Arif Lohar, Arooj Aftab rock America!
10 May, 2012
The first season of Arts Midwest's Caravanserai: A place where cultures meet ended with a bang as well as shakes of the chimta and slaps of the tambourine, at a bring- down-the-house concert at the Asia Society in New York City.
This final event, a pairing of the introspective, haunting vocals of Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab and the raucous, raise-the-roof beat of Punjabi legend Arif Lohar, was the realisation of a vision: the coming together of American audiences with Muslim artists through the language of art.
Nearly two years ago, Arts Midwest Executive Director David Fraher was approached by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art with the idea of a travelling international cultural exchange programme to help bridge the ever-growing divide between Muslims and Americans—including American Muslims. Fraher imagined a new twist on an ancient idea. "A caravanserai was a safe place for travellers to stop, share stories of the road, play their music, be exposed to other cultures, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow travellers. We sought to recreate that safe place for different cultures to talk to and learn from one another against a backdrop of art and culture," says Fraher.
The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art Building Bridges programme embraced Fraher's idea and supported it with a $1-million grant.
Launched in the fall of 2011, the first season of Caravanserai focused on Pakistan and included residencies, performances, and presentations from Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers, percussionist Tari Khan with Abid Hussain and Rasheed Abdul, filmmaker Ayesha Khan, and the aforementioned Arooj Aftab and Arif Lohar.
When Aftab and Lohar took the stage in New York City, it was for the final stop on a five-week tour through Oswego, NY; Helena, MT; Long Branch, NJ; Littleton, NH; and Providence, RI. With week-long residencies in each town, the artists spent time with rural and urban school children, local families, and enthusiastic audiences. They talked and told stories, gave classes and interviews, listened and answered questions. These artists got to know their audiences—and vice versa.
The New York audience had its fair share of Pakistani ex-pats, but also included Americans with no ties to Pakistan, only a desire for a cross-cultural experience. Arooj Aftab performs with fellow Berkeley College of Music alums, acoustic guitarist, Bhrigu Sahni and percussionist Jorn Bielfeldt. She says much of her repertoire is influenced by music that is "pre-partition", referring to the 1947 establishment of the separate states of India and Pakistan, and the many subsequent wars and hostilities that followed.