Serbian planes flew over the bomb shelters Pakistani artist Arieb Azhar lived in for about a year and a half during his 13-year stay in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Then, in mid-1991, the Croatian War of Independence erupted and lasted for four years.
Twenty-one years later, Azhar imparts Sufi poetry in the form of music for a living. Sufi poetry, which stems from Sufism, a mystical
dimension of Islam, contains words of peace, love and acceptance.
On Thursday at the City Hall Council Chambers, Bloomington sponsored an intimate performance given by Azhar and his quartet, who played the flute, electric guitar and tabla — a pair of small drums used in Indian music — with Azhar singing and playing the acoustic guitar.
The event was part of Center Stage, an initiative of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs administered by the nonprofit New England Foundation for the Arts.
The program aims to create cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan through the performing arts.
The Center Stage tour began in June and will end in December, featuring 10 different foreign ensembles.
Since June 19, Azhar and his band have played in nine different cities. This is Azhar and his band’s first time in the country.
“If you look at his bio, it’s sort of an astounding mix of eclectic Irish folk music, an eclectic blend of all sorts of music, so I mean when you talk about world music, Arieb really is that,” said Miah Michaelsen, the assistant economic development director for the arts for the city of Bloomington.
“It really is a mash up of all sorts of musical traditions.”
Local publicity firm Rock Paper Scissors, which is responsible for Azhar’s publicity during his Center Stage tour, contacted the city for Azhar to do a free performance before playing at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.
According to a press release announcing Azhar’s Bloomington visit, Azhar lived as a busker before establishing himself as an artist.
Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, Azhar said he has been singing for as long as he can remember. His parents were both former theater actors and were involved with Pakistani television.
Azhar’s childhood was marked by the underground communist movement during an 11-year dictatorship beginning in 1978.
Inspired by Latin American poetry and music, Azhar began to sing “revolutionary” songs before going to the Soviet Union as a 17-year-old.
He thought the Soviet Union would be the promised land.
“I went there and I got disillusioned,” he said.
“My view of the world was too black and white. And there was exploitation and injustice going on in that society as well, and over there it was not the capitalists who were doing it, it was the communist party. So I saw, no, there are shades of gray between the black and white which interest me more than the black and white.”
After returning to Pakistan, Azhar then left again with a group of filmmakers to study film in Zagreb.
After the war broke out, Azhar’s parents insisted he return home in Pakistan. But Azhar continued to live in Zagreb and began studying philosophy and Indology — the study of Indian culture — at the University of Zagreb. He began playing Irish Celtic music with a band called the Shamrock Rovers.
“And then I just fell in love with the place, probably because I spent that difficult period there and I just got — I became very, very close to a lot of people, and I still consider it my other home,” Azhar said.
“Then in my last few years, I felt that I had lost touch with the soul in my music, and I felt I stopped growing as a musician, and I just had a need to come back to my roots and discover more about my roots music.”
Once he returned to Pakistan, Azhar explored folk music and Sufi poetry. From thereon, Azhar formed the band that he still plays with today.
Zeeshan Mansoor, who plays the electric guitar with Azhar, said he’s known Azhar for about a decade.
“He comes from a very different kind of place as compared to a lot of people that I grew up with who played music,” said Mansoor, who grew up listening to jazz, blues, funk and soul music. “Over the years, I think he’s gotten a lot more sure of what he wants to do.”
Mansoor said the band never rehearses together before giving performances.
“Basically, his songs and the whole sound is about him singing and the poetry and the way that he’s saying things to people,” he said.
Azhar, who met with representatives from Center Stage after finding out about the project, said his experience in the U.S. has dispelled his notions about the country.
Since starting the tour in June, Azhar said he has been playing for largely local audiences who perhaps have not heard his type of music.
“If you’re living in Pakistan, the only thing about the U.S. we know is through the U.S. military’s actions around the world and things we see on the news,” he said. “So, this project is beautiful because it tries to connect musicians on a very