Ali Aziz Sethi
July 2, 1984
|Alma mater||Aitchison College|
|Family||Mira Sethi (sister)|
Moni Mohsin (aunt)
Ali Sethi (Urdu/Punjabi: علی سیٹھی; pronounced [əˈliː ˈseːʈʰiː]; born July 2, 1984) is a Pakistani singer, songwriter, composer, and author. Sethi rose to prominence with his debut novel, The Wish Maker (2009). In 2012, Sethi began focusing on his musical career and made his film debut as a singer in Mira Nair's 2012 film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, with the song Dil Jalane Ki Baat Karte Ho. In recent years, Sethi has released numerous cover singles and has appeared on several seasons of Coke Studio Pakistan. Sethi began releasing original music in 2019 and has collaborated with Grammy-winning producer Noah Georgeson. His most recent single for Coke Studio – Pasoori (2022) – became the first Pakistani song to feature on Spotify's "Viral 50 - Global" chart, eventually climbing to the top of the chart in May 2022. Sethi is known for combining his live musical performances with historical narrative and critical commentary.
Early life and background
Ali Sethi was born on July 2, 1984, in Lahore, Pakistan. He is the son of award-winning journalists and publishers Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, both of whom are also politicians. Sethi is the brother of actor and author Mira Sethi and nephew to British-Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin. In May 1999, police broke into his family home and arrested his father Najam Sethi for allegedly making a "treasonous speech" in New Delhi, India.  Sethi, then 15 years old, campaigned with his mother for his father's release. Najam Sethi was later acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and awarded Amnesty International’s Journalist of the Year Award.
Sethi attended the International School of Choueifat and Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan and describes himself as an above average student, particularly interested in art, drawing, music, and poetry. Sethi attended Harvard College from 2002 to 2006, initially planning to major in Economics. After taking a class on Islamic culture in contemporary societies with Ali S. Asani, Sethi became interested in the intersections of theology, politics, linguistics, and culture and eventually changed his major to South Asian Studies. While at Harvard, Sethi took creative writing classes with Zadie Smith and Amitav Ghosh, in addition to classes on colonial and post-colonial art, and Sanskrit, Bengali, and Tamil poetry. Sethi also performed every year for Ghungroo, Harvard's largest student-run production focusing on the South Asian diaspora, in addition to serving on the features board of The Harvard Advocate. Sethi wrote his undergraduate thesis on Anarkali, wanting to explore the "articulation of Muslim identity around women."
|"The Wish Maker, in Ali Sethi's mature and sure-handed prose, is an engaging family saga, an absorbing coming-of-age story, and an illuminating look at one of the world's most turbulent regions. Ali Sethi steadfastly resists the usual cliché's about both Islam and his native country. Instead, he offers a nuanced, often humorous, and always novel look at life in modern day Pakistan."|
|– Khaled Hosseini reviewed The Wish Maker|
In 2009, Sethi published his debut novel The Wish Maker which revolved around Pakistani identity and "the political history of Pakistan with three generations of characters who live in a middle-class, liberal enclave of Lahore." Sethi recalls writing the first draft of the novel in 2006 during his senior year at Harvard, a second draft while living in New York City, and the final draft in Lahore, Pakistan. He has mentioned that his goal with the novel was "to document and archive a phase in Pakistan’s history that had been extremely turbulent and had had far-reaching consequences." The novel was published by Riverhead Hardcover and later Penguin Books and was met with widespread critical acclaim and recognition. It was ranked eighth at Vogue Top Ten Summer Books. The Wish Maker has been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, Hindi, Chinese, and Turkish. In its review of the novel, The New York Times called it "a first-rate novel", stating that "Sethi's prose evokes the comic mislocutions of Jonathan Safran Foer and the vertiginous mania of Zadie Smith." The Wall Street Journal stated, "Mr. Sethi is especially alive to the emotional contours of young love, its modes of courtship, its methods of subterfuge...Mr. Sethi's prose, always lucid, often soars to illuminate the quotidian." The Guardian praised Sethi's "sharp handling" of material and "memorably drawn" characters. The Wish Maker was long-listed for the 2011 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, ultimately losing to H. M. Naqvi's, Home Boy. It was also shortlisted for 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Award.
Sethi has written essays and articles for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Caravan. In his writings, Sethi advocates for an inclusive and syncretic Pakistan that accommodates the rights of marginal groups. He has received praise for his profiles of the writer Saadat Hasan Manto and the ghazal singer Farida Khanum. On two occasions, the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune censored his articles, deeming them too sensitive to be published in Pakistan.
Musical training and influences
Sethi recalls his mother signing him up for music lessons at the age of eight, but has stated that he had no interest in them: "I would prance about the room and constantly urge him to drink more chai..." He recollects that his earliest memories pertaining to music are that of listening to Noor Jehan's Punjabi songs on radio-cassette players and melancholic national songs that played on PTV. Sethi credits his mother for introducing him to traditional South Asian music at a young age and for helping him develop his singing talent: "My mother would make me sing complex songs and verses. She'd pay attention to me and that activated me." He recalls that he initially started singing qawwali and ghazals mostly to impress his parents' friends. In another interview, he recollects that "there was always music being played at home. My mother always played Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hassan’s songs at home. Even while travelling in a car, there was light-classical music being played." In an interview, he similarly narrated: "We grew up listening to qawwali and to ghazal, to folk music from Punjab and the Saraiki belt, to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, bhajan singers – it was all part of one musical landscape."
Sethi has mentioned that songs composed by R. D. Burman and written by Gulzar influenced him greatly during his teenage years, claiming: "If you think about it, it is unusual as I am a child of the 90s, and not the 70s. But there was something sublime about that musical combine. Gulzar’s words were suggestive, abstract and playful, and RD's tunes were wayward, epic and phantasmagorical." Sethi lists Vishal Bhardwaj as one of his favorite composers for his musical sensibility and has stated that he admires Abida Parveen. Sethi formally apprenticed himself to Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi gharana in 2008 and to ghazal and classical singer Farida Khanum in 2012. Sethi has stated that from Saami, he learned "the melody patterns of raga, and how Vedic chants and Turkic and Persian melodies were fused by guilds in medieval India" and 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."
2012–2017: Early career and work in Coke Studio
In 2012, Sethi recorded Dil Jalannay Ki Baat Karte Ho, which was featured in Mira Nair's political-thriller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The song brought Sethi international recognition as a singer and was named the "highlight of the album" by The Times of India.
In 2015, Sethi made his singing debut on Coke Studio Season 8 with the song Umran Lagiyaan, originally sung by Asad Amanat Ali Khan. With his rendition of Umran Lagiyaan, Sethi was said to have "cemented his place as an interpreter of classics." Sethi received praise for "expertly channel[ing] some of the soaring high-register scatting that made Asad Amanat’s performances so amazing." Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal lauded Sethi for his "delicacy of expression" and "ease and familiarity with Punjabi and the Saraiki dialect."
Sethi went on to perform on the next five seasons of Coke Studio Pakistan. His most notable songs from the series are Aaqa with Abida Parveen, Tinak Dhin with Ali Hamza and Waqar Ahsin, Ranjish Hi Sahi, Gulon Main Rang, and Pasoori. Sethi sang the well-known ghazal Ranjish Hi Sahi as a tribute to its original singer, the legendary Mehdi Hassan. However, he asserted that his objective with the song was not to sing about lost love (as the original does) but to express hope for a more united Pakistan, stating: "The song is about the anguish and ecstasy of loss...and as the nation celebrates its 70th anniversary, we need to come together despite our differences." Sethi received praise for his emotive and melancholy vocal expression in Ranjish Hi Sahi and for adding his own personal touch to the classic ghazal. Sethi stated that singing Aaqa with Abida Parveen was challenging but life-changing for him: "Her octave starts four-five notes higher than mine...I struggled because I had to sing at her pitch, and then I had to sing the high parts. It was a really acrobatic challenge for me to go there. But it worked somehow and I’m so glad it did. For me it was a great opportunity and it changed my life in many ways."
In February 2015, Sethi released his first music video Kithay Nain Na Jori at Karachi Literature Festival. The video featured Sethi and starred Sania Saeed, Adnan Siddiqui, and Mira Sethi as a tribute to Pakistani folk singer Reshma. On February 5, 2016, Sethi released his original single Mahi Mera featuring farmer-turned-folk singer Jamaldin, which was critically well received. The video was directed by Umar Riaz and was shot entirely in Jamal's and Sethi's ancestral villages, Shergarh and Hussaingarh.
In 2017, Sethi featured in the track Aaja with Riz Ahmed and Heems and Redinho of the Swet Shop Boys as a tribute to Qandeel Baloch. That year, Sethi also collaborated with Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun on Disruption as Rapture, a multimedia work housed in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The same year, Sethi sang the song Chan Kithan, a reinterpretation of a Punjabi folk song. Sethi also co-produced and co-directed the music video for the song. The musical arrangement combines a traditional folk ditty from rural Punjab with electronica and indie-rock to create what Sethi described as "Punjabi Gothic music." The music video is based on a retelling of the Cinderella story which takes place in contemporary Pakistan. The song received praise for combining "the ethos of Seraiki language with urban longing" and for fusing various styles and techniques of arrangement.
2018–2019: Original music and collaboration with Noah Georgeson
Sethi recorded a romantic ballad Yunhi Rastay Mai for the 2018 film Saat Din Mohabbat In. Sethi collaborated with Red Baraat on the song Kala Mukhra (a reworking of the traditional Gora Mukra). On June 28, 2018 Sethi released Waasta (co-written by Sethi, featuring rapper Faris Shafi), and renditions of Dil Karda Ay and Agar Tum Mil Jao for season three of music series Cornetto Pop Rock with Quratulain Balouch.
Initially known for his renditions of folk songs and classical ghazals, Sethi began releasing original music in 2019. Sethi announced that he would be collaborating on a new project with American producer Noah Georgeson. Sethi said, "I’ve admired Noah’s work for years, and I’m thrilled to be working with him." Georgeson responded by saying, "Beyond my excitement in working with Ali, and his transcendent talent and voice, I’m looking forward to applying my approach to an unfamiliar tradition of music." Sethi and Georgeson released five songs together: Chandni Raat, Dil Ki Khair, Khabar-e-Tahayyur-e-Ishq, Ishq, and Dil Lagaayein. In May 2019, both artists gave a headlining performance together at Sanders Theater for Harvard University's Arts First festival.
In 2019, Sethi's song Umraan Langiyaan from Coke Studio Season 8 was featured on HBO’s documentary film The Case Against Adnan Syed. The same year, Sethi performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall for Du Yun and Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar’s orchestral multimedia work Where We Lost Our Shadows which revolved around the theme of human migration. The New York Times review praised his performance for its "rawness and plaintive delicacy." Video footage of Sethi's Carnegie Hall performance was shown on two NASDAQ billboards at Times Square as part of a tribute in December 2019. Also in 2019, Sethi presented two talks at Harvard University along with Ali S. Asani. In one of the lectures, titled The Covenant of Love, Sethi discussed the poetic tradition of Sufi music and the consciousness of Sufi poets and the evolution of Indo-Muslim Sufi thought. In the other lecture, titled The Art of the Ghazal, Sethi discussed the ghazal as a literary genre and explored mystical themes in Urdu ghazals.
Sethi began his Spring 2020 Tour on February 16 with a performance at the Royal Geographical Society in London. In March 2020, Sethi shared that his performances in Seattle, Chicago, San Diego, Silicon Valley, and Sacramento, California had been postponed. The same month, when the global lockdown began due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sethi initiated a series of virtual concerts with Indian artists on Instagram. These included musicians Rekha Bhardwaj and Vishal Bhardwaj, singer Shilpa Rao, screenwriter Varun Grover, and comedian Zakir Khan. The sessions highlighted the shared history and culture of India and Pakistan and advocated for peace between the two countries. However, the initiative came to an end after a circular issued by FWICE on April 11, 2020 warned Indian artists to not collaborate with Pakistanis.
On May 17, 2020, Sethi took part in a conversation with Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary of India, to discuss how art intersects with issues of interconnectedness, identity, and culture in South Asia. Sethi and Rao discussed the historical and cultural bonds between India and Pakistan. The conversation was hosted by the Bangalore International Centre and the South Asian Symphony Foundation. Sethi sang and composed the song Pehla Qadam which was released on September 18, 2020. The song was produced by Danish Renzu and Abubakar Khan and featured Sunny Jain on drums. Its lyrics were written by Sunayana Kachroo. During Harvard University’s Worldwide Week in October 2020, Sethi performed a rendition of Amir Khusrau's well-known qawwali, Aaj Rang Hai, as part of a presentation titled Khusrau’s River of Love: Cosmopolitanism and Inclusion in South Asian Traditions.
In May 2021, Sethi released the song Yakjehti Mein (transl. In Solidarity) composed by Chilean-American composer Nicolás Jaar. The song was made for the Palestinian online radio station, Radio Alhara, and was broadcast live from Bethlehem in May 2021. Sethi used verses from two poems (Hum Dekhenge and Aaj Bazaar Mein) penned by eminent Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz for the song which was meant to show solidarity and support for the people of Palestine.
In September 2021, Sethi collaborated with Indian author Amitav Ghosh for his first book-in-verse, Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban, based on the legend of Bonbibi. Sethi narrated the musical audiobook of Jungle Nama in addition to composing and performing music for it. Sethi stated that he wanted to "evoke the wonder of the Sundarban through its sound and poetry" while working on this project. He described that he drew on "syncretic raga traditions" and folk tunes to compose the music for Jungle Nama, using "traditional instruments like surmandal and dhol" and combining different musical traditions. One of the songs from the audiobook — Baya Jao — is Sethi's first song in the Bengali language.
In February 2022, Sethi co-wrote, co-composed, and sang the song Pasoori for Coke Studio Season 14 with debutant singer Shae Gill. The song became the fastest in the season to garner one million views on YouTube. It went on to become the first Coke Studio Pakistan song to feature on Spotify's "Viral 50" global chart and also ranked at number one on Spotify India's "Viral 50" chart on March 7, 2022. On April 26, 2022, Pasoori debuted at the 161st spot on Spotify's Global Chart. On May 4, 2022 it climbed to the top of Spotify's "Viral 50 - Global" chart and on May 7, 2022 — 90 days after its release — Pasoori hit 100 million views on YouTube.
Revitalizing the ghazal
Sethi is well known for "performing iconic ghazals and putting his spin on them" and has mentioned in various interviews that the ghazal is one of his favorite genres of music. He has also stated that he is drawn to "obscure and outdated forms of poetry and music" and that he is "interested in reviving lost techniques and lost cultures" while redefining the traditional as experimental. Sethi acknowledges that the popularity of ghazals has declined in recent decades, but contends that "ghazals are actually a young person's genre," claiming that "it just has an image problem." He has mentioned that one of his objectives is to revitalize and reposition the ghazal through contemporary arrangements while doing justice to the spirit of the original work, asserting: "If you just filter western pop music into our music without much thought, the result is very dissatisfying. I earlier rendered Farida Khanum’s classic 'Mohabbat Karne Walay' and added the sarangi and electric guitar to the music. I'm all for innovating, but while remaining connected to the source." In his live musical performances, Sethi frequently offers critical discourse about the ghazal as an art form, its evolution as a genre, and adds commentary and anecdotes on the origins of various classical ragas as well as Urdu words.
Sethi has discussed his opposition to the traditional binaries of tradition and modernity, contending in an interview: "What I found through traditional music, through my immersion in and engagement with South Asian forms of folk and classical music, is this wonderful paradox: you find through these ‘traditional’ things genuinely radical, freeing, subversive, cosmopolitan, experimental worldviews." He has also stated that one of his goals is to raise greater awareness and enthusiasm for classical music and the great South Asian poets through his music.
Protest and dissent
Sethi notes that due to his parents' professions as journalists and politicians, his formative years were spent amidst "a lot of dissenting voices" and that he grew up around journalists, artists, activists, and politicians as a child. His childhood home was "full of jail-going writers and activists," shared Sethi in a profile in The New Yorker. Sethi claims that these early life experiences influenced his thinking and shaped his musical philosophy in that many of his songs and music videos seek to address social issues. "Song and protest [are] intertwined for me," Sethi asserted in The New Yorker profile. At his performance at the Royal Geographical Society, London in February 2020, Sethi juxtaposed two images on the large screen — one of the 2020 NRC protests in India and the other of the Zia-ul-Haq protests in Pakistan in the 1980s, as he sang Faiz Ahmad Faiz's Hum Dekhenge. Writing for The Express Tribune, journalist Shuja Uddin noted: "The images are powerful because they aptly told the narrative of Pakistan in post-colonial South Asia as one of reflection and warning for other neighboring countries. Sethi's particular visual became viral and brought together hurt citizens from both countries to find resonance in each other's tragedy."
Through his work, Sethi believes in collapsing the traditional boundaries of religion, caste, class, gender, and geography. He has stated that he aims to "revive an interest in...layered ways of being and of experiencing poetry, music, art, visuals…insist on these multiple interpretations, and allow people from different backgrounds and perspectives to take part in a conversation." Sethi's musical work often explores the myriad intersections of art, philosophy, scripture, and music. Sethi is a vocal advocate for pluralism and tolerance and is known for his experimental approach to music. His music is known to touch upon themes that challenge prevailing views on gender identity and sexuality. This stems from his own experiences as a queer artist.
Sethi often uses or references source material from Sufi poetry in his music which adopts an inclusive and liberal view on such issues. He has claimed that "Sufi poems and metaphors revel in ambiguity, undoing such binaries as sacred and secular, male and female, spiritual and material. In that sense I think they are like this incredible technology of the heart – one that can help us do dialogue across difference in this highly polarized time.” Sethi also acknowledges that "the appetite for Sufi music in Pakistan allows people like me to get away with a lot of potentially subversive stuff through the metaphors of Sufi poetry — these beautiful, deliberate ambiguities."
Diasporic identity and culture
Sethi's music frequently delves into notions of self and identity, particularly in brown history and diaspora culture, and he has stated that he sees himself and his music as a "diasporic voice." In a 2020 interview with Nirupama Rao, Sethi noted: "I arrived in Harvard in 2002, one year after 9/11 – there was very little 'connectivity' in the world at that time. If you wanted to delve into the history of the region, you really had to go to the library. I remember being haunted by this question – what does it mean to be Pakistani, to come from an Indo-Muslim context? Where do you draw your sense of identity and genealogy, what do you include and exclude?" Sethi contends that through his performances at Harvard's Ghunghroo, he found a "scholarly environment [that] could give me a way into my own heritage, a way to convey to people where I was coming from." As an artist, Sethi has been described as "the face of post-colonial Pakistan, reconciling with its checkered past and contextualizing its mysterious future."
Sethi's voice has been described as having a "rich tenor," being powerful but controlled, "soulful," "soft but polished," ranging from "plaintive to raw to warmly intimate," and as having a "moving and melodic quality." He is often lauded for his "soaring vocals," skillful harkats, and "vocal gymnastics." In a 2015 opinion column, Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal described Sethi's voice in the following words: "Sethi's voice bears the unmistakable signs of taaleem and riyaaz, that is, of being both well-trained and well-rehearsed. But it is the bit of heartbreak in his voice that makes his singing sit apart for me. This is not an attribute that can be imparted by training. Neither can it be carefully cultivated. It really is an inexplicable quality that a singer is lucky to be gifted with."
Sethi's work has been praised for combining classical Pakistani music and poetry with contemporary pop music. He has been credited with resurrecting the lost art of the ghazal by reinventing it for present-day audiences and making the genre more approachable for younger generations, in both mainstream Pakistani culture as well as internationally. Haroon Rashid of BBC Asian Network described Sethi as "the king of modern ghazal." In 2020, The Express Tribune characterized Sethi's musical style as highlighting "the narrative of Pakistan that does not stem from nationalistic ambitions but rather acknowledges the crevices and folds in Pakistani life, albeit in a fantastical fashion the ghazal genre so spectacularly lends itself to."
Bollywood singer and rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh compared Sethi with playback legend Mohammed Rafi. The Bollywood actor and singer Ayushmann Khurrana has also praised Sethi's singing. Sethi's work has also been hailed for its consistent message of inclusivity. Lydialyle Gibson of Harvard Magazine said of Sethi's work that "boundaries fall away — between past and present, earthly and transcendent, between art and religion and politics."
|2012||The Reluctant Fundamentalist||"Dil Jalanay Ki Baat Karte Ho"|
|2015||Manto||"Aah Ko Chahiye"|
|"Kya Hoga"||co-singer Zebunnisa Bangash|
|2018||Saat Din Mohabbat In||"Yunhi Rastay Mai"||co-singer Aima Baig|
|2019||Superstar||"Bekaraan"||co-singer Zeb Bangash|
|2015||Ye Mera Deewanapan Hai||"Ye Mera Deewanapan Hai"||Title song|
|Coke Studio Pakistan (season 8)||"Sohni Dharti"||Promo song for season|
|"Umraan Langiyaan"||Duet with Nabeel Shaukat Ali|
|2016||Coke Studio Pakistan (season 9)||"Aye Rah-e-Haq Kay Shahedo"||Promo song for season|
|"Aaqa"||Duet with Abida Parveen|
|2017||Coke Studio Pakistan (season 10)||National Anthem of Pakistan||Promo song for season|
|"Ranjish Hi Sahi"||Solo; written by Ahmad Faraz|
|"Thinak Dhin"||Trio with Ali Hamza and Waqar Ehsin|
|Teri Raza||"Muhabbat Karne Wale"||Originally sung by Mehdi Hassan|
|2018||Noor ul Ain||"Dil Ko Bhoolay"||Duet with Zebunnisa Bangash|
|Coke Studio Pakistan (season 11)||"Hum Dekhenge"||Promo song for season|
|2019||Coke Studio Season 12||"Gulon Main Rang"||Written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz|
|"Mundiya"||Duet with Quratulain Balouch|
|2020||Sabaat||"Sabaat"||Written by Kashif Anwar|
|2022||Coke Studio Season 14||"Pasoori"||Duet with Shae Gill|
- "Chan Kithan" (Punjabi folk song)
- "Kithay Nain Na Jorin" (Reshma cover)
- "Haal Aisa Nahin" (Ghulam Ali cover)
- "Yaad Mein Teri" (Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi cover)
- "Dil Jalaane ki Baat Kartey Ho" (Farida Khanum cover)
- "Dil Karda Ay" and "Agar Tum Mil Jao" ft. Quratulain Balouch
- "Mere Hamnafas" (Begum Akhtar cover)
- "Mere Aur Hain Iraday"
- "Mahi Mera" (2016)
- "Waasta" (2018)
- "Chandni Raat" (2019)
- "Ishq" (2019)
- "Dil Ki Khair" (2019)
- "Dil Lagayeein" (2019)
- "Pehla Qadam" (2020)
- "Rung" (2021)
- "Yakjehti Mein" (2021)
Awards and nominations
Sethi was nominated for Best Playback Singer - Male at 15th Lux Style Awards, and Best Playback Singer - Male at 2nd ARY Film Awards for performing "Aah Ko Chahiye" in the film Manto. His single Kithay Nain Na Jorin was nominated for Best Music Single and Best Music Video at the 4th Hum Awards.
|2010||Shakti Bhatt Awards||Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize Awards||The Wish Maker||Nominated|||
|2016||Hum Awards||Best Music Single||"Kithay Nain Na Jorin"||Nominated|||
|ARY Film Awards||Best Playback Singer - Male||"Aah Ko Chahiye"||Nominated|||
|Lux Style Awards||Best Playback Singer - Male||Nominated|||
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