“For me, music is a means and it will never be the end. The journey will always go on.” Ali Hamza says this matter-of-factly, outlining a rule that presides over his life.
The journey, and its many unprecedented twists, form a major part of my conversation with the singer. His claim to fame may be his rugged, edgy baritone, and the many memorable songs that he has sung for Coke Studio (CS) and the band Noori, but there are multiple layers that form the essence of his music.
Hamza, I discover, is part malang devil-may-care musician and part philosopher, wandering from the raags defined by the Vedic scriptures right on to the digitised playing field set by electronic dance music (EDM). The Noori rockstar is there, eternally excited by new sound and expression, but so is the former CS producer, made wiser by the experience.
And then there is who he is at present, having parted ways for now with the band that was his launch pad, chalking his own path. “Noori will always be a part of Ali Noor and my life,” says Hamza, “but its essence has always lain in exploring and evolving. After completing three albums together, both of us have been treading new paths. We keep having talks and I do know that eventually we’ll be back at the drawing board and come up with a new sound, new compositions.”
Charting his own path, he recently took to the online stage during the Covid-19 lockdown, holding entertaining ‘Instagram live’ concerts, where he sang everything from his own songs to raunchy Bollywood numbers. He’s dabbled with acting. And over the past few months, he has been working on a varied selection of singles.
The musician seems to be free-floating through his artistic evolution rather than charting a conscious course for himself. And he has lots of theories about what his experiences, even the bad ones, have taught him
Sar Buland, in support of women’s education, came out some weeks ago with a powerful message. Sadaa-i-Pakistan, just released in collaboration with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), also has strong vocals. However, the song and the video pale in comparison to the dynamic nationalistic songs of yore that the PAF used to release.
Nevertheless, it is evident that he is dabbling with different genres. He’s enjoying himself too. The singer is planning to release many more singles in the months to come, and he talks about being loyal to his craft, while simultaneously understanding the importance of putting it out on the internet.
There are theories within his theories, philosophies crashing against each other, and a sense of hope for the future battling against a slight exasperation at an audience that has a short attention span and a general lack of interest towards the intricacies of the musical craft.
Music’s digital stratosphere
“Digitisation and the internet have opened up new expressive spaces for musicians, and it’s great,” he observes. “When we started out, musicians were entirely dependent on TV channels and corporates for promotion. There were limited options. Corporates were ultimately focused on building their own brand rather than pursuing and promoting music. I don’t blame them for it — this is how business works and it was unfair of musicians to expect more from them. Today’s musicians, though, don’t need anyone at all.
“There is no need to rein in raw expression, or to move within a certain structure. They are constantly building their own musical profile, putting out their songs on YouTube, creating their own record labels and building their own niche audience.”
But didn’t you start off like that too, I ask. Noori, I recollect, helmed by Hamza and his brother Ali Noor, had shot straight out into the musical stratosphere with an energetic, individualistic voice for the youth. To the tune of heavy guitar riffs and digital amplification, the band had yelled out ‘Suno ke main hoon jawan!’ before drifting towards a lilting albeit raw Manwa Re.
“Yes, back then I functioned only as a creative artist,” reminisces Hamza. “We created lyrics, the music to it, jammed on it with our band and the song was ready. It was only when I produced CS Season 11 that there was a turnaround in my journey. In production, your bandwidth opens up. You don’t just look at the song but also the narratives that will drive it, the video, the packaging, everything that would ensure that it has connected with the audience.”
Has the musical process changed for him then, driven now by what would work commercially? “It doesn’t work like that,” he corrects me. “Sometimes, I create a song and I will see particular nuances in it that will make the audience feel a certain way. Every song caters to a certain niche but, fortunately, now the niche is huge, extending globally rather than just within Pakistan! The commercial aspects to the song don’t appeal to me as much but I know that they are important for enhancing audience engagement.”
His audience engagement was particularly noticeable during his Insta-live concerts, which started off during the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and quickly became very popular.
“I performed four online gigs and they were great fun. To be honest, the internet has really put us to work. We can’t sit idle. There’s this constant pressure to keep bringing out new content. Online concerts may have surfaced during the Covid-19 lockdown, but the market is only unfolding now. They’re going to be around even after the coronavirus pandemic goes away, simply because they are easier to manage and very cost-effective. Any brand wanting to get noticed digitally is going to look into online gigs.”
And what about live gigs — does he miss them now that they have come to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic? “I hadn’t been doing any concerts, so I can’t really say. My first concert in a long time was scheduled to take place when the Covid-19 lockdown took place. It was a concert on World Down Syndrome Day, in collaboration with the Karachi Down Syndrome Programme, for which I’m the Goodwill Ambassador.
“I had already called in the boys who were going to be performing with me and, when it got cancelled, I decided that we would record some songs together instead. We put together six to eight songs that are now going to be released one by one. Sar Buland was wrapped up at the time. And we did online concerts!”
“For me, it was a return to live performing. For the musicians performing with me, who had been earning regularly through concerts, it offered financial support, at a time when the music industry was more or less out of work.”
The Coke Studio ‘Masters degree’
His own absence from the concert scene, I deduce, was to some extent due to his stint in CS 11 and a debacle called Ko Ko Korina. Hamza, however, has no regrets about CS 11. “The person I’m now and the person that I was before CS 11 are two completely different people.
“When I was younger, family members would tease me by calling me a ‘professor’, and saying that I was going to get a PhD degree someday. In that context, Ko Ko Korina was a sort of Masters degree for me. It was a great learning experience.”
But what did you learn? Hamza, hitherto always reticent about recounting the CS 11 experience, elaborates: “For one, that to make your mark as a producer, you have to create your own legacy rather than try to move forward with another person’s platform. It was good that CS, this year, reverted to its original identity with Rohail Hyatt.
“Strings were great but I see Bilal Maqsood’s vision much more clearly as the creative force behind Velo Sound Station. I also learnt that a platform that drains you out completely is not worth it. I worked night and day on CS and, honestly, the input/output ratio in terms of earning is much less than it would be for an individual song or jingle. It’s great for profile-building, but the financial gain is hardly equivalent to the effort being put in.
“We also ended up breaking the formula that a cover will always work,” he laughs. “Zohaib Kazi and I were recently working on a song together, and we were discussing how CS 11 at least did a service to the local music industry, by showing brands that they can’t always rely on a cover to get them mileage.”
Both he and Zohaib were bashed extensively for Ko Ko Korina. “To be honest, I have heard worse songs. There were, in fact, worse songs in CS 11. As producers, both Zohaib and I resisted the song’s release and were trying to salvage it constantly. Ultimately, though, we had to release it.
“When you are on the rise, 10 people will try to take you down,” he says wryly. “What particularly hurt me was how the client placed pressure on us due to the audience response. There was a resistance to CS 11 but, perhaps, it was because we were trying new things.
“We were younger and were experimenting. We had started off with Explorer and, once the main season started off, the first few episodes all followed up on the theme. Mark my words, what we did in CS 11 is how the narrative is going to unfold for music now.”
The musician turns actor
We move away from the past to his busy present. Hamza recently shifted away from his musical path towards an acting stint in the flippant Candi Meray Dost Meray Yaar Season 2, directed by Mehreen Jabbar. The short drama mixed in music with lighthearted storytelling, and co-starring with Hamza were Asim Azhar and Hania Aamir among others. Why the turn towards acting?
“It was fun,” he says. “I used to act in theatre in my college days and it was a return to that. I enjoyed practising the dialogues given to me before I auditioned. It also gave me the opportunity to connect with the very young set of artists that were working with me.”
Was it also to connect with the very young viewers that the drama was targeted towards? “Of course, it’s very important to keep trying out new things and stay in touch with today’s Gen-Z.”
In this effort to keep trying out new things, Hamza’s recently released two singles — Sar Buland and Sadaa-i-Pakistan for the PAF — and another single, following a nationalistic theme, is going to be released on March 23. The songs he recorded during the Covid-19 lockdown are also going to be releasing one by one.
“I’ve had destiny by my side,” he smiles. “When we sang Aik Alif for Coke Studio, Ali Noor said it was going to be a disaster and we were going to get ruined. Then, when we performed Paar Chanaa Dey for [CS], I had my doubts. Both songs are two of our biggest hits. Even Noori — and my — most popular song to date, Manwa Re, was like a step-child to us. It was commissioned by Sajjad Gul for a film, got rejected and became a Noori hit.”
Destiny, yes. But also talent, I prod him. “It’s a human journey rather than a musical one,” he says, “challenging past formulae, acclimatising to how the music-making process has changed drastically.” Philosophies within philosophies. Quintessential Ali Hamza.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 7th, 2021