As the sun set on Jan. 31, an eager albeit shivering crowd formed in front of the Sinclair, awaiting the music and spectacle of Ali A.Sethi ’06. Though doors didn’t open until 7 p.m., the line began to take shape early as concertgoers arrived at the Church Street entrance from all directions. There was a familial camaraderie in the air: People regaled each other with warm stories from South Asia and the diaspora; someone mentioned how, had we been in Pakistan, there would be a line of hot chai-toting vendors outside the concert venue, making the most of the crowd of chattering teeth.
The show opened with a performance by Ria Modak ’22 on vocals/guitar and Devon N. Gates ’23 on bass. “Have we ever had our hearts broken?” Modak laughingly asked the audience, and was met with sentimental cheers.
Their opening set paid homage to musical and literary figures of South Asia, including legendary Pakistani ghazal singer Mehdi Hasan and 15th century mystic poet Kabir. The audience candidly interacted with Modak’s and Gates’s performance, iterating the cultural tradition of the mehfil. “Kabir wrote a lot of poetry about the things that matter in life…which is nothing we can actually put into words,” Modak said.
When Sethi took the stage, he seamlessly continued this homage to South Asian culture by beginning with a couplet from one of the most influential Urdu poets, Mirza Ghalib: “Muddat huī hai yaar ko mehmāñ kiye hue,” or, “It has been a long time since my lover was a guest of mine.“ Ever the charming performer, Sethi said to the crowd that they are his mehmāñ (guests) tonight and that the group are so delighted to see all of us.
Though playfully dramatic and constantly making jokes, latent in Sethi’s onstage persona was a humble sincerity, as if he were performing at a small family gathering and not a sold out venue. It was incredible to witness the artist behind the most hummed-to Google search song of 2022 crack jokes and encourage his crowd to sing with him. “I don’t even know how to use iCloud,” he confessed at one point. “I have thousands of voice notes in this phone, even my riyaz with Farida Khanum. No back up, no nothing. This dil (heart) is my backup.”
He recounted his years of training in the Hindustani classical tradition, when he was just starting out on what would become an illustrious and global career. He recalled that his ustād (teacher) would say to him: “Karne se hi āyegā. (Only through doing will it come.) Dance the dance, and one day you will wake up dancing the dance. And that’s the only way."
Sethi’s musical set was as colorful as his energy. It ranged from a voicing of George Michael’s disco pop to the Punjabi folk tradition of luddi; from the stripped down ballad ‘Khabar-e-Tahayyur-e-Ishq’ to the soaring, stomping, powerhouse “Pasoori.” Breaking down musical and cultural barriers is nothing new for Sethi. Even still, it had a dizzying effect, channeling ecstasy into the audience, who was left with throats sore from cheering and singing along. And Sethi seemed blissfully aware of this effect: “How’s everyone doing?” he said in between numbers. “That’s my way of saying, ‘zindā ho? (you alive?)’”
Many concertgoers likely discovered Sethi from his sensational 2022 hit “Pasoori,” but one got the sense that equally as many had been following his work for a long time, and sang along to every word of his songs from years past. Sethi, himself, expressed gratitude at “Pasoori”’s success while also poking fun at it becoming synonymous, in some circles, with his name. “I will not let Pasoori define me,” he joked. “I binge Pasoori, then I withdraw from Pasoori.”
Sethi brought a charged air of storytelling to his performance, enriching the music and creating an extraordinary intimacy with his audience. His skill at imbuing emotion into a crowd was as palpable as his genre-defying musical prowess. In a brief throwaway comment, Sethi quite cleverly, if not also unintentionally, encapsulated his persona, both on and offstage: “thodā drama honā chāhiye,” or, “there’s gotta be a bit of drama.”
—Staff Writer Aarya A. Kaushik can be reached at email@example.com.