It's hard sometimes not to think that the Beatitudes were written about life in a rock 'n' roll van. From books that detail near-Odyssean conquests to documentaries that capture both the esprit and ennui of time spent on the road, the travails of touring have generated their own microgenre of musical lore.
But it's a privileged position, isn't it, to be able to bounce around the country by van, going from club to club in hopes of building a career—one that depends on infrastructure and industry, expectations and audience? Center Stage, a new cultural exchange spearheaded by the U.S. Department of State and in its second year, recruits musical outfits from around the world to put them through the stateside rock 'n' roll wringer—sort of, at least.
With a mix of public and private funds (in 2014, about $1.6 million), the program helps pay for international adventures that would otherwise be impossible. In two years, they've imported hip-hop from Indonesia and singer-songwriters from Haiti, funk from Morocco and electronica from Vietnam. This week, Center Stage brings Poor Rich Boy, a sextet based in Lahore, Pakistan, to Durham for a collaboration with Brooklyn chamber-pop trio Plume Giant. It's a rare chance for the band not only to see the machinations of an American music scene but for them to leave their own imprint, too.
Poor Rich Boy's East Coast run won't be as rough around the edges as most small tours of young new rock bands. They'll stay in hotels instead of crashing on couches and will fly to far-away dates rather than wrestle white-line fever through all-night drives. But back home, Poor Rich Boy has its own unique set of challenges, including working to build an infrastructure from fragments of a scene.
"The independent musicians who are doing something, which is a little off the mainstream stuff, they have to organize the gigs themselves," says guitarist Zain Ahsan. "They have to manage it themselves. They have to perform themselves, too. You have to do everything yourself."
That DIY struggle is compounded by the band's cultural positioning back home: Their songs are in English in a country whose mother tongue is Urdu, and its EP, Old Money, leans on the Western influence of indie rock and jazz. In Pakistan, such sounds don't fit a native industry; Poor Rich Boy is lucky to get a date every few months.
"The best that will happen is we'll get a show every month, or every two months, or sometimes once every six months," Ahsan says. "So we never really got the feel of playing every day or feeling like a musician. For the first two years, we would go and play at cafes and restaurants just so that people could hear us. Maybe we would get a bigger gig from there, which we didn't."
When those restaurant gigs finally failed, Poor Rich Boy and its scattered contemporaries rallied friends to host performances at people's homes, sometimes attracting up to 200 people. Recently, that activity helped generate spaces dedicated to music; in Lahore, the band now plays at The Guitar School and True Brew Records. Still, shows are limited.
Given that they're not exactly getting rich with this music in Pakistan, American tours for upstarts such as Poor Rich Boy can be financially impossible, making initiatives such as Center Stage paramount. Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald says the American tax structure for dealing with such bands is prohibitive, creating general bureaucratic hoops that limit cultural cross-pollination.
"The federal tax on foreign artists is 30 percent. The visa requirements are so involved that, in a lot of ways, the only way a group like this can make a tour of the United States is with substantial outside support. It's, like, the most fucked thing in the world," he says. "If you believe that art is a place where cultural exchange is viable, the manner in which the IRS has chosen to handle it really makes that more and more difficult to engage."
The management agency that handles Center Stage called on Duke Performances because of the organization's curatorial reputation; each year, Greenwald works not only with touring acts but with special one-off events and international premieres. A Poor Rich Boy stop in Durham, then, represented not just another show but a chance for unlikely engagement. Next week's performance at Duke's Music in the Gardens series will include a collaboration between Plume Giant and Poor Rich Boy, a work commissioned by Duke Performances.
"It seemed to me like the most immersive, satisfying experience they could probably have would be to collaborate with U.S. musicians," says Greenwald. "[Plume Giant] are super progressive and have really big ears, tons of classical training, as well as being very interested in making indie rock music."
Plume Giant member Oliver Hill has worked with Poor Rich Boy through e-mail on the composition, a 30-minute suite of drone-based music played with keyboards. They'll meet in Durham to finesse the details and rehearse before the debut. Hill is eager to see how the bands push each other's boundaries in person.
"It is just always fun to get out of your wheelhouse and out of your project and feeling very precious," he says, "to have someone come in and blow your world to bits a little bit. To have seven people come into our studio and have all different instruments and have a whole different idea is going to be shocking and great."
The enrichment doesn't stop with the commission. Plume Giant recently opened for emerging violinist and singer-songwriter Kishi Bashi on tour. He'll be in Durham, playing at Motorco, the night before the Duke Performances show. Greenwald wants to cart the band around Durham, giving them a glimpse into an American music scene while having them attend a concert in a big rock club.
"I can only imagine that if you live almost exclusively in Pakistan, your notion of the manner in which music is made in the United States is probably opaque or oblique at best," he says. "We're trying to just kind of describe the scene to them."
Hours before boarding their plane to begin their American journey, Poor Rich Boy finished their first full-length album. They've been burning copies on the road, hoping to leave their audiences with a tangible sample of what they do.
"These are songs that are very close to us," Ahsan says, "and we just want to play for people."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Get the van."