Happy birthday (belated), Muneem. This conversation took place between us a year or two ago. I am publishing it now with the hope that your own words will give you the strength to go on – just like your songs gave me reason to be a better person and helped me during some difficult times in my life. I have been a fan of yours since you released ‘Kya Kari Korimol’, and also because my Baba loved that more than I did, I wanted to express my admiration for you. The sheer power of that performance (and everything that’s come after) has had even more significance for me. Thank you for your music all these years, thank you for existing. A part of me would die if you stopped making music. I have only one humble criticism. I wonder if you realise how good you are. The music that you have crafted over the years is a testament to your talents and gifts as a writer, poet, lyricist, and musician.
Here we go!
What inspired you to be a part of this art or profession? What was the hardest part of your story?
Salam! The hardest part, still, is to stay inspired, to stay consistent, and to understand that the art itself is bigger than me. If it chose me, I have to have gratitude and, at times, take humble pride in it. When this journey began for me in ’97-’98, I didn’t even know this would be my journey. With no internet around, we used to listen to cassette players. I learnt from my mistakes and still do. On the way I met people who were kind to me, who were my best critics and supporters. The biggest help was Celia Lobo (voice coach). Training with her really helped me.
It’s been an introvert-extrovert journey for me. Words/poetry were like superpowers that helped me let out. At an event called Aasra at SKICC, by NIIT Barzulla in ’98, when I performed for the first time, I realised something changed in me.
How did your family respond to your identity as Alif?
Every family, I mean parents, wants the best for their children. Mine did too. It was very difficult to make them understand what helps me to be me. This “being yourself” was the most important thing for me. And once I took this call, I knew I had quite an uphill task and still do. To top it, it was a little tricky to make them understand how one writes and composes content, especially after finishing engineering and MBA. But I always had their blessings and will always have.
What do you personally consider to be decisive moments and pieces in your work/career?
The decision to write and compose came naturally but sticking to it took some toll. Not everything new is accepted and received with open arms in the beginning. It takes a little time for people to get familiar to a new form of content. That is the nature of art: it cannot be loved by all; everyone has their own perceptions. I always believe change is the only thing constant. So, if you stick to your roots, your basics, and explore the possibilities without worrying about mistakes, magic happens.
Those two moments, when I realised what I wanted to do, and then stick to it, were key moments for me.
When did you feel like you had made it as a musician or songwriter?
‘Made it’, as in? Every day is different. There is still so much to learn. Every day I make mistakes. It’s a process which requires you to let go of your ego that ‘you have made it’. If one thinks he/she has made it, wonder what after that? Will you still be hungry? This is not my journey alone; I am fortunate to have some incredibly talented, hardworking, resilient and kind people around me, with whom I share this journey. They guide me correctly and share insights with me.
What do like most about songwriting, specifically?
It helps me to be me. Feels like a therapy.
Did you ever think of giving up in the past? If you did, how did you handle the situation then?
While writing a song, are you focused on it being a hit song or you are focused on the content and how it makes you feel and how it might make someone else feel?
Usually, just two things: what it makes me feel, and is it what I want to say. However, the purpose of what you share with the world is to make the audience feel something. And that is something you can’t control; they may like it and sometimes, not that much.
How does a song usually develop? Do you first start with lyrics, melody, chord progression or something else?
Never a formula. Sometimes a word can trigger the whole thing. For example, ‘Malaal kya hua’ came from the word ‘Malaal’ during some really difficult times. ‘Lalnawath’ came from the word itself. ‘Jhelumas’ came from the chord progression. For ‘Yuur Walo’, melody came first. Point is, you have to be aware what feels right and that feeling comes with an organised routine of practicing, riyaz, etc. The nature of this is very dynamic. One has to learn and unlearn and stick to persistence and trust the basics.
What is the most amazing thing that has happened to you while working on a song?
The composition and words – how they fit just right. Sometimes a piece is finished real quick and other times you have to live with it for years for it to come and finish itself.
How would you describe the music scene of Kashmir and how important is it in terms of what you are actually writing about?
Incredible talent & potential we have! Both audience and artist are important. One has to respect the other. The artist has to know when is she or he ready to share their work with the audience. Spend a lot of time honing one’s skill. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to be honest. A great critic can shape an artist but there is a thin line between that and the intention of bringing others down.
Music sharing sites and blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists from the valley with challenging questions. What’s your view on the value of Kashmiri music today?
I think artists should ask questions to themselves. Biggest of them being, why am I doing this? If we consider ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’, a person sure finds the ‘what’ – if he/she wants to become a musician or an entrepreneur or anything else. But one has to ask ‘why’: is it because it makes you popular, or is it because everybody/somebody is doing it, or is it what you really want to do from within? If one is doing it for wrong reasons, it is only a matter of time before the truth will become transparent. And then is the ‘how’ part of it, which is the hard work.
As more and more people are producing and releasing music, there has been an exponential growth in promotion agencies. What’s your perspective on the promo system?
Releasing your content today is far easier than what it was before. All the content today is mostly consumed on the same platform and mostly it is YouTube. Despite your work being available on distribution sites like iTunes, Saavn, Ok Listen, etc, I am not sure how many consume it from there. But when your content is on YouTube, on the same search engine bar you can type Bob Dylan or Nusrat sahab or classical music or comedy or news or film or technical content or history or education or roasting. You would get thousands of videos in the result. So, the platform is the same for everyone today. One can’t crib if a roast video with abuses or some cringe content is consumed more than a brilliant video that an artist has worked really, really hard on. That is a bitter truth; it’s all open field today. So, it’s completely your choice for what and how you wish to use any platform that is available to you. Which is why your content has to be incredible to stand for itself. Today, the internet has given various ways to everyone to express themselves through creative arts, which is great. I think what is important is to respect your fellow artist; he/she has worked day in day out to share something with people. It’s ok not to like it but one must appreciate that he/she has tried. Art, any form of poetry, music, etc, is nothing without its audience, so let’s raise each other up, raise the benchmark, push each other to make an infrastructure that will nurture world-class content. Nevertheless, the biggest responsibility is on the artist. Get ready and only then share.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Lead your own self, not anyone else. Stay inspired. Be the best version of you; your own self, not anyone else. Don’t compare yourself with anyone; everyone has a different journey. Discipline. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Learn the craft. Never stop learning. Practice. Work hard. Have gratitude.
Where do you expect yourself in the coming years? Say, ten.
Yel marum chum waqta waiteim tchandenam
Chusbe roumut brounth kallas korkun
Chusne aalim khoone zoulum har pahar
Tasne karha har sawalas korkun
Sobia Khatoon is a bachelor’s student at Aligarh Muslim University but more importantly, a follower of Mohammad Muneem.