Few truly embody the phrase 'tortured artist' like Aamir Zaki did

Few truly embody the phrase 'tortured artist' like Aamir Zaki did

Hasan Zaidi recalls the idiosyncrasies of Pakistan's greatest guitarist
11 Jun, 2017

The year was 1999. We’d already decided that we wanted to take the basic melody of the haunting 1966 song by the Bengali composer Moslehuddin and make instrumental variations of it as the score of our film. We’d even decided that the song title, 'Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke', would be the title of the film, Mohammed Hanif’s adaptation of Scorsese’s After Hours set in and about Karachi.

Then my partner in crime, the late Musadiq Sanwal — a brilliant musician who would later go on to become’s first editor — called me one night and told me he’d been thinking long and hard about which musical instruments to use for the variations. “I think it should be the guitar,” he said, “because it’s modern and symbolises the youth. Like Karachi.”

When I whole-heartedly agreed with Sanwal’s line of thinking, the only question that remained was who we would ask to actually play the guitar. Both of us had only one name in our heads: Aamir Zaki. Because Aamir was, by far, the best guitarist in Pakistan.

Thankfully Aamir agreed, even though — as he himself once complained to me later — this was a strange film scoring. The film had not yet been edited. Only Sanwal and I actually knew which situations required what kind of musical interventions. All Aamir had to go on was our directions.

Aamir Zaki was a prodigiously talented musician but also nurtured a darkness within himself. He passed away on June 2, at the age of 49

Sanwal and I supervised the recordings in Arshad Mahmud’s studio, where Aamir was paired with Ustad Bashir Khan on the tabla, probably the best tabla-nawaz in Karachi at the time. Aamir gave us a number of variations — light, melancholic, upbeat, slow and dark, including on his fretless bass. Finally he asked to be allowed to record a version without any directions from us. It was classic Zaki — all wailing guitars tinged with his own version of the blues, soaring into tangents but looping back to the original melody like a seasoned jazz player.

Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed
Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed

When the film was edited, Aamir’s score fit it like a glove. “Next time, at least show me the visuals,” he admonished me at its first screening. “I could’ve done so much more.” That was Zaki for you, never satisfied, always a perfectionist. As far as I am aware, Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke remains the only film Aamir Zaki ever scored music for.


Flashback to April 1995. I used to be, among other things, a music critic at the Herald. Aamir Zaki’s first solo album, Signature, had just been released and I was reviewing it for the magazine. “What does a virtuoso guitarist do when he can’t find any band that will match his talents?” began the review. “He goes solo of course.”

Zaki had just left his ‘biggest’ gig — a short stint with the ubergroup Vital Signs after years of being on the sidelines of fame in smaller, fringe bands. He brought a hard edge to the group’s sound in live concerts, pulling it by the scruff of its neck from bubble-gum pop into raw and exciting territory. A concert at the KMC Sports Complex in Karachi stands out in my memory. But it couldn’t last. The Signs were too set in their ways, too much in love with their fame and corporate money. Zaki, never an easy person to deal with, with his ideas of musical purity, his perfectionism and his mood swings, was always a misfit in the band.

“Aamir Zaki is probably one of the most prodigiously talented musicians to emerge from the wave of West-inspired music that has swept Pakistan,” I’d written in 1995. “Thankfully he brings dedication and hard work to a musical trend that seems to have decided on short-cuts to success. Only a couple of other young urban Pakistani musicians have put in as much time in honing their craft as has Aamir, who has been playing guitar for over 13 years now but has only just come out with his first solo album. And his blues and jazz-inspired debut album is easily a cut above the rest of the market.”

“One often hears the cliché of the tortured artist and, in most cases, it is hyperbole, a marketing gimmick spread by artists themselves and even less-talented writers too reliant on easy tropes. But Aamir embodied the phrase like few others.”

My review of Signature was overwhelmingly positive, though it also included these lines: “If there is a shortcoming of the album, it is that Aamir’s ‘signature’ is not quite clear. You can hear his influences, from Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Andres Segovia, George Benson, Jim Hall, Pat Methany, Santana, African, Latin et al, but the real Aamir Zaki does not seem to have made his style clear. However … [it’s] quite clear … that in his parting of ways with Vital Signs, the loss has been Vital Signs’.”

Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed
Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed

Aamir’s only feedback on the review, conveyed to me through a mutual friend who was one of his closest friends, was about a line that had linked the song ‘Mera Pyar’ to his “recent painful divorce.” He wanted me to know that I had got it wrong. I felt mortified about my assumptions about a deeply personal matter and told our mutual friend to convey to him my deepest apologies. A few months before his death, Aamir would tell an interviewer that 'Mera Pyar' was indeed about his divorce.


One often hears the cliché of the tortured artist and, in most cases, it is hyperbole, a marketing gimmick spread by artists themselves and even less-talented writers too reliant on easy tropes. But Aamir embodied the phrase like few others. For a man so incredibly talented and generous of heart — he was always ready to give time and guidance to young musicians — there also lurked within him a darkness. Mostly, he had no control over it; he suffered from severe depression that various bouts of therapy had not been able to contain. But he was also self-destructive in many ways, mainly because he simply thought it beneath himself to do any public relationing.

In conversations with me, he would often put down the abilities of other musicians, especially some who had risen to the heights of fame. He may have been perfectly correct in his assessments, perfectionist that he was, but one always got the feeling his brashness would not help him advance his career. He often alienated those who could have helped promote him.

Perhaps Aamir didn’t feel he needed it. But it didn’t help that he also was not producing much in the way of original music either. And it didn’t help that in a society like Pakistan’s, all his musical references were alien to its cultures. There’s a lesson in the fact that the only vocalised song of his which caught the public imagination was ‘Mera Pyar’, which was in Urdu unlike some of his other attempts. But he obstinately refused to accept this reality.

When he finally made an appearance in 2014 on Coke Studio, I was overjoyed. In just two song appearances — in which he was deservedly given centre-stage — he blew everyone’s mind with his sheer virtuosity, note perfect performance and quiet command. He also looked better than he had in ages. It felt like perhaps Aamir had decided to emerge from his cave, to thrust himself and his talent once again on the world after spending years in contemplative meditation.

But it was not to be. Aamir soon disappeared again. I used to keep hearing about how he was doing through our mutual friend and the stories were not always heartening. Yet when the news came, it was still devastating. One simply does not expect anyone to go at that age.

Even more than the talent we lost too soon, I mourned the loss of a friend who, on his good days, could light up the room with his smile; whose eyes sparkled with passion when we discussed music projects. And I mourn that despite a wider understanding of the need for professional counseling, collectively we could not stop him from being swallowed by his darkness.

The writer is a filmmaker and Dawn’s Editor Magazines

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 11th, 2017