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The mad genius of Aamir Zaki

Updated June 12, 2009

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Madeeha Syed revisits her interactions with one of Pakistan's best guitarists.

They say he is one of the greatest minds that the Pakistani music industry has ever harboured, that his talent knows no bounds. Speaking his name inspires awe from those who have only heard of him and an acknowledgement of his music virtuosity from his contemporaries. 'I am somewhat of a genius,' he had once said to me about himself.

Ladies and gentlemen, Aamir Zaki has surfaced once again. Just when we thought we had seen the last of him, he has appeared and begun working on different projects in a several Karachi studios.

This prodigy – who has been playing the guitar since the age of 14 –  is best known for his short stint with the Vital Signs in 1994 when he toured globally with the group and played on their fourth album before being asked to leave the band altogether. He then released his debut solo album titled Signature in 1995, from which the song 'Mera Pyaar' became a massive hit. Signature was otherwise criticised for being too ‘clinical’. Back then, the launch of the album was considered to be an important stepping stone towards a fruitful career by one of the country's greatest guitar maestros.

But things didn’t go as planned and Aamir disappeared instead, surfacing now and then to perform at select venues, collaborating with individuals on small and at times incomplete projects, hopping in and out of the country, to and fro from Canada. At least, that's the official version.

Under the surface, Aamir has always had a somewhat volatile, almost unpredictable personality. He ranges from being a control-freak to incredibly reclusive, surprisingly friendly and intensely bitter. Almost everyone who has interacted with him has an Aamir story.

'I think leaving the Vital Signs messed him up badly,' says a music vocalist, who used to be considered a child prodigy in Pakistan (enough hints!) several years ago. 'Really?' I couldn't help asking. 'Yes. I’ve seen him in his darkest moods. He became self-destructive; he even burnt some of his guitars.' When confronted with this scenario, Rohail Hyatt, one of the founding members of the band, was visibly surprised and stated, 'No, no. I don’t think leaving the Signs had a psychological effect on him. Although I don’t know what other effects it might have had.'

In my interactions with him, starting with a Pink Floyd tribute concert in September 2005, Aamir has been erratic in his behaviour and the decisions he makes. The concert itself was memorable with several mainstream guitar players, who happened to be at the venue, jumping on stage to play their bit. In between, Aamir stood outside, tall, lean and thin, visibly tanned, a shadow of the person he used to be.

He had started teaching guitar lessons at the National Academy of Performing Arts back then and several months later abruptly packed up and left for Canada to work as a head producer in a recording firm owned and operated by an expat. Not surprisingly, soon after settling in there, he abruptly packed up and came back to Pakistan without any explanation except that he wasn’t comfortable with how ‘a certain person’ was working with ‘other people’ in the firm, and went into hiding again.

He then performed at a jazz gig in December 2006 with Gumby on drums. The organisers had flown in a cello and a saxophone player, and again, it was a memorable gig. The only aspect of the evening which may have ruined it for some is that when Aamir started performing, he tended to 'overplay', often going in front of the other musicians, moving about in what seemed to be an attempt to steal the limelight.

Post-gig, Aamir was ecstatic. He especially kept referring to Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty, which he had performed, saying that he felt a close affinity to the song. He kept strumming his guitar and kept repeating the following verse:

'You used to think that it was so easy You used to say that it was so easy But you’re tryin’, you're tryin’ now Another year and then you’d be happy Just one more year and then you’d be happy But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now.'

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Aamir felt that the above lyrics in the song were a representation of how he, to this day, keeps trying to start over again and again in his life. What followed this gig were a series of appearances, rants, and disappearances by the said artiste.

In the meantime, he released Rough Cut with Hadiqa Kiyani, which bombed. He was supposed to release his much-awaited Ten-Year Eclipse album, but didn’t - as he put it, 'I had to delete Ten-Year Eclipse and another album before that. Because record labels and TV stations only seem to worry about videos and have no interest in the music really.'

He then announced that he was releasing a third album titled Radio Star, which he sent in for a review but which never made an online release as promised. Ardent Aamir Zaki fans need not worry, the album contained some of his five- to 10-year-old compositions, which include 'The Day She Left' and 'Storm-Chaser' among some of his other familiar tunes.

And then, as was becoming a familiar pattern with him, he went into hiding. This time, his intent seemed stronger as compared to the previous ones and most thought he would probably never 'come back.'

But word has it that he is back. And that he is working in the studio on several albums. But it is also said that he is not well; physically and mentally, he has a lot to work through. Perhaps there is a price for having the genius that he does. One can only hope that this time, his surfacing would be for the better. Of course, the scarcity of recorded work by Aamir has made it virtually impossible for individuals to trace his growth and maturity as a musician over the years. Between Signature (1995), Rough Cut (2007) and Radio Star (2007), there is a large, gaping void - in light of the erratic behaviour that he has exhibited in the past, one wonders whether Aamir's current re-surfacing will produce anything different.

Going through some old emails, I came across this message dated October 15, 2007.

Madeeha,

Hope things have been good with you, as you know as a friend that I went through a complete break from the whole world for about 10 months now. We shall discuss the reasons in person one day, if going back into a depressing past makes sense at that point...

The tone of the message leaves me wondering whether thinking of the past and of what could-have-been in his life had, among other things, resulted in Aamir's bitterness.

Madeeha Syed can be reached at madeeha@dawn.com.