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Three decades of friendship with Aamir Zaki, Pakistan's unsung guitar hero

The writer recalls the rise and fall of Pakistan's greatest guitarist as he quietly battled depression
Updated Jun 02, 2018 04:55pm


This article was originally published on June 3, 2017


It was 1987.

Fresh out of college in Karachi, I was planning to get into Karachi University (KU) as a student of political science. Much of my four years at college were spent as an activist against a reactionary dictatorship. Even though I had been arrested twice and once even tortured, I planed to continue my stint as a student leader at KU.

In July 1987 a car bomb had gone off in Karachi's congested Empress Market area, killing dozens of shopkeepers and shoppers. It was a sickening sight; an event directly related to Pakistan's involvement in the Afghan Civil War; an involvement I had been protesting against since my first year in college in 1984.

In August 1987, a college acquaintance, Ozzie, a Pakistani-Christian, fan of George Micheal and himself a pretty decent crooner, gave me a cassette of a song recorded by a Pakistani band called The Scratch. Ozzie knew that unlike him, I was more into raunchier music.

"You will like this," he told me. "And check out the guitar player."

There were not many Pakistani bands around in those days. Men such as Alamgir and Muhammad Ali Sheikhi were stars, carefully navigating through the many restrictions imposed on music which was considered to be 'obscene' and 'decadent' by the dictatorship.

Nazia and Zoheb were on top as well, dishing out albums which were brilliantly produced fusions of classic disco, funk and Pakistani 'filmi' music. The duo had been banned by the dictatorship in 1982. The ban was lifted in 1983 when, during a meeting, Nazia and Zoheb convinced Zia that their music was not against his so-called 'Islamisation' policies.

The urban middle-classes had expanded during the Zia years 1977-88). By the mid and late 1980s, bands had begun to emerge playing covers of contemporary pop hits and heavier rock songs at college events, weddings and private parties.

When I played Ozzie's tape on my Sony Walkman II in August 1987, the Vital Signs had already released their first song 'Dil, Dil Pakistan' and Ali Azmat was about to form The Jupiters. But at the time I had no clue who they were.

The song on Ozzie's tape was titled, 'The Bomb.' It was written and recorded by Scratch just a day after the Empress Market blast. Extremely bluesy and melancholic, what got my immediate attention was the guitar sound. Very Eric Clapton, I thought. Or even Mark Knophler. Clean, loose and very bluesy. I wondered, who on Earth was playing the guitar like that in Pakistan. The vocals were by a woman, but the lyrics were terrible.

***

1988.

A KU friend arrived at my house with tickets to a concert at the Intercontinental Hotel (now Pearl Continental). Three bands were to play at this concert near the pool side area of the hotel: Vital Signs, The Scratch and one other band. The Signs were yet to release their first album. But I recognised the name, 'Scratch'. So I decided to go.

We smoked a bit and reached the venue which was teeming with teens and 20-year-olds like me. The Signs did not show up. Nor did that other band. But The Scratch did. A guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and a female vocalist in a floral maxi.

Amir Zaki in 'The Scratch.' Picture courtesy: TR
Amir Zaki in 'The Scratch.' Picture courtesy: TR

They played six songs. All 1980s pop covers. The last one was 'Walk Like An Egyptian' by The Bangles. The band did a decent rendition of it, until the guitarist went entirely ballistic during the outro of the song. Switching between long blues leads, raunchy riffs and even some heavy metal stuff, a time came when the rest of his band members just couldn't keep up and simply stopped playing. The guitarist turned around and pressed his guitar over an amplifier to produce loud feedback sound that must have pierced through and across every room in the hotel. It was nuts. I loved it.

I got hold of him after the show. He was quietly packing up his gear: an amp and a yellow and white Fender Stretocaster. The rest of the band was on the other side of the hallway. I told him he was brilliant. He was surprised. I introduced myself and he did too. His name was Aamir Zaki. And the next evening I was at his place in Karachi's PECHS area.

In 1988 Zaki's bedroom featured posters of Eric Clapton. Zaki also played the bass, and that too a fretless one preferred by dexterous jazz-fusionists.

In his bedroom were posters of Eric Clapton. He was in love with him, especially with Clapton's '461 Ocean Boulevard' album. Zaki also played the bass, and that too a fretless one preferred by dexterous jazz-fusionists.

We talked about the blues, jazz, prog-rock and the works, until we came to 'The Bomb.' I told him the lyrics were crap. He agreed and then asked me to write new ones. So I did, right there. He loved them. He picked up an acoustic guitar and set those lyrics to a new version of the song. Right there. Thus began my friendship with this most talented and (as we shall see), also most frustrating musician.

***

1993.

I had joined journalism in December 1990. I worked as a political and then a crime reporter for a weekly till late 1992. Then quite accidentally, I became a music critic.

The pop scene in the country had exploded after the demise of Zia in August 1988. Though things did not get any better as far violence and corruption go, and where crime was concerned, the music scene continued to expand, also helped by the fact that certain multinationals began pumping in money into emerging pop acts.

I befriended almost all the new stars. But it was always a musician-critic relationship between us, which blew hot and cold. I always thought they were opportunistic and ungrateful and they believed I was 'unpredictable' and thought of myself as much of a star as they were. I did. I was.

But my friendship with Zaki was different. We were actually friends. With the music scene expanding, I wanted Zaki to be its leading star. As a teenager, he had already played with the 'greats', such as Alamgir.

By 1993, Zaki had gotten so much better, so flawless, so waiting to just burst out and become the scene's most accomplished player. But he didn't.

I asked him to assemble a band and jump on the great Pakistani pop bandwagon which had begun to roll into town. "No musician can keep up with what I want to do, and how I want to play," he lamented. He wasn't being arrogant. He was right.

"What the hell do you want me to play?" He asked one April evening in 1993. I had told him to stop being this brilliant, misunderstood and reclusive sessions player for bygone pop dinosaurs and mediocre jingle-singers. I asked him to assemble a band and jump on the great Pakistani pop bandwagon which had begun to roll into town.

"No musician can keep up with what I want to do, and how I want to play," he lamented. He wasn't being arrogant. He was right. He was just too goddamn good. Nevertheless, he finally agreed to form a band. He had quit Scratch in 1988. He had spent all his time honing his talents and playing the odd show with Alamgir.

But now a lucky pop musician could actually make some good money through his/her art in Pakistan. So, in 1993, he not only formed a band but also got married. The band was made up of a drummer, a bassist (both Pakistani-Christians), and, of course, Zaki. He asked for a name and I gave him one: Just In Case. It stuck.

Amir Zaki in Just in Case. Picture courtesy: S. Baloch
Amir Zaki in Just in Case. Picture courtesy: S. Baloch

Zaki was very close to musicians from Karachi's Goan Christian community. These men and women had fallen on hard times after nightclubs where they had played in the 1960s and 1970s closed down in April 1977. Zaki's love for jazz and classical blues music came from his endearing relationship with Goan Christian musicians. Some of them even played at his wedding at the Intercontinental.

Just in Case failed to take off. As did his marriage. He had married a highly intelligent daughter of a famous playwright and theatre and TV director. It didn't work out. Zaki was too moody, too sulky, too critical of people he actually cared the most about. He was also self-critical.

I told him he whined too much. He lashed out and responded by telling me that I was hanging out with the "mediocres" too much. The stars.

He vanished for the next few months until he called again in November 1994.

He told me he had formed another version of Just In Case. It had a guy, I think he was called Benny, on bass, and a real powerhouse drummer whose name I can't recall. Zaki picked me up from my house and we drove down to the drummer's house.

The band jammed non-stop for over three hours. I recorded the session on a tape-recorder. It was intense. The sound was like Rush making out with Cream and then both flirting with Miles Davis. It was awesome, complex, epic. And I told him so. But he complained that the bassist was not able to keep up and the drummer was continuously trying to overshadow the guitar. Uh-oh.

So this edition of Just in Case fell apart as well. Zaki vanished again.

***

1994.

After months of silence, I got a call again.

"NFP, how about coffee?"

"Sure," I said.

"No, light yourself a cigarette, in fact fix yourself a drink. You will need it after I tell you what I want to tell you." He was super excited.

I began to laugh: "Don't tell me you are getting married again."

"No, no," he replied. "Something even stranger!"

That something 'stranger' was an offer by the Signs to join the band. The Signs, at the time the land's biggest pop act, had ousted their second guitarist, Rizwan-ul-Haq. They now wanted Zaki to be in the group because the Signs' leader, Rohail Hayyat, wanted to expand the band's sound and have a 'more accomplished guitarist.'

Amir Zaki with The Signs. Picture courtesy: PakMusic.com
Amir Zaki with The Signs. Picture courtesy: PakMusic.com

Zaki asked me whether he should join the Signs. I told him, absolutely. But the truth was, he had already made up his mind. He was going to join and finally taste the pleasures of the mainstream scene.

I called Rohail and told him that getting Zaki in the band was a master stroke, even though I quite liked Rizwan as well. I thought his subtle, melodic style of playing was perfect for the Signs. But Rohail wanted to do something deeper and more complex on the next Signs album. "A mixture of vintage Eagles and Fleetwood Mac," he told me.

Perfect.

***

1995

Before and after he joined the Signs, I heard Zaki play on numerous occasions. But I tell you, the way he played with the Signs on the dozen or so concerts that the band played in 1994, was the best I have seen him play. His black Gibson added such a refreshing dimension to all the great Signs songs, making them richer, edgier. Those concerts were such a pleasure to watch.

But this was just too good to last. Actually, I knew it could not. At the time, the Signs were going through their own existential crisis, and here was this volatile and moody guitar genius sandwiched between an equally moody (but far more practical) Rohail and a vocalist (Junaid Jamshed) who was not agreeing with Rohail's idea of 'making a more complex album.'

Also, Zaki wanted equal share of the profits and royalties. Rohail refused.

I knew what was transpiring. Rohail requested me not to put it in print because the band was in the process of making an album and was still on Pepsi's payroll.

Zaki drove down to my house and we shared a cigarette on a sidewalk.

He seemed calm. Not angry at all. With the Signs, for a bit, he had experienced the rush of the mainstream scene. He had enjoyed it and wanted more of it, but on his own terms. "Zaki, you should be a star," I reminded him.

Zaki then decided to storm the mainstream all by himself. A few weeks after leaving the Signs, he played me the demo tape he had recorded for his first solo album. On it he played the guitar, bass, keyboards and used a drum-machine. Heck, he even sang.

Unable to find the kind of musicians who he believed could 'keep up with him', Zaki decided to storm the mainstream all by himself. A few weeks after leaving the Signs, he played me the demo tape he had recorded for his first solo album. On it he played the guitar, bass, keyboards and used a drum-machine. Heck, he even sang.

I loved the songs and the instrumentals. They were driven, and one song, 'Mera Pyar' was right up there with the most melodic stuff the Signs had done. I asked him who the song was about and he told me, 'someone who doesn't exist and never will.'

In mid-1995, he released his first album, 'Signature.' I wasn't all that impressed by the final product. He had smoothened it too much. 'Mera Pyar' still sounded good, but the rest, though technically perfect, was overproduced.

The cover of 'Signature.'
The cover of 'Signature.'

"This sounds like elevator music played in a dishwasher," I jokingly told him. "You should have let the sound leak and bleed through the speakers. And where the heck is the feedback? This is just too clean."

He was livid. And as expected out came the 'mediocre' taunt: "NFP, you have been promoting and listening to the mediocres too much." The stars.

I responded by saying that he hadn't used even half of the magic and tricks he possessed as a musician. "This is repressed stuff, man."

He did not respond. And vanished.

However, thanks to the heavy play the video of 'Mera Pyar' enjoyed on local pop shows, the album did rather well, bagging him a dedicated cult following.

***

1998.

By the late 1990s, the music scene had begun to recede. Falling sales and diminishing multinational interest saw the exit of numerous bands and acts. Many even began to move towards more 'spiritual' callings, joining the Islamic evangelical outfits which had begun to mushroom from the mid-1990s onwards.

I'd had enough as well, suffering from years of substance abuse and those exhausting pretensions of helping to herald in some kind of a cultural revolution through music. My relationship with the eroding music scene collapsed, but I did continue to meet Zaki.

He seemed disgusted by the scene. It was not authentic, he rightly pointed out. Then he packed his bags and moved to the US.

***

1999/2000.

A mutual friend, TR, kept me informed about Zaki's stay in the US. He was earning a living by playing in blues and jazz bars. TR told me that there he had finally found the musicians he could relate to (and vice versa). But not for long.

I received a call. It was Zaki. "NFP, kya ho raha hai?"

"You are back," I said.

"Yes."

"Now what?" I asked.

"Coffee?"

"Sure."

We met for coffee. I told him I'd cleaned up, gotten married and quit music journalism.

"Those mediocres never deserved the attention you gave them," he said. "Perhaps," I said. "But you should have been a star."

He suddenly went quiet and began to stare at a wall behind us.

"I have to go." Saying this, he just left.

I didn't meet him or hear from him for the next four years.

***

2005.

I received a call on my cell phone. I couldn't recognise the number. I answered and it was him.

"NFP, what's up?" "Zak?" "Yes. Where have you vanished?" "Are you the only person allowed to vanish?" He began to laugh: "I'm recording again." "That's nice, Zak, but I have no clue about the local music scene anymore." "I know. I know you quit writing. I quit making music. Too much mediocrity here." "Yes," I replied.

We met that evening and he played me a tape of the songs he had recorded with Hadiqa Kayani. Hadiqa was always a terrific singer. But those songs, they were terrible. Muddy, confused, half-baked. But I remained quiet.

"You didn't like them?" He guessed. "Zak, this just doesn't work for me." He wasn't angry. He just snickered: "Well, I like them."

That was the last time I met him. I moved back into journalism (but away from music). There was no music scene to write about anyway. The country was was being ripped apart by extremist violence and terrorism. Zaki never made another album. He became a music tutor and would on occasion play small gigs here and there. The concert scene had eroded as well.

***

2015.

Zaki appeared on Coke Studio to play guitar on a song by Zohaib Hassan. I was delighted.

Two days later, I received a call on my cell phone. It was TR. He told me Zaki was in the hospital. What happened?

Amir Zaki with Zoe Viccaji. Picture courtesy: Aania Shah
Amir Zaki with Zoe Viccaji. Picture courtesy: Aania Shah

It turned out, Zaki had been unwell. I knew he was mentally fragile and extremely moody, but now TR was telling me he had needed professional help.

Zaki returned from his latest stint in an institution and it was on that day TR called me again to tell me Zaki wanted to speak to me.

"Hey, NFP", came a tired voice on my phone.

"Oye, Zak, what have you been doing to yourself?"

"Come over and I'll tell you," he replied.

"You should have become a star, Zak. You should have let the sound leak and bleed. You should have let it all out. You had so much magic. It is this magic in you which is rebelling," I said.

"Hmm." Came a tired response. "Come over. We will have coffee. Talk."

***

2017.

We never did have that talk. I don't know why. Life went on until I saw that headline on Dawn.com: 'Aamir Zaki passes away at 49.'

The irony of it all is that I was in New Orleans at the time of his passing - the birthplace of jazz and the blues.

The two greatest loves of his largely unrequited life.