Aamir Zaki’s untimely demise literally broke my heart. But this is not going to be a sob story – a trap many critics fell for while writing his obituaries, and I aim to celebrate his sheer genius instead. For children from the 90s, his music was literally our first taste of blues rock and guitar solos. There were only two TV channels – the state-led PTV, and the semi-private STN, and therefore, there was minimal access to Western music barring the occasional, and censored, Michael Jackson video. And watching Mr Zaki, in those times, was, quite literally, surreal, and unprecedented. There were other guitarists, but Aamir Zaki was Aamir Zaki. An album based around guitar instrumentals being released in 1995 Pakistan was as radical and exciting as it got.

The extremely haunting, yet intimate track, “Mera Pyaar” became a breakup anthem, in its own right. Its English version, which followed a similar vocal melody and arrangement, but had comparatively sinister lyrics, “Do You Really Love Another,” was another treasure, and cryptically detailed his raw emotions about his tragic divorce in 1994. Almost every underground band covered the track, with varying degrees of success, as DIY gigs in the cities flourished in a vibrant underground scene. It was only in 2005, though, when I picked up the electric guitar myself, that I began to understand the depths of his greatness and the difficulties attached with attempting to imitate his playing style whilst maintaining fidelity. Without jumping into flowery mumbo jumbo and running amok with abstract adjectives to harp on about how “soulful” his playing was, and trust me there was an infectious overdose of soul, let me try to shed light on his virtuosity from a practitioner’s perspective.

Back in the day, musicians were not afforded the blessings of various contemporary tablature aids like Youtube, Guitar Pro and Songsterr, where you could learn through instructional videos or figure songs from onscreen polyphonic notational aid in real-time, or slow down the tempo to practice the more challenging parts. Moreover, accurate tabs for Pakistani songs, even in simple text formats, were hard to come by, and you had to basically figure songs out solely by ear. Figuring out Amir Zaki classics like the melancholic, “The Day She Left,” or the upbeat, and appropriately erratic, funk-filled phrasing of “You Need that Fire” and “Not Quite Maniac” was not child’s play. And it still isn’t. Most rock/metal guitarists who could play really fast and technically challenging music would not have the “thehrao” i.e. the patience to absorb or hear the intricate depth in his phrasing, while their counterparts, hailing from purely eastern backgrounds, with their repertoire of licks learnt by replicating “bols” i.e. vocal lines around a static basic root note, as is customary in the tradition, would fall short due to a lack of experience with his west-centric harmonic complexities and modal shifts, and an accurate imitation was rarely heard, if ever.

Mr Zaki had an expert vibrato, his legatos were silky and neat, his approach flexible and his unique command over the theoretical and practical traditions, of both, the more melody-form based eastern, as well as the more chordal harmony oriented western approach, immaculate. And all of that could not be simply learnt from a teacher, or easily tabbed, because it all came together through a unique east-meets-west process which requires years of active thought and natural talent, and their transformation into praxis.

And a fourteen-year-old Aamir Zaki found a conducive environment at his home, which helped to nurture him in the high art forms of eastern classical and jazz – getting his inspiration for eastern from his mother’s interest in the mastery of semi-classical ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan, and his dad’s love for the jazz music of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong et al and blues maestros like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Music was highly appreciated in his house in Saudi Arabia in his early childhood, and in Karachi, later on, and boy did his listening flourish as a result. In his teenage years, it all came together to fruition as he became a sensation on the Karachi jazz club circuit, forming a tight partnership with the child prodigy, Louis J Pinto, popularly known as Gumby, Khalid Khan on bass, and many other tight musicians from Goan Christian ensembles. Over time, his repertoire became more flexible with him finding his calling on the live stage where he could improvise for hours on end without things getting repetitive or bland. As his stock grew, Mr Zaki played sessions with chart-topping pop sensations like Alamgir, Vital Signs and Hadiqa Kiyani, amongst others, as well as being a mentor for many talented musicians, and taught formally at the National Academy of Performing Arts, amongst other ventures, in his later years.

Being blessed with such unorthodox musical talent, however, can be a curse in a society like Pakistan. As corporate monsters reigned supreme and gradually assumed virtual monopoly over music distribution and high-end production facilities in the 2000s, Mr Zaki grew increasingly disillusioned with the general culture of the music industry, and lamented its vulgar and mediocre standards, often cutting a dismissive and forlorn figure. He moved frequently to the West, but never really settled anywhere like a lost wanderer. And post-2008, just as music audiences were coaxed into watching more and listening less, thanks to the cynical onslaught of the juggernaut of cola, coffee, ice-cream and telecom companies, which began to control artists based on their sheer ability to completely micromanage them via capital, the space afforded to his talent and his ilk began to shrink. And rather than that being a consequence of his moody personality and unwillingness to adapt to changing times as it is popularly misconstrued, it was probably more a result of the limitations intrinsic to the very design of the corporate model – quite frankly, a debasement of the autonomous artist – that his stock fell. Songs become shorter as attention spans of the audience shrank and the impatient, overproduced and stale Coke Studio formula of adding layer upon layer at every fourth or eighth bar became the norm, while the sheer depoliticised nature of the whole exercise, meant that not only Mr Zaki, but other self-respecting artists like him, found the whole exercise troublesome and questionable, at best.

But, even in adversity, he managed to bow out in style. A masterful low-gain solo in Asrar’s Sab Aakho Ali Ali in Coke Studio, a memorable slide guitar performance for Affaq Mushtaq’s captivating single Angun for Ufone Uth Records, as well as the naughty tongue-in-cheek bluesy effort, “Karachi Ki Laila,” for Cornetto Music Icons, suggested that there was still ample fight and youthful exuberance left in him. Mental illness, drug abuse and financial hardships did eventually take their toll on him, but his music lives on and the sheer longevity of his career needs to be lauded. For industry professionals and aficionados, Aamir Zaki remains a top favourite – as the thinking kid who caused mayhems in schoolrooms by objecting passionately to the distorted histories in Pakistani syllabi, who idolised and personified the avant-garde dissent of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, and who fingerpicked the electric guitar with Mark Knopler-esque gusto and finesse. And there’s no better track than his bass heavy, “People Are People,” which was a subliminal protest against the excesses of the American military-industrial complex in Afghanistan and its cynical sponsorship of militant Jihad, to substantiate that claim. He, most definitively was Pakistan’s very own original anti-establishmentarian rockstar and the leader of the pack!