After spending a substantial part of his life in Croatia, singer-songwriter Arieb Azhar returned to Pakistan in 2004 in order to reconnect with his roots.
He was exposed to folk and classical music in his early years and ultimately developed a passion and love for traditional, soulful music. He came into the limelight of the Pakistani music scene following his globetrotting musical antics and contributions to season two and three of “Coke Studio”. He is also currently planning a trip to England, sponsored by the British Council, to collaborate with Martin Simpson — a celebrated English folk musician.
“Our music is going to be an interesting mix of Celtic and South Asian folk and classical music, which I feel goes together naturally,” said Azhar, who is working with Simpson on a number of tracks that will be performed live at festivals and recorded as well. “Martin and I are trying to come up with music together in a very natural and organic way where we are playing off each other’s music ‘feel’. We are trying to create fusion on a ‘soul’ level.” He added that Simpson is known for his unique finger picking style and is the best he has heard to date.
Azhar’s interactive live performances connect well with the audience due to the references he makes to poetry in his music. As a result, he has postponed his much-awaited personal album and is planning on releasing an album which contains live performances instead — those performed in US recently as part of a project called Center Stage.“Over the last couple of years, several recordings have piled up and the plan was to release them. We are now planning on releasing it as a whole live-concert album,” Azhar said. The album includes Akmal Qadri on flutes, Zeeshan Mansoor on lead guitar, Kashif Ali Dani on tabla and Azhar himself on rhythm guitar and vocals. His band has also added Zain Ali on bass and Ibrahim Akram on drums.
Azhar has simultaneously been working on another project with his friend Dus based in Croatia, who is a DJ as well as a composer. “Every time I made a trip to Croatia, I would record a few songs over a click track [series of audio cues used to synchronise sound recordings] and Dus would compose and arrange the music around it,” he said, adding that the album will be something new and different from his original style. “It has more of an electronic drum-and-bass sound and I’m still not sure how I feel about it since it isn’t exactly my style of music — the sound has not developed organically around live performances either.” He added, “I sometimes enjoy the sound and sometimes it just confuses me.” The album will be released some time during this year.
Commenting on the ‘Sufi artist’ label Azhar has been given, he said: “Perhaps we’re creating some form of urban folk music and this is why the label has been given. Sufi is a very abstract term which is used almost for anything in Pakistan.” He believes that music in general is something of a ‘journey’ and cannot be quantified or confined by labels. “On one hand it flatters me when people call me a Sufi singer as some of my inspirations have been drawn from that genre, but on the other hand, I feel it also limits the scope of our music,” he said. “It has become an overly clichéd term.”
The music environment in Pakistan remains rather unstable. However, Azhar remains optimistic, saying: “Only under intense pressure can coal turn into diamond.” He further added that he feels his music is evolving. “It’s a strange fact that most of the best and most inspiring music has come out of the most adverse of conditions — the strange thing is that I see conditions for this art deteriorating around me but at the same time, I see myself and our own music developing and evolving.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2012.