Huqa Pani - Ali Zafar (2003)

Last year, a young boy in a bright blue jacket jumped out of a video playing on the TV screen and landed straight into the fantasies of a million adolescent girls all over the country. The video was the effervescent "Channo". The boy was Ali Zafar, who had been styled to the max in a simple but incredibly well edited video that gave yet another avatar to our home grown style Guru Tariq "'Mr. Fraudiay' and 'Behti Naar' Bad Man" Amin. The song catered to the lowest common denominator, but the tune was fresh, thanks to multi layered electronica and the Aladdin concept and bright colours that turned it into a frothy package making it stay on your mind even after the silly veejay comes on to announce yet another song.

There is something about "Channo". It's not brilliant lyrics - far from it - tacky but made delightful with the music that has been composed and arranged by Zafar himself. A repetitive but rousing beat with some Middle Eastern influence thrown in winds itself around you like a pop python and refuses to let go. "Channo" has great recall value. It is one of those songs that you remember even though you don't particularly want to. And the visuals are hard to forget too. Zafar is a good-looking chap. Juvenile, yes, but that is precisely why he is selling so much.

Teenage is the time to stock up on the records. Teenage demand was the driving force behind Nazia and Zoheb, Vital Signs and Junoon. Teenagers are the demographic the pop music industry caters to. Therefore, the success of Britney Spears, Justine Timberlake and a perpetual stream of boy and girl bands that has swamped the music industry in recent years. Pop needs new icons. Fresh faces to feed the demand of the new age. Each generation must have its pop idol. Now that Junaid Jamshed has grown a beard and Ali Haider, Haroon and Fakhir have crossed the thirty mark, the industry seemed to be waiting for an Ali Zafar to enter its fold. It would be rather perverse for thirteen year olds giggly fans of pop to pine for thirty plus pop icons.

Talk about making the right moves at the right time. Come up with a well-made video to a catchy tune, and your album will sell. And people are still going in droves to lap up Ali Zafar's debut album, which has been nestling comfortably on top of the charts for some time now.

Two years ago Ali Zafar was also the peeping Tom painter checking out Preeto from the opposite apartment in Ahsan and Amena's colourful laugh riot of a video for Abrar. Indeed, the title track "Huqa Pani" is a nod in Abrar's direction. Bhangra jazzed up with what has now become Ali Zafar's trademark electronica. Yes, there is a distinct Stereo Nation influence, but Zafar makes the songs his own with his original delivery.

A bit surprising for an album that tries to do what Ali Haider tried to do with "Jadu" - that is come up with Pakistani trance. He failed miserably and thereafter went back to doing what he has always done. Where Haider fails, Zafar succeeds, because he bends electronica to accommodate what we traditionally know as 'song'. He experiments with "Ek Pal", "Ishq", and "Din Doobay", which take more from Western trance than the Eastern ethos, but they remain songs as much as they do dance numbers. What Faraz Anwar and Ali Haider were trying to do was a bit too radical for its time. "Jadu" did sell, but about as much as Junaid Mumtaz's recent debut "Tribal Council" did, that is, not much and only to a select cult following by people who are aware of the culture that is so necessary for hardcore trance. "Jadu" was a big comedown because Ali Haider lost track of who he was catering to. He should have realized that aunties who watch "Chandni Raatein" do not care for trance.

Ali Zafar's debut tells you one thing. He knows what he wants to do and he knows who he is catering to. What jumps out at you is the filmi influence. The finest song on the album is "Jungnuon Se Bhar Le Aanchal" that Ali Zafar recorded for Samina Peerzada's "Shararat". The film bombed, but it gave Ali a chance to show his mettle. With lyrics by Aqeel Ruby and composed by Wajahat Attrey, it is a gem of a number. It is the strains of the bansuri floating in and out of the lilting melody showcasing what makes film music such an integral part of our cultural landscape even when our cinema is in the state Sea View has been in since the Tasman Spirit broke into two.

Ali Zafar is a part of that breed of musicians who tinker with music on their computer. They are into dance music coming out of the West, but at the same time they are much rooted in where they come from. They admire Madonna but revere Mohammad Rafi, Ahmed Rushdie and Kishore Kumar.

"Chal Dil Meray, Chor Yeh Pheray, Yeh Duniya Jhooti, Log Looteray" is one of the most outstanding songs on "Huqa Pani". Ali delivers it in the way the old guard of sub-continental filmdom did. "Chal Dil Meray" is very filmi and Ali delights in it unabashedly. Then there is "Rangeen" that is very much in the vein of "Disco Dancer" (Yes, the Mithun Chakraborty smash hit) and the spin offs it inspired. In his early twenties, Ali Zafar is an 80s child and this come through loud and clear on his debut. The only other pop star to have capitalized on film music is Fakhir whose cover of "Sab Toun Sohniye" remains one of his biggest hits.

What elevates "Huqa Pani" above the old wine in a new packaging formula is the fact that Ali Zafar can sing. His command over his voice is tremendous. He's our Justin Timberlake, with that filmi touch. "Teri Yaad Aye" and "Dekha Sung Teray" are two self-indulgent numbers that give him ample opportunity to show off the strength of his chords. He shows promise as an crooner in the vein of the old timers, but it remains to be seen where he will go from here. His songs are derived from cinema and his music from the club scene. He is as influenced by bhangra as he is by Michael Jackson and one also see shades of Kishore Kumar, Daft Punk, 70s disco and rave music as Pakistan knows it.

It's very interesting bunch of influences that make "Huqa Pani" such an attractive package. And one is thankful. It is nice to know that bands like Noori, EP and Aaroh won't completely take over. In an age where everything, from the food that we eat to the clothes we wear, has all become a statement, simple songs are needed too, songs of pyar and mohabbat, jugnus and channos. One needs a dose of frivolity to balance Pakistani Rock's ever increasing existential angst. "Huqa Pani" does exactly that.

After a very promising debut, Ali Zafar should go places. He has appeared in TV plays, sung for a film, had a hit video, modeled in TV commercials, but still come out with an album untainted by sponsorship. To top it all, underneath the most ideal pretty-boy package deal lies promising talent. Ali Zafar, like Timberlake, is the real thing. It remains to be seen where he goes from here; but he can rest assured his outstanding debut has made the ride much smoother.

Muniba Kamal
The News International, Pakistan