The last time I interviewed Atif Aslam, approximately a year ago, things were different. We were talking face-to-face and that reveals a great deal; this time, the conversation takes place over the phone. We’re living in unusual times; during a pandemic called COVID-19 and I can’t catch Atif the way I usually do when he’s in town.
Atif doesn’t have a PR company so as always, we set up a time for the interview. Still as forthcoming, as I ask him question after question, Atif is the middle class boy who went from singing in college to the mighty hit ‘Aadat’ to knocking on doors for a way in until he signed an Indian film as playback singer and it catapulted him to stardom that no one else in contemporary music dreamt of, not even Atif himself. He’s living the dream. And post-fatherhood for a second time, he’s now ready to talk music, not doing what is expected off him and finding satisfaction in family life over industry after-parties, all the time.
“Why do you put me on a pedestal
I’m so high that I can hardly see the ground below
So help me down you’ve got it wrong
I don’t belong there.”
Given the fact that we are now living in a time when lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation are all precautionary measures that have been taken to isolate the deadly virus and keep it from spreading. This is where my conversation with Atif begins.
“So far so good,” begins Atif, “It’s like a break for me because I travel so much. I have always been quite anti-social – in terms of industry parties – so in that sense, it is going okay.”
But Atif is irked as well. There are things that are causing a sense of turbulence, like the most sacred place of worship for Muslims, the Khana-e-Kaaba, has been shut down as the historic space is being sterilized, reports note, amid coronavirus fears. “The catastrophe will increase and it is on my mind,” says Atif.
Religion has played a prominent role in Atif’s life and career.
Last year Atif opened Coke Studio 12 with a hamd and that too on a Friday. It’s no secret that when Ramazan appears the acting community in particular and entertainment industry at large begins pandering to an already right-wing myopic nation with such ubiquity in holiness that it is both shocking and horrifying. We do have clerics, many doing more damage, either in form of child abuse or most recently against the advice of public safety by both the government and international bodies, to head to mosques to pray instead of at home.
But evangelical artists?
I discuss this with him; we talk about congregations, narrow-mindedness over science, the playing of religious card by celebrities, and given all this I ask him whether he too was playing the religious card with the hamd.
Atif listens carefully and then says, “Firstly, religion is something very personal. Everyone looks at it from a different perspective, and at the age of 17, it is one thing and at 37 it is something else. Some understand it early on while others take a lot of time to understand and some never understand. It is the individual thought and process of people and what their environment, while growing up, has been like that has a stronghold. Some do want to work for the cause of religion and some must, which is a reality. There are many factors that come into it. Like the afterlife and what one thinks that ‘okay sirf gaaney gaye, movies ki, but kuch serve nahin kiya’. So, you know a person can think and get lost in that thought. In the end, it’s a very one-on-one personal relationship with God about what you want to do and what you don’t want to do.”
Atif reiterated, “Actors and singers get caught up because they are famous. But it could be a banker or someone from any field who feels the pull of God. It is his or her decision. Who are we to analyse people about why they feel such a pull? If someone does it back and forth, that is different. In that case, it’s between him and God.”
As for Coke Studio, Atif admits that for the last several years, the season has begun with a combination of singers singing an iconic song. Never has it happened that a solo performance has opened a season. He further reveals, “Singers are not told that we are beginning with your track. So I had no idea they would start with that and nobody told me that the hamd would be the season opener. You tell me, has it ever happened before, a solo singer opening a season?” We both know the answer is no. “In my head, I had done a hamd. I had done ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ before and a lot of people liked it so why not do this?”
Atif cleared the notion that by doing a hamd on Coke Studio 12, he is bidding music goodbye. He also noted that having performed a ghazal and collaborated with Banur’s Band on the same season, that portion is lost on people who are hanging on the mindset that Atif is playing religious cards. “Why did they (Coke Studio 12) release the hamd as the opener, I have no idea.”
He also explains that collaborating with Mai Dhai, Riaz Ali Khan (sahib) and Banur’s Band via Coke Studio were ways to explore both the varied cultures that exist and challenging himself.
Moving past Coke Studio 12, there are those who feel he should do a spiritual album. But Atif reveals that such rumours are greatly exaggerated and unfounded.
Atif points to ’12 Bajay’, a good pop/rock song with a thrilling music video by Zeeshan Parwez that collectively harkens back to the days when Atif made his debut with solo and beautiful album, Jalpari. But does it mean Atif is planning to pull another Jalpari on us, the listeners if there is no spiritual album in the making?
What do you want to do?
“Neither of the two (spiritual album or another Jalpari),” notes Atif. “Because it has to be a different genre now. The reason why I did ‘12 Bajay’ was at the request of my fans. But there has been a generation that has been fans of Jalpari. However, the new audience and the new kids have arrived. You can educate them about Jalpari but the time is different so naturally the artist needs to be relevant. And I feel like moving in a new direction now. It’s high time.”
Is that direction going to be electronic? Electronic has many hues.
“It could be R’n’B; it could be electronic; you can expect anything,” Atif says, refusing to stay within one genre, moving with the times.
Where do you see the music industry going? Albums, singles and EPs are releasing, so to say no music is being made is absolute rubbish. But do you see a direction?
“I’m anticipating a lot of music and people who want to work short term and make money out of YouTube. But the good ones will stand out and the rest will hit a saturation point. A chunk of solo artists exist and as long as they think out of the box, and make music that is distinct, they too will stand out.”
As for solo artists, you have to keep coming out with music every other month in order to make a mark in the post-Coke Studio decade. “I think some will gravitate towards film music. As for me, I don’t see an album but once we’re past coronavirus, I do plan to release songs as singles.”
“I think there will be a lot of music coming this year,” he says with emphasis.
Is Atif also going to follow the visual direction? As a generation, videos make a bigger mark and a visual motif is something many rely on. Strings, for instance, made a music video for each song off their eight-track album, Thirty (formerly known as Tees).
A conceptual vision behind songs is something Atif agrees with. “It should be there. People listen to a song once and they need an incentive to listen to it again, unless a song is very powerful. Unless you know you don’t need a music video to go with the single.”
In other words, for Atif Aslam, it depends on the song.
As we pivot back to coronavirus because it has paralysed life in Pakistan, I ask Atif how he sees it impacting the music industry.
For the moment, we’re seeing a surge in activity on Facebook and Instagram where some have taken to live concerts while others host conversations. It is a global phenomenon. “Everything is shut and that means no shows, which is bread and butter for a lot of people. So, it’s difficult. As for the virtual gigs, whatever the reason, I think you’re giving yourself away and the audience might get bored after a couple of weeks. It might get saturated. Especially if you’re doing it daily.”
With concerts (pre-coronavirus) on the rise, and with ghastly behavior endured by female fans at larger concerts, where does that leave us?
“There is no solution to it unless our mind is exposed to things. It happens everywhere in the world. We need to educate the audience; an artist cannot stop something he can’t see. The only solution is stay away from a mosh pit in a big concert.”
Is that not fair to people who do want to come to the front but can’t because of boys?
“I’m not saying this applies to all concerts. I’m saying that at a concert where there are too many people, avoid standing right in the midst of it unless you have someone with you, like a brother or your boyfriend. Segregation is not a solution. The onus is on the organizer(s)/organisation to keep them (audience) safe and provide a safe space…”
And Atif is an old pro who knows that all organisations do not take enough measures and sometimes people enter a concert with a motive to harass rather than listen to an artist playing. Hence, avoiding the mosh pit is, in his eyes, one solution to misbehavior.
As for Atif, he is moving with the times and new songs layered with new genres (for him) is his next ballgame. Until then, Atif is enjoying fatherhood in a rigorous touring lifestyle. And he maintains that he is not expensive but has a reputation that keeps people from approaching him. He has sung playback for local films; he has acted in one film as well (Bol) and he is open to the notion of acting but reiterates that this false reputation has kept people from approaching him. What Atif is clear on is that music will not be left behind.