Talking to Instep from New York, Ali Sethi discusses ‘Waasta’, his collaborative release with Faris Shafi, Coke Studio 11, working with Narcos producer Noah Georgeson and the experimental outfit called Resident Alien.
Ali Sethi and I have been playing [this interview] by ear. Traveling in New York City, he instantly agrees to answer my many questions via email and sends me a response upon my single query despite the time difference.
Reminded that I’ve added more questions given his last release - ‘Rondian Akhiaan’ - and have not received his answers at 6am on a quiet morning, he apologises first and agrees to send them in a few hours, before asking for a request to sleep.
In the interview, Ali is, as always forthcoming, doesn’t duck questions and articulates himself in a way few musicians can. That probably comes from his background as a published author (The Wish Maker) and writer. This conversation, however, is not about his writings but about his career as a cross-cultural musician.
At a time when we cringe at most cover songs, sometimes justifiably so and at other times, out of pure emotion, Ali Sethi has made covering songs into an art-form. It is how he began his career many moons ago and it’s a skill with which he astonishes many of us nearly every time.
Even as his music career is built on taking the traditional and setting them in a contemporary setting, he’s simply getting better at it. Evolving as a musician by drawing from Raga theory and doing original songs, he is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary artist like never before.
From film soundtracks to multiple appearances on Coke Studio to Cornetto Pop Rock 3 to winning a Lux Style Award for ‘Tinak Dhin’ alongside Ali Hamza and Waqar Ehsin and working with Narcos producer Noah Georgeson as well as playing shows with an experimental outfit called Resident Alien, Ali Sethi’s career is on a high.
In this interview with Instep from New York City, Ali Sethi talks about everything, from the Patari controversy to his newest releases ‘Rondian Akhiaan’ and ‘Waasta’ and what’s coming next.
Instep: What can you tell us about ‘Rondian Akhiaan’ and the association with Souchaj? Is it a presentation for a bridal/jewellery brand?
Ali Sethi (AS): Souchaj asked me to do a song for their campaign and I created a song with the composer Shehzad Ali in the traditional pahadi raag. I’m so glad we got to showcase a traditional melody.
Instep: Is ‘Rondian Akhiaan’ an original designed with the brand in mind, a cover from the past or something else entirely?
AS: This is an original song written by Fazal Abbas and composed by Shehzad Ali. Saad Sultan produced the track. It’s a very familiar melody -- you’ll know many Punjabi film songs in this raag from the nineties. It’s this wounded, wailing, but also somehow sweet and lyrical space…
Instep: Is it difficult to work with a fashion brand or working with a brief? You did ‘Chan Kithan’ with Studio S as well.
AS: I don’t really engage with the brand in a musical way. I make the song in the way I want and usually that’s when a brand will come in as a partner in the production. I think it’s the video director who truly struggles to salvage their personal vision!
Instep: Your collaborative release ‘Waasta’ (with Faris Shafi) is not like your past releases (such as ‘Mohabbat Karne Waley’, ‘Yaad Mein Teri’, ‘Haal Aisa Nahin’ etc) and certain originals. What motivated you to do this collaboration?
AS: I had this tune stuck in my head. I’m still not sure where it came from; I think I heard a melodic passage during one of those austere classical recitals at the All Pakistan Music Conference in Lahore and came away humming this tune. So I sang it to Saad (Sultan) and we both felt it deserved an RnB groove. Then, a few months later, I met Faris Shafi in Karachi and sang it to him. And that’s really it -- a song was born. Truth be told, I was also feeling a little tired of doing the renditions and turning repeatedly to tabla and harmonium for accompaniment. I wanted a break, and ‘Waasta’ offered it.
Instep: You composed ‘Waasta’ and co-wrote the lyrics with Shakeel Sohail with rap lyrics by Faris Shafi. How challenging is it to write lyrics and compose? Do you see yourself as a singer or a singer-songwriter and composer?
AS: I am a singer. I also always contribute (often extensively) to the musical arrangement that gives life to the song. In ‘Chan Kithan’, for instance, I came up with all the instrumental intervals and even played the kazoo behind the snake-charmer’s been. As of this year I’m actively composing songs. Again, I draw on my training in Raga theory and practice to do all of this, and I’m often quite amazed by how efficient and effective it is.
Instep: The lyrics in ‘Waasta’ are like a commentary on the bleak realities within and without. It reflects on a much great sadness and a deeper rage through not only the song but the music video as well. Was that by design?
AS: Funnily enough, I came up with the melody first. This often happens with me: I’ll hum a whole song -- verse chorus bridge etc -- and only then fumble for words with which to fill it up. This is, according to my Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami sahib, the wrong way to go about it! But I can’t help it -- if I had my way I would sing aalaaps for the rest of my life. So yes, there is a deep sadness to the lyrics in ‘Waasta’ but that is secondary, even incidental when compared to the melody, which for me is elemental and primary.
Instep: The sound of ‘Waasta’ – though produced by your long-time collaborator Saad Sultan – is a new direction for you. It’s a modern sonic sonnet. Was that deliberate or just a happy outcome?
AS: Deliberate in the sense that we wanted a break from our usual instruments. However, we did end up throwing a tabla and harmonium in there!
Instep: ‘Waasta’ faced controversy when it was revealed (in Dawn newspaper through a leaked screenshot) that during an internal conversation between Patari management, it was stated that the placement of ‘Waasta’ from new releases should be changed as Ali Zafar "has an issue with it". You and Faris released a joint statement in the aftermath while Ali Zafar has denied any involvement in this episode and Patari has made its own statement regarding the matter. In the wake of this incident as well as the resignation of six Patari employees before that, do you, as an artist, trust Patari as an unbiased platform anymore? Your songs are available to stream on the platform, even now.
AS: I honestly don’t know what happened there. It’s still unclear to me. And it doesn’t matter anymore, because they fixed the problem. I’m glad platforms like Patari exist -- they offer young listeners a quirky and (so far) non-commercial curation of contemporary Pakistani music, much of which would otherwise go unnoticed in the blizzard of Bollywood hits.
Instep: One of your new songs is the mash-up ‘Dil Karda Ay’ and ‘Agar Tum Mil Jao’ where you have collaborated with Quratulain Balouch (QB) as part of the third season of Cornetto Pop Rock. Unlike your other tracks, this one feels weaker, both video-wise and sonically. What is your take on some of the criticism that has followed this particular song? It feels as if with your collective voices, the song should have flown higher than it has.
AS: Ha! But I’ve only heard good things! The song has done well -- in fact I think it’s the most popular song of all Cornetto Pop Rock seasons. I like it because I composed much of it (the ‘Dil Karda Ay’ part, the verse and the outro). I also like this song because I’m a fan of QB’s voice -- what a remarkable tone she has.
Instep: How excited are you to be a part of Coke Studio 11 line-up, having been a part of the show on a number of occasions in the past?
AS: I would say I’m adequately excited for my song in CS11. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve done. And yes, it’s a fun song, a sort of follow-up to my disco-dancer avatar in last year’s ‘Tinak Dhin.’
Instep: Your cross-cultural credentials as a musician took a major leap this year when you revealed plans to collaborate with award-winning record producer Noah Georgeson, who created the title track for Narcos (the series) and has three Grammy Awards to his name. This collaboration also includes Harvard University’s well-known Islam scholar Ali Asani. You also revealed that the project will consist of more than one album. How is the music coming along?
AS: We’ve just finished recording the first few songs. Noah is such a master -- I absolutely worship Cavalo, the record he made for Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante. Working with him in Los Angeles was a trip in every sense of the word. I had never been inside such studios or beheld (and touched, and played!) such strange and exquisite instruments.
Instep: You also made your debut as Resident Alien (RA), consisting of you and Sunny Jain of Red Baraat, a Brooklyn-based music group. RA also includes Grey Mcmurray and Shoko Nagai. What is Resident Alien about?
AS: Resident Alien is an experimental set that boldly meshes a bunch of disparate musical strategies. Think ghazal singing over dhol and electric-guitar-distortions! I like it because it lets me be a little wild. We’re playing at the Brooklyn Jazz Festival in October.
Instep: What are you working on besides records with Noah Georgeson? I read an interview of yours in which you said you’re doing an EP of ghazals taught to you by Farida Khanum and directing a documentary? Can you tell us more about it?
AS: Happily, there’s all this and more in the offing, so describing it here will sound messy and chaotic. Wait a little -- I’ll be sure to share everything with you.
Instep: You won an LSA alongside Ali Hamza and Waqar Ehsin for ‘Tinak Dhin’ from Coke Studio 10 this year and contributed to the soundtrack of 7 Din Mohabbat In. In between making music, you’re also playing shows, at home and abroad. With so much happening, do you think this is your biggest year yet?
AS: This is a year in which I’m pushing myself a lot as a musician. So yes, in one sense it is a big year. But big and small are decided in retrospect, aren’t they? All I really know is I’m able to make the music I want and love, and for that I am so grateful.
Instep: Is there any truth to the rumour that you are looking to move to the USA? Do you think it will affect your career in Pakistan?
AS: I’m not moving to the US, no. I am exploring creative avenues in the US as well as other places. Also: I like travel! It keeps you alert and critically engaged with the world.