The summer success of "The Big Sick" -- both critically and commercially -- is no surprise to the people who attended the film's premiere at South by Southwest in March. The movie, a biographical comedy written by and starring Kumail Nanjiani, didn’t get the mainstream attention that Ryan Gosling's “Song to Song” and Jon Hamm’s “Baby Driver” did at SXSW, but the film’s screening drew a full crowd at the Paramount Theatre.
Nanjiani is a A Pakistani American, and his film screams from every corner about his Pakistani origin. When Kumail announced at the March screening that he is a Muslim no matter what, the packed, mostly white crowd in the theater cheered and clapped.
The dramatic rise in the South Asian population in the greater Austin area has created demand for artists from this region, and that has been reflected in programming at SXSW, which is already looking ahead to 2018. PanelPicker, the process through which most of SXSW’s programming is chosen, opened in June, with voting scheduled for Aug. 7-25. Registration for 2018 starts on Aug. 1.
According to the US Census Bureau , the Asian population in Travis County alone stands at 6.5 percent of 1,121,000 or about 76,000 people. The population has more than doubled since the 1990s “leaping from 3.3 percent in 1990 to somewhere near the 6.5 percent mark today.”
City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson says the rise in the Asian population in Austin is being driven by a variety of source countries and nationalities. While Indians have been the largest chunk in this mix, it is the Pakistanis who have dominated the SXSW scene from the South Asian block.
SXSW, which will be in its 31st year in 2018, has long had a strong international component, with the South Asian influence becoming more noticeable in recent years. In 2015, a two-year grant by the State Department to the Foundation of Arts, Culture and Education Pakistan (FACE) and efforts by the City of Austin helped create the atmosphere for the cultural and business exchanges at SXSW. The city’s partnerships included ATX-PAK with Capital Factory, Tech Ranch and 3-Day Startup programs. According to Alicia Dean, senior public information specialist with the City of Austin, “this was our initiative that we are leading to connect Austin to Pakistan through commerce, culture and common good.” Mayor Steve Adler declared Music of Pakistan Day during SXSW on March 14, 2016, a tradition upheld in 2017.
For two years, the State Department grant for 2015 and 2016 gave money to FACE to bring classical Pakistani vocalists and musicians to SXSW. The grant ran out in 2017 and when the foundation was faced with money issues, Zeejah Fazli, the founder of FACE, reached out to people he knew in Austin from his previous visits. Sarwat and Israr Khan of Spicewood, who grew up loving the arts and are fans of fusion sufi/qawali band, Qawalistan, decided to help. “We wanted to support them because they represent the rich culture of Pakistan through their Qawali music, and it is important for the world to see what Pakistan is truly about,” said Sarwat Khan, who is an independent cosmetologist at Salon Bellezza in Lakeway.
She and her husband, Israr, who works for the State of Texas, sent messages through Facebook to their friends in Austin who spread the message to more friends. They raised enough money to pay all the expenses for Qawalistan’s stay. As a way of saying thank you, the group played a private concert after SXSW for all those friends who came together to make this happen.
Kids and older generations were represented at the community gathering. Ayaan Khan, 5, fell asleep in his dad’s lap listening to the repetitive sound of the harmonium. “This is a great way to make our kids understand how rich their heritage is,” said Kiran Dossani, a second generation Pakistani American and a part of Austin Arts and Drama Initiative (AADI). “They won’t learn if they don’t see.”
One would have thought that these performances would appeal only to people exposed to the South Asian culture, but this was not the case. People thronged the venues regardless of their ethnicities. The South Asian community in Austin is so used to the recurrence of SXSW that people end up establishing ties with those artists who return year after year. Here’s a look at some who performed in 2017 and could be back again:
Zoe Viccaji: This singer/songwriter is a relentless performer with a hit Youtube show, “Coke Studios.” When she arrived in Austin, she began working with local musicians who were able to pick up her eastern style. Again, her shows drew people of all backgrounds, not just members of the South Asian community, and all ages. She will be in Austin end September to start a music residency with The House of Songs, a local non-profit which brings together musicians from all over the world.
Qawalistan: A fusion Sufi/Qawali band, Qawalistan divided their time between SXSW performances and meeting members of the Austin community who had collected funds to subsidize their stay during SXSW. Zeejah Fazli, the guitarist of the band and the founder of FACE Foundation from Pakistan, has been coming to the SXSW for the past three years. “I am touched by the extension of hospitality by friends in the community,” he said. “It almost feels like coming home.”
Technically, this was Qawalistan’s second visit. They were here in SXSW 2016, but as pure Qawals (Sufi or soul singers). In their last visit in 2016, they realized that their music needed to be fused with the guitar and percussion to appeal to a wider audience.
Sarah Jahaan Khan: A young filmmaker, Sarah Jahaan Khan from Pakistan, was far from home. Connecther, a local crowd funding non-profit based in Austin, invited her to be a part of an interactive panel called Inspiring Global Change Through Women’s Stories on March 17. At the age of 15, Khan made her first film, “Harvesting Hope,” which won an award at the international Girls Impact the World Film Festival at Harvard University. She said that her aim is to give a human element to statistics so that people won’t feel indifferent to problems around the world.
“At 15, I saw young girls in Chakwaal, Pakistan, give up studies to fulfill the duties of bringing water to their homes as nearby wells were drying up,” said Khan. She highlighted that in her film and tied it to global warming. She urged the audience to invest in women in rural underdeveloped areas of Pakistan so that they are able to educate themselves and support their household.
Aziz Ibrahim: A guitarist from Manchester, Aziz Ibrahim demonstrated how his guitar sounded like the eastern Sitar. In his talk, “Asian Blues: How Desi sound is Shaping New Music,” he said, “my heritage gave me a place in music. It gave me a unique identity.” He is second generation British citizen; his parents migrated from India to Pakistan in the 1940s when the two countries became independent, and then migrated to Britain.
Wajahat Ali: The much-anticipated Wajahat Ali is an Award-winning playwright, lawyer, TV host and writer for the New York Times. He is a new kind of public intellectual in an emerging generation of millennials poised for social change. Author of “The Domestic Crusaders” — the first major play about Muslim Americans — Wajahat was part of an interactive event and touched upon subjects of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Trump administration. “Be the Bugs Bunny and not Daffy Duck,” Wajahat Ali told his audience about how he successfully fights trolls with humor in social media.