About one year ago, Ali Sethi wrote and sang a super-hit song called Pasoori for Coke Studio. It was a game-changer, an original composition that the world couldn’t stop listening to, a song that blared out at parties and in restaurants, from rickshaws and in bazaars, at concerts and on social media.

One could say that the unprecedented success of Pasoori pinpointed the direction in which the talented Mr Sethi’s career would move hereon.

“Pasoori gave me the confidence that my voice as a singer, songwriter and composer, my perspective, my politics, my aesthetic... these were not just marginalised shadows that I carried within me,” Ali tells Icon. “I could share them with the world and the world might just respond.”

The world has been responding quite enthusiastically. At the time at which Ali and I have our conversation, sitting on opposite ends of an online Zoom meeting, the singer is visiting home in Lahore for a few short days. He is about to leave for New York — his other home for the past few years — and has a busy concert schedule lined up, including performing at the music festival Coachella for two weekends in April.

Pasoori has only recently been ranked as the most Googled song of 2022, the most streamed Pakistani song on Spotify, and Ali has followed up its success with his latest single, an off-the-wall, funky rendition of Mirza Daagh Dehlvi’s ghazal, Ghazab Kiya.

Seven years into his career, you could say that Ali Sethi has found his groove.

Pre-Pasoori, the singer was particularly associated with his renditions of well-loved classics. Studying with ustaads, modulating his voice to the tune of different instruments, understanding and absorbing the principles of classical music, he was learning the ropes and giving his own spin to the ghazal genre. He tells me that he now wants to explore further.

Ali Sethi’s musical career can be divided into pre-Pasoori and post-Pasoori phases. In the former, he was an apprentice to the masters. In the latter, he is the unabashed, experimental, musical wild child. But what is his obsession with indicating left and turning right?

“I think that the coronavirus pandemic made a lot of us pause and re-evaluate how we wanted to move ahead with our lives,” he muses. “Over the past three years, I have been through a lot of changes and it has become very important for me to have the freedom to express myself. I am in a space where I am telling my story through music, and Pasoori was the first time that I did this in a big way.”

There are avid listeners from the pre-Pasoori days, who yearn for his erstwhile style of singing, which was more traditional than offbeat.

“I understand that they might enjoy my particular take on traditional music but, for me, what was and is most important is that I should remain independent and be able to follow my instincts. Right now, I want to journey and push myself, to be stimulated and seduced by new ideas. I want to create original music and to experiment. Left ka indicator de dena aur phir right murr jaana [Indicate left but then turn right]!” He grins.

The description is spot-on, particularly when I think of Ghazab Kiya, a piece of poetry from the 19th century, earlier sung by ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan. On instinct, one associates the undulating, soothing style of ghazal singing with the lyrics. But Ali, in the driver’s seat, indicated left but careened to the right with an edgy, unexpected number.

Wunderkind music producer Abdullah Siddiqui’s touch is very visible; the music screeches and pauses, thumps to a hypnotic beat with techno-funk getting merged with the tabla and the harmonium. It’s a new-age twist to the ghazal, the perfect successor to the Pasoori behemoth.

“I created the composition, the dhun, recorded my vocals and sent the song to Abdullah,” says Ali, describing the creation of Ghazab Kiya. “I told him to put an Abdullah filter on it, and he asked me if I was sure. I said I was, and then he sent me a version and told me not to freak out when I heard it. It was brilliant. My composition had included traditional elements, the harmonium, the guitar, but Abdullah simply took it to a new place.”

He continues, “Abdullah’s a mutant, a truly revolutionary young musician who is changing the sound of Pakistani music in a very serious way that I think few people areaware of right now. He’s taking our music into the future.”

Abdullah Siddiqui was also one of the forces behind the creation of Pasoori, although the song first took birth when Ali saw a Punjabi line written randomly on the back of a truck.

Ali recalls, “Making the melody was easier and then I started writing the lyrics. I recorded the tune in a voice knot and sent it to Xulfi [Coke Studio curator and producer] and he responded, telling me that the song would be heard everywhere. We went back and forth, working on it.

Xulfi suggested that Shae Gill should sing the song with me. I was familiar with Shae’s work because someone had sent me a link from her Instagram account, where she had been singing my ghazal, Khabr-i-Tahayyur-i-Ishq. In the same mehfil , she had sung a jazz song and I had thought to myself that who was this unicorn, who could switch between genres so effortlessly?”

Abdullah Siddiqui was taken on board for the sound design and the collaborative process, essential for any genuinely creative endeavour, went underway.

I comment to him Ali that, while creating Pasoori, he may have had thought that it would be a success, but did he ever expect it to become such a huge hit? Or is the song just one of those rare phenomena that just happen?

“Yes, it just happened,” he agrees. “I felt that the song could become something special on the day that we were finalising it. A lot of us were there, myself, Xulfi, the video’s director Kamal Khan, Hashim Ali who did the art direction, Shae Gill and so many others, and I just realised that there were absolutely no egos on the set. There was a childlike openness and a wide-eyed wonder, and in that state of humility and wonder, we all came together to create the song.”

And are there egotistical energies often on the set of a music video? “Yes, they can be. I think they stem from insecurities. I, myself, have brought them into certain performances,” Ali admits. “I think that there are times when you are fearful that you won’t do a good job or there’s a lot riding on you that you try too hard and build walls around yourself. There was none of that when we were creating Pasoori. It was all very natural and organic, from start to finish.”

We move on to the song’s eclectic video which certainly adds to the musical experience. “It’s eccentric, without the typical tropes that we see in music videos. It’s like a mystical, visual experience: at one end, there is Sheema Kirmani dancing the Bharat Natyam. Then, there are boys from Chakwal, boys from Lyari, boys dancing the Kathak with their kurtas swirling around them, girls reading books, a person with gemstones on the face sitting at a window. Even the lyrics are mysterious. There is a paradox to the song, you wonder what it’s saying, what the visuals are symbolising in the video.”

Did he ever doubt whether the audience would be able to connect with the visuals? He replies, “With every work of art, there’s an entire list of questions that you ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve? What is the best way to do this?’ Sometimes it is an adventure and, sometimes, a struggle, an uphill task, a complete train wreck! You are not always in control and that is what I have learnt, over the past few years; that it is alright to surrender and give up on wanting to control every aspect of life. It is alright to follow your instincts and do what excites you.”

Have there been times when his instincts haven’t resulted in success, any career regrets that he may have? He pauses. “I regret Ranjish hi sahi,” he refers to the ghazal that he sang in the tenth season of CS. “My performance was too tense and there were too many harkats in my rendition. Now, when I sing it live, I sing it in a more respectful way. I think that I was under pressure at the time because I knew that I couldn’t measure up to the greats. I wish that I had been more relaxed.”

Has working in the US helped him hone his craft and develop a niche where his music is traditional and yet, modern?

Photography: Asad bin Javed | Styling: Fahad Hussayn Academy MUA: Shamroz Shaukat | Wardrobe: Etro & Zain Ali
Photography: Asad bin Javed | Styling: Fahad Hussayn Academy MUA: Shamroz Shaukat | Wardrobe: Etro & Zain Ali

“Yes, so much of the music that I have made recently, that has been appreciated by listeners in South Asia, was inspired by my encounters with musicians in the West,” he says. “I am enjoying looking for new ways of reconciling the tradition of Hindustani classical music that I have always loved, with the contemporary sounds that I hear around me. Chandni Raat, Ishq, Khabr-i-Tahayyur-i-Ishq and even Pasoori are songs with unconventional arrangements.

Chandni Raat is a ghazal which has the French horn and piano incorporated into its composition, rather than the tabla or harmonium. A harp plays out in Khabr-i-Tahayyur-i-Ishq, an improvisation which was suggested to me by my producer Noah Georgeson. Even in Pasoori’s case, I remember walking the streets of New York and listening to Reggaeton, and wondering how the beat of Latin music could be linked with our bhangra.

“Living between places, it gives me access to this really interesting tension. I am here but I am also there, I am in the East and in the West, I am a traditional musician but also a cosmopolitan one. How do I connect the two experiences without having to choose one over the other? It’s an eternal question for people like myself.”

I recall a time, while the world was sequestered into Covid-19 lockdown, when I had had an online conversation with Ali. He had gone to the US for his spring tour and had gotten locked down in New York due to the pandemic. At that time, he had spoken about the conformist opinions that are an unfortunate inherent part of Pakistan, or rather, South Asian society. Does he still feel the same way?

“There is a lot of fascism in modern day South Asia,” he concedes. “There is this feeling in the air — conform or else. It’s interesting to be part of a varied South Asian diaspora that exists in North America. There are people like myself, who feel a sense of exile. We are rooted to our traditions but, at the same time, we also feel ill at ease with the culture of conformity and oppressive uniformity that we encounter in the countries from where we originate. Our home countries are precious to us but at the same time, we make the most out of the creative freedom that we derive from interacting with a more diverse set of artists co-existing in the West.”

“Also, there’s a lot of scope for work in the West related to music productions, scoring, making albums, being a feature in other people’s projects. It’s a huge musical ecosystem! We have it in South Asia also, but Indo-Pak politics has unfortunately gotten in the way of the free exchange of ideas and creativity.

“As a form of protest, there’s a sense of playfulness within many artists here. It is noticeable sometimes in the clothes that we wear, the way we look into a camera, the way we communicate with people around us. I don’t ever want to lose this playfulness.”

That sense of play, of pushing boundaries, eschewing conventions and venturing into unknown new territories is evident in Ali’s work today. In retrospect, after concluding my conversation with him and while writing the piece, I think that one can easily divide Ali’s musical career into two separate eras: pre-Pasoori and post-Pasoori.

In the former period, he was an apprentice to the masters, learning the nuances to his craft and improvising tentatively mostly with renditions of classics. In the latter time — present time — Ali Sethi has metamorphosed into an unabashedly artistic, experimental wild-child who can spin an ancient piece of poetry into unexpected directions. You’ll think that he’s turning left but he’ll swerve to the right.

That’s quite a ride.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 22th, 2023

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