In some ways, 2019 was the year Ali Sethi really ‘unleashed’ himself musically. Along with his two Coke Studio tracks, he released four original songs complete with music videos, which makes it a grand total of six songs in one year.
“That’s almost an album,” he comments. We’re sitting down for a chat at a trendy restaurant during one of his many trips to Karachi. He reached early, pre-ordered the appetisers and sent a photo of them to me with the hashtag #missyou. It’s reflective of his somewhat quirky sense of humour.
At six feet three inches, he towers over most people, and he’s wearing a very vibrant shirt and colourful red sneakers, which sets him apart completely from everyone else at the restaurant. A wardrobe tip given to him by former model Aliya Iqbal-Naqvi while she was his teaching assistant at Harvard: no greys or browns, wear colour because people-of-colour can pull it off.
And you went wild with it, I observe. “I did,” he laughs. “I used to be a painter in high school.” He’s quick to add that he was also pretty good at it — he got As throughout his O- and A-levels. He’s like that kid from school who always topped the class in everything and was smug about it. In Sethi, that kid’s grown up and developed a self-deprecating sense of humour and he takes an almost gleeful pride in his achievements. And why not?
“I need some element of freakiness otherwise they’ll say, yeh to bilkul hi boring hai [he’s so boring],” he chuckles. “Or as we say in Punjab: extra-ordinary typical. Don’t use it, I’m patenting it. I’m going to use it for my next album — ‘Extra-ordinary typical: Ali Sethi, ghazals. New age ghazals. Ghazals with a twist’. And there is an image of me doing the twist on top!” he laughs.
In the past few weeks of interacting with him on and off, observing his socials, one gets the impression he’s always bubbling with ideas that he wants to execute now. Is that something he struggles with?
“Is that something you struggle with?” he asks back, “When it comes to interviewing me?”
Yes, I respond. Because there’s so much he’s done in a short period of time. “It’s all this stuff that’s been kind of trapped inside of me for so long that it’s finally finding an outlet,” he confesses. “I resent the anti-intellectual atmosphere in Pakistan, generally. I think people are suspicious of intellectual activity. People want to gossip. They want to chat about corruption, peoples’ personal lives, misdemeanours, divorces, all of that stuff. But when it comes to talking about ideas, people kind of switch off or shut down.”
A part of his objective, he reveals, is to “revive an interest in those other layered ways of being and of experiencing poetry, music, art, visuals… insist on these multiple interpretations and allow people from different backgrounds and perspectives to take part in a conversation.”
Sethi’s released four original songs this year complete with well-executed and well-thought-out music videos for them. They are all soft, beautiful ghazal-esque songs with an ethereal quality to them.
There’s 'Chandni Raat' (title verse by Saifuddin Saif) based on Raag Gaud Sarang from Bengal, with a video directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and Awais Gohar, showing people seemingly stuck in transit in a dilapidated building. Then there’s 'Dil Lagaayein', the video directed by Umar Riaz that evokes nostalgia and transports you back in time to a Lahore from the late 1960s-early 1970s.
'Ishq' probably has Sethi’s most artistic and experimental video to date directed by Saad Sheikh — derive what meaning from it you will. 'Dil Ki Khair' (lyrics taken from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s works) also evokes nostalgia in a manner similar to 'Dil Lagaayein' but with an entirely different narrative woven through the video.
The music for all of these songs has been produced by Noah Georgeson. He’s won four Grammys and has an MFA in classical music and, out of all of his work, he’s best known for having created the title track for the popular Netflix series, Narcos.
Ali first heard his music in a fancy, ‘hippie vibes’ establishment during a transit through London, and it took him almost three years to track Georgeson down. They first started working together in July 2018. It’s a collaboration that seems to have enriched Sethi, not just musically but also in terms of valuable life experience.
They’d coordinate between Lahore and Los Angeles. Ali would send the demo of the song he had in mind along with references. “He’d then suggest which studio,” he relates. “Every studio has a different character. We recorded three songs in a studio which houses Frank Sinatra’s mandolin from 'Moon River', which we ended up playing in one of the songs.
“For 'Chandni Raat' we ended up using an upright piano. There’s so much to do. We’ve started performing together as well. We’ve performed at five major venues together. He’s going to be a part of my next US tour.”
He spends a lot of time abroad. “I think it’s partly because I got a Green Card and now I have to halal-ofy it six months every year in America. As they say, naukri ki te nakhra ki [if you’ve taken the job, why complain about it]?” he laughs.
My gateway drug to Ali Sethi’s music was through his collaboration with Abida Parveen in the ninth season of Coke Studio in 2016, on the song 'Aaqa'. While he’s quite outgoing in person, next to Abida Parveen he appears very sombre and serious. It makes one wonder: was he nervous?
“I was more than nervous,” he says. “I was petrified. Here’s someone whose music I not only admire but who is genuinely — talk about towering over situations — someone who really had never shared the stage with anyone else. She’s a monument.”
I was talking to my band about it the other day — here we are with orchestras accompanying us on stages and we don’t have half the impact that she has. She only has two harmoniums and two tablas. There’s no fifth instrument. There’s no guitar, no drum, no bass, no electronic — nothing. It’s just her voice and two of the most rustic, traditional instruments. Whether it’s an audience of 10,000 or 100,000 — she can just fill it up.”
He admitted it was a difficult performance for him. “Her octave starts four-five notes higher than mine,” he says. “I struggled because I had to sing at her pitch, and then I had to sing the high parts. It was a really acrobatic challenge for me to go there. But it worked somehow and I’m so glad it did.
“For me it was a great opportunity and it changed my life in many ways,” he adds.
How does he feel looking back at it now? “That unlike most of my performances, this is as good as it’ll be,” he responds. “At no part of it do I feel like I sound strange or that I would do it any other way. Which for me is a rare feeling. I’m always a revisionist.”
Perhaps he is being too hard on himself. “Rohail [Hyatt] said that to me the other day,” he says. “I think I’m hard on myself because I’m such a perennial student. For me, a performance is also an environment of learning, which is not necessarily a good thing all the time. Sometimes you just have to let go. I’m learning to do that now, more and more…”
The world was introduced to Ali Sethi as an author in 2009 when his debut novel, The Wish Maker, was published. Set against the backdrop of Pakistan’s political history, it told the story of characters spanning three generations that lived in a liberal, middle class area of Lahore.
At the moment, however, Sethi seems completely immersed in his music career. Does he ever plan to get back to writing? “Yes, I do,” he responds. A book? “Yes, many books,” he confirms. Because you were a writer before coming out as a singer-songwriter… “And you were like, how much more annoying can a person be? Someone lock him up already!” he laughs. “Over-ambition ki hudd hai. Itni zor ki koshish kyun?!” [There has to be a limit to being overambitious. Why try so hard?!]
“To write persuasively and to write well, you would have to have reckoned with yourself,” he says quite seriously. “I’ve been so busy absorbing and reflecting on stuff that has been external to me in some ways — what is the raag, poem, working with form etc. It’s like that Bulleh Shah line about looking within...
“I think that’s something I’ve started to do in the last four to five years of my life. It reflects in the songs and in the videos — you feel more and more of who the inner me is.”
Perhaps you have finally found your footing in music, I suggest. “I think I’m still finding it,” responds Sethi.
The thing about writing is that you have to reclaim your voice, I say to him. “There you go,” he responds. “For the last 10 years, I couldn’t really access my childhood memories. It sounds very disturbing. It’s not because of trauma necessarily. These are memories I had rehearsed through our adolescence and adulthood and it’s something I used to do until about my early 20s, when I suddenly kind of… that part of me switched off. I went into a survival mode where my mind was very trained on what was very external to me.”
But Sethi had his own triggers. It began around the time he returned home to Pakistan from college abroad sometime in 2007. It was a deeply traumatic period in Pakistan’s history.
“I came back literally when the Lal Masjid attack had happened and the siege was going on and people had been killed,” he relates. “Right after the Lal Masjid siege, there was Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, then suicide bombings began to rock Lahore.
“I remember Data Darbar being bombed, the GPO Chowk being bombed. Then people we knew, like Salman Taseer, who was a family friend, being assassinated. His son Shahbaz, whom I’d grown up with, being abducted.
“My father [Najam Sethi] used to do a TV programme at that time in which he talked about Baitullah Mehsud. We received a physical letter in the mail with a [photo of a] beheaded journalist reading ‘We are after you’ and we had to flee [the country] as a family for two years.”
For those two years Sethi went from house-to-house living in exile. “I had to go and live in peoples’ basements in other countries,” he relates. Whatever he made from his first book he spent in surviving.
“I went to Delhi and found a gig as an on-set consultant for The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” he adds. “In the middle of this, I was trying to learn music and find something inside the Pakistani tradition that was not toxic or charged with this narrative that you’re either with us or against us.
“I think the romantic in me shut down for those years. We lived through a war and I lived through that war in some very personal ways,” he finished.
He met British-Pakistani actor-rapper Riz Ahmed, who was playing the lead, while working on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Ahmed later got in touch with Sethi to collaborate with him on a song called 'Aaja' by one of Ahmed’s groups at the time, the Swet Shop Boys, that he had with Indian-American rapper Heems and producer Redinho.
The song was a tribute to slain social media star, Qandeel Baloch. Sethi admits he didn’t know that at the time he recorded the song.
That wasn’t their only collaboration. “There was another song I’d recorded with Swet Shop Boys that was really terrific,” he relates. “It was in fact my own tune and lyrics. Riz had done this really interesting rap and Heems had done this chorus rap and Redinho had made this incredible track around it but, unfortunately, the band broke up, so that song is now lying in somebody’s computer.”
Will it ever find a release? “I don’t think so,” he responds.
Of late, Sethi has been posting several short clips of his interactions with Farida Khanum on Instagram. She’s one of Pakistan’s greatest classical singers with a following throughout the subcontinent — in 2007, she was given the title of Malika-i-Ghazal by a publication across the border. Rumour has it that Sethi is working on a documentary film on her life.
“Yes,” he confirms. “The idea is to make an archive of music. I was always looking for a catalogue of her work and couldn’t find it. I wanted to map a cultural history of Pakistan through her music. She’s the last of her generation of great singers who migrated to Pakistan [after Independence] and began their careers here. [She] lent her voice to every decade and every major transition and trauma and triumph.”
This film has been in the works for over 10 years. Sethi and Khanum travelled to her birthplace in Amritsar, India. “We’ve filmed that whole journey, searching for her house,” he revealed.
“We travelled to Calcutta where she had spent her childhood. I sat with her on a stage and we performed together. And then there are quite a few interviews in which she talks very candidly and intimately about her life and her experience of the Partition. Her memories of Faiz [Ahmed Faiz] Saheb. We have a very beautiful rich and beautiful archive that we’ve collected over a long period.”
Has he finished working on the documentary? “It should be finished soon,” says Sethi. “The issue is that acquiring licensing for her songs is taking time.” But he might be reconsidering his approach to the film entirely.
“I was doing this epic huge ‘project’ but as time went by, as the years progressed, I realised that the real story was my relationship with her that had developed over this period,” he says. “Which also has ended up being documented. Now it’s kind of a merge of the two — me and her together.
“You can literally see my physical evolution in 10 years. The change in my singing and also her speaking to me and getting closer and closer. That is the unexpected and quite charming part of it.”
Who’s directing it? “For now, I’m directing it,” he says. “I produced it but I’m certainly on the lookout for a sharp editor who can help me put it together. It has to come out in 2020.”
This epic, 10-years-in-the-making documentary feature isn’t the only thing Sethi is planning to come out with this year. He may have come out with six songs in 2019 but, in terms of music, 2020 is going to be bigger.
“All of it is original music,” he says, adding that he has 10 songs in the pipeline, six of which are recorded, their videos just have to be shot. “The other thing I need you to spell out in this piece is that I really resent people calling me a cover artist now because I’m the only one in Pakistan who’s actually making original tunes, arrangements and lyrics, and videos that are original in every [expletive] sense of the word.”
Considering that we have a very unpredictable industry, where survival for artists has always been difficult, isn’t that a rather big, risky investment? “It’s a huge gamble,” he responds, “but I owe it to myself. If I’m earning money from my performances, I should put money back into this, because when else am I going to get the opportunity? What I’m doing feels genuinely thrilling and meaningful — this finally feels real to me. So, I absolutely have to do it.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, January 5th, 2020