F&M Stories

Alumnus Returns to Perform Sufi Fusion at F&M

Haunting instrumental strains are background to the melodic voice of Franklin & Marshall College alumnus Umer Piracha '07, who will give a virtual campus performance of Sufi fusion Sept. 24.

Piracha, who last performed at F&M in 2012, explained the difference between Sufi fusion and Sufi music, which, as its main instruments, uses the nay, a reed flute, and the benedir, a frame drum.

"It's when Sufi music and poetry that developed in traditional Sufi orders over the centuries meet the instrumentation of more contemporary genres," he said. "Sometimes, that's intentionally in an 'East meets West' sort of approach, and other times, it's more organically due to 'immigration plus diverse artistic circles plus time,'" he said.

The instruments of Falsa, an ensemble Piracha performs with, are a harmonium, electric bass, Spanish guitar, drum set, dhol (a double barrel drum) and Carnatic violin. Another ensemble, Charu Suri & Friends, uses piano, percussion and an upright bass for jazz renditions of Indian classical ragas.

"I sing Sufi songs with both ensembles," he said.

Piracha, who graduated with a degree in business, organizations and society and was featured in a 2013 Alumni Spotlight video, sang with Charu Suri and Friends at Carnegie Hall last year. They are scheduled to perform there again in July.

Sufism is a "mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God," according to Encyclopedia Britannica. "It consists of a variety of mystical paths that are designed to ascertain the nature of humanity and of God and to facilitate the experience of the presence of divine love and wisdom in the world."

Piracha and F&M Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Rachel Feldman '09, moderator of the 7 p.m. performance, met as undergraduates. She asked that he once again introduce Sufi fusion to the campus to help bring students together in this era of pandemic isolation.

"While this music comes out of the Islamic tradition in Southeast Asia, it speaks more broadly to a universal desire for human connection and spiritual elevation," Feldman said. "Sufi music awakens our senses and inspires awe. It is a musical language for the ineffable."

Piracha discovered his music passion on two occasions. "The first was at 3 years old when my mother hired an instructor to teach me how to chant prayers as she recognized a singing ability," he said. "Then it happened again in fifth grade when my mother agreed to buy me a guitar."

While he has mastered Zoom for performances beamed from his living room, he is eager to return to singing before people instead of a screen camera.

"This music is a great fit for intimate spaces focused on arts and heritage, such as museums, galleries, academic institutions and places of worship," he said.

For Feldman, the concert also will dovetail with her academic course.

"The core of that introduction to the religious studies class is, 'What are the fundamental aspects of the religious experience that transcend culture or individual religions?' Sufi music really taps into that idea," she said.

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