Talk with Umer Piracha (Singer-Songwriter and Guitarist)


Sadaf Fayyaz

Q1. Tell us a bit about your background, education and childhood.

Umer: I was raised in Multan in a very traditional family. I grew up in fortunate circumstances,  with a strong yet intimate man as my father, three amazing younger siblings, and my mother and two aunts (who also lived with us) altogether providing thrice the usual intensity of motherly affection afforded to people. This provided a foundation unlike any other.  After O levels, I went to Aitchison College for A levels, learned from the challenges of living in a hostel, and then went to USA to continue my studies. There, I encountered amazing teachers, colleagues, and disciplines, and fell deeply in love with philosophy, film, religious studies, psychology, and music. Now I live and work in Philadelphia, USA.

Q2. Tell us something about your musical training.

Umer: I always loved music, but I became particularly inspired studying music theory and techniques in western and eastern classical music while going to the wonderful Franklin and Marshall College in USA. I realized that the likes of Mozart and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for example, have served as a medium for a very unique gift to humanity.  Although I took a few weeks of guitar lessons when I was fifteen, I think eventually I learned what I know so far by perhaps the only possible way to learn music, which is to really listen; to pay attention to the rules inherent in the infinite universes present in each note played, and the potential for creating beauty in every chord struck, regardless of the instrument. So now most of my music is improvised based on what I hear, it’s as if the lack of formal training has forced me to either develop or recognize a pre-existing ear for music.

Q3. What message does your music reflect? Is it peace, love or any other?

Umer: I see the arts, particularly music, as a medium that uplifts the hearts and enables us to automatically glimpse certain spiritual truths, expressions of which are embedded in my music. I want to convey a vision of profound change in the way we see the world as individuals and as a nation;  to develop Love as a spiritual capacity, and not just as a feeling; to live compassionate lives; to foster intimate relationships that result in complete equality between men and women; to study all religions of the world with equal love and view them as Fountains of the same Divine Garden, but most importantly, to create complete unity of the global family of people, where we may rise above the self-serving identity traps of nationalities, religions and races, and love equally and in every way all the peoples of the world. This internal change and the intimate relationships that result from this process would be a strong foundation for achieving peace.

Q4. How do you manage all the music industry politics?

Umer: To be honest so far I’ve kept my artistic undertakings far removed from politics. My day job helps provide stability too (although its time consuming), so I can pursue music without any major financial worries, which helps keep the superficial concerns at bay. But I see hints and potentials for politics in the feedback that I get related to protecting my songs as a ‘product’ or going for a certain sound in a commercial sense, but I am surrounded by artists who’s message is much more sincere and powerful, which is to keep creating and keep borrowing from honest inspiration and everything else seems to move along just fine. So I’m happy with that.

Q5. There is so much competition in the music industry, where do you see yourself after some years?

Umer: I don’t feel particularly competitive with my music, but I know that hearts are always receptive to sincere and fresh ideas.  I’d like my music to spread and to be a source of entertainment, relaxation, and inspiration for people, but I’d also much prefer that a few people really grasp and internalize the message in my music, and can then talk about it, than say, masses of people who’ll passively listen and then just move on. I’ll be working towards releasing my first album soon called ‘The Depths’.  We’ll see what direction the wind blows then!

Q6. How often do you jam?

Umer: Everyday somehow!

Q7.What is your inspiration?

Umer: My song ‘The Depths’ (title song from my upcoming album) is about the essence of ecstatic spiritual love, a spiritual reality I was touched by after living close to Maulana Rumi’s shrine in Turkey in the summer of 2005. This visit was funded by Franklin and Marshall College, where I studied for four years in USA, and that blessed institution provided an opportunity to follow many such glimmers that were equally as powerful. These pursuits shine in my life in the form of people, books, artwork, and of course, music. I have much to learn from them. My music in that sense is an expression of my continuing journey and it has made me even more fascinated with the institutions of science, religion, and justice and what they mean to humanity. This fascination, in turn, becomes an inspiration for my music that increases in intensity by the day. It’s a cycle I never want to break away from; there is so much to learn and share.

Q8. What was the first instrument that you learnt playing?

Umer: Guitar! I bought one in 9th grade when my mother and I went to Lahore one weekend; I don’t believe Multan has any instrument shops still, but I may be wrong. I also wanted to learn Tablas but someone stole them so I figured it wasn’t meant to be.

Q9. When and how did you get interested in music?

Umer: My father always sings at home, and loudly so. He’s not shy at all, which makes me feel like I also naturally belong on the stage when I perform. He also used to share Urdu poetry, and listen to songs from 60s and 70s when Pakistan was much more accepting of arts as culture, as much as one would expect the opposite.  He always used to say that things of beauty find expression in the arts. Such passion naturally makes a child wonder about the source of such inspirations. So from an early age I learned that the relationship between music/arts and the human soul demands that we not only accept the arts but let it thrive socially and penetrate every aspect of our daily life.

Q10. What are your plans? Would you remain solo or form any band?

Umer: Plans are to go where the wind takes me! So far that has seemed to work out ok. I’m working on compiling an album now. The personal nature of my projects probably makes it difficult to form a band, but the inspirations behind the music easily connect with other artists and result in the most wonderful collaborations. For example, one of my instrumental works ‘Extremophile’ is about the life of microbial bacteria and astrobiology and its connection with spirituality, and I am collaborating with some modern dancers and improve musicians who will adapt movement to the ideas behind the song. It’s a production to be held in late May in a performance space in Philadelphia, I’m really excited for it and may improvise vocals.

Q11. Who are your favorite bands and musicians?

Umer: Michael Jackson, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pathaney Khan, Radiohead, Bob Dylan and  Leonard Cohen.

Q12. What is your biggest desire and expectation?

Umer: In my life time I guess it would be purification of heart and growing closer inwardly to the divine source of the beauty that I experience in music, and for my music to be an expression of this journey. Also I’d like to see my family and friends prosper. Expectation, however, is a tricky word because I’m also just an audience to how things are developing. A lot has happened since my childhood in Multan, and we’ll see what the future holds.

Q13. How do you take criticism?

Umer: I try to take it healthily, and hope that I’m successful in doing that. I want to create good and meaningful music, so I try to remain detached from it on some level to be able to take criticism. Naturally it’s not always possible to be detached, but I try. It’s much easier when it’s genuine criticism coming from someone who loves me and wants to see me develop and grow in my arts and as a person.

Q14. How do you define music?

Umer: I think of music as a ladder for the soul, a means whereby we can connect with our higher nature, and only hold on to things that unite us as people. For that reason then, the act of trying to perfect this art, similar to Sufi Mevlevi and Zen Buddhist traditions, is like worship that purifies the heart and unclogs the mind.

Q15. Where can we find your music online?

Umer: I’m working on setting up my own website. It’s also much more easily available now if you search for me on Google, Facebook, or YouTube.

Q16. As an artist, how would you like to be remembered by people?

Umer: I’d like to be remembered for the message in my music, but ultimately it’s the message that really needs to be remembered.

Q17. Lastly, what is your message?

Umer: A major idea embedded in my music is that a time is upon us where humanity as a whole is maturing very fast (just like a person matures from childhood all the way to old age), and maturing not only materially with advances in technology, but also spiritually. But in the spiritual arena, we need a clearer direction and more intimate relationships in our communities. The times require us to develop unconditional and ‘equal’ love for all peoples of the world and profound sensitivity to their suffering, whether they are in Palestine or Israel, America or Afghanistan, whether Hindu or Muslim, and whether from one’s own family, or that of one’s neighbor. I cannot emphasize enough the need to cultivate this inner change, which enables us to view all religions and nationalities as flowers of the same Garden; it only makes it more beautiful that they may be of different colors!  Finally, my music embodies the recognition that the essence of all religions of the world is one, and they only seem to differ in ways that are ultimately non-essential to the spiritual development of a person or a community.  For Pakistanis, particularly artists, I wish that they too would allow their life and work to become a channel for these truths, no matter how big the hurdles may seem.  We must create a space in Pakistan where inspiration can thrive everywhere, held together by the vision of a spiritually advanced community. Our country really needs it.