Our exclusive interview with singer-songwriter-author Ali Sethi and filmmaker Umar Riaz. The duo discusstheir collaboration to create a breathtaking music video for Jamaluddin and Ali Sethi’s latest single ‘MahiMera’! The ballad itself tugs at the heartstrings in both the saddest and most lovely way.
We speak to Ali about the incredible Jamaluddin, and about the ballad’s particular genre of folk music. Umar tells us about his work and how he and Ali came to work on the video together.
Ali, tell me about how this ballad came about, as well as about your collaboration with Jamaluddin.
I first heard Jamal at a wedding three years ago. This happened in Shergarh, my maternal grandfather’s ancestral village. Jamal was singing and dancing in the middle of a great crowd. I didn’t know who he was, or what he was singing, but I responded immediately to the “lehek” and “soz” in his voice. He had this way of undulating his notes that was very charismatic. I sent him a message right away and met up with him the next morning. He told me he farmed a small patch of land not far from my grandfather’s village. As a child he had been apprenticed to a folk singer of Sahiwal.
I recorded him for about an hour on a Zoom (it’s a small hand-held device). When I went back to Lahore, I played the recording to my teacher, UstadNaseeruddinSaami, who was also struck by the micro-tones in Jamal’s singing. By then I knew I had to record Jamal in a studio and bring his music to a wider audience.
Could you give us some background about the folk music of Punjab?
Punjabi folk music is diverse: the Pahari songs of the Potohar sound very different from the kaafis of Multan. Jamal’s way of singing falls somewhere between the central and southern traditions. The southern style in particular reflects the music of the Arabs, which employs a lot of “zamzama” or undulation (this makes sense: Arabs lived in Sindh and Multan throughout the early Middle Ages). As a technique the “zamzama” is used most expressively by “zaakirs” during Shia ceremonies of mourning. I think it’s what makes Jamal’s singing so distinctive — that element of “soz” or “dard” or “houk” (as we call it in Punjabi).
Ali, let’s speak specifically about MahiMera – tell us about the song.
The theme of “MahiMera” is “hijr-o-malal” or yearning for one’s beloved. ‘Let my Love come home again! Let him kindle my hearth again!’ But the melody is gleeful and ecstatic. I find such a combination of lament and ecstasy very appealing.
Tell me about the music video and your work with Umar.
I thought of Umar for the video because I wanted his eye — a curious but sympathetic eye. I wanted the video to enact the mood and temperament of the song without becoming sentimental or resorting to formulas of “rural landscaping”. I also felt Umar had the right kind of distance from the subject, as a Pakistani who is steeped in culture but has only ever lived in cities. I thought his insider-outsider perspective would be fruitful.
Umar, let’s start off by speaking a little about your previous work and what you’ve been up these last few years.
My short film ‘Last Remarks’ premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and was nominated for a Student Oscar in 2012. I’ve recently worked on two films in the US. I was an International Protest Filmmaker on Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-raq’, released this past December. I’m also Artistic Consultant on Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, being released in the US this coming March.
I’ve been working on a feature documentary on Zia Mohyeddin and Urdu poetry, and have worked on short form music videos for Ali and for EMI’s archival songs. The latter will be released in April.
Tell me about MahiMera – how did you join forces with Ali?
I’ve known Ali for a while. We met again a year or so ago at the Lahore Literature Festival where he broached the idea of working together on a music video. Last year he took me to Shergarh and we scouted locations, met some people and got a sense of the place. Then we did some more concrete work to conceive and plan a music video.
Tell me about how you conceived of the concept of the video.
It was a mostly improvisational shoot. As mentioned earlier, we visited Shergarh and Hussaingarh earlier to get a sense and feel of the place and its people. I knew what I didn’t want to do more than what I wanted to do: didn’t want to have a glossy, plot-based presentation of rural life. We wanted to get a real sense of the people and the place so the next challenge was how to capture a compelling place in a compelling visual style. I took a lot of cues from the music, from elemental aspects such as the dhol as a driving force and the classical sense of Punjabi exuberance intrinsic to the song. Also a sense of searching for the Mahi and how this search can generate euphoria from melancholy. It served as a neat metaphor for the role of music in that community which creates true joy out of what is mostly a poverty stricken place. That idea guided my application of filmic techniques to our subject matter.
Let’s talk about how/where/when it was shot.
We went to Shergarh and Hussaingarh in late October 2015 during a change of seasons. The crew was small so we could be mobile and move fast through different locations. We ended up shooting two days and one morning in the area between Shergarh and Hussaingarh as well the villages themselves. We wanted the visual style of the video to reflect the dynamism of the music so we used compact High Definition cameras with which we could weave in an our of locations and scenes with fluidity.
MahiMera will be launching in the first week of February. Stay tuned, it’s truly incredible.