Zaw Ali – Heiress of the musical prodigy

  • 23 Sep - 29 Sep, 2017
  • Sana Lokhandwala
  • Interview

Making her singing debut alongside her father and legendary singer Sajjad Ali, Zaw Ali is the spitting image of her father both in her demeanour and extraordinary talent. Pakistani music lovers were all praises for the young songstress as soon as her debut song surfaced. Her ethereal voice and commendable vocal range bewitched the audiences. Zaw opens up about her childhood, inspiration and her inception in the world of music in a tête-à-tête with MAG.

“It has to be one of the most emotional things I have ever had to do in my life,” she says about debuting with her father. “Everyone kept asking me if I was nervous singing next to him but I wouldn't say I was nervous because it was comforting, since he was standing right next to me and kept telling me to just go ahead and have fun,” she says about her first-ever appearance on the mainstream media and mentions how the father-daughter duo “had a phenomenal time.”

Performing next to one’s father-cum-mentor is not as easy as it may sound. “The massive responsibility of living up to my forefathers' and his name had me freaked out pretty bad,” she confesses. “I'm absolutely honoured that he trusted me with this. Thank goodness, I managed to get through the takes without breaking down since it's such an emotional track,” she says about her debut song Ronay Na Diya.

“One day my dad caught me singing Begum Akhtar Sahiba’s ghazal. I had just discovered her and got addicted to that track. He was rather surprised at me listening to classical music, so he decided that the young generation needs to be reacquainted with the legendary singer and the ‘angg’ of my own forefathers through someone from their own generation,” she tells us how the Coke Studio hit came into being. “Both of us started planning on how to design the song. When Strings heard my voice, they really liked it and we took it from there.”

How did she deal with her instant moment of fame? I enquire. “I'm still processing all the love that the audience and our industry have been sending my way. I truly couldn't have imagined a warmer welcome than this. There were ninjas cutting onions the entire first day,” jokes the artiste who is “beyond humbled” for the appreciation she has been receiving so far.

“Right after the song aired for the first time, phone calls and messages from other artistes started pouring in. My social media blew up. I have been told that I was even trending on Twitter for a couple of days,” she says. While all the messages and comments are precious for the budding star, there is one that is close to her heart. “It was when the legendary ghazal singer, Ghulam Ali sahab called me up to congratulate me and told me that my voice reminded him of Barkat Ali Khan sahab,” which is a great honour in itself.

Being a star kid comes with its own gains and losses and Zaw has had a taste of both. Is it difficult being Sajjad Ali’s daughter? I ask. “It's really not that hard, to be honest,” she retorts. “Yes, there is always a bit of a pressure and you are always aware of the proverbial spotlight in public. It just boils down to maintaining quality and staying true to one's self by portraying a genuine image like my father has done all his life,” affirms the daughter who is following into her father’s footsteps.

Despite their achievements and hard work, star kids are mostly seen in the shadow of their famous parents. Does she fear being dubbed as ‘Sajjad Ali’s Daughter’ for the rest of her life? I enquire. “Why would one fear such a huge blessing? Being ‘Sajjad Ali's daughter’ is a fact. One that I will always wear as a badge of honour,” she says with pride.

Growing up with the powerhouse of music, Zaw’s childhood was “artistically rich with lots of artistic and intellectual gatherings” and she was trained for the entertainment industry early on in her life. “I grew up either on sets where my dad would be shooting his music videos or in the recording studio. As a kid, I always had a camera in my hand and was filming everything and anything and was also doing editing work pretty early on,” thus her inclination towards film-making and singing.

“My training for both film and music began at home at a very young age and I have my father to thank for it. I owe most of my film education to my father who introduced me to cinema at a very early age,” says the film-maker who has learned from the works of Melies, Fritz Lang, Ozu, Eisentein, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa, Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Oliver Stone, Kubrik, Spielberg, Edgar Wright, and many other masters of the art.

Her obsession and knowledge for cinema and films landed her a writing job soon after she finished her A-Levels. “I became a film journalist and critic where I got to present my critique on world cinema, write scripts for corporate videos and interview A-list celebrities from around the world,” says the journalist who has interviewed celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Jawed Sheikh, Ali Zafar, Humayun Saeed, Pixar’s co-founder Dr. Alvy Ray Smith, Stephen Lang, Andy Serkis and Palestinian actor Ali Suliman to name a few.

“When I was approached to do my first directorial project, I went up to my boss the very next day and handed him my resignation letter. You should have seen the look of shock and amazement on his face,” she reminisces. “I felt terrible but I also felt it was the right time for me to grow. When I directed my very first music video Nakhun, that experience put everything into place for me,” she says about her directorial debut which got nominated for a local award ceremony earlier this year.

“The feeling of combining my love for music and my passion for film together gave me an indescribable high. It suddenly became perfect art to me – combining sound and visual art to create something beautiful,” she reveals her moment of epiphany.

As for music, her father bequeathed her with his insurmountable talent and knowledge. “I grew up with music from around the world covering pretty much every genre, from Western to Eastern classical and almost every major language. As a singer/songwriter, I have been blessed to have a guideline in the form of our family library which consists of classic audio records, world cinema and the essentials of literature from Meer to Jaun Elia and Alf Leilah, Masnavi to Shahabnama. It has everything to nourish an artistic soul,” says the artiste who strongly feels that knowledge has a key role to play in a singer/songwriter’s journey.

The multi-talented artiste not only appreciates the artistic upbringing that she has received but is also extremely fond of her family and enjoys a warm relationship with them. “Being the first grandchild of the family, I have enjoyed an amazing relationship with my Dada ji and Dadi amma. When I was two or three, I used to go on long walks with my Dada ji to the beach every single day,” she says with a smile.

“Dad and I are pretty much best friends,” she laughs. “My siblings and I have a very easy-going relationship with both my parents since that's how they've been with their parents. Our discussions vary from philosophical to down-right hilarious. From my grandparents to the youngest cousins, everyone has a top-notch sense of humour. When the whole family gets together, no matter the age difference, it always seems like we are all friends,” she gushes about her family members.

Zaw, who transitioned from a film-journo to a film-maker and now a singer, takes inspiration from her father. “I’ve always seen him donning different hats, be it as a director, writer, poet, composer, actor, philosopher and intellectual, so he's the ultimate inspiration,” says the doting daughter. Apart from the living legend, Zaw seeks inspiration from “good books, conversations with strangers, music and travel,” she gives us the ‘cheesiest answer’. The ‘introverted extrovert’ lives her life by this African proverb: You never stop learning until there's soil in your ears. She loves food, roller coasters and coffee, and her hobbies include reading, photography, binge-watching TV series and planning movie marathons.

After her successful debut, Zaw is looking forward to taking up music professionally. “Currently, I'm working on a new song and developing the screenplay for its music video. I also wrote and directed a high profile docu-series on music with the entire music industry of Pakistan. It’s about to be released soon.” says the singer-cum-songwriter for whom music is ‘oxygen’. She believes, “Music, like any other art form, is something our souls feed on.”