A few years ago, musician Ali Sethi was driving through Punjab, behind a jingle truck – the long-haul trucks known in his native Pakistan for their filigree paint patterns – when he spotted a phrase in Punjabi calligraphy flowers on his back. “Agg lavaan teriya majbooriya nu,” he would say – a call to “set your compulsions on fire.” It’s not uncommon to spot bits of worms, or grim warnings – against bewildered eyes or getting lost in the big world out there – among the fluorescent parrots and tropical fruit patterns of the jingle trucks. But Sethi couldn’t stop thinking about that sentence.
He inspired the opening line of “Pasoori”, the 30-something’s latest single, a joyful, danceable hit that has garnered over a hundred million views on YouTube since its release three months ago and is playing on radio everywhere from the Emirates United Arabs in Canada. The song is stealthily subversive: a traditional raga – the classic Indian framework for musical improvisation – has been laid to an infectious beat that sounds South Asian, Middle Eastern and, improbably, reggaeton all at once. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can tell it’s a song about desire. “If your love is poison, I’ll drink it down,” Sethi sings in Punjabi with sweet angst, in a catchy duet with Pakistani singer and Instagram star Shae Gill. “It’s my favorite genre,” said a friend of mine. “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 concerts. But any travel to India for Pakistani nationals is subject to the politics of the day, and producers told Sethi he couldn’t work there as a Pakistani artist because extremists could burn down the studio. The danger of arson reminded Sethi of that line of the bell truck. “So I did what the desi bards did for centuries,” 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 roughly translates to “difficult mess,” is about an age-old situation: two people who are forbidden to meet. It is written in the style of a courtesan song, a genre originating 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 tries to persuade her married lover to stay the night.) Full of puns and erotic innuendo, courtesan songs typically lament dates that must take place in secret, meetings that do not materialize, and the oppression of polite society. “Pasoori” is ostensibly about star-crossed lovers, but it’s also an apt metaphor for the relationship between two perpetually warring countries whose histories and cultural touchstones are intertwined.
In early 2021, Sethi sent a voice note with the melody and the first bars of the lyrics he had in mind to producer Zulfiqar Khan, who goes by Xulfi. Xulfi had just been appointed as the helmer of the fourteenth season of “Coke Studio”, a popular music television series in Pakistan produced by the soda company. ” I had goosebumps. I wanted to dance,” Xulfi said. “I knew people were going to love it and they wouldn’t know what hit them.” Xulfi found Anushae Gill, aka Shae Gill – an economics student whose best friend started posting videos of her singing on Instagram in 2019 – and brought her into the project, thinking her smoky voice would go well together with the rich tenor of Sethi.
“Pasoori” opens with a series of handclaps, reminiscent of desi musical traditions but also straight out of flamenco. “It was very deliberate, the musical hybridization,” Sethi said. The track does not 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 sound library, using whale calls for what Siddiqui described as their “guttural tones.” deep and supple” and a reggaeton rhythm – “a cousin of our bhangra, if you think about it”, Sethi said – to create a sound that Sethi called “ragaton”.
The video, shot in old Bollywood, Technicolor style and directed by Kamal Khan, features Sethi and Gill, dressed in bohemian interpretations of traditional outfits – he in striped kurta pajamas in jewel tones and a matching cap, she in a flowing white dress and embroidered waistcoat – as they sing in the courtyard of an ancestral home. Their duet is interspersed with glamorous stills – a young man with gem-encrusted makeup, a woman with elaborate braids. Each character sends a message of inclusion, from Sheema Kermani, the bharata-natyam dancer and activist from Pakistan, who slowly rotates between two columns, to Gill, who is from the Christian community, which is only 1.59% of the population of Pakistan. Two boys perform a delicate jhumar dance, the hems of their kurtas flamboyant. Like many Desi classics, the song operates outside of traditional gender roles – here Sethi sings for a man – with the singer in the role of a narrator weaving a tale.
I happen to be finishing a memoir about being from Kashmir – that complicated region where India and Pakistan meet – and after hearing ‘Pasoori’ for the first time in March, I continued to listen to it on repeat while driving around Los Angeles, where I now live. The song felt immediately familiar and exciting, and I was curious to know more about its creator. I had recently corresponded with Sethi’s sister, Mira, through our mutual book publisher. Mira, who is also an actress, introduced me to her brother on WhatsApp, the desi messaging app of choice, so I could find out more about him and how the song came about.
Sethi was born in Lahore in 1984; his parents are prominent journalists and editors Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. His childhood home was “full of imprisoned writers and activists,” he told me, on Zoom, from his New York apartment, and in college he took calls for his parents from ‘Amnesty International, giving rote updates on political dissidents, such as ‘habeas corpus just filed! His mother, when she wasn’t marching for equal rights, played a lot of Qawwali, a kind of Sufi devotional music. Sethi started singing Qawwali and ghazals – lyrical poems – in her clear, youthful voice to impress her parents’ friends. “Song and protest were intimately linked for me,” he said. He began 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 was a safe place to express oneself and explore the burgeoning awareness of one’s own homosexuality.
Sethi was an outstanding Ivy-or-bust student at Aitchison College, Lahore’s prestigious boys’ school, and he didn’t find an outlet for his emerging voice right away, but he remembers singing in the hall. art, 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 school Abroad – which was released in 2009, just before he returned to Lahore. “I was saving time,” he said of writing fiction. Sethi’s mother and father were worried about his job security and happy to have him home while he ostensibly researched his second novel. But Sethi felt hemmed in by the sociopolitical narrative he thought the world wanted from him as a Pakistani writer in the decade after 9/11. “Thousands of words on the score,” he laughs. The thought of the editors was something like “Terrorism – more on that!” he said.