie Leasor called it “a really neat program where performance artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan are coming to the United States to engage American audiences.”
She said that CenterStage demonstrates America’s respect for other cultures by providing opportunities for international performing artists to engage with diverse communities throughout the United States and offers Americans the chance to grow in understanding and appreciation of other nations.
CenterStage builds on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vision of “smart power,” which embraces the use of a full range of diplomatic tools, in this case the performing arts, to bring people together and foster greater understanding.
“Typically, the State Department holds events overseas,” Leasor said, “but we are bringing the international stage to Main Street America in Bellows Falls.”
“The arts have brought people together for generations,” she added, “and CenterStage provides an opportunity to engage people through community engagement activities, including performances, workshops, discussions, and community gatherings.”
The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is working in partnership with the New England Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that provides leadership and resources that benefit artists, the public, arts funders, and policy-makers throughout New England.
Together they will develop and manage month-long tours for ten ensembles, comprised of public and school performances complemented by lectures, demonstrations, classroom visits, workshops, master classes and artist-to-artist exchanges. The first wave of performing artists includes Azhar, who will travel to the United States and participate in a range of activities.
The local connection came through Robert McBride, the founder of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP) which was established in the 1990s to revitalize the Bellows Falls area through, as McBride puts it, “developing awareness of the arts, creating vitality in the community with the arts, and demonstrating that the arts favorably impact the local economy.”
McBride said he has close ties with the New England Foundation for the Arts.
“When I heard of CenterStage and Arieb Azhar, I thought it would be great as part of Stone Church’s Eugene Friesen’s String Institute,” he said. “Right before that show, Arieb will be performing at the Kennedy Center. How cool is that?”
An offshoot of RAMP, Stone Church Arts brings a musical series to the Immanuel Episcopal Church, and one of its major events is the Eugene Friesen String Institute, a workshop for string players and harpists as well as other classical musicians who are interested in exploring improvisation.
Yet you might ask how in the world does a Pakistani folk artist fit into a classical string institute?
Robert Bowler, administrative assistant and program organizer for Stone Church Arts, explains it this way: “At the Eugene Friesen String Institute, you have classically trained musicians learning how to improvise. The very essence of Pakistani folk tradition is in the art of improvisation.”