Washington — “None of us has been to the U.S. before, so it’s an eye-opener for all of us,” said Pakistani singer-songwriter Arieb Azhar from the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “They’ve planned the tour in such a way that … we’ll get to see the real small-town America, which we’re really looking forward to seeing.”
Azhar performed to a large and vocal audience on June 19, along with rock band noori, in the kickoff event for Center Stage, a cultural diplomacy initiative of the Department of State, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, that will feature a wide array of performing artists acclaimed in their homelands but little known to Americans.
During their Kennedy Center performance, Azhar and noori seemed determined to make sure everyone in this American venue remembered them well. Amid the notes of the arrangement for guitar, flute and hand drums, Azhur incorporated the American gospel standard “Down by the Riverside” into his set’s opening song. “It’s a message of peace,” he said afterward, “so why not?”
One of Pakistan’s leading pop bands, noori (a phrase meaning “made out of light”) is led by brothers Ali Noor and Ali Hamza. “I think I’ll let the music talk,” Ali Hamza said, taking the stage, “because I’m very nervous.” You wouldn’t have known it from the blistering set noori delivered. Invocations of Sufi poets that might be unfamiliar to Americans were couched in skilled guitar-bass-drum arrangements delivered with a healthy dose of rock ’n’ roll showmanship.
This first wave of Center Stage’s performing artists come from Pakistan, Haiti and Indonesia and include musicians, dancers, a hip-hop crew and a sketch comedy duo. Each artist will tour for a month between June and December, visiting medium- and small-sized American towns and cities, not only performing, but also participating in workshops, community gatherings and artist-to-artist exchanges.
The goal, articulated by Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock in her introduction of the event, is to “welcome international artists to Main Street America.”
“We can’t wait to break down some barriers in the states and connect with more Americans,” Ali Noor said. Azhar, a longtime fan of American music, looked forward to a more modest goal: “We’re going to Chicago. I’m really looking forward to listening to some blues music there.”
Watch Arieb Azhar and noori’s performance on the Kennedy Center website.
More information on Center Stage is available on the website of the New England Foundation for the Arts.