Sunday, October 21, 2012

Noori goes to America


It may have taken them a decade to realize their dream of touring the US, but their patience has finally been rewarded. As part of a unique “cultural diplomacy” initiative called Center Stage, Noori not only got an opportunity to visit America and perform in front of a diverse audience, but also got a chance to create bridges and build ties between the two countries, while showcasing the diversity of Pakistani music with the help of musicians like Zeeshan Parwez and Faraz Anwar. In a chat with Instep, the band shares their excitement about the tour and the experiences they gained from it…

Instep: Please tell us about Center Stage.
Center Stage is a cultural exchange program developed by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State in partnership with the New England Foundation for the Arts. It's the first project of its kind, focused on the idea of “cultural diplomacy”. For the first time, instead of sending artists from the US to other parts of the world, the US government has taken the initiative to call in artists from abroad for this people-to-people exchange program.
For the first year, the US has tapped into the talents of Pakistan, Indonesia, and Haiti, with Pakistan as the front runner for the pilot project. Out of the ten ensembles being called in for month long tours, across a time frame of one year, four come from Pakistan! Ever since the preliminary project meetings (2010-11), the project sponsors and managers openly confessed how excited they were to interact with Pakistani artists. They could not but make this untapped talent the frontrunner for this tour; hence the tour openers were two Pakistani ensembles (Noori and Arieb Azhar).

Instep: How did Noori get the chance to be a part of the initiative?
Since this is a US grant, all artists had to apply for participation. A lot of Pakistanis working in the US Embassy in Islamabad were very keen that Noori applies for this project; they had already nominated us for participation and were in touch with us to help with the application process. We applied sometime in the fall of 2010. In the beginning of 2011, the Center Stage team came down to Pakistan to have meetings with shortlisted artists to finalize their selection. It took another six months for them to lock Arieb Azhar, Noori, Saad Haroon, and Zeb and Haniya as the final four.

Instep: How was the experience of performing in the US for the first time?
We have been regularly invited to perform in the US, but couldn't tour because of either commitments inside Pakistan, or circumstances, or simply luck. We waited ten years to tour the US. That fact was an excitement builder itself!
We performed mostly on the Eastern side of US - at best mid-west, and Texas. They were not the typical Noori performances, nor was it a typical tour for a Pakistani artist in the US. We were not just performing in front of the desi diaspora, although we did just that at least twice at the last leg of the tour. Mostly our audiences were very diverse; culturally speaking, a true American experience. Also, we were performing with an elaborate repertoire. We had Zeeshan Parwez who was adding the modern elements of electronica; Rakae Jamil who added the ethnic sounds with the sitar; and Faraz Anwar who added his crazy Yngwie Malmsteen-esque guitar solos! We were working with the cream musicians in their respective fields, and it was a unique mix of diverse sounds for the audience as well as for us.

Instep: How was the reception? How did the audience react to your music? And how was it different from performing in Pakistan or other countries?
It was amazing to see at every venue how some hardcore fans had driven/flown across hundreds of miles just to watch a Noori performance! We must not discount the majority audience who were seeing us for the first time ever; their positive response was not only encouraging, but verified the age old statement that “music has no borders”. A vital and significant part of our experience was the discipline and professionalism with which this tour was executed at the back end. Our management company had been planning out the logistics for over a year, and we were constantly in touch with each other. We were exposed to another level of work ethic, and the ease with which this project was executed allowed us to stay relaxed and focus on delivering good performances.

Instep: Could you please tell us about the new material you worked on for this tour?
The fact that we were going to perform for a diverse American audience and not just the desis was the deciding factor in going ahead with developing new content in English. The idea wasn't to make specific content for Center Stage, in the sense that cultural diplomacy and politics were not the theme in our lyrics. We focused on the individual and wanted to write about the human feelings - pain, desire, happiness, love - we all share in common, irrespective of nationality, race, or color.
Although we had decided to work on this content sometime in the middle of 2011, it wasn't until two months before the tour that we actually got down to working on it, hence we did not have a lot of time to develop and fine-tune these songs. Nonetheless we worked out around five to six demos, out of which we shortlisted three songs that we performed at every venue.

Instep: What activities, other than performing, did the band participate in as part of the program?
We were there for 23 days, out of which we performed on seven. Apart from the travelling, there were a lot of formal and informal meetings and hangouts in between. We made many new friends; our closest new friends were undoubtedly the people we closely worked with: our tour managers Lisa Booth Management and our PR company Rock Paper Scissors.
In every city we stayed, media interviews - for the likes of BBC Radio, Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post - were lined up. There was a lot of press coverage while we were in Washington DC, especially at the reception hosted by the State Department right after the Kennedy Center gig. There we also got to meet many well established Americans of Pakistani descent; it was great hanging out with a group of people who were proactively involved in giving Pakistan a “better name” and a “brighter image”.
The highlights of the stay in Washington, apart from the performance at Kennedy Center - where the turnout was so big (1900 people for 275 seats) that even the security guards freaked out at seeing such an enthusiastic Pakistani crowd, that too for a musical performance! - were of course our introductory meeting at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State. The Bureau was kind enough to arrange a trip to the White House on a few days' notice (there is usually a two month waitlist). In New Haven, Ali Noor also participated in a talk about music inspiring change amongst people; academics and musicians from a number of places were participating. We also had a small collaboration at our performance with Red Baraat, a jazz-brass band which played Bollywood hits!
Our stay in New York City, a first for almost all of us, was as crazy as we had heard it would be! The gig at Le Poisson Rouge was undoubtedly the best gig we had in the entire tour; the venue, the sound, the crowd, the energy were just perfect. There was also a reception hosted by the Asia Society, one of the main sponsors of Center Stage, which was a great event for meeting people who are in the creative business. Then, apart from a lot of tourist fun (they put us up right next to Times Square!) our management had organized meets and interviews at places like Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic; getting to see places that are global headquarters of an enterprise was an experience in itself.
The most productive and enjoyable part was meeting with people from the music industry. We met up with producers (at some of the best studios we have ever visited), promoters, and managers who had worked with the likes of Paul McCartney,  Shakira, The Black Keys, Hugh Masekela, Nitin Sawhney, Anoushka Shankar, and Karsh Kale to name a few. It was very encouraging to see the excitement many of these people showed when we discussed possibilities of working together.

Instep: Arieb Azhar was also a part of this tour. How was it to share this experience with him?
We were not touring together with Arieb Azhar throughout the tour. Our only shared performance was the first one at Kennedy Center, after which we went our own ways. We did cross paths twice on the tour and we did a bit of hanging out together. Those guys were having an awesome tour, and both ensembles had a unique experience.

Instep: The program also includes performances by artists from Indonesia and Haiti. Did you get a chance to interact with them?
This project spans over six to eight months. Noori and Arieb were the project openers, and we are super proud that they chose only Pakistani artists for launching. On the flip side, we were the only two ensembles there for this tour, so there was no meeting the rest of the artists. They will come in different installments between September and December 2012.

Instep: Did you face any problems during this tour?
We cannot say that it was a hundred percent smooth tour. We did face issues with sound at some of our venues, something we didn't expect as we thought USA would be foolproof on that front. But then reproducing live sound is not an easy job, especially when there are a lot of loud musicians on stage. Apart from that, this was the most well organized and well executed tour we have ever been part of.

Instep: What do you think this program has managed to achieve?
Our tour was the pilot project for this program. There are another eight artists who still have to perform in the coming year and we also heard that the Bureau is quite keen on having a second round of this project later on. We also got to hear that these guys are interested in having Pakistan on board again for round two, so that's another encouraging thing. What this program will achieve, we will get to see over the coming year or two. But yes, Center Stage is an innovative idea that has the potential to achieve a number of things on many fronts.
From the artists' point of view, this program will potentially open up another international arena for Pakistani (and other developing world) musicians. We definitely see some very interesting Pak-American musical collaborations taking place as a result of this project. This will be extremely beneficial for the Pakistani music scene as those talented musicians who might not fit well into the Bollywood music style will have the opportunity to tap into an audience which responds much more positively to their music.
On the more political front, music definitely plays a very important role in creating positive linkages between people. It was a regular instance to hear, in our conversations with locals, how their perception about Pakistan had been skewed by the media and that they really enjoyed interacting with normal Pakistanis, and, in fact, felt that we had a lot in common. Even us Pakistanis have been portrayed a very biased view of America, one that focuses just on the government and bypasses the common people. Americans are great people; in fact, we personally felt that there was much more synergy between our people compared to many others. And there is a lot to learn from the American work ethic. The discipline and dedication with which people work, no matter what the scale of the work, is something Pakistanis should take serious pointers from, and it has motivated us to bring back the learning to Pakistan and to try and develop similar systems here.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 21st October, 2012

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