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Aamir Zaki and Fayyaz Ahmed during one of their shoots in 2013 - Photos: Fayyaz Ahmed
Aamir Zaki and Fayyaz Ahmed during one of their shoots in 2013 - Photos: Fayyaz Ahmed

“He was very intelligent yet unpredictable,” says portrait and fashion photographer, and video director, Fayyaz Ahmed. “The best artists are often broken, so was he. I wish I could’ve known him in his prime. It was after ages that I actually felt someone’s death.”

He was talking about one of his subjects he’d grown very close to in the last few years of his life — Aamir Zaki. On June 2, almost exactly one year ago, one of the most influential guitarists in Pakistan Aamir Zaki passed away. He was 49 years old.

Fayyaz had first met Zaki in 2011 through a friend. He later photographed Zaki in 2013 for a sponsored gig that took place in Lahore. One of the photos from that shoot, a black and white one in which Zaki is wearing a white shirt and holding up his modified Stratocaster, would be reproduced in print, television and online at the time of Zaki’s death — becoming iconic in itself. Fayyaz, however, was never asked whether his photo could be used and, in most cases, was not even credited.

But since that shoot in 2013, Zaki and Fayyaz had struck up a friendship. What most don’t know about the photographer is that he’s also a bit of a musician himself. He’s been playing the guitar since long before he even became a photographer. Why did he not pursue music instead? “I don’t think you can make a good career out of being a guitarist in Pakistan,” he laughs.

Photographer Fayyaz Ahmed had become close to guitarist Amir Zaki and they had bonded over a shared love of music. Since Zaki’s death, exactly a year ago, Ahmed has been restoring some of the maestro’s guitars

Zaki and Fayyaz bonded over their mutual love for music. “He used to teach at the Mad School, my studio is opposite that, so he’d drop in,” relates Fayyaz. “Sometimes, he’d say, ‘Pick me up, we’re going for a jam.’ I’ve also been to his house several times as well … with all his cats.” Fayyaz would use those opportunities to sometimes record — audio and video — of Zaki playing or talking about his instruments or some story from his life and/or career.

Fayyaz was shooting designer Adnan Pardesy’s collection with Hareem Farooq when he got the call about Zaki’s death. “I was stunned,” he says, saying it took a while for it to sink in. “We’d met a month earlier, and we were supposed to shoot a music video,” he adds. It was for Zaki’s song Aao Baitho Kaisi Ho. Does that haunt him? “Of course,” he responds.

When did he first think about preserving Zaki’s guitars? “I thought someone might have taken them,” says Fayyaz. “Because a lot of time he’d end up selling one of his guitars or amps to pay his rent. But he mentioned once that he wanted his guitars to be preserved. So, people could see what he did.”

Other than constantly modifying the guitars that he would acquire to his liking — to a point where the customised instrument would be very different from the original — Zaki also had a knack for building his own guitars from scratch. He would experiment with different types of wood, shapes and styles among other things — often trying to think outside the box. In 2015, he started working on a ‘bat’ guitar — literally, a guitar shaped like a bat that he joked you could play both music and cricket with. Zaki never ended up completing it.

(Left) The modified Stratocaster that took over a month to restore. Aamir Zaki’s brother Shahid had carved Zaki’s initials on the headstock. (Middle) The unfinished bat guitar. (Right) The black Washburn that Zaki used the most in his last performances
(Left) The modified Stratocaster that took over a month to restore. Aamir Zaki’s brother Shahid had carved Zaki’s initials on the headstock. (Middle) The unfinished bat guitar. (Right) The black Washburn that Zaki used the most in his last performances

Working with wood is a family tradition of sorts, while Aamir was the designer of the bat guitar, the woodwork part of it was done by Aamir’s brother Shahid Zaki and his son. Aamir was present throughout the process. Shahid also carved his brother’s initials on the headstock of Aamir’s beloved modified Stratocaster.

“Although Fender is the guitar company that introduced the Stratocaster shape, this is the Zaki Strat — the neck is from Mighty Mite and is made from maple wood; with a compound radius, ebony wood fingerboard. It’s attached to the body of another guitar whose original finish was stripped off,” relates Fayyaz. “It’s quite a heavy guitar compared to most Strats.”

Fayyaz approached the family in August about his intentions. He picked the guitars he felt were important or made by Zaki himself — the Zaki Stratocaster, a black Washburn and the bat guitar.

“When I saw the Strat, it was all broken apart,” relates Fayyaz. “The neck was disjointed, the basic electronics — everything was open. I wondered if something was even left … could we get something out of this? The electronics while intact were uninstalled. It was challenging to put all the wiring and the three pickups back together the right way.”

But he had help with some of the audio and video recordings he had made of his conversations with Zaki — the latter had described how he’d modified this guitar. Using that, and with the help of some of the photos he’d taken during their shoots together, he painstakingly put the guitar back together again. It took over a month, some minor parts needed to be ordered, but now it’s completely restored.

“I’d heard what it sounded like,” he says. “I’d even played it before. It’s a very different guitar, the sound is different from a regular guitar.”

“He made the bat guitar a long time ago but he never finished it,” adds Fayyaz about the one Zaki built himself. “It can’t be played in its current state. I can finish it, but I don’t want to. I think the right thing is to leave it the way he left it.”

And lastly, the black Washburn. “That is the one he’d been performing with most recently, as he was avoiding lifting heavy things, probably due to his health,” he says. “It’s a very, very light guitar. It’s like a Les Paul, but thinner.”

Does he play them? “I don’t,” he says. “I do take them out to make sure everything is working, but I don’t feel comfortable playing them.” Does he feel there’s a bit of Zaki left in them? “Of course,” Fayyaz responds.

“Some of those that knew him felt that Aamir destroyed his guitars so no one could buy them,” he adds. “But I don’t think that was the case. It was his habit to constantly pull apart his guitars and to change and modify them — make them better. That’s what he was doing all along.”

It’s been a whole year. Does he think he’s reached the point where he’s moved on from Zaki’s death? “I don’t think I’ve moved on, to be honest,” he says quietly.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 3rd, 2018

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