As Pakistan’s most celebrated artist drops a new song, ‘Moonrise’, here’s looking back at his artistic evolution.
‘Moonrise’ by Atif Aslam released late last month, and since then, fans on both sides of the border have been debating whether Atif Aslam could be the most romantic singer. There are other contenders in Pakistan and neighboring India such as Farhan Saeed and Arjit Singh respectively, but when it comes to celebrity power, they have not surpassed Aslam.
‘Moonrise’ is very much a romantic song and a genre that Atif Aslam has conquered from his early years in music to the present day.
Directed by Adnan Qazi and featuring Amy Jackson - who is known for her work in regional Indian films - and released by Tarish Music, the song is backed by a slick music video with a crisp duration of being just under 3 minutes and 36 seconds.
The music video is elaborate and a full-blown romantic affair akin to a short Bollywood film and if that floats your boat, great. But if it doesn’t, the song is good enough to compensate. Would we feel as positively towards it if someone else were singing it? Unlikely.
But Aslam singing a song where the musicality tilts towards electronic dance, fused with Punjabi lyrics and a love-fueled music video, is good fun.
Is the song a bit dull with over-the-top visuals? Maybe. That could apply to other artists who are also known for this particular genre. But when the artist in question is Atif Aslam, the answer is complex and not as simple as yes-or-no. The biggest strength here is not the music and lyrics, to be honest. It is Aslam’s voice and when he applies that voice to any genre, it sounds extraordinary.
‘Moonrise’ is, therefore, a song that will appeal to all those who have a soft corner for Atif Aslam’s voice.
Though Atif delved deeper into acting with the serial Sang E Mah, the fact is that he’s featuring a lot of new music including ‘Rafta Rafta’ ft. Sajal Aly (July 2021), ‘Raat’ ft. Mansha Pasha, Syra Yousuf, Kiran Malik (February 2021), ‘Ajnabi’ ft. Mahira Khan in (September 2021) – in addition to commercial work. ‘Moonrise’ fits nicely into his discography.
“I’m a new day rising/I’m a brand new sky/To hang the stars upon tonight.” -’Times Like These’ by Foo Fighters
Atif Aslam, Pakistan’s most popular musician, has released just three studio albums – Jalpari (2004), Doorie (2006) and Meri Kahani (2008) – after arriving on the music scene with the breakthrough song, ‘Aadat’ with his then-band Jal in 2003.
Aslam became a solo artist after ‘Aadat’ with his last LP arriving in 2008. On the surface, it may even sound like he’s living on the glory of those albums. But that’s just semantics.
The albums appealed not only to music enthusiasts within Pakistan but across the border and eventually fans across the globe.
During those days, in an interview with Instep, Aslam noted that it’s more difficult to create a song that has mass appeal than one that appeals to a small number of fans.
It’s this philosophy that turned him into the globe-trotting musician he was and still is - decades later.
Between 2008 and 2022, Aslam rewrote his own musical graph. By appearing on the second season of Coke Studio (Pakistan), the singer-songwriter turned his staunchest critics into fans. He made his Coke Studio debut in 2009 with songs such as ‘Jalpari’, ‘Kinara (with Riaz Ali Khan)’, ‘Wasta Pyar Da’, ‘Mai Ne’, and ‘Humain Kya Hua’ and established his authority in music beyond contemporary songs that belonged to him. He showcased his skills as a multilingual artist who could do justice to various genres explored within the Coke Studio realm. We were sold. A different side of Atif Aslam had emerged.
After his 2009 appearance on the series, he returned to the platform on multiple occasions, creating demographic diversity every time.
In season five of Coke Studio, he went all-in, singing songs like ‘Charkha Nolakha’ (with Qayaas), ‘Rabba Sacheya’ and ‘Dholna’. He followed it up with ‘Channa’ on season six and ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’, ‘Man Aamadeh Am (with Gul Panra)’, ‘Kadi Aao Ni (with Mai Dhai)’ in season eight.
In season 12, Atif Aslam performed ‘Wohi Khuda Hai’, ‘Mubarik Mubarik’ (with Banur’s Band) and ‘Aaye Kuch Abr’ on the series.
And, for the latest season, in 2022, Atif Aslam appeared on the Coke Studio horizon again with originals like ‘Sajan Das Na’ (with Momina Mustehsan), and ‘Go’ (with the prodigious Abdullah Siddiqui).
What is remarkable, in hindsight, is what Atif did on each of those seasons. He went from bilingual to multilingual and worked with a slew of artists, singing songs in various forms of music including qawwali, ghazal, raga, folk and originals. He worked with Rohail Hyatt as music producer on most songs, but he also worked with other music producers the series had hired in later years including Strings and Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan (aka Xulfi). It seemed as if there was nothing Atif Aslam couldn’t accomplish. Combine these Coke Studio songs and Atif has enough songs in his repertoire that it qualifies as a fourth LP.
When criticism followed the series for focusing on cover songs alone, the music series changed gears with the last two seasons firmly focusing on original songs and Atif was right in the midst of that change and mixed it up as required.
“Destiny is calling me/ Open up my eager eyes/Cause I’m Mr. Brightside.” – ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers
On the other side of the spectrum and beyond Coke Studio, Atif continued to not only perform as a live artist in Pakistan and across continents, he became one of the strongest musicians in Pakistan, making fans in territories where other artists simply didn’t have a chance. Atif Aslam became one of the few voices that continued to make a mark while other artists who had emerged at the same time as he did were calling it a day or refocused their attention to other forms of performing arts like acting. Bands broke up. Some went solo and found a certain degree of success. Others never could make a mark even though they had earned it on the basis of merit and music philosophy.
Think Aaroh, EP, Qayaas and many artists who appeared on the music scene during the same time as Atif Aslam but eventually disappeared or embraced other sides of the performing arts.
Noori is the exception as the band hasn’t broken up but is simply on a hiatus.
Even Strings broke up after six studio albums, with Thirty being their last record. ‘Pyaar Ka Rog’ on Velo Sound Station became the last song that Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood sang together. The stage was already set since Velo Sound Station was spearheaded by Bilal Maqsood sans Faisal Kapadia. Both are now flying as solo artists.
Even music’s pioneering acts were ending their run as a unit such as the mighty Junoon with Ali Azmat going solo and dropping a variety of singles, and two beautiful albums. No matter what occurred, Atif stayed on course. His voice being the biggest arsenal in his musical toolbox, Atif found enormous success in India as a playback singer for films featuring the likes of Katrina Kaif, Ranbir Kapoor, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham and several others.
In the process, Atif also influenced other singers in Bollywood with Arijit Singh becoming a successful name while singing in a similar tone as Atif Aslam. No, he hasn’t surpassed Atif’s recognition in India or managed to copy his voice, but he has based his vocal delivery in a fashion that belongs first and foremost to Atif Aslam.
Singh’s popularity didn’t diminish Aslam’s Bollywood run. His universal appeal is visible when you go to various beauty salons where the best of Atif Aslam is usually playing in the background. I speak from experience.
“I feel my heart underneath my skin/and I feel my heart beating/oh you make me feel/like I’m alive again.” - ‘Adventure Of A Lifetime’ by Coldplay
When political relations between Pakistan and India soured, artists (from musicians to actors) had to pull back from going to India for any reason – be it for acting or as musicians.
One contemporary artist emerged as someone who was above this line in the sand then and now. Taking the India ban in his stride, Atif worked in ways that he shone in Pakistani content while maintaining his popularity in India. Fawad Khan is another artist popular on both sides of the border but his widespread standing in India has more to do with acting and less to do with music. The latter is not looking to drop music on his fans anytime soon.
Atif, on the other hand, did try acting in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol years ago but that was purely because he was lending his star power to the social drama.
With Sang E Mah, Atif has shown he can act as well as make music - at the same time. The acting bug is something that is also visible in his recent music videos such as ‘Moonrise’. It looks like the post-pandemic Atif Aslam will continue to swim rather than sink by experimenting with various forms of the performing arts. In doing so, his artistic evolution is both: obvious and an achievement in wretched times.