Behind the gospel of Ali Sethi

February 2, 2020

Though he’s appeared on film soundtracks and singles with several industry giants as producers, Ali Sethi has truly found himself on his collaborations with Noah Georgeson. Instep deciphers how…

Ali Sethi and Noah Georgeson

From the day Ali Sethi made his debut years ago to now, there is no genre he can be pigeonholed in – anymore.

Ali is a murshid (student) of the greats. Among them is Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami, believed by experts to be the last well-versed classical khyal musician and the living legend Farida Khanum. The latter is someone Ali Sethi has also interviewed on several occasions. The two have been significant influences in Sethi’s quest to learn more about eastern form of music including raags.

A man who considered himself, for the longest time, first and foremost a vocalist, Ali Sethi began by nearly trying everything. He sung playback for films ranging from Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto (‘Aah Ko Chahiye’ and ‘Kya Hoga’) to Mohammed Ehteshamuddin’s 2019 Mahira Khan-Bilal Ashraf starrer Superstar. In the latter, he sang the endearing and romantic ballad ‘Bekaraan’. For the tracks, he worked with music directors as diverse as Jamal Rahman and Azaan Sami Khan, respectively.

He also has sparse covers such as ‘Dil Jalaney Ki Baat Karte Ho’ to his name and while they may have launched him into the stratosphere of the uneven music business in Pakistan, he has continued on what is a journey.

Sandwiched in-between have been originals such as ‘Mera Mahi’ ft. Jamaldin or super-hit covers like ‘Chan Kithan’ whose music video has climbed to more than 6 million hits on YouTube.

Then there have been his Coke Studio appearances over the years that first began under Strings and went on to include as producers Zohaib Kazi and Ali Hamza, Shuja Haider, Ali Hamza (solo), Jaffer Zaidi and most recently Rohail Hyatt (Coke Studio 12).

Even as Ali Sethi is never fully sure when it comes to his work; he almost always asks with a degree of uncertainty - ‘did you enjoy it?’ – we must not forget that Ali has expanded both our musical vocabulary and his own.

Folk, ghazals, poetry of the masters, iconic songs by legendary singers on the verge of being forgotten have been made magnetic to a generation that has far too many distractions.

Having also worked with emerging and very talented producers like Saad Sultan, the collaborations have helped putting Ali Sethi on the map as a distinct singer, almost mathematical in his adaptations, always trying to get every note right in his bid to do justice to the greats. Yet, he somehow is still so visceral in delivery that it gets you every time. The rising numbers on his YouTube channel – the barometer for success nowadays – is one example.

However, given that Ali Sethi once confessed to being a child of multiculturism, as we’ve seen him grow as a vocalist, his journey remained unfinished.

Enter: Professor Ali Asani and Noah Georgeson

Professor Ali Asani of Harvard University (with whom Ali has released a behind the scenes video) also shaped and continues to shape his knowledge of Sufi philosophy in all its hues.

He’s collaborated with the collective Red Baraat and Riz MC’s (Riz Ahmed) music outfit, Swet Shop Boys and played multiple shows abroad but the collective knowledge gleaned from Professor Ali Asani and Grammy award winning Noah Georgeson as well has led to a different outcome.

Noah, best known in Pakistan for producing the arresting theme track, ‘Tuyo’ (Yours) for Netflix series, Narcos, has produced 5 tracks for Ali Sethi. They comprise ‘Chandni Raat’, ‘Dil Lagaayein’, ‘Ishq’, Dil Ki Khair’ with ‘Khabar-e-Tahayyur-e-Ishq’ being the latest collaboration.

Produced by Noah Georgeson with poetry by Siraj Aurangabadi, the tune is composed by Ali Sethi with research and commentary by Professor Ali Asani and direction by Imran Babur.

Sethi, as a result, is no longer just focused on being a great vocalist; he’s embraced the idea of writing songs and composing tunes as well. Noah has taken Ali Sethi into a new dimension musically and it is beginning to show.

If we talk about the latest release, it is the first one to feature Noah Georgeson in the same frame as Ali Sethi. He has stayed in the shadows in the past.

Even though other greats have previously delivered their own versions of ‘Khabar-e-Tahayyur-e-Ishq’ (yes, it’s a mouthful) such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for some people this will be their first introduction to this poetry. This is where Ali and Noah, joined by Professor Ali Asani, have come to be such a force. It’s more than a song; it’s a mystic, magnetic field from which you simply don’t want to crossover to the rush of the world.

The idea to do a series of albums with Noah Georgeson, as Ali Sethi told Instep in an earlier interview, therefore will be an auspicious gift.

Speaking to Instep from New York - where his billboards have been seen as part of tribute to the Chinese American composer Du Yun - Ali Sethi said about this particular release, the fifth one and the first to feature Noah that it is in fact the first song they worked on.

“This is actually the first song Noah and I worked on. It’s special for many reasons,” said Ali. “The instrumentation is one. Stephanie Bennett’s harp is magical, but also radical: I don’t think a ghazal has ever been adorned with these harp-pluckings. It’s also a tune I’m close to: normally this ghazal is rendered in a 7-beat cycle, what is called ‘Chahchar’ in tabla lingo, but I’ve interpreted it as a waltz.

That’s a bit of a transgression on my part, albeit a creative one! Finally, I’m so glad we have that glorious BTS documentary with Professor Asani’s commentary, because it’s so important for young people to recover an understanding of Sufi poetry as more than just ‘literature’, as something rooted in theology and metaphysics, something that feeds the spirit and nourishes the soul. From the response we’ve had thus far, it seems Khabare has managed to achieve a lot of those things.”

Ali Sethi found himself while collaborating with Noah Georgeson; Instep deciphers how