Q&A: ALI SETHI
We know much about your Harvard glory. Could you share details of your musical education?
Growing up in Lahore, I heard a lot of traditional music—qawwali and ghazal especially. I always wanted to know how the melodies worked—how singers like Noor Jehan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan could modulate their voices in seemingly endless ways. Alas, I was growing up in what we call a “burger” (upper-middle-class) milieu, so there was no way of pursuing my rather esoteric interest in music. It wasn’t until I went to Harvard that I finally felt entitled to study music and devotional poetry— to attend to them with the kind of rigour I would bring to a ‘subject’ like economics. I ended up majoring in South Asian History and Literature, came back to Lahore and, while working on my novel, began an apprenticeship with Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi Gharana.
You have sung many classical pieces, but you have also been dabbling with Punjabi folk. What inspires your choices?
I am drawn first and foremost to melody—if the tune draws me in, I’ll be humming it till I’ve got it in my own style. Sometimes I am compelled to put a piece of poetry to music—if it speaks to me in a personal way. These days I’m writing my own songs.
It takes courage to attempt a ‘Ranjish’ immortalised by Mehdi Hassan sa’ab.
With an iconic ghazal like ‘Ranjish’, there is often pressure to match the maestro’s andaaz or ang. A young singer may also be tempted to render it in a ‘new’ (read: illiterate) way. I resisted both and approached it as a tribute—a project that abides by Mehdi sahib’s raag-logic even when improvising.
is several years old. Can we expect to hear more from Ali Sethi the writer?
There will be books (inshallah-inshallah).
—with Farah Yameen