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“Pasoori” is ostensibly about star-crossed lovers, but it’s also an apt metaphor for the relationship between two countries in perpetual conflict.

A few years ago, the musician Ali Sethi was driving through Punjab, behind a jingle truck—the long-haul trucks known in his native Pakistan for their filigreed paint designs—when he spotted a phrase in florid Punjabi calligraphy on its back. “Agg lavaan teriya majbooriya nu,” it said—a call to “set fire to your compulsions.” It’s not uncommon to glimpse bits of verse, or dire warnings—against straying eyes or losing yourself in the big world out there—among the fluorescent parrots and tropical fruit schemes of jingle trucks. But Sethi couldn’t stop thinking about that phrase.

It inspired the first line of “Pasoori,” the thirty-seven-year-old’s latest single, a joyous, dance-fuelled hit that has drawn more than a hundred million views on YouTube since its release three months ago and is playing on the radio everywhere, from the United Arab Emirates to Canada. The song is stealthily subversive: a traditional raga—the classical Indian framework for musical improvisation—has been laid over an infectious beat that sounds South Asian, Middle Eastern, and, improbably, reggaetón, all at once. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can tell that it’s a song about longing. “If your love is poison, I’ll drink it in a flurry,” Sethi sings in Punjabi with smooth anguish, in a rousing duet with Shae Gill, a Pakistani singer and Instagram star. “It’s my favorite genre,” a friend of mine said. “A love song that sounds like a threat.”

The idea for the song began when Sethi, who lives in New York, was invited to collaborate on a project in Mumbai, which he had visited many times before for literary festivals and music gigs. But any travel to India for Pakistani nationals is subject to the politics of the moment, and Sethi was told by the producers that he wouldn’t be able to work there as a Pakistani artist, because extremists might burn down the studio. The danger of arson reminded Sethi of that line from the jingle truck. “So I did what desi bards have done for ages,” he said, referring to South Asian songwriters of yore. “I might not have been able to travel to India, but I knew my music could.”

“Pasoori,” a Punjabi word that translates roughly to “difficult mess,” is about an age-old situation: two people who are forbidden from meeting each other. It’s written in the style of a courtesan song, a genre with origins in medieval South Asian poetry that emerged in response to the custom of arranged marriages. (Often the song is about an extramarital affair, and a courtesan is trying to persuade her married paramour to stay the night.) Full of puns and erotic innuendos, courtesan songs typically lament trysts that must take place in secret, meetings that don’t materialize, and the oppressiveness of polite society. “Pasoori” is ostensibly about star-crossed lovers, but it’s also an apt metaphor for the relationship between two countries in perpetual conflict whose histories and cultural touchstones are entwined.

In early 2021, Sethi sent a voice note with the melody and the first few bars of the lyrics he had in mind to the producer Zulfiqar Khan, who goes by Xulfi. Xulfi had just been brought on to helm the fourteenth season of “Coke Studio,” a popular musical TV series in Pakistan produced by the soda company. “I had goosebumps. I wanted to dance,” Xulfi said. “I knew that people were going to love it, and that they wouldn’t know what hit them.” Xulfi found Anushae Gill, a.k.a. Shae Gill—a student of economics whose best friend started posting videos of her singing on Instagram in 2019—and brought her into the project, thinking that her smoky voice would pair nicely with Sethi’s rich tenor.

“Pasoori” opens with a series of hand claps, which calls to mind desi musical traditions but also comes straight out of flamenco. “It was very deliberate, the musical hybridization,” Sethi said. The track doesn’t feature traditional desi instruments. When they needed strings, Xulfi recommended the Turkish bağlama. Abdullah Siddiqui, a twenty-one-year-old music producer and musician who worked with Xulfi on the song, sampled from his library of sounds, using whale calls for what Siddiqui described as their “bendy, deep guttural tones” and a reggaetón beat—“a cousin to our bhangra, if you think about it,” Sethi said—to create a sound Sethi has been calling “ragaton.”

The video, shot in old-Bollywood, Technicolor style and directed by Kamal Khan, introduces Sethi and Gill, dressed in boho interpretations of traditional outfits—he in a striped kurta pajama in jewel tones and a matching cap, she in a flowing white dress and embroidered vest—as they sing in the courtyard of an ancestral home. Their duet is intercut with glamorous stills—a young man in gem-studded makeup, a woman in elaborate braids. Each character sends a message of inclusion, from Sheema Kermani, the bharata-natyam dancer and activist from Pakistan, who spins slowly between two columns, to Gill, who is from the Christian community, which makes up only 1.59 per cent of the population of Pakistan. A pair of boys performs a delicate jhumar dance, the hems of their kurtas flaring. Like many desi classics, the song operates outside traditional gender roles—here Sethi sings to a man—with the singer in the role of a narrator weaving a tale.

As it happens, I am finishing a memoir about being from Kashmir—that complicated region where India and Pakistan meet—and after I first heard “Pasoori,” in March, I kept listening to it on a loop while driving around L.A., where I now live. The song felt at once instantly familiar and thrillingly new, and I was curious to find out more about its creator. I had recently corresponded with Sethi’s sister, Mira, through our mutual book editor. Mira, who is also an actress, introduced me to her brother over WhatsApp, the desi messaging app of choice, so that I could find out more about him and how the song came to be.

Sethi was born in Lahore in 1984; his parents are the prominent journalists and publishers Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. His childhood home was “full of jail-going writers and activists,” he told me, over Zoom, from his apartment in New York, and, by middle school, he was taking calls for his parents from Amnesty International, giving rote updates on political dissidents, such as “Habeas corpus has just been filed!” His mother, when not marching for equal rights, played a lot of Qawwali, a genre of Sufi devotional music. Sethi began singing Qawwali and ghazals—lyrical poems—in his clear, young voice to impress his parents’ friends. “Song and protest were intertwined for me,” he said. He started to realize that, in a society with so many fault lines—along caste, class, and ideology—folk music made everyone feel welcome and accommodated. Traditional music felt like a safe place to express himself and to explore the dawning awareness of his own queerness.

Sethi was an exceptional Ivy-or-bust student at Aitchison College, the prestigious boys’ school in Lahore, and he didn’t find an outlet for his emerging voice right away, but he remembers singing in the art room, where he made his closest childhood friends, including the painter Salman Toor. After graduating from Harvard, where he majored in South Asian studies, Sethi wrote a novel—“The Wish Maker,” a story of contemporary Lahore told through the eyes of a man returning from studies abroad—that was published in 2009, just before he moved back to Lahore. “I was buying time,” he said, about writing fiction. Sethi’s mother and father were anxious about his job security and glad to have him home while he ostensibly researched his second novel. But Sethi felt hemmed in by the sociopolitical narrative that he thought the world wanted from him as a Pakistani writer in the decade after 9/11. “Thousands of words on Partition,” he said, laughing. The thinking from editors was something like “Terrorism—more about that!” he said.

Instead, Sethi found himself drawn back to the creative possibilities in his childhood love of music: How did Qawwals go off on mesmerizing riffs, weaving seemingly unplanned patterns of melody and rhythm? And how did they so elegantly address the yearning for an elusive or unreachable beloved—a theme that spoke to him powerfully as a queer person and also as a South Asian migrant in America? And, finally, how could they be so wild and free, which he secretly wanted to be, while remaining rigorous and rule-bound, as society dictated? It was a paradox that he sensed held some kind of key for him, and he apprenticed himself to the musician Ustad Saami, in 2008.

Saami is based in Karachi, but spends half of each month in Lahore, where he trains a cadre of serious students. He is the last living vocal practitioner of the ancient forty-nine-note microtonal Surti scale and a descendant of Mian Samad bin Ibrahim, a student of the thirteenth-century musician credited with inventing Qawwali in South Asia. “He’s a man of the medieval moment,” Sethi said, and he found in Saami a kindred spirit. “He makes his own medicines. He goes to the mountains every year in search of roots and elements. He’s a linguist who speaks Arabic, Farsi, Sanskrit, Braj Bhasha, but no English.” Saami taught Sethi the melody patterns of raga, and how Vedic chants and Turkic and Persian melodies were fused by guilds in medieval India. “And he showed me that, before the encounter with the West, South Asia had its own microtones and its own notations and its own multicultural sense of what a musical scale is. It was much more flexible than what the West imposes,” Sethi told me. “Our music is about bending the notes and . . . creating meaning between binaries, which I found just thrilling, because this was the thing I’d been waiting for my whole life—a nonbinary South Asian identity.”

In 2012, Sethi recorded Farida Khanum’s “Dil Jalaane Ki Baat” (“Talk That Burns the Heart”), for Mira Nair’s film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The song brought Sethi international recognition as a singer, and, in 2015, when he performed a traditional song, called “Umran Langiyaan” (“Lifetimes Have Passed”), on “Coke Studio”—his first appearance on the show—he cemented his place as an interpreter of classics. In 2016, he also started training with Khanum, affectionately known as the Queen of Ghazal, who taught him “the exquisite art of phrase-making”—how to generate captivating loops and hooks out of ragas. She had performed this art in the courts of rajas and maharajas, where singers like herself were the chief providers of musical entertainment. Sethi credits the playful, seductive-at-all-costs “earworminess” of “Pasoori” to the skills that he learned at her side.

It was partly the emerging wave of Pakistani pop singers such as Siddiqui and Hasan Raheem, who began uploading their sample-heavy songs online in 2019, that nudged Sethi to branch out musically. He brought up Raheem, a twenty-four-year-old singer-songwriter (and doctor), whose song “Joona,” an irresistible, poppy guitar-funk track, is accompanied by a charming video, in which Raheem dances his way through a supermarket while shopping for groceries. The lighthearted lyrics are about the small moments, crushes, day-to-day life, instead of the subcontinent’s collective cultural burden, and, for Sethi, it represented a shift in post-Internet South Asian music. “Here I am,” he said, “trying to perfect these medieval microtones with my throat, thinking, Enough is enough. I want to make a banger.”

His “banger” now sits firmly at No. 1 on the Indian music charts, which have traditionally been shaped by the Indian film industry’s endless supply of soundtracks. People are streaming “Pasoori” in villages, in cities, in regions where people don’t even speak the language but furiously feel the vibe, and Sethi has received love letters from every stripe of diaspora desi who play it to their children every day, in the way that he remembers his mother used to play her Qawwali tapes for him. The week that “Pasoori” hit No. 1 in India—just after Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani singer to win a Grammy—two Indian teens were arrested in Bareilly, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, for listening to Pakistani music. With communal tensions currently on the rise in India, the headlines weren’t necessarily surprising, but they ignore a larger truth: even if they can’t cross borders—India and Pakistan do not generally issue visas to each other’s civilians—Pakistanis were raised on the same diet of Bollywood movies, and Indian households sit down to their favorite Pakistani soap operas nightly. They have actively sought out culture from each other, through leadership changes and political upheavals.

Like many popular desi songs, “Pasoori” started spreading with a forward on WhatsApp from family members in India, moving through the Middle East, Europe, and Australia, before finally reaching—all of a few weeks later—the United States. Now it’s poised to cross over, and so is Sethi. When the possibility came up of attending an Oscar party in Los Angeles that was celebrating South Asian nominees, Sethi, who travels frequently, was game. Because we are desi, with a tendency toward instant overfamiliarity, the first question I asked was about his substantial height (six-three). My follow-up was: “How tall is your little sister?” She’s an astonishing five-ten, it turned out. Sethi, in a black-and-orange shirt that showcased a turbaned magician levitating a woman in a sari, made an entrance—not just because he towered over most of the guests but because half of the party had likely been forwarding “Pasoori” around on WhatsApp. “He’s so tall!” I heard people murmur around me. “And his sister is five-ten!” I added.

Sethi greeted Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic for the Times, and shared a warm hug with Riz Ahmed. (Sethi had recorded a song called “Aaja,” with Swet Shop Boys, of which Ahmed is a member, in 2016.) He bumped into a childhood friend from Lahore who had just become the managing editor for the Juggernaut, a South Asian culture site, and a sponsor of the party. There was a lot of love for him in the room, and he marvelled at the existence of this group. It was lonely in a way, being a desi artist pre-Internet, he said, and he felt hopeful that so many South Asian actors, artists, and musicians are now able to meet and work together in a way that isn’t limited by location or identity. Afterward, at dinner, I asked, now that he’s united the people of South Asia with his song, what was next? “More ragaton!” he said. “Think ‘Pasoori’ the album,” with Siddiqui, and a “long-form meditative-raga record,” with Noah Georgeson, who has also worked with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. He was also looking forward to a trip to Fire Island this summer.

Later, Rao texted me that, after the party, she listened to Sethi’s music for the entire drive home. “At first I thought I must be listening to the wrong person. His voice is just so beautiful, it sounds like it’s from another time.”

Source: The New Yorker 



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