Umer Piracha is a man on a mission. Years ago, as a 15-year old, he left his close-knit family in Multan, Pakistan to attend high school in the city of Lahore. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” recalls the 28-year old singer and songwriter. But that journey was just the beginning.
Three years later, in 2003, he made an even longer trip to upstate Pennsylvania, as a student at Franklin & Marshall College where he sang in the college choir and majored in business. Now a Philadelphia resident, the artist has a vision.
“I’m starting a science and philosophy video series with a team of artists and academics in Urdu for Pakistani audiences,” says Piracha. “There are so many opinions about Pakistan inundating global media,” says Piracha. “I feel led to make a contribution outside of culture to explore our common humanity.”
He also plans to release an EP in the next few years, featuring a mix of Urdu tracks with electronic instruments, as well as acoustic songs in English. I spoke with him last Friday over the phone.
When did you first start playing music?
I was raised in Multan, Pakistan, but I went to high school in Lahore and a year before I left, I remember having my mother buy me a guitar. I was about 15. Back then, I only dabbled in music. But I was serious enough that when I applied to colleges in America, I included an actual audio cassette of my music with my applications, not realizing that people had already moved on to CDs. I thought that would give them a better sense of my person.
When did you start taking your music seriously?
A year after college, I found myself at an accounting job. I was so unhappy that I felt like I would die. All of my creative energies were suppressed. But then I got laid off and my creative energy came rushing back. It was a religious awakening of sorts.
How does your family feel about your music?
They have come to really support it. I’m the oldest. I’m the only one in my family who has not attended medical school. But I have found kind and soft ways to say no to my family. I understand their worries come from a place of love.
Your musical influences?
I listen to a lot of classical music from both Eastern and Western artists. Mozart. Beethoven. While at college, I rediscovered classical Qawali music from Pakistan, artists like Abida Parveen. I never enjoyed pop too much. Pop music goes away after a while. It’s too transitory.I have found kind and soft ways to say no to my family.
What is the mission of your music?
I want to create something that uplifts people and says something. For example, I did a piece called “Irtiqa” which means “evolution,” is inspired by the minorities in Pakistan. It asks us to step back and recognize the common humanity of everyone. When you start to develop a universal set of ethics, you begin to love everyone the same, without attaching too much importance to religious and national identity.
I feel so much pain, for example, about the recent attacks in Pakistan’s Joseph Colony against Christians. I capture all of the pain in my songs. But my music is not all about pain. A better way to describe it is to say I capture the universal, collective heart in my songs.
Of your own songs, which one is your favorite?
Can I give two? One is in English. Another in Urdu. The song in English is called “Depths” and it’s inspired by my visit to the shrine of Sufi poet Rumi, where I lived for a month in 2005. It’s about losing yourself and not paying attention to trivialities. My other favorite is in Urdu and it’s called “Hum Safar Na Tawan.” It’s about alienation and companionship.
How does living in Philadelphia inspire your art?
In some places owning a big house and having a nice car are more important than making art. But in Philadelphia — making art is really accepted.