Hoooo… Channo ki aankh mein ik nasha hai. I thought I heard someone sing…dang, you hear it too, don’t you?
Resonating throughout Pakistan, USA, UK, and all around the world for that matter, the sudden Channo-mania has caused quite a hullabaloo, uproar, and frenzy. The man behind the mania, whose voice is often compared to Kishore Kumar’s, is none other than, painter/model/singer, Monsieur Ali Zafar.
We had a chance to meet up with Ali Zafar, who was in Karachi for a couple of days. Sammy kept singing, Ke huqqa paani…
“Arg! It’s stuck in my head!” Sammy hollered.
And that’s precisely what Ali Zafar’s debut album, Huqa Paani, does to some people, it’s quite catchy!
Meeting Ali Zafar was an experience itself, thanks to Wajahat Rauf who gave his number without asking any questions, perhaps he knew us better to know we wouldn’t be making creepy crank calls. After a few u-turns and a phone call or two, we reached our destination, Zafar’s friend’s house, where the interview took place. A scruffy Zafar, yet charming and down to earth, nonetheless, greeted us, and we got the ball rolling for an interesting talk with the Channo-meister.
Huma: Let’s start off with some background information about your music and all…
Ali Zafar: My music background, it started when I was in Government College, Lahore. I was part of the music society there which is called the Nazeer Ahmed Music Society, where you get classical training and learn slowly how to sing. I learned how to sing properly around 2-3 years back, took classical training. Finally, when I graduated from NCA last year as a painter, then I made the video of Channo, completed the album. During the time when I was in NCA, I was learning and making music and doing small shows.
Huma: Were you in a band as well when you were in NCA?
Ali Zafar: No, I was a solo singer.
Huma: You have ventured into acting and modeling earlier. Do you plan to take up music as a full-time career?
Ali Zafar: Yeah, music is a full time career. When I was acting and modeling, I knew that this was not something I wanted to do. Modeling I was just doing on the side, for pocket money. I knew that music has to be taken seriously and that’s what I’m doing, not something like waking up one morning and saying, ‘Oh ho, mein ne to gaana hai.”
Huma: Do you think that being at NCA has helped in your career?
Ali Zafar: No, I don’t think so.
Huma: No grooming, nothing?
Ali Zafar: Grooming is something a person does himself. If NCA did that kind of grooming then there’d be 200 pop stars every year.
Samreen: But NCA is one of Pakistan’s premier art institutions, how was the experience. How serious are the youth about art education today?
Ali Zafar: Well that again varies from person to person. What I can tell you frankly, my experience is that you have students who take this very seriously and you have those who don’t take it seriously at all. The best example I can give you is of this guy [gestures to a young man sitting on the PC on the other end of the room], he was one of the most serious minded students at NCA and everyone knew that. He had this exhibition in Sri Lanka, his paintings are sold at high prices, just because he was serious minded about it. He always used to stand out at NCA because everyone knew he’s a serious painter, a serious artiste, and respected his work. The rest of the non serious students drift off into other things. If NCA produces 15-20 painters every year, there are very few of them who actually make it.
Samreen: A painter has an image of being very relaxed, very peaceful. And then there’s this side of you, you came out with Channo, and without even hearing the rest of your songs, you assume this image. It’s such a variation. It’s interesting to see how a painter evolved to a musician.
Ali Zafar: I don’t know how you knew that I’m like that, calm and peaceful…d id you know me from before or something?
Samreen: No, but artists have a tendency to be like that
Ali Zafar: There is so much work, so many burdens in life because you know what you have to do. When you know what you have to do, you become relaxed. I’m trying that the more I get successful and popular; I grow more and more humble.
Huma: What instruments do you play?
Ali Zafar: I play the harmonium, the guitar and keyboards. I can play the bass guitar too but not professionally.
Huma: What is your instrument of choice?
Ali Zafar: Depends on the mood, time and song. If it’s a ghazal then the harmonium, if it’s a rhythm based song then the guitar.
Huma: How long did the album process take?
Ali Zafar: Three years. Channo alone took three years. I used to make it, record it and say, no this isn’t right. A lot of self criticism.
Ali Zafar: Yeah, not just in music but in all departments of life. It is in an artist’s nature to be a perfectionist. Art lovers like to organize and balance things around them. The chaos created by the public is balanced by the artistic elements. Music gives harmony, a peaceful notion. There are two things, organization and chaos. Artistes organize, whereas I call critics chaos. [laughs]
Samreen: The producers and the musicians you worked with, how did that come about? Were they all people you already knew?
Ali Zafar: This was a great problem in the beginning because no one was doing the kind of work that I wanted to do. Mostly, people don’t even know who’s a music producer, or who produced the album. I live in Lahore, and that has the film industry, the same old music. I wanted to do something more upbeat, something that hadn’t been done before. For that I was looking for some people, and then someone recommended Shuja. I had composed, arranged and even recorded Channo and thought that this is the final version, but I was like it can be better than this. Shuja played it again professionally, added beats etc to it. But Shuja was so busy that making him do work was really hard.
I had to wait for weeks and weeks, you had to push him. Every morning I’d wait for the TCS delivery guy to come and drop the cd. Then I met this guy Shani. I was very comfortable working with him; he’s a brilliant producer, very meticulous. Channo had been done by Shuja, I composed 4 songs with Shani, two I arranged myself, and one was the song I’d sung for the movie Shararat. Dekha Sang Dil I got a friend to do and the last song Teri Yaad Aaye I just played it on the guitar and recorded it. The song was recorded suddenly because I was asked if I could release the album before Eid (ul Fitr). I told them I only had 8-9 songs recorded, so they told me if I could complete all ten songs by the next day… so I went to the studio and recorded it. But it turned out pretty well; it’s my personal favorite as well now.
Huma: There seem to be two different sides to the music in Huqqa Pani. One is the catchy, hipper side with songs like Channo, Huqqa Pani, Ishq while the other is the mellow/slower/classical side with songs like Teri Yaad Aaye, Jugnuon Say and Dekha Sang Teray. Most of the album has an influence of 70s Bollywood music – is that the kind of music you prefer? Which of these sides are you closer to?
Ali Zafar: Even Channo is 70s type. It has the same kind of melody.
Samreen: It has that disco flavor.
Ali Zafar: Yeah! Huqa Pani has a disco flavor as well. The thing is, the melodies made in the 60s and 70s, they are those melodies which are great even today, itni strong melodies hain. I think that was the time when the best music of the Subcontinent was produced, that was the Renaissance era of the Subcontinent. Best playback singers, best music producers. So that’s why I’m influenced by that kind of music. Nowadays, songs come and then they go away after a month, both Indian and Pakistani.
Huma: There’s so much of a contrast, Channo and Huqa Paani are so different from the rest of your album.
Ali Zafar: The thing is I did not want the entire album to sound the same.
Samreen: Channo and Huqa Pani have more of a contemporary touch, while the rest of the album has a more 70s touch. Which do you prefer?
Ali Zafar: If I didn’t prefer both, I wouldn’t have included them in my album. I think having preferences in your own music is not justified. If you listen to Ishq it has an entirely different arrangement and is sung in a different way, if you listen to Jugnoo that’s sung in an entirely different way. Every song has a different flavor, Channo has a different flavor. If I thought that I can only sing this kind of music best then I would’ve made all the songs like Channo.
Samreen: What playback singers from India do you like?
Ali Zafar: Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Lata, Asha, to an extent Mukesh and Saigol. Modern playback singers’ mein Sonu Nigam bahut sureelay hain.
Samreen: Your voice is as good as that of Kishore Kumar, any plans of releasing the album across the border?
Ali Zafar: I don’t think it’s as good as Kishore Kumar.
Samreen: I’m just letting you know the word outside.
Ali Zafar: Is the word outside that it’s as good as Kishore Kumar or like Kishore Kumar?
Samreen: Both! So do you plan to release the album in India?
Ali Zafar: Yeah
Huma: So the album will be released in India when you release your album internationally?
Ali Zafar: Nothing has been finalized yet, but I do plan on releasing the album internationally.
Huma: Were you expecting the kind of grand response your album has received so far? Apparently the album has sold 180,000 copies already.
Ali Zafar: 180,000 copies were sold in the first week of the album release. Well, every artist does have some expectation from his album that it’ll do well. My friends used to say that my album will go to the level that Michael Jackson is on. [laughs]
Samreen: So how did Huqa Pani come about?
Ali Zafar: I used to make portraits in Pearl Continental, Bhurban. Every summer I’d go there and make live portraits. There is this blind pianist there Malik Nazar, I asked him one day to compose something for me. So he made up this tune, and when I heard it, I liked it a lot so I asked him to give it to me, which he did. There was this boy Majid who used to work there at that time, I don’t know if he still works there, he came up with the 1st line of this song.
Huma: Which songs do you like on the album?
Ali Zafar: Channo, Teri Yaad Aayi, Ishq…I like them all, depends on the mood.
Huma: When can we expect the next video?
Ali Zafar: Well we’re having discussions about the next video, its Huqa Pani’s video and Amena and Ahsan [Dream Team Films] will be directing it.
Samreen: Why did you choose these two songs [Channo and Huqa Pani] for making videos?
Ali Zafar: Well, Channo I had to do. As far as Huqa Pani is concerned, I asked a lot of people, saw the feedback of people at concerts etc. That’s why I chose Huqa Pani. But I think I’ll make 5-6 videos from the song on the album.
Huma: So will the next video feature you or it’ll be concept based or..?
Ali Zafar: Performance based…it has a very wild and wacky concept. But in Pakistan, performance videos have those uncle types, senior artists, ya phir woh larki type models hote hain.
Huma: Many solo singers do not feel at home with performing “live” and prefer to use DAT in concerts. Do you plan to do frequent live performances with a live band?
Ali Zafar: Singing and performing live is hard. There are no technical facilities here that can ensure that a live recording can be aired on TV. No matter what you do, it sounds bad. We don’t have the sound engineers. When you’re singing live, you need good monitoring to take care of everything and ensure that you’re singing properly. There is no monitoring here, that’s why DAT shows are on the safe side for recordings for TV etc.
Huma: Will you be performing live in your international tours?
Ali Zafar: If those sound engineers come who did the unplugged session of Bryan Adams, Alanis Morissette etc, then I’d love to. There is nothing like a live performance, its amazing performing live. But yeah, I’ll be performing live in my international tours.
Samreen: People have been talking about the similarity, in lyrics and music, between Channo and an R.D Burman song by the name of Dhanno. What do you have to say on that?
Ali Zafar: See, first came an R.D Burman song called Dhanno Ki Aankh, then there was this song on Amitabh called Dhanno Ki Aankh Sharabi, that’s two songs. If a guy wears a particular kind of clothing in 1970 and someone else wears something similar to it in 2003, you can’t say, ke oh ho, yeh to ussne pehna tha. In Channo, the dialect is so good musically. If you look at it musically it goes like oh-ah-ee.
Huma: If R.D. Burman was alive today, and asked you for royalties (because of Dhanno/Channo “inspiration” connection), how would you feel about that?
Ali Zafar: It’s not an R.D Burman song.
Huma: But still, hypothetically speaking, how would you feel?
Ali Zafar: It’s not a copy. People don’t even hear the song and start to believe it’s a copy. Id advise everyone who thinks it’s a copy to hear the R.D Burman song first, and then Channo, and if you still think it’s a rip off then I’m willing to believe you. People say that ‘Chal Dil Mere’ is a rip off from a Kishore Kumar song. I say, bring that song to me and make me hear it. Qabar mein to nahi hoga uss ke saath, agar gaana hai to la ke suna do.
It’s not a remix or a copy; I’ve listened to the old music and songs sung by Kishore Kumar all my life. Plus my voice is kind of heavy, agar patli si awaz hoti to shayad koi kehta bhi na.
Samreen: Jugnuon Say was selected for a Lollywood movie. Any plans to do songs for movies? Any acting offers from Lollywood?
Ali Zafar: I’m not criticizing the music made in the film industry in Lahore…it’s just that they follow a particular pattern which I didn’t want to follow. When I heard the melody of Jugnoun Say, I felt that it wasn’t a typical, run of the mill song; it was a decent song with a brilliant melody. The melody is so different that you can’t believe that this kind of music is made in Pakistan. If I get more offers like that, if there is a melody I like, then yes.
Huma: And what about acting offers?
Ali Zafar: Not unless it’s a brilliant project. But looking at the work done till now, I don’t think so.
Samreen: But there are some great telefilms like Daira.
Ali Zafar: Bakwaas thi.
Samreen: You didn’t like it? Why?
Ali Zafar: I did read the novel. I didn’t like the film because the book had drama, it had characters… and you must capture something with sensitivity, with intelligence. You cannot portray that by just adding some visual jumps. It must have substance. For that, you need a lot of good performances. Either you have a character that can carry the audience with him. Like Al Pacino isn’t very good looking, but he carries the whole film with him. I just watched Daira for fifteen minutes and switched it off. I couldn’t relate to it.
An art piece, if people can’t relate to it, is not an art piece in my opinion. Art is a strong language. Like music is an art form. If a listener can’t relate to a song made by a musician, even if the musician says that I’ve artistically created the song, even that won’t make the listener relate to it. If you listen to the music created by Khayyam or Razia Sultana that is artistic music. Even if you create something abstract, if your viewer can’t relate to it, can’t sustain it, then it’s not the viewer’s fault. For instance, even if Channo was a copy, those people who related to it or are relating to it, then people should say that even this copy is good.
Huma: Among the Pakistani albums releases in 2003, which ones are your favorites?
Ali Zafar: The only album that I’ve gone and purchased myself was Sagar by Fuzon.
Huma: And you didn’t like anything else that was produced this year?
Ali Zafar: Mein ne yeh nahi kaha ke kuch acha nahi aaya, lekin jo music mein sunta aaya hoon unke saamne frankly sab hi kache se hain. Shafqat is a trained singer, and the album Sagar is great. There are no other albums that motivated me to go out and buy them.
Samreen: Moin Akhtar once said about Pakistani musicians, ke yeh barsaati maindak ki tarah hote hain.
Ali Zafar: About this statement, I can’t say anything about it, neither should you, nor should Moin Akhtar sahib. The only deciding factor is time, only time will decide, not even critics can decide that which singer will stay for how long, and which song will stay on the charts for how long.
If something is good, its sustainability will be longer, its acceptance will be decided by time. Time filters out everything. Jo acha kaam hoga, jo barsaati maindak nahi honge, woh 10-20 saal nikaal lein ge. If someone is hearing my album 5 years from now, then that will be my album’s success. If it isn’t good, it’ll fade out.
Samreen: Apart from Huqa Pani, What other videos are in the pipeline?
Ali Zafar: Chal dil mere and Rangeen.
Huma: Will the next videos be directed by Amena and Ahsan as well?
Ali Zafar: Most of them.
Huma: Have you read Bandbaja yourself by the way?
Ali Zafar: Someone came and told me that there’s this site that’s abused and berated Channo a lot. I heard that there was this top ten list, in which Channo wasn’t in the list anywhere but after each choice there was written, not like Channo etc.
Huma: So, if the writer of that top ten [Phoolan Devi] challenged you to a duel, would you accept?
Ali Zafar: No no, you have all the right to express yourself. Like Nadeem Farooq Paracha wrote this really bad review of my album in The News. It’s simple, you have all the right to express your opinion, and I don’t have the right to impose my point of view on you.
I think that even if 10 people out of a 100 like my album, it’s good. Critics to aate hain, baatein karte hain. People didn’t even leave the Prophet Mohammad [Peace Be Upon Him]. Even he was criticized, but the Prophet knew what he was right on. And he knew that whatever he wished would happen one day. Opposing forces are against you, those opposing forces will act like speed breakers, but they shouldn’t become a gate.
I don’t look at too critical reviews of my album because ill look at them, and then ill think about them. And those energies that I’ll waste in thinking about them, I’d rather put my energies in something positive, in my creativity. Everybody has their right to say anything.
Samreen: What should we expect from Ali Zafar in the year 2004?
Ali Zafar: More videos, a lot of shows. But I don’t think that I’ll be coming out with another album soon.
Huma: What direction will your music take in the future?
Ali Zafar: I think gradually it’ll go more towards the classical side; there’ll be more of a classical influence. Our generation has very little appreciation for classical music. If you make them hear something by Mehdi Hasan, they won’t even understand what is good in it. Aik aik sur pe, aik aik lafz pe, gaana par jaye to singer ko musibat par jaati hai, par woh log barikion mein gaye hain.
My album has some songs, which aren’t classical, but they are more on the slow side, you can tell about the delivery of the vocals in that. No one even talks about those songs. People like to talk about Huqa Pani and the more upbeat songs. Talk about those songs as well.
Samreen: I’ve noticed that the attention span of people has become very small, that’s why they pick up more on catchy things, tunes…
Ali Zafar: Fast food ka zamana hai. That’s something really disturbing. Khayyam is still alive, but no one takes him as a musician ke jee unka zamana puraana tha. He made those melodies, those tunes that can never grow old, to woh musician kaise puraana hosakta hai? The younger generation has no appreciation for this kind of music.
There are such ajeeb o ghareeb discussions, ke usske baal aise thay, to usski aankhein aisi hain. I don’t blame the audience and the listeners, what I am today is because of them. But I want to incorporate the eastern essence of style of singing in my music. Agar aap ne Urdu mein angrezi gaana hai iss se behtar hai ke aap angrezi mein gayein. English has a completely different dialect, it mostly has straight notes. In Urdu, there is variation in the notes.
Samreen: Do you voice this message of yours about eastern focus at concerts or do you want to keep it in your music?
Ali Zafar: Music itself is a language. Why would I talk about a language in another language? I’ll say it through my music; it’s my job to make sure people like it, and to make people listen to it. That’s my responsibility as a musician. I have a lot to learn right now…but at least I’m aware of the fact as to what I have to do. It’s not a baseless struggle.