Arieb Azhar and the music he makes don't seem to match. In person, he's one cool dude, sipping vodka in his parent's Islamabad house, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, goateed and shaved head covered in a bandana. Then he plays the first single from his album. "Husn-e-haqiqi" is set to a Sufi poem written about a hundred years ago. It ponders the beauty of truth and the nature of god.
It's not unheard of for these poems to be sung, but never in quite this way.
Azhar: I'm not trying to spread any religious message around the world. I don't care about preserving folklore. I'm just trying to express myself and in expressing myself. I have to keep expanding myself to include more life around me and more of humanity around me.
The Sufi poetry on Azhar's album, Wajj, encompasses about all the emotions life has to offer. The songs/poems have names like "The Soul is Enthralled," "The Journey of Love," and "Dance, My Heart." Azhar says the Sufi poets were concerned with the nature of religion and with humanity being good and getting along.
Azhar: There's one song, which is on the album, it's by Bulleh Shah, this very famous Punjabi poet.
Azhar: Basically he is saying that "I went to Mecca but I did not find the truth, even though I prostrated myself a hundred thousand times over; I went to the Ganges but I did not find the truth, even though I bathed myself a hundred thousand times. I held the rosary, I turned the beads in my hand but I did not turn the heart in my breast. I went inside the mosques and the temples but I did not go inside myself. So, uh, this song, the words are very powerful. And the words are written in such a way that no one can deny them, even though they're blasphemous almost.
While Azhar is gaining a following in Pakistan, people here aren't exactly sure how to categorize him. He performs regularly at the popular World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore - often in three different categories - fusion, world music, and devotional music. Azhar's a little put off by having to define himself, but understands it's what he needs to do to sell albums. What concerns him more is the lack of a Pakistani music industry that promotes anything besides pop music. Another problem, he says, is a lack of places to perform.
Azhar: The only concerts that happen in our urban centers, most of them are just corporate sponsored events where the majority of people are lip-syncing, and it's not real music. So I don't have many venues. Only when there are festivals and so on I get to perform. And I get called by different people at their houses and so on, that happens a lot.
Azhar recently made a video with Pakistan's leading director and designer, and that's helped get the word out. He's hoping to put together a second CD early next year.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.