As the singer-songwriter from Noori prepares to host a second online gig on April 1, he talks to Instep about playing to an invisible audience from his living room, and living in these quarantined times.
Ali Hamza officially announced, at his first solo virtual gig, that he was working on a solo album with the likes of Sitar Nawaz Rakae Jamil and drum/percussion dynamo Kami Paul. The gig was held to engage people and bring smiles to them while they remain quarantined at home due to COVID-19.
In this conversation with Instep before his second and more extensive live virtual gig, Ali Hamza talks about his debut album, fan commentary and much more.
Excerpts from the conversation…
Instep: What was playing your first virtual gig like?
Ali Hamza: Actually, it was fun, more than anything else. At one level, logically, in the times we are in, things like this are happening. All the virtual gigs I’ve seen online are usually about one individual because of social distancing and self-isolation. In our case, we were lucky that we had me, Kami and Rakae locked up together in my house because we’re working on my album. At one level, it was good to have those guys support us, as musicians. Because when more musicians are involved, you become conscious of the sound production and other things; our concerns were technical in this first iteration. The way things are going, it seems like it is going to become more of a regular phenomenon and we’re already seeing it happen. It’s good to know we started on this early and for a person like me, who is usually not active on social media, I’ll give all the credit to Nafisa (Ali Hamza’s wife) because she came up with this idea and pushed for it.
Instep: In a virtual gig, people can comment/request right online but are not physically there? Did that affect your performance?
Ali Hamza: To be very honest, we did talk about requests and all but we were busy with the album so we didn’t have time as such to look at the requests; usually you are accustomed to going onstage and start playing so can’t handle the comments directly. Usually the camera is in front of you and you can see the comments but there has to be someone else to pass the comments to us. Cameras were the other way. We’re shooting from the back cameras, not the front cameras and because of that, the interactive part was what Nafisa was sharing and we were going according to that. More than the songs, the first gig was about social distancing and all, but, yes, you’re right, we need to curate a set-list and we can’t repeat the same songs again and again. With every iteration there is a learning curve; there is only so much we can do because we’re also working on an album and when you are in that creative zone, social distancing happens automatically so let’s see how things progress. I’m excited about the next one and it will be interesting for everyone because it will become a common feature in these times; these kind of activities and interactions.
Instep: How will you develop a set list for your upcoming session?
Ali Hamza: We’re thinking about it. I do think we need to have a more organized mechanism where we can take song requests and have a curated set-list, get time to rehearse it and then perform it. It’s pretty stupid to repeat the same songs because it isn’t a normal gig. It’s a collaborative effort between me, Kami and Rakae and the learnings are technical because when three people are playing, the mechanism is more elaborate. Some songs we will perform again and again because people like them and request them and it’ll be a smart idea to start putting out set-list. Globally, a set list is given because royalties are given accordingly but apart from that, it is a good hype builder for the audience. This time around, I do think it will be difficult to share a set-list but the next iteration we have will push us to have a set-list prepared in advance.
Instep: Will you be singing the pre-released Noori tracks like ‘Gawalmandi’ or stick to the usuals?
Ali Hamza: Frankly speaking, I’d like to do a lot more and explore more but everything requires practice and there’s a certain level of delivery we have to give. I haven’t been performing regularly so definitely, I’m out of practice so the songs that are naturally in the system can be performed but the rest need to be rehearsed first. whatever time that is left, we prepare during that period.
Instep: How are you dealing with quarantine and isolation due to a pandemic none of us have lived through before?
Ali Hamza: We are accustomed to it. We’re musicians, we’re self-employed, working from home all our lives and working out of studios so this isolation is not a big problem for me. But, yes, obviously there is frustration when you can’t step out of the house and see anything. Whenever things settle down, we will go out and really, really enjoy outside our homes. This is a pandemic we have not lived through but the times we are in, these pandemics happen every 100 years or so. The times we are in, our chances of mitigating it from spreading and controlling the rate of its growth, I think if we play our cards right and intelligently, we can extrapolate the number of casualties from previous experiences; the numbers I’m hearing is 38 or 40 million globally. But I do think that can be controlled due to social media and because of the awareness campaigns that are running and just because of the fact that we have the technology to work from home and still be productive individuals. The chances are high that we will control it as a human race than whatever has happened in the past in such situations.
Instep: What did you learn about fans based on the comments?
Ali Hamza: As you know, fans have always been important to us. The comments that come, I always value them. In today’s world, everybody has a say and there’s a lot of trolling but with time I realized that there are certain set of people who are genuine fans who follow you and you develop a relationship with them over time; they are emotionally invested. So there are listeners who give feedback and then there are some schmucks who enjoy harassing and trolling people. I value the people who are dedicated fans and they are listeners who tell you if you’re going on the right path and the general feedback, I value it as well. I’m genuinely waiting for a time where critical comments become more meaningful than meaningless because criticism is the most important part of any journey but I’m still waiting for something worthwhile like that to come. But I love my fans. 10-15 years into it, quite a few of them are friends now, not only fans. It’s an evolving process.
–Photos by Mobeen Ansari