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Ali Sethi, unplugged

Ali Sethi talks to Instep about working with Grammy winning producer Noah Georgeson, appearing on Coke Studio 12, Pakistani music, multiculturalism and developing his skills as a songwriter.

Ali Sethi, unplugged
A still from the ‘Ishq’ video, directed by Umar Riaz.

instep Q&A

If 2018 was a good year for Ali Sethi, he’s following it up with an even bigger year. Maybe it’s because while Ali Sethi has embraced multiculturalism, he has not let go of his Pakistani identity and his contribution to Pakistani music is not only eclectic but becoming exceptionally consistent.

From ‘Waasta’ ft. Faris Shafi gaining momentum last year to winning a Lux Style Award for ‘Tinak Dhin’ and collaborating with fashion brand Souchaj with ‘Rondian Akhiaan’; collaborating with Quratulain Balouch via Cornetto Pop Rock and tying up with Resident Alien in NYC, there is nothing Ali Sethi won’t do in pursuit of his art.

2019 means a great deal to him in that sense; Ali Sethi has unveiled a series of songs (backed by music videos) that he’s worked on with Grammy winning music producer Noah Georgeson.

Ali has also attempted being more than a qualified singer. With this material, he has also tried his hand at songwriting among other things. Instep talks to the singer-songwriter about the year he’s been having…

Instep: You’re appearing on Coke Studio 12, having worked with Strings, Jaffer Zaidi and Zohaib Kazi-Ali Hamza as some of the producers. What was it like working with Rohail Hyatt and what should we expect from you on Coke Studio 12?

Ali Sethi: I have always admired Rohail [Hyatt]. He looms over Coke Studio and not just because he started it; Rohail brings a certain focus, a certain purity of intention to the business of music production, and I think that makes him very special. Of course having worked with him on Season 12, I can vouch for his brilliance; throughout our interaction, I found him to be a curious, sensitive, extraordinarily accommodating producer. As for what we are doing: I’ve sung a duet with the gifted Quratulain Balouch, and I have a solo piece, a ghazal in Raag Jhinjhoti that fuses the ‘folk’ singing of Rajasthan with classical elements. I can’t say more yet!

Instep: After two songs in Manto, one in 7 Din Mohabbat In, you’re back on the film circuit with Superstar’s superhit ‘Bekaraan’. How do you choose a song for a film for playback?

Ali Sethi: I recorded ‘Bekaraan’ almost three years ago, when Superstar was still in the works. To be honest, I had forgotten all about it. And then suddenly I heard the film is ready and the song is out! Playback singing is a different beast because it asks you to travel with the emotions of the actors. In that sense it’s like acting — you have to leave your ‘style’ at the door and surrender to the situation being depicted.

Instep: What have you picked up working with Noah Georgeson? You began your musical career with a series of covers, collaborating with Saad Sultan but now you’re working with Noah Georgeson. How different is the recording process, the technicality of the studio?

Ali Sethi with longtime collaborator, director Sarmad Khoosat on the set of ‘Chandni Raat’. (Right) Ali Sethi and Grammy-winning producer Noah Georgeson in Los Angeles, December 2018.

Ali Sethi with longtime collaborator, director Sarmad Khoosat on the set of ‘Chandni Raat’. (Right) Ali Sethi and Grammy-winning producer Noah Georgeson in Los Angeles, December 2018.

Ali Sethi: Working with Noah in Los Angeles has been a revelation. Take the process of recording live instruments. In Lahore, I had access to tabla, harmonium, drums and guitars. In LA, at studios like Seahorse and Vox, I have access to many different kinds of pianos, synths, violins and cellos, drum machines, harps, bells, as well as eccentric, one-off instruments like the marxophone, which doesn’t get made anymore and which we used for one of the tracks. That’s the first, most profound difference — the possibilities are endless. And of course there’s the joy — or relief — of working in a strictly professional environment. There are no power outages in LA and the session players are never late to work!

Instep: Are there more songs in the pipeline, as you had said earlier about doing albums?

Ali Sethi: The songs we have released together on my YouTube channel constitute the first batch, if you will. There are others that are ‘in storage’ and will be released over the next few months.

Instep: Writing original songs for someone who has, in the past, said that he is a singer first – was it challenging? What was the process like?

Ali Sethi: Writing and composing my own songs has been exhilarating. I think for the longest time I aspired to a certain polished register, like what we find in Pakistani songs from the 1960s and ‘70s. I mean writing an entire song in a meter or ‘bahr’, or composing a tune within the ambit of a Raag. After many years of studying those aspects, I have attempted my own songs. For example, ‘Ishq’ is an original tune that fuses Raags Bhoop and Kalyan, and abides by a poetic meter; ‘Dil Ki Khair’ is an original tune that fuses Raags Desi and Darbari. I’m not saying I’ve succeeded — just that I’ve made my first careful attempt, because it satisfies a need I have felt for music that obeys certain principles.

Instep: You’ve released this batch of songs with various music videos from the likes of director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat (‘Chandni Raat’) to others. Why were the visuals so important to you?

Ali Sethi and Grammy-winning producer Noah Georgeson in Los Angeles, July 2018.

Ali Sethi and Grammy-winning producer Noah Georgeson in Los Angeles, July 2018.

Ali Sethi: I find our music videos rely too much on the visual language of RnB videos from the West (a disgruntled dude driving a Ferrari, a skimpily clad girl taunting him with her twirls, etc.). What I wanted was a more layered visual language, one that would work with the ambiguities and metaphors embedded in my songs. For example, in ‘Ishq’ we managed to evoke the dreamy world of Urdu daastaans of the 18th and 19th centuries, the ‘paristaan’ scenario in which our hero has veiled, non-literal encounters with fabulous beings. In the ‘Chandni Raat’ video I wanted to suggest a collectivity, a coming-together of people from different walks of life that would emphasise the political dimensions of the Ghazal, and I think Sarmad and Awais came up with a tender, truthful, creatively executed response to my brief. For ‘Dil Ki Khair’, I wanted a broody salsa vibe, a frolic-amid-despair quality that I often encounter in upscale Lahori neighbourhoods, and I think Hira captured it very playfully.

Instep: Where do you think Pakistani music is heading, being a cross-cultural artist?

Ali Sethi: I don’t have a sunny view of the situation. The music of the world is morphing at a very fast pace, merging once-disparate genres like RnB, jazz, classical and podcast-style voiceovers in order to tell new stories, bringing marginal perspectives to the fore, or giving space to once-voiceless communities. You see this happening a lot now in the music of major metropolises such as London, Mumbai, LA. Unfortunately it hasn’t penetrated the cloud of complacency in Pakistan, where multinational corporations continue to be the sole sponsors of musical activity and where professional musicians are obliged to cater to their needs. I find the dearth of options here to be a very depressing scenario. We have no major record labels, no commercially viable concert scene. As for our rich musical heritage, which was once embodied by the ‘gharana’ tradition, it has all but perished. Nothing short of a revolution is needed. My hunch is it will happen among the “woke” young musicians of the desi diaspora first.

Instep: You closed the Harvard Arts Finale [2019]. Tell us about the experience?

Ali Sethi: Closing the Harvard Arts Festival was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. When I was a student there, I would go to Sanders Theater and observe these world-class performers bare their souls. I saw classical musicians perform there; I saw the great Hollywood filmmakers discuss their craft. I had this dream that I would one day be on that stage to represent my culture and at Arts First 2019 that dream came true.

Maheen Sabeeh

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