LAHORE-Known by many titles such as novelist, journalist, academic, and of course, musician, Ali Sethi has become a household name in an incredibly short span of time. He made his debut with a soulful version of ‘Dil Jalanay Ki Baat’ which was featured in Mira Nair’s Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2013 and has since independently released a multitude of songs including ‘Mohabbat Karnay Waley’, ‘Mahi Mera’ and a very poignant rendition of ‘Chan Kithan’.

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, the singer talks about his career and success in Pakistani music industry. Following are the excerpts:

Coming from a family of writers, what inspired you to pursue your career as a classical singer?

I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. My mother used to play a lot of traditional Pakistani music in the house. I suppose I internalised those melodies. When I went to Harvard, I finally mustered the courage to study music. I haven’t looked back since then.

What do you think of today’s

audience of classical music?

I think audiences today are diverse but also distracted. There’s a lot of music available to my audience, and most of it is for free. So, I think the audience is spoiled for choice, but also more exposed, more open-minded in some ways.

I like those aspects. One thing I miss and mourn all the time is the loss of musical literacy. Until 20 years ago, Pakistani audiences were familiar with the tropes of traditional genres like Ghazal, Qawwali, Thumri, Dadra, and even Khayaal and Dhrupad.

Today they are not. That’s a tragic loss. But it’s also an opportunity - I think part of my mission is to bring back some of those lost norms.

After graduating from Harvard, what made you want to return to Pakistan?

Visa issues! I didn’t have a valid work visa that would allow me to stay on in the US. I also wanted to take up a rigorous musical apprenticeship with an Ustad — that was only possible in Pakistan.

‘Tinak Din Na’, the song sang in Coke Studio was praised by singers across the border. Tell us something about it?

The song was great fun to jam and to record. I’m so happy I got to be a part of it — I’m always thanking Ali Hamza for this. He was very generous throughout the process.The praise is nice but I don’t take it too seriously. (An educated critique, on the other hand, is likely to hold my attention for a long time.)

Should Pakistani classical musicians do fusion which is catching on?

I think the concept of ‘fusion’ is outdated. We are all fusing nowadays (cultures, sensibilities, instruments, sounds). It’s just the nature of our age, which is the age of a thrilling, hapless, uncontrollably connected internet. I don’t think musicians should go out of their way to “fuse” things — just find the best way to tell your story.

Your latest song, Ishq is appreciated by music enthusiasts and trending on social

media. Tell us a little about it?

It’s a song I wrote and composed myself. I’m very proud of it. I think it displays (to me at least) a ripening of sensibility. The song references a lot of classical poetic tropes (the hero as wandering dervish, the wilderness or darkness as a transformative space, an Awakening which feels like a Return or Rebirth). I studied these lyrical tropes in great detail as an undergraduate.

Of course the song is also about my personal experience of surviving a dark spell, or finding love and emerging into the light. But I’m especially proud because I’ve been able to convey my very particular experience in this universal language of Sufi images and classical raag passages. I think that’s what makes ‘Ishq’ a special song — there’s something timeless or eternal about it.

Would you like to tell us about

your upcoming projects?

More tours, more writing, more composing and recording.