For Umer Piracha, sufi music was a constant soundtrack as he grew up. He was born and raised in Multan, a city in the Punjab province of Pakistan that’s also home to a rich history of Sufism, a mystic tradition of Islam and the devotional music that goes along with it.
“Sufi music, that was always performed outside the shrines of saints in my hometown,” said Piracha, who all the while trained as the designated chanter of the more traditional Koran verses at school. “It was just part of the fabric of living.”
But it wasn’t until Piracha moved thousands of miles away to Pennsylvania that he developed an even closer relationship with this rich music tradition.
Moving to the United States
At 18, Piracha began his studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, where he enjoyed playing guitar and gravitated toward singing covers of bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead.
But at the same time, he developed a longing for home. He recalls connecting with other friends from Pakistan who shared this experience. They’d eat Pakistani food together and spend a lot of time listening to traditionally Sufi music, specifically that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of Pakistan’s most renowned singers.
“I wasn’t expecting to connect this deeply to the music,” he recalled. “It just enchanted me like nothing else.”
An extended period apart
Piracha landed a job in Philadelphia after college, but it was around the time the economy crashed.
“I was worried about how that might affect my employment and my visa situation,” he recalled. “I became really risk-averse in terms of travel and anything that might impact my status.”
For eight years, he stayed stateside, yearning for home and the nearness of family who, fortunately, were able to visit him on a few occasions.
“That felt like a long time!” Piracha said.
He felt an even greater pull toward Sufi music.
“So in this process of creating meaning out of this incredible amount of suffering, I think I just dedicated myself to music and doing well, and cultivating beautiful relationships here.”
Finding connection in Sufi chants
Piracha was especially drawn to the aesthetics of the chants of the Chishti order of the 14th century.
“Orders tend to have a particular transcendent practice that borrows from the arts — dance or music,” Piracha said. “The one Rumi created [in Konya, Turkey] was whirling dervishes that’s most known in the western imagination. But, really, there are many practices.”
While transcendent in nature, the chants also echoed themes of longing and separation from home.
“There’s a parallel connection to themes explored in this music. The music is about a state of separation and this longing for union, but it’s more metaphorical,” Piracha said. “There’s a journey involved, an inner journey involved, to get to that place of union. And almost all of our actions are defined by that journey.”
Another way he describes this music is as “a cure for alienation.”
Still, Piracha said it wasn’t until recently, a couple of years ago, that he gained the courage to perform this music for others. He recalls singing some melodies to his bandmates with whom he’d long played pop and electronic music.
“When I started to sing this music, it enchanted them as well.”
Then guitarist Tom Deis picked up his guitar.
“He was just immediately sold.”
On playing out and finally visiting home
One of the songs they began performing is called “Aaj Rang Hai,” an homage to the leader of the Chishti Sufi order. Such songs are improvisational in nature and can last anywhere from five to 30 minutes during performances.
“What that translates to is ‘Today there is color yet again’ after a period of colorlessness,” Piracha said. “The song is just about the desire to express that to everybody, like today, I feel like the color of the rising sun.”
But, something else happened during this time: Piracha was finally able to take a trip to his home in Pakistan. During that process, he had another transformative experience relating to the music and its themes.
“There was a moment where I had a fruit I hadn’t had in 10 years because it’s seasonal. And that fruit is called falsa,” he said.
Falsa, Piracha explained, has the texture of a blueberry. It’s only in season for a few weeks, in May and June, and it’s hard to export. When he finally tasted it again, he was overcome with a deep sense of home.
“When I had it after 10 years for the first time, it was this very profound feeling that I was home. And that home is something you can’t take with you, you can only to return to it. I had no power in the situation.
“All I had to do is just give myself up and be embraced in the majesty of feeling,” Piracha said. “And it was in that moment of just feeling a certain sense of insignificance that I also experienced this expansion of being.”
Piracha said that experience encapsulates what he’s trying to do in the music he now performs. So, he and his bandmates call themselves Falsa.
For Piracha, sharing this music with audiences in and around Philadelphia has since been cathartic.
“It felt like I was finally doing something that I was meant to be doing all along.”
But it’s humbling, too.
“It also feels terrifying. Still now, I feel like I need to be doing justice to it.”
Umer Piracha and his band, Falsa, open for the West Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday at Franky Bradley’s in Center City.
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