Best known for blending classical Hindustani ragas with Western musical influences, Pakistani singer-composer Ali Sethi is a unique find on the Coachella lineup this year. The prestigious L.A.-based festival scheduled to take place in April is one of the most popular musical events in the world and considered a trendsetter in music.
Coachella, returning for the 22nd time (it was canceled in 2020 and ’21 due to the pandemic), has been dominated by artists specializing in rock, pop, indie, hip hop and electronic dance music. But this year’s lineup may be the festival’s most globally inclusive yet. The headliners for the event which sees as many as 750,000 people in total over its six days (as of 2022) are Bad Bunny, BLACKPINK and Frank Ocean. Harry Styles, who performed on the opening day last year will be closing his Love On Tour in the valley this year.
Meanwhile, Sethi is on a career-high with his famous track “Pasoori” (a part of Pakistan’s famed Coke Studio series), recently recording 500 million views on YouTube. So, Coachella is the cherry on top. Speaking to ET Canada, the genre-bending musician reveals his plan for the event. “At Coachella, I want to expand on the genre I jokingly call ‘ragaton’ — songs that blend the melodies of my childhood with placeless beats. It embodies who I am, where I’m from, and where I think I’m going!”
Born and raised in Pakistan, Sethi is the son of award-winning journalists and publishers Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. But, surprisingly, music wasn’t his first career choice. Instead, the Harvard alum debuted as a novelist in 2009 with The Wish Maker, which The New York Times called “a first-rate novel.”
In previous interviews, Sethi revealed that his mother had signed him up for music lessons at 8, but he had little interest in it. He also said that he initially sang gazals to entertain his family and guests. However, 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 launched his career in music with Mira Nair’s 2012 film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and debuted in Coke Studio Pakistan in 2015. He has since been a part of the series every year. His latest single, “Gazab Kiya” is in sync with his aforementioned “ragaton” philosophy.
This year, an impressive lineup of South Asian artists at Coachella has been applauded worldwide. Apart from Sethi, the lineup includes Indian singer and actor Diljit Dosanjh, British-Indian record producer Jai Paul, Bangladeshi-American electronic music producer Jai Wolf and British-Bangladeshi singer-songwriter Joy Crookes.
Sethi is the second Pakistani artist after Grammy-winning Arooj Aftab to join the world-class musicians in the California desert. Ask Sethi how and when music from the South Asian subcontinent became relevant to the audience in the west, he says, “Desi people have been in North America for many years now. We’ve been increasingly visible in science, tech, medicine, the law, literature, and politics. There have been desi pioneers in music too — I’m thinking of legends like MIA, Jay Sean, Punjabi MC.”
“I guess what’s happening now is that we’re also showing up in large numbers to support desi acts on stages across North America and Europe. There’s a new confidence in owning and supporting our traditions that I love. That’s the real game-changer here. I’m so glad it’s happening, and it heralds a cultural awakening,” he says.
Sethi is currently touring North America and Canada, which are a phenomenal success — shows in Toronto, Boston and Seattle are sold out. His next show is in Vancouver on Tuesday.
“It’s stupendous and overwhelming. People are showing up on weeknights and singing along to metaphysical ghazals! I sense a hunger for stuff that reconciles our heritage with the needs of our present,” he says.
Sethi’s music appeals to the South Asian audience as it blends their heritage with the music they’ve grown up listening to. “That’s the signal I’m constantly getting on this tour — the desire for an identity that makes us feel spiritually whole. I’m so grateful my music plays a small part in that process for people,” he says.
The jewel of Sethi’s discography is undeniably “Pasoori”, described by The Guardian as a “global phenomenon and one of Pakistan’s most popular musical exports for years.” What makes this song a global phenomenon is its easy-to-follow melody and engaging video, which Sethi says, “gives “Pasoori” a political, inclusive thrust that’s proving irresistible, especially in today’s South Asia, where so many identities are under attack.”
“I think that combo of classical and contemporary, desi and non-desi feels very fresh to our ears,” he adds.
Sethi believes that this trend will make waves in 2023. “I go around saying ‘folk is woke’ — and one emerging trend I love is the more meaningful fusion of melodic subcultures with global beats,” he told us.
“I can’t wait to make that connection more explicit in my next few songs,” he concludes.