"Hum dekhenge," Ali Sethi croons Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s decisive prophecy.
‘Woh din ke jis ka waada hai
Jo loh e azal mein likha hai
Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge.’
[We will see that day that was promised to us, that was written in the tablet of eternity, it is imperative that we too will see]
Penned by Faiz in 1979, in protest against tyranny, the words still hit home. "Hum dekhenge" was chanted during President Zia’s military rule and then again at marches agitating for the rights of women, against the massacre of innocents and the rapes that run rampant on highways and lurk just below the secure façades of our neighbourhoods. At a time when cruelty reaches its peak and the helpless suffer unbearable pain, the only respite comes in believing in God’s justice. Through the annals of history, Faiz’s words have resonated with these emotions and been repeated again and again.
The words have been sung this time by Ali Sethi, as an ode to the suffering in Palestine. Accompanying his instantly recognisable timbre is an electronic, experimental beat mixed by Chilean-American composer Nicolas Jaar. Midway through the poetry, the beat picks up and diverts to another Faiz poem, Aaj bazar mein pa bajola chalo. Towards the end the beat simmers down once again to the fatalistic Hum Dekhenge.
“Faiz was inspired to write Hum Dekhenge by a number of events which included the Israeli occupation,” explains Sethi. “He was in Beirut in 1979 and had witnessed it firsthand. I told Nicolas this and said that I would be singing a few lines and sending them to him. The next day, he sent me back his version, with a beat added to the words.”
What lead to this collaboration with Jaar, a composer with an extensive repertoire of offbeat electronic mixes and beats to his credit? Evidently, Sethi, who has been stationed in New York City ever since the coronavirus broke out, is working with Jaar on a joint project that will be releasing soon. He says that he has been an "admirer" of Jaar’s music for a long time.
“I have heard him playing in clubs in Istanbul, on street sides in Brooklyn and rooftops in Lahore. It’s the sort of music that you hear at night whenever you are in an urban space. I connected with Nicholas through Somnath Bhatt, who is a visual artist and a mutual friend, and we’re working on a very exciting collaboration. He’s sending me his music and I am sending him my work and we’ve just been composing it together.”
Jaar’s ancestry is Palestinian and when Sethi noticed that he was posting frequently about the Palestinian situation, it lead to the creation of the just released mix, aptly titled ‘Yakjehti Mein’. “The track has been mixed by Heba Kadry, an Egyptian musician based in Brooklyn and Somnath, who is Indian, created the cover illustration for it. The track truly is a collaboration between different cultures, which is why the title goes so well with it,” says Sethi.
Explaining the merging of two different poems in the track, Sethi elaborates, “It was an unorthodox mix of music but Nicolas felt that it went well with my words. The part where the beat paces up sounded to me like a march or a procession, which is why I suggested a second poem by Faiz to be sung to its tune.”
The track was broadcast live for Bethlehem by Radio Alhara and then released on YouTube. The music is gripping, more so because of its unconventionality. It is also a far cry from Sethi’s most popular work from some years ago, when he was best known for churning out covers on the Coke Studio stage. Is this a glimpse of the new sound one can expect from the singer?
Yes, it is. “Since 2019, I have embarked on a journey where I have been trying to elaborate on a niche which I enjoy. I am dabbling with more experimental beats and producing them with my producer friend Noah Goergeson. I am enjoying collaborating with artists like Nicolas who excite me, communicating the stories that I want to tell and using Urdu poetry in metaphorical ways. I’ve made videos like 'Chandni Raat' and 'Ishq' and pushed myself to see how I can combine the sounds emerging from diverse cultures.”
Sethi continues, “In Pakistan, the corporate platform is considered the only platform and it’s great for debuting artists, or for those hoping to revive their careers. But there need to be many more platforms for artists who want to focus on newer paths.”
Notwithstanding the coronavirus, are there any other reasons why he hasn’t headed back to the homeland in so long? “One of the main reasons is that there has been a temporary release from the virus this summer and live concerts are once again being staged in the US,” he says. “I’ve got a series of performances lined up in the different parts of the US.”
Like many other new-age musicians, Sethi has also made inroads into performing music through social media. “Instagram became this default stage for concerts due to the coronavirus and a lot of artists, including myself, have learnt to monetise upon it,” he says. “There are now ticketed concerts online and digitalising has become an important part of a musician’s professional life.”
He does plan on returning to Pakistan soon; to meet his family and to also work on a melody that may be hush-hush right now but is likely to land squarely in the spotlight when it releases. “It’s exciting and it’s an original,” is all he can reveal, “and it’s the sort of music that I like to make.”