Go Deeper

Umer Piracha, Straddling Pakistan and Philadelphia

Posted August 14th, 2012

Prarthana Jayaram is a Philly-based writer and regular Festival Blog contributor.

“The way people connect with art and music is the same everywhere,” West Philly musician Umer Piracha observes.

Umer’s music is concerned with the nature of things: “It’s about accepting the world as it is and being on a journey of exploration,” he says. Part of his exploration involves recognizing and investigating the connectedness of all things; a sense of universality and a drive to embody that feeling of connection permeate his music. Umer’s vision of art as a universalizing force will fuel his forthcoming debut album, a multilingual blend of Pakistani-folk-inspired songs alongside more traditionally Western tracks.

Migrating to Pennsylvania from a small town in Pakistan, Umer never expected his life path to take a turn toward the arts. But when he arrived at Franklin & Marshall College nine years ago, he began to view his interest in music with fresh eyes.

After the jump: Umer blossoms in Lancaster.

“Music didn’t bloom for me before. I didn’t feel like an artist; I was raised with different values and goals,” he explains.

Singing and playing guitar, hobbies for Umer growing up, became focal points for his spiritual and emotional growth once he came to the United States. Struck by how seriously people took art, he began to connect with the arts community at Franklin & Marshall and to perform around campus. The contrast he felt between the two cultures would become a significant part of his artistic development, as Umer began to realize how natural it felt to create.

“It never felt like work,” he says.

As music became a central focus of his life, he became part of the community of South Asians more easily. While his work has garnered great support both in the U.S. and in Pakistan, his audiences are drawn to different aspects of his music. Here, others who prioritize music in their lives, often regardless of their heritage, have become his community. To supporters in Pakistan, he says, he is a Pakistani artist living abroad, and there, that shared background draws people in.

His influences range from the traditional Qawwali music of his hometown to a variety of Western artists like Radiohead and Bob Dylan, yet he sees a common thread in the philosophical bent of the music that inspires him. Art that fosters a sense of camaraderie and connection pushes Umer to recognize the universality of lived experiences.

His music also brings Umer closer to his listeners. Umer points to “the ability to become so entranced by music as an artist that you become an audience to it,” as one of the most wonderful and exhilarating things about performance. Art, he says, must go beyond a person.

“Music is a dialog between my philosophical thinking and my soul.”

To share that dialog is to render oneself at once vulnerable and empowered. He admits audiences’ varying receptivity can make the experience fulfilling—or very frustrating. But Umer believes that allowing people to experience this personal dialog, this nexus of thoughts and feelings and ideas, enables artists to inspire humanity. Thus, straddling diverse musical influences and traditions becomes a worthwhile challenge, and one that lends itself well to Umer’s philosophy.

Part and parcel with the project of uniting different peoples and backgrounds is the issue of language. Umer’s native Urdu and Punjabi are central to much of his music, but when he plays to Anglophone audiences, he contextualizes his pieces to give them significance.

“The purpose behind music is the same in any language,” Umer says, but concedes that certain ideas may be conveyed better in one language than another. When he anticipates a language barrier, he introduces a piece before he plays it—by first providing a roughly translated meaning behind the song, he allows his performance to encapsulate its sentiment.

Maintaining the integrity of the music through translation can be a tricky business. Certain cultural nuances are wrapped up in details like language and tone. In particular, the religious bent of many traditional Eastern pieces proves difficult to explain without alienating other audiences.

“In translating across cultures, I try to avoid the term ‘religiously affiliated’ because it comes with baggage,” he explains. “Associating music with religion of any sort creates boundaries before it can convey anything.”

And boundaries are quite the opposite of what Umer wishes to build.

The solution to this dilemma is often found within the music itself. In Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, much associated music is about the human potential for transcendence. The songs express living in a state of love, regardless of the object of love—be it God, another person, or anything in between.

“This is the state of spirituality I am after,” Umer says, “Something that ties the whole of humanity together. We need to think outside of culture so that we can see the commonalities between all people. Once you do that, you can’t resist the arts.”

Umer’s next show will be Contact Jam, a performance to raise money for a school in Nepal, at Studio 34 in West Philadelphia. The show will take place Sunday, August 19, 7:30 pm. Umer will be a part of the musical ensemble to accompany the improv show that evening. Info on the project can be found here. For more on Umer, visit his Facebook page.

–Prathana Jayaram

Photos courtesy of Umer Piracha.