Diminutive, rotund Arif Lohar looms large in the global pantheon of unlikely pop stars. Like his father, the renowned Alam Lohar, the Pakistani star sings Punjabi folk songs and ecstatic Sufi devotional music such as qawwali. In 2010, however, Arif Lohar’s career took an unexpected mainstream turn when he appeared on Pakistan’s hit the Coke Studio TV music series to perform a transcendent classical-pop fusion version of the Sufi classic “Alif Allah Chambey di Booti” (God’s Name Is a Jasmine Flower) with singer-actress-model Meesha Shafi. Since then, the duo’s video has racked up nearly 9 million YouTube views, dozens of which I proudly take responsibility for.
Currently in its fifth season, Coke Studio mixes classical and folk stars like Lohar and Abida Parveen with younger and hipper Pakistani musicians, with results ranging from pretty good to great. Unfortunately, fear of terrorism has effectively shut down the live music scene in Lahore, Islamabad, and elsewhere in Pakistan and, for all its popularity, Coke Studio isn’t quite the real thing. Lohar, who has reportedly recorded some 125 albums, now spends much of his life on the road, which brought him to New York’s Asia Society in April 2012 for perhaps the most literal and enjoyable take on give the people what they want this side of a Madonna nipple flash – except that Lohar’s crowd pleaser lasted much, much longer.
Born in 1966, Lohar shifts codes with a particular South Asian alacrity as he works both inside and outside Islamic forms. His sextet wore matching long black velvet coats that bore faux military insignia vaguely reminiscent of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, only with odd colonialist overtones. His guitarist chewed gum as he played thin fizzy solos, and a long-haired young dhol drummer wore Doc Martens and a T-shirt that spelled out “Calvin Klein Jeans” in silver sequins. In the back, though, was 80-year-old Allah Ditta, who played percussion and algoza, a pair of wooden flutes blown together with nonstop circular breaths.
In his black turban, dashing mustache and dainty slippers, Lohar conveyed an unexpectedly mischievous charisma you might recognize from countless Bollywood romantic leads. He dominated the stage like a rock star once he picked up his chimta, a pair of long metal tongs affixed with cymbals, which he slapped with as much authority as any tambourine-wielding gospel singer. After a slow warm up with “Qissa Mirza Sahiba”, a Punjabi folk narrative about a woman so captivating that nine angels die upon witnessing her beauty. Having established his old-school bona fides, Lohar, eyes twinkling, began to sing the slow opening stanzas of “Alif Allah Chambey di Booti,” which he’d develop over the next 40 minutes into a volcanic miasma that eventually had everyone in the hall, from expatriate South Asians to cultural voyeurs, in its grip.
A 17th-century poem by the Sufi mystic Sultan Bahu, “Chambey di Booti” contains verses like “None of the countless books you’ve read in your life has destroyed your brutal ego/ Indeed, none but the saints can kill this inner thief, for it ravages the very house in which it lives.” But for Lohar’s purposes, the song is all about the chorus, which repeatedly invokes “jugni-ji,” or “spirit-being.” Jugni’s literal meaning is “female firefly”; it also signifies a Punjabi narrative form that makes funny, sad, and bittersweet observations on the spiritual essence of daily life. Lohar worked “Chambey” like a conductor – adjusting tempos, cueing solos, and bringing everything to a halt only to launch an even more triumphant chorus. It was his hit, he knew it, and he played the hell out of it. When it was over, the group played another traditional Sufi rave, “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” (The Divine in Every Breath of Mine) and “Jugni,” the powerful opener of his 2006 hit album 21st Century Jugni. And what better encore than yet another couple of choruses of “Chambey”?
It would be a mistake to think this the only trick Lohar has in his suitcase. His repertoire includes the long-form Sufi poetry of Saif Ul Malook, the updated Punjabi folk music of Dhol Vajdaand the upbeat technobhangra jugni of, well, “Jugni.” [www.emusic.com/album/arif-lohar-bushra-sadiq-mahiye/jugni-vol-5/12740159/] Intensely aware of his audience(s), Lohar is a crossover dream and, if his MTV Iggy appearance was any indication, could well be the first international star to emerge from South Asia since the late qawwali star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Are you listening, Peter Gabriel?