How does one become a popular musician in Pakistan these days? It is easy enough to get your song online on one of several platforms, but where do you go from there? If your song goes viral, and you’re not viral because you’re Taher Shah, then your best hope is that Coke Studio calls. Since they very rarely call new artists, your other bet is to sing in a film or for a drama. And quite often, to land that you might as well act in that film or drama as well. Maybe open a fashion show or close out a mall opening. There isn’t any guarantee out there.
One exception though seems to be the career of Ali Sethi. Yes, he’s appeared on Coke Studio – though both times in duets singing songs that weren’t quite of his style. Yes, he’s sung for films, though neither The Reluctant Fundamentalist nor Manto were instrumental to his success. Yes, he’s been found singing for a few fashion shows, though again that was well after he was already famous. Indeed, Ali’s found his way to both critical and commercial success using the oldest cliche around – putting out good songs that people liked.
But cliches are for when we are lazy, and Ali Sethi’s music is too captivating to be consigned to lazy critique. Both him and his long-term producer and collaborator, Saad Sultan are releasing their latest track, ‘Chhan Kithaan’, on Chand Raat this year, and so I spoke to them in Lahore in an attempt to decipher how exactly they’ve kept putting out good music.
Before I share what they had to say, a few words on the songs they’ve made. Ali Sethi and Saad Sultan have excelled in making modern ghazal and folk. What is ‘modern’ about their work is that while Ali continues to sing with the gravitas of a trained classical singer, Saad interprets these compositions by exploring the mood set by Ali’s voice and lyrics through contemporary instruments. The two continuously look to translate different contexts into one another.
It is a process that Ali is very proud of. He says that “one of the things that’s really exciting is making an eastern instrument do what a western instrument does, and vice versa. So the cello, for example, no longer remains a cello. There is an idea [one has associated] with the cello of someone standing in a black turtleneck playing it in a huge orchestra – but you can also make the cello play the same raag as sarangi does.”
Mentioning how PTV had originally banned the harmonium from classical performances because it was considered ‘western’, Saad expands that “the same way the harmonium has been made into a desi instrument, you can also make other instruments desi.”
“And that potential exists in a raag as well,” adds Ali, going on to stress that “you can stay within the laws of a raag, but we play it in such a way that if you don’t know the raag you can still experience it as a rock/pop sound.”
That is essentially at the heart of their success. When a contemporary, modern listener hears works like ‘Yaad Mei Teri’, ‘Dil Jalanay Ki Baat’ or ‘Kithay Nain Na Jorin in their original sound, there is an association with an outdated style that immediately feels off-putting. Rohail Hyatt had also identified this reaction to traditional musical styles. But with Saad and Ali, those same works are performed with instruments that feel familiar to that listener, and immediately they are able to shed any worry about ‘not getting it’.
The partnership between these two began several years ago. Ali had been inspired to become a musician while at university, but when he graduated he didn’t go to a studio straight away. Instead, he became an apprentice of the esteemed Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami, and it was another five years before he entered a studio.
In the meanwhile, Saad Sultan had originally made a name for himself as a guitarist, playing along with the likes of Noori. He then found success as a producer as well, but found himself bored by the unoriginal requests of the musicians who came to him. As he tells it, “they would ask me to make it just like ‘Laiyaan Laiyaan’ (one of his hit songs) but then would also add that make sure its fast, and that it has energy, and that you play the violin as well.” Such mindless work was creatively frustrating.
When he met Ali Sethi however, Saad found himself speaking to a musician with very different tastes, but a strongly similar sense of searching for something original. Describing their creative process, Saad says that “whenever we make a song, we make it like a painting. We spend hours discussing the lyrics, imagining all their possible interpretations. We speak a lot about the composition even before we begin the process. Throughout, we are guided by the idea that since we are making it like a painting, we have to leave something for the listener to be able to imagine it.”
Ali also stresses on their spontaneity, and gushes about how the two of them have assembled a group of musicians to play for them with whom “it is possible to have any conversation about music.”
And as I learnt, Ali wasn’t kidding when he said any conversation. During the course of the interview, the two used phrases such as “we played a thumri-numa piano” “we added a Basheer sound into the mix” “I asked him to lower the dinosaur voice in the chorus”. The terms aren’t exact, because the process isn’t one they look to measure and rationalise. Instead, they try and create opportunities for serendipity.
I ask Ali why he felt the need to go this way with his music. Why Saad and him actively sought to translate and re-translate cultural contexts within their music. He replies that “for me, it’s an existential thing. For all kinds of complicated reasons, the kind of person that I am its very important for me to constantly attempt to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable things.”
This drive to square the circle almost ends up being a manifesto. Near the end of our discussion, and with Saad’s blessings, Ali spelt out why beyond his personal reasons he felt they had to make the creative choices they did.
He says that “I think in that moment in which we all live now, I sense very acutely that at some level, the crisis and opportunity that our generation faces is being able to see past binaries, being able to see past notions of east and west, urban and rural, male and female, senior and junior. All of these problematising things that have become part of our national angst. And I feel that if you work with tameez and with pyar, you can do anything.”
Much like earlier in this essay, that last line might feel like a cliché. But you only have to listen to one of Ali’s and Saad’s songs to know that they’ve transcended that cliché.