In an extensive conversation with Instep, Ali Sethi talks about mastering the self, the quest to preserve traditional forms of music and finding beauty in the mundane
The early years
"Let me set the record straight, I don’t consider myself to have a stellar academic background," says the man who got A’s in his O and A levels, graduated from Harvard University and went on to write a novel. From the very beginning of the conversation, Ali Sethi keeps making excuses for his success, accrediting the responsibility to someone, or something else. When he does take ownership of his achievements, he has a calculated, almost mathematical explanation for the world around him.
An epiphany came to him very early in life, when he was almost as young as 15 years old and on the verge of failing 10th grade. He only had an A in English but was failing everything else. It’s not like Sethi was a complete failure of a student; his area of expertise was just always towards the arts: music, painting, writing – and the arts were never encouraged at Aitchison, where Sethi studied. The Principal one day called him in his office and said: "Sonny boy, this is no good. I know you can do it all. If you can cross this bridge, the future will become easier. Then you can finally go on to do the things you want to do, but this you have to do in order to get there."
Sethi stayed up all night thinking about what he had been told. If only he could pass his exams, he could then move on to a zone where he could fully explore his interests freely. The next morning, Sethi woke up a new person. He transformed his D’s to seven A’s, got a world distinction in English Literature, even winning an Aitchison award for highest marks in English language.
What does this anecdote tell you about Sethi? It shows a self-discipline that most people rarely master in life.
Overcoming the self, Sethi is convinced that man can do anything he sets his mind to. "The grammar of learning is the same in all disciplines. You need to be able to appreciate the beauty in anything, only then you can own it."
Hence, it does not come as a surprise that Sethi has successfully mastered two different art forms: classical singing and writing.
A musical odyssey
Music had still not entered Sethi’s life until he reached Harvard University, where he performed on stage for the first time in his life. In 2003, the Harvard South Asian Association was doing its annual variety show called Ghungroo. Having recently watched Monsoon Wedding, the then 18-year-old Sethi had been mesmerized by Farida Khanum’s ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zidd Na Karo,’ to a degree that it inspired him to sing Mohammad Rafi’s ‘Chaudhvi Ka Chaand Ho’ in front of a large audience. Sethi also recalls that after 9/11, people would treat him with curiosity and anxiety, not knowing where to place him or how to be around him. "I was very eager to show that in fact the place where I came from was not nearly as terrifying as people assumed it to be."
Even though Sethi wasn’t a trained singer at this point in time, he got a good response from people. "I’m a good mimic. I have the ability to reproduce a sound when I hear it."
Sethi had read about how mimicry is linked to the musical skill and how it uses the same mechanism that is able to help one sing or hit the right note. He also realized that as much as he enjoyed singing, he didn’t really know anything about it. Inspired by the scholarly environment he was surrounded by at Harvard, Sethi set on the journey to learn music.
Having had the opportunity to meet Farida Khanum in his summer break, Sethi was told that the journey of learning classical singing won’t be an easy one. She asked him to sing for her, which he did. Sethi still remembers Khanum’s golden words, "Aap ke galay mein qudrati jagah lenay ki salaihyat hai." Sethi explains what Khanum meant by ‘jagah lena’: It means to have natural control over voice modulations.
While Khanum found Sethi to possess a natural inclination towards classical singing, Sethi again has a calculated and logical approach, "It’s like a language. You have to first pick it up phonetically. It’s a lot of work!"
Even while speaking, Sethi displays his strong command over the two art forms: classical singing and writing. He has a steady voice; his pitch doesn’t waver, speaking calmly and slowly. He does not stutter or is ever at a loss of words. He explains himself well, rather too well, but seems unsure of it as he asks on various occasions "Am I making sense?" Modesty is another trait that is deeply entrenched in Sethi’s personality.
Following Khanum’s advice, Sethi then bought himself a harmonium and found an ustaad, Master Moin Rafi, who would teach him in his summer holidays. He started listening to old songs and started to analyse the notes being used in them. All of this was happening side by side, as he was still completing his studies and was also in the process of writing his first novel, The Wish Maker.
After graduating in 2006, Sethi’s passion for music took over. "I went and became formally apprenticed to Ustaad Naseeruddin Sami sahab, the greatest classical vocalist in our country."
From this moment on, Sethi began his formal entry into the world of music. And since then, he has gone onto produce a number of hits such as ‘Dil Jalaney Ki Baat’, ‘Aah Ko Chahiye’ and ‘Kya Hoga (a duet with Zeb Bangash) with the latter two songs featured in Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto.
Back to the future
What everyone is buzzing about these days is Sethi’s appearance alongside Abida Parveen in Coke Studio 9’s first episode. His performance in ‘Aaqa’ is truly commendable for various reasons including the fact that he was able to hold his ground magnificently alongside a legend like Abida Parveen.
Sethi explains that the producers of Coke Studio allow singers to bring in their own melodic improvisation to the song which means all the raags and surrs we hear in ‘Aaqa’ were up to Sethi’s discretion.
The experience of singing with Abida Parveen was both terrifying and exciting as he prepared for this performance of a lifetime.
"This opportunity came down to me from the divine," he says. "It’s not something I had stimulated in anyway. Abida Jee was supposed to sing the lines ‘Mein faqiri mein bhi kitna hoon qalandar dekho, dekhnay walon zara mera muqadar dekho’ but at the very last minute she looked at me and said ‘tum gao’ and I sang it."
Addressing the challenge he faced when rehearsing for the song, Sethi recalls, "Initially we were supposed to sing from a C. That is a pitch that I’m comfortable with."
However, two months before the song was to be shot, Sethi was told that he had to sing from a G. "This is essentially a female pitch. For me to sing the whole song on that pitch was very depressing at first."
Doing what he does best, he overcame his obstacles by preparing, practicing and studying. Sure enough, Sethi sang like a professional on the final day. "My voice was on the top of my skull. If you listen to that shaer, you’ll hear that my voice is coming from I don’t know where!"
The response to Sethi’s performance has largely been positive. "I’m surprised to have been inundated with love," he says of the applause he’s been receiving since the song made its appearance.
The surprise factor stems from the fact that when people have such high expectations, it’s a difficult task to live up to them. But Sethi managed to satisfy everyone’s expectations. "I even read a comment that said that ‘iska baap mujhe nai pasand lekin yeh bilkul theek ga raha hai!’"
Beyond public perception
The one-million-dollar question that comes to mind when one thinks of Ali Sethi is how has his father’s career impacted his own? Being the son of Najam Sethi, an influential journalist and Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, who has also served as Chief Minister of Punjab, may mean that people assume that things must have been made easy for him. However, Sethi explains that there were no doors that were opened or closed to him because of his father. Just like any other musician, Sethi is making ends meet. "It’s more about luck in this profession, more than anything else," he clears the air.
Sethi also adds that there is nothing to be gained by knocking on the doors of the government because the state’s involvement in preserving our culture has shrunk to nothingness.
Having faced criticism from an unlikely source for his performance on Coke Studio’s tribute track ‘Aye Rah-e-Haq- Ke Shaheedo’, Sethi explains his stance for doing the track in a sensible manner. "A bunch of these super academic laptop warriors in the West wrote to me saying ‘how can you, with your education, sing something so militaristic?’ It’s a song, not a weapon. Look at what the song is saying. It’s encouraging hope. It isn’t mobilizing people for war!"
The song is also metaphorical as it extends to anyone who walks in the path of truth. It isn’t just for martyrs who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
All this further demonstrates how Sethi is unrelenting in his passion for traditional music and has made it one of his life’s missions to carry this art form forward. "If we build institutions that teach music, anyone can learn it. It only requires focus and practice, and I’m committed to building something at some point in my life."
Sethi is deeply ambitious, juggling with advancing in his musical career as well as struggling to find the time to finish his second novel. Has he considered acting? "I’ll die of exhaustion if I attempt one more thing," he laughs.
As the interview comes to a close, it’s clear that Sethi doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. He takes no short cuts and that reflects in the finesse of his work, whether he is singing, writing, or just having a regular conversation on a very ordinary day.
So here’s hoping we hear more from this powerhouse artist and may his drive and energy never slow down.