“Cinderella!” A familiar voice resonates through the auditorium. The audience cheers enthusiastically, not because they are fans of the namesake fairytale but because they know this voice and know this song, word by word, beat by beat.

I wonder at this point if Sajjad Ali, when he penned the lyrics ‘Kisi aur ki dulhan na bunn jana, Cinderella’ [Don’t become someone else’s bride, Cinderella], had known that this unembellished admission of love would one day be considered iconic.

But that’s just the magic wielded by Sajjad Ali. We recognise his distinctive voice as our own, his particular brand of upbeat, melodious pop reminds us of happy teenage memories, and his lyrics resonate with us. Whether they plaintively address a waada-faramosh [unfaithful] lover in a slow ballad or step up the beat for a Cinderella or a Babiya, or edge towards rock that hollers ‘Bolo bolo tum ne kya dekha?’ [Tell me what you saw].

On stage at a recently-held awards ceremony in Dubai, Sajjad Ali lip-synced to the first few strains of Cinderella before moving on to his other all-too-familiar hits. The last song in the medley, the peppy upbeat Mahiwal, prompted the first two rows of the audience lined with celebrities to stand up and begin dancing.

Uber-musician Sajjad Ali is in no rush to do what others are doing. He keeps up with the times and doesn’t like to dwell in the past. He doesn’t like giving interviews and he doesn’t believe in self-pity. Maybe that’s why he has real fans, not Insta followers…

Ali stepped off the stage to dance with them. There was cheering and clapping and some very groovy moves by an excited Umair Jaswal, and it duly got filmed and floated out on social media.

A planned finale act couldn’t have possibly mustered the same energy that this unplanned moment did. Also, not every performance is able to inspire such love and enthusiasm within an audience that is accustomed to star-studded ceremonies. Sajjad Ali’s did so, effortlessly. The event organisers must have been over the moon.

I witness more of the singer’s fandom when I interview him the following afternoon for Icon. He’s had a busy two days, rehearsing for the show and, then, performing and I was half-afraid that he would be too exhausted for this interview. Fortunately, we end up meeting late in the afternoon, during lunch. A crowd mills about us all through our conversation and I often pause the voice recorder on my phone. There are fans who want to take selfies, shake his hand, tell him that they loved the previous night’s performance.

Two nights earlier, when I had met him at the rehearsals, Ali had told me that he had ‘fans rather than followers’, a sideways observation on the colossal fake followings that are often the claims-to-fame of present-day stars. I see these fans firsthand during our broken-up interview and they are, of course, far better than the faceless purchased online bots that spiral Instagram followings up to a few millions!

I ask him why he doesn’t perform on stage more often, considering how avidly he is loved by the audience.

“I do, if there is a show where my particular module of performing fits in,” he says. “If something appeals to me and I feel that it doesn’t go against my nature, I do it. I perform often, when I want to. I have never been in a rush to do what others are doing.”

Ali is truly in no rush at all. He’s opted out of the relentless chakra that spins after fame and has settled happily at a pinnacle where he is creating music that he loves, catering to an audience that is irrevocably his own. Time and again, he tells me that he doesn’t judge others because “everyone has their own path and their own motives.”

He also hardly ever gives interviews — something that makes my present conversation with him all the more special.

Sajjad Ali and Reema in Baarish
Sajjad Ali and Reema in Baarish

“I really don’t see any point to interviews,” he says. “What question will I be asked that hasn’t been asked already? A genuine artist lays his soul bare for people to see when he composes something. My work is my interview, my personality.”

Following a similar vein, Ali is fairly reticent on social media too, especially in comparison to others in the music industry who have evolved into all-out ‘Insta-stars’. He says: “I know exactly how much I want to be in the spotlight. Quantity cannot replace quality. I release little glimpses of my work every now and then, and I think that that is enough.

“All these changes in technology have come into the world right in front of me. I have adapted to them to the extent that I feel is necessary. I refuse to become someone that I’m not in order to build a persona on social media.”

Technology, he says, has never deterred him. “During the course of my career, so many changes took place in audio and video, and I was one of the very first people in Pakistan to utilise them. I remember how non-linear editing was introduced about 25 years ago and we had immediately got the equipment. An artist needs to evolve with the times. I get very irritated when people talk about how things were in their zamana [era]. An individual’s time continues for as long as he or she is alive.”

Ali had told me that he had ‘fans rather than followers’, a sideways observation on the colossal fake followings that are often the claims-to-fame of present-day stars. I see these fans firsthand during our broken-up interview and they are, of course, far better than the faceless purchased online bots that spiral Instagram followings up to a few millions!

I observe that these comments are usually made by senior artists who are disillusioned by how the media operates today.

with Sonya Hussyn in Qaraar
with Sonya Hussyn in Qaraar

“So what? If they are not happy with the way things are, they can try to do things their way. A person who continues to do work will never feel underappreciated or disappointed. It’s very important to keep innovating and pushing yourself further.”

As a senior artist himself, does he get upset when he hears stories of renowned actors, directors and musicians spending their final days in destitution? Does he feel that Pakistan doesn’t value and respect its icons? Ali frowns and, to my relief, does not launch into the jeremiad that tends to follow this question.

“My question is, do these icons respect themselves? Do they continue working and evolving or do they sequester themselves into a corner, victim-blaming and complaining? Why do they let their careers disintegrate? It is common sense that, when you are flourishing and at your peak, you set finances aside for your future.

“What were they doing when millions were raining down on them? Why did they waste it all on partying and lavish spending? They should have had the financial sense to perceive that an emergency could arise someday, that they may have to pay medical bills or manage daily expenses.”

Softening, he adds, “Yes, if a sudden emergency arises, the government should have welfare organisations set up that help people, not just those in the entertainment industry, but everyone. Artists generally have very little financial sense, so sometimes they need to be helped out,” he smiles.

Ali, though, seems to have his business in order. He currently ricochets between two homes, one in Dubai and one in Lahore. He shifted to Dubai many years ago because he “had always wanted to live abroad in a place which had a strong infrastructure, a diverse demographic and the children could move about without fearing for their security.”

The move to Lahore took place much later when his children, now grown-up and building careers of their own as music producers, felt that it was professionally important to operate from within Pakistan.

He also owns all his music because, back when artists all around him were making money by giving away copyrights to their songs, he chose to be “grumpy and possessive” about his work.

“All my songs are my property,” he smiles fondly, perhaps recalling the huge collection of hits that he has collated over the years. “They are for me and for my children and their children. How could I give away my music to someone else?

“A lot of musicians around me didn’t think things through, never foreseeing that, in the future, there may be new platforms and mediums where they would want to play their music. Today, so many of them can’t even play their own most popular songs at concerts. If someone wants to utilise my music they can gain a license for it for a restricted time period. But I would never allow someone to own my songs forever.”

Does this mean that he earns a neat sum through royalties? “Yes, there are channels that pay royalties and brands that purchase licensing rights.”

Sajjad may have been farsighted or lucky, but does he feel that Pakistan’s music industry is generally on the decline, with artists primarily earning through concerts or the occasional gig, if they manage to land it, on corporate-sponsored shows such as Coke Studio (CS), Velo Soundstation and Pepsi Battle of the Bands?

“To the contrary, I think that it has never been easier to become a hit. Forget YouTube, even a single video made at home and uploaded on Facebook or Instagram can make the most unlikely person shoot to popularity. It’s heaven for the untalented and the useless!” he laughs.

He adds: “Both my children are now producing music and there are a lot of financial benefits to gain from social media streaming. A lot of musicians just don’t realise it.”

Does he guide his children on how to build their careers? “I give advice on production, yes,” he says. “I took my children out of school right after they completed their A-levels. I didn’t want them to continue studying from the syllabus and thought that they needed to concentrate on what they did well. No university in the world could teach them how to develop the concept of a song, write it, compose its audio, record, mix, master, edit and produce it. They had to learn all this through experience.”

His children evidently guide him too.

“They are my free-of-cost PR managers!” he laughs. “They tell me exactly how much I need to put out on social media, when to release BTS [Behind-The-Scenes] of upcoming songs. It’s because of them that I post so rarely. They monitor what I should do and what I shouldn’t!”

Even while living for years on Dubai’s proverbial middle-ground, why did he never dabble with a collaboration with India, particularly Bollywood? His sole tryst associated with Bollywood, to my recollection, was the video Sohni Lagdi, which starred actor Gulshan Gover.

“Things just never worked out,” Sajjad answers honestly. “They would want me to sing the sort of songs that I didn’t want to sing and, once you refuse a few offers, word gets around and people stop approaching you.

“A lot of Pakistan’s top musicians have done exceptional work in collaborations with Bollywood. The financial benefits and PR generated from Bollywood movies is immense and, sadly, even on our home-ground, Pakistan only truly appreciates its own once they have made their names elsewhere.”

He counts off a few examples. “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was applauded once Bally Sagoo from India had collaborated with him, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan were considered phenomenal once they had worked with Biddu. It’s just human psyche.

“In my case, wherever I am in the world, every musical release of mine is a purely Pakistani product. Pakistani technicians have worked in it, it adds value to Pakistani audio and video and I perform at shows planned out by Pakistani organisers. It’s domestic, 100 percent.”

I recall a long ago interview with him, shortly after the release of his flippant Kir Kir Kir on CS, when he had talked about how a music video should focus on the singer as much as on the protagonists, i.e. the hero and heroine. Why, after a short stint on the cinematic screen back in the ’80s and ’90’s, did he cease to pursue an acting career?

“Our filmmaking environment is not very professional, and I realised that I was happy making videos that told stories, the way movies do,” he explains.

His videos do tell stories — usually romantic ones. Early last year, his video Baarish was a romantic medley starring him opposite superstar Reema Khan. The latest video Qaraar, released earlier this week, stars actress Sonya Hussyn.

What age group does he think signifies his main audience? “All age groups,” he answers simply. “There are college students who do covers of some of my songs and older people who remember my earlier work. We have a problem of getting stuck in our teenage years and everyone has particular favourites from my songs that remind them of their younger days.”

Isn’t that natural? “Not for me. Every time of my life has been my best time. This is my best time. And I hope to see even better times in the future.” He smiles.

Sajjad Ali speaks with a hard-won wisdom gathered over the years, bolstered by a bona fide passion for his music. Everyone has a Sajjad Ali song that they like best. But, as far as he is concerned, the best is yet to come.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 21st, 2021

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