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How Pakistani Singer-Songwriter Ammar Farooki Made His Mark in New York City

The Lahore-bred, Brooklyn artist recalls his ‘mad leap of faith’ to move to the U.S. and meeting Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and veteran photographer Danny Clinch

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Anurag Tagat Mar 17, 2020

Pakistani artist Ammar Farooki and Diane Desobeau at their performance at the American Folk Art Museum. Photo: Anthony Mulcahy

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At the American Folk Art Museum in New York City last month, Lahore singer-songwriter Ammar Farooki was performing in front of a quote that read, “I, too, am America” by black American writer-activist Langston Hughes.

Farooki moved to Brooklyn to make it as a full-time musician in September 2019 on an artist visa and was now presenting a new song called “Faithful,” with pianist Diane Desobeau backing him up for his open-hearted delivery of lyrics like, “While you’re guarding your fortress/I’m guarding my thoughts/Terrified of not what you’re selling/But of what I already bought.” The singer-songwriter says, “I feel this venue was the perfect place to share it. It really got a few people, and myself somewhat emotional.”

Following the release of his debut album Songs from a Cave in early 2019, Farooki – a Fullbright scholar who left the corporate and marketing world for music – took what he calls “a mad leap of faith” and moved to New York. He says he threw all his contingency plans and safety nets out of the window in a bid to be involved in music. Farooki says over email, “By most arguments and rationale it does not make sense to uproot and leave behind everything and everyone familiar and to relocate to the most competitive, wildly populated music capitals of the world. But then again, sense and sensibility have always had very little to do with art and music!”

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Watch Farooki perform “Fools” 

Although he mentions a few “side hustles,” Farooki found his place amongst musician community initiatives such as Big City Folk Sessions and Cask Sessions, plus Sofar Sounds. “Every room sends you back with a lesson […] There are also hosts of agents and middlemen who sometimes work with a roster of venues each with a unique door policy or booking policy or booking calendar,” he adds. Following about 10 shows in the last six months at venues such as Rockwood Music Hall, Farooki says, “I have been really fortunate in the people that I have gotten to meet, because some of these people have opened up new portals into the music scene.”

The list includes Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, who was playing a set with artist-musician Kate Neckel as visual art and music duo Infinite Color & Sound. “He was really moved when I told him how much his work had meant to me, and that I was from Pakistan – which in turn was really moving,” Farooki recounts. The singer-songwriter also found a friend in veteran photographer Danny Clinch (with a second performance coming up at the Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery in New Jersey), plus Tangiers Blues Band’s guitarist Chris Scianni (who will now join Farooki at a future performance).

While Farooki’s music is evidently in English and is informed by bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, he says his identity and Pakistani origin hasn’t caused any raised eyebrows while navigating the U.S. music space. In terms of cultural identification, he says, “I find myself in an unusual spot because back home in Pakistan, when I was playing shows I was asked why I wasn’t writing or singing in Urdu or Punjabi, and it was suggested that it would instantly make me a hit! And now I am the Pakistani singing English folk-rock songs in the U.S., so I think it keeps people intrigued and guessing.”

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With the first six months done with, Farooki is now looking beyond making connections. There are a few shows in the works – subject to current government advice on the global COVID-19 pandemic – but Farooki is also plotting out new releases for the summer, including having one of his live performances cut to vinyl by Brooklyn label Leesta Vall Recordings in May. He says about his current state of mind, “I can’t stress enough the importance of humility and hard work. Over the years I have seen such talented artists held back by their own egos or by the limitations of their own creation. Up till now, it’s just been about staying afloat and not letting the moment, the venues or the people overwhelm me.”

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