Joined: 10 November 2004
www.mag4you.netHe is the greatest modern musician of this country, and perhaps beyond. To him, the issue of genre rarely comes up as jazz, the blues, rock, pop, bhangra, semi-classical and countless other forms all melt away into a sonic mural painted with elegant, eccentric and painful strokes of melody and rhythm. He has done studio work for the cream of Pakistan's pop scene, but, in his career, which spans 22 years, he has himself only released a single album (1994's Signature, even that after he'd been playing for 12 years). One tries to keep flowery adjectives to a minimum when talking about him, but the effort is mostly futile. He is Aamir Zaki. And he is thinking about leaving Pakistan.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty behind his radical decision, we need to separate Aamir Zaki the man from Aamir Zaki the myth. Just what is this incredibly talented, introverted man all about? Here, Zaki talks in an exclusive interview.
Aamir Zaki is a musical genius. He is a multi-instrumentalist, as well as a vocalist and songwriter. But it is his guitar playing that established the man as a virtuoso of the first water. He decided to get serious about the guitar at age 13, and the axe-work of players like David Gilmour, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana (courtesy his brother's record collection) added fuel to his fire. But rock was just one part of Zaki's equation, as his father listened to jazz records (Charlie Bird), while his mother opened young Aamir's ears to Mehdi Hasan. Surprisingly, Zaki is self-taught, learning his guitar basics from a 'how-to-play' book he brought from a Tariq Road bookstore.
"I picked up very fast somehow. When I was 17, I did a world tour with Alamgir's band. He was one of the key people to encourage me. He liked my playing and gave me a lot of space on stage to solo," Zaki recalls.
Aamir Zaki fine-tuned his chops on the road playing in clubs (back when they existed) with various jazz bands, also working the hotel circuit. But in those days, bands were more focused and playing tight on stage meant daily jams in the evening. The more he toured with Alamgir's band and the more he interacted with Karachi's Christian musicians, such as Alan Diaz, his appetite for improvization grew. He soon started moving beyond Judas Priest and other metal bands that were en vogue at the time. At this point, Zaki started experimenting with the blues, listening to songwriters like J.J. Cale and Rory Gallagher, artists that were introduced to him by Alan Vanty, a Christian musician he looks up to and respects to this day.
"I started getting serious and studied classical music and theory. There was a healthier attitude then. There was only one way to really play, and that was to play live. There was no way you could get somebody to record a solo or lip-synch a tune. Real people recognized real talent. There was more sincerity because everybody was bound together by one truth: Only those who could play should be on stage," the eastern master of the Stratocaster observed.
Sometime in the mid-80s, Aamir Zaki was approached by producer Ghazanfar Ali to shoot a clip for the Music Channel TV programme. He accepted and filmed a solo classical guitar flamenco piece, thus debuting on television, which was followed by a blues performance with a band. Zaki recalls that as the clubs were in their death throes, the music video revolution was just starting and soon, videos became the only outlet for musicians. However, he claims that the videos of some of the Christian musicians rarely made it on air, which was surprising as that community had some of the most talented players in the country.
As for the current state of live performance, Zaki has an interesting observation about why the quality of live music has dipped and how it affects audiences.
"At concerts, people already have their minds set. They want to jump around no matter what the band plays. They don't care about the sound: they're just there to jump because they haven't jumped and had fun in the last month. If concerts were held more regularly, then they would actually listen to the music. The musicians would pay more attention to the sound and the playing and care less about the jumping. That's how I feel. It's a little superficial now."
That was Aamir Zaki about six months ago, when I first met up with him. We met again recently to update the interview, but this time, he was slightly different. The cool, collected character was still there but a bitter man would occasionally emerge; stung multiple times by a crooked recording industry and an ambivalent public. Zaki has had enough. He has his bags packed for greener pastures in Canada, and this is why.
"If I walk into a record company's office here, I get a royal reception. They immediately stand up and greet me: 'Aamir bhai, aap! Aaieyeh.' They'll praise me to no end, but when comes the time to release my album, they're nowhere to be found. Why? Because the record companies are only interested in selling bhangra, which, by the way, Alam Lohar did much better years ago. After 22 years in the profession, I see an overall decline. The audience is less sensible. Besura music is not only being played on TV, it's being accepted, loved and respected," he begins.
Zaki points the finger squarely at out-of-tune singers for spoiling the listeners' sense of melody.
"The besuray singers, along with the channels that support them, are poisoning the average listener's sense of recognizing surs. It is the channels' responsibility to categorize music and not lump everything together. You can't put Ustad Raees Khan and Noori on the same pedestal. The thing is, the people who are auditioning musicians for these channels themselves don't know what music is. If they have a friend who invites them to a nice party, they'll play their video."
The master musician also fires off multiple rounds at those artists who sell their souls to the devil, or corporate sponsors (not much of a difference) for quick fame.
"I've done music sincerely. I've never sold out. Selling out is very easy. It's extremely easy to do a bhangra song. It's very easy to flash pictures of children in need and make a bundle. Anybody can do it. There's absolutely no difference between artists who raise money in the name of children and the chap who implores you for alms holding a child in his hands at a traffic light. The only difference is that one is a big-time gangster; the other is a small-time player. Right now, the Pakistani music industry is based on three things: chewing gum; chalia and old Foxys. If a chalia-maker tells a musician how to write a tune, how will good music be created? But the chalia songs are being made and appreciated. That means people have no judgment of their own."
He also names fat-cat corporate players as creditors.
"A major beverage company owes me big time. A lot of people owe me a lot of money. But I can't do anything about it because these are very powerful people. I've represented Pakistan at various international jazz festivals. I've got major write-ups in the foreign press but nobody here knows about it. In face of all this unfairness, a man starts exploring other avenues. I've tried everything, but I have become exhausted. But don't look at me. Look at Mehdi Hasan. Everyone in this country agrees he is the greatest musician we have, yet we cannot even pay his hospital bills. We are a consciously dead nation. If they have neglected someone of Mehdi Hasan's stature, what will they do to me? I have no choice but to leave. I'm not happy about leaving, I'm being forced out. All the mediocre musicians have ganged up because they know that if a real player ever makes it, they'll be exposed for what they are," he says.
He elaborates a little on the methods artistically-challenged artists use to get their songs played.
"The best way is to become buddies with the head of a channel. If they don't get too friendly, just pay your way through. You'll become friends instantly. Now it has become purely a business. The music business is something else: this is business music. For a person like me who can't do low-quality stuff, survival has become difficult."
Aamir Zaki goes on to relate the tale of a recent concert in Lahore where he and his band were attacked by a barrage of bottles and other random projectiles while on stage, apparently because they had sung a tune about Karachi.
"It was a strange incident. I didn't understand it. Even the groups that the public accepts as pop artists, like Strings, had bottles, chairs and whatever else the crowd could get their hands on, thrown at them. The crowd was enjoying the show, lining up for autographs, yet they were still throwing stuff at the performers. The peak of it was when they attacked Pappoo Saen with bottles. I mean ... he's one of their own. That's when I figured that these were extremely confused people. The root of the confusion, it seems, is that these people have yet to decide whether music is haram or halal."
Zaki makes it clear why he will not adopt the methods most musicians today are using to make it to the top.
"Because I purely do music, how can I survive here? I don't want to sell chewing gum. I don't want to paint an old Foxy and give it away. I don't want to open up a kurta shop. Nor do I want to collect money by flashing pictures of destitute children. If I can't do any of these things, I have two options: leave music or leave the country."
But the guitarist is quick to point out that it is not envy that drives him to make such statements, but the fact that he'd have to stoop to extreme lows if he wants to achieve pop stardom in Pakistan.
"I might come across as negative because the whole situation is negative. It does not stem from my anger at anyone else's success. If someone else is successful, it doesn't bother me because my category is totally different. My listeners are totally different. But to get onto the channels I'd have to do the exact same things the others are doing, which I'm not willing to do."
Joined: 06 July 2005
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