In the age of flamboyant music videos, a couple of lines, tucked away in a scene in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), was all it took for Ali Sethi to make his mark. The song, his rendition of Farida Khanum’s “Dil Jalane Ki Baat”, plays out as Om Puri and Riz Ahmed’s characters are having a heated argument, and despite its brevity, is near impossible to miss. Seven years later, thanks to Coke Studio Pakistan and his popular singles, Sethi has accumulated a fan-following that not only defies borders, but every notion of what supposedly ‘works’ as per music production houses.
The singer, who was in New York when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, has been interacting with fans everyday via Instagram, recently inviting the likes of Amitava Ghosh, Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj to join him.
In an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, Sethi quips that he would “hate to be a musical missionary,” but he also hopes that one day his audience will share his enthusiasm for classical music and the “great poets”.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
What are your earliest memories of music?
Listening to Noor Jehan’s Punjabi hits on the old tape recorder in my mother’s room and the strangely melancholic ‘national songs’ they played all day on PTV. Or the ‘nohas’ that were recited in quavering voices during the Shia mourning rituals that were held in my great-grandmother’s haveli in the Walled City. These musical encounters shaped my earliest sense of place — and still do.
Were you obedient about riyaz or did you have to be forced?
When I was eight years old, my mother had me apprenticed to a Master sahib. But I was not into these lessons. I would prance about the room and constantly urge him to drink more chai (he never resisted).
Your music videos have a beautiful story-telling aspect to them. How involved are you with the concept, aesthetic, styling? What was the idea behind “Chandni Raat”?
I am too involved in the videos. My involvement usually begins at the outset, when I am composing the song. I have a vision — an enigmatic character or landscape — that helps me build the music, and then I approach the director with a maddening mood board. I have been lucky thus far, in that I have worked only with accommodating videomakers. For “Chandni Raat”, I had this vision of a people’s collective, a coming-together of characters from different walks of life, which is what the couplets of a Ghazal do. My friend Sarmad Khoosat furnished this dream very beautifully – he came up with a suitable set (a crumbling greenhouse in the Punjab University that looks like a futuristic shelter for refugees) and a breathtaking cast of characters.
Have you always been keen to address issues through your art?
In a way, yes. I guess I grew up around a lot of dissenting voices. My father has always been a vocal critic of the religious lobby in Pakistan, and in particular, how it has been accommodated by the state. My parents also ran this weekly paper, The Friday Times, which featured a lot of critical perspectives. So I grew up around journalists, activists, politicians, artistes. An office smelling of cigarette smoke was my natural habitat. I guess I seek out that adda atmosphere wherever I go.
What is the one most common mistake that people make, while doing covers?
I think the biggest problem nowadays is ignorance. Singers and producers who sit down to do a remake of an old song have little or no acquaintance of its underlying principles. I think this applies especially to covers of classic songs that are built on raags and taals. You can’t really be innovative with those songs because they are rule-bound – the rhythmic and melodic parameters have already been laid out. You can improvise within that framework – and this can be very exciting for a singer – but you must be initiated into the context.
How do you deal with fame and the trappings that come along with being a celebrity?
The good news is, I don’t court fame. So it doesn’t court me back. If and when there are stirrings of celebrity, I crush them with my bookish, next-door-uncleji persona.
How closely did you follow Hindi film music? Favourite singers, songs, composers?
I grew up listening to a lot of RD Burman. In particular to the Gulzar-RD combo — that was the soundtrack to my adolescence. If you think about it, it is unusual as I am a child of the 90s, and not the 70s. But there was something sublime about that musical combine. Gulzar’s words were suggestive, abstract and playful, and RD’s tunes were wayward, epic and phantasmagorical. It was all very commensurate with the drama of my teenage rebellions!
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Here is a full video from our historic session yesterday. If there’s anything we can learn in this difficult time, let it be the value of cooperation across borders. LOVE CONQUERS ALL ♥️♥️♥️ A very special thanks to Faridaji’s genius granddaughter @mehrunnisaiamin for setting this up, and to @anthonysoshil and @bhangusayeen for making the video #alisethi #rekhabhardwaj #vishalbhardwaj #faridakhanum #india #pakistan #lockdown #coronavirus #music #collaboration
What kind of music do you listen to unwind? Any international artistes whose career you would like to emulate?
I can no longer listen to music to unwind. My brain can only process music as information. This happens when you develop a habit of riyaz — all music is experienced as muscle memory. As for artistes, I would like to emulate none because I think my circumstances are strange and singular.
Would you like to sing for Hindi films? Any particular composer, director you would like to work with?
I love the musical sensibility of Vishal Bhardwaj. I also like Rochak Kohli’s recent work. Who doesn’t want to sing for Hindi films, but now is apparently a bad time.
You have a dedicated following in India, anything you’d like to say to them? Maybe a concert in India, once the politics gets a little better?
I am always surprised, delighted, chuffed and gobsmacked to see, hear and read the responses of Indian fans. It’s amazing to me because I have never really performed in India with a full band. Of course, one day I would love to, when peace, love and sanity prevails across our borders.
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