Live: Arif Lohar Shows Off His Spirit (And His Charm) At The Asia Society


Arif Lohar w/ Arooj Aftab
Asia Society
Friday, April 27

Better than: Watching a certain very popular video obsessively.

As another occasionally devotional songwriter once sang: “The band in Heaven plays my favorite song. They play it once again, they play it all night long.” Pakistani folk singer Arif Lohar didn’t reach quite this level of repetition-compulsion during the first of his two sold-out evenings at Asia Society this weekend as part of its ongoing Creative Voices of Muslim Asia series. He did, however, demonstrate that nothing so befits a true star as giving his audience exactly what it wants—and then piling on even more of the same.

On Friday, Lohar’s take on “Alif Allah Chambey di Booti,” his massive South Asian hit, extended over an increasingly delirious 30 minutes, with chorus after chorus of this 17th-century poem by the Sufi mystic Sultan Bahu reaching new heights of show-biz fun with a sacred slant. It wasn’t the smoothest version of the song you could hear—that’s the “Coke Studios” iteration, a tastefully arranged crossover performance reminiscent of a Sting set, with Lohar singing amid strings, acoustic guitars, and lovely female singers for Pakistan’s most popular TV show. The video of this exquisite moment has garnered more than 8.1 million YouTube views, and Lohar, who is said to have recorded some 150 albums, wasn’t coy about acknowledging its popularity.

Lohar numbers easily among the more unlikely pop stars to dazzle the desires of millions. He is short and round enough to suggest a South Asian manifestation of Herbie Popnecker, sports a dashing Bollywood ‘stache (he’s also an actor), radiates sly movie-star charisma, and possesses an insistently authoritative voice. Imagine a folkier version of the late qawwali star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also recorded “Alif Allah Chambey di Booti,” and whose music shares a loping one-two-three-four beat, vocal techniques, and Sufi source material with Lohar’s.

Fronting a scrappy sextet who wore matching long black velvet coats emblazoned with Sgt. Pepper-like badges, Lohar hit the stage following a warm-up trio of songs featuring Fozia, his backing singer; and Fozia followed a too-short set by the young Pakistani-American Arooj Aftab, who sang semi-improvised, semiclassical thumri music accompanied by acoustic guitar and percussion. “It doesn’t look sold out to me,” observed Aftab in-between the 13th-century Sufi poem “Man Kunto Maulo” (Whoever Accepts Me as Their Spiritual Guide) and a sad, beautiful Urdu ghazal.

Born in 1966, Lohar is the son of another famous late Punjabi folk singer, the late Aram Lohar, who no doubt taught his son “Qissa Mirza Sahiba.” Opening deep in the tradition, Arif sang/recited this primary Punjabi narrative accompanied by 80-year-old Allah Ditta on the algoza, a pair of wooden flutes blown simultaneously, with nonstop circular breaths. But within minutes, Lohar was barreling into the opening verses of “Chambey,” unraveling its parables, advice, and cautions, and returning again and again (and again) to its call-and-response chorus invoking “jugni ji,” the Punjabi expression for soul or spirit or something equally ineffable.

A gum-chewing electric guitarist added thin, fizzy solos; a long-haired percussionist, dressed in punk-rock boots and a T-shirt spelling out “Calvin Klein Jeans” in silver sequins, occasionally took a booming solo on the double-headed dhol drum hung from his neck; and another guy stoically triggered electronic drums, bass, and samples. Lohar, meanwhile, adjusted the tempo with a raised index finger, sometimes bringing everything to a halt only to signal another triumphant chorus, until the front and sides of the hall were filled with exceedingly happy dancers as he worked the audience and banged his chimta, a long, two-pronged metal percussion instrument.

Rather than continue “Chambey” until curfew, Lohar eventually played another traditional Sufi rave, “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” (The Divine in Every Breath of Mine) before returning to the more contemporary sound of “Soniye” (Beautiful One). A kidder to the end, he introduced the pumped-up dance track from his album 21st Century Jugni as being about “a bearded lady.” Before leaving the stage, Lohar cued his band into another couple of choruses of “Chambey,” thereby embedding the song in my head for at least another week, which, if not exactly Heaven, is close enough for the time being.

Random notebook dump: Like Paul Simon, Sting, Elvis Costello, David Byrne, and similar Western stars of a certain age, Arif Lohar has a knack for updating and adapting his music for different audiences. Why doesn’t it crumble under the stress of staying au courant? Lohar miraculously renews this venerable repertoire while polishing it up for the children of Nusrat and Coca-Cola.

Set list:
Quissa Mirza Sahiba
Bol Mitti Deya Baweya
Alif Allah Chambey di Booti
Dama Dam Mast Qalandar
Alif Allah Chambey di Booti reprise

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