By Ülvi Gitaliyev
Ali Hassan is an international student from Pakistan. Before returning to Berea, Ali was part of the Pakistani Aam Taateel and released the album Khudsar. Now, he is making his second, independent album.
ÜG: Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you got your interest in music from.
AH: My name is Ali Hassan and I am a fusion musician from Pakistan. I was originally at Berea College as a math major who wanted to study cryptography and work for the CIA because every kid wants to be a spy for the CIA. I was thoroughly indoctrinated, and I came here with that noble goal. But then, I took a class with Mark Calkins and I had such a profound moment of realization. Like, I walked out onto Alumni Fields; I sat down, and I just cried for ten minutes straight because the full realization of what it means to be in love with something hit me. The reason I was in math was because I was good at math. I have a lot of aptitude for the sciences, for logic, for critical thinking. I was doing those things, and I thought, that’s what it meant to be someone. You just do it. You’re good at it and you get awards for it and that’s pretty much it. But then, I was introduced to music.
Unfortunately, I had to return back home because my mom had gotten cancer. As the eldest son, I had to take over the running of the household. In my culture, the eldest son should run the house. So, I went back. I made a career for myself as best as I could with my American education. Even though it was incomplete, it was still an asset to me. My ability to speak English; my ability to not be shy in my communication, or to think about what I’m saying before I say it. I made a career for myself. My sister went to college, and my mom and dad passed away. Once the responsibilities were out of the way, I thought to myself that maybe I should do something for myself. That was, I guess, more or less the kind of a plan that had been for a while. Eventually, I quit my job and got a band together. I had been teaching myself and researching, reading up on music. I didn’t have the luxury of YouTube or anything because it was just starting when I started out.
I started making marginal improvements over time. Eventually, I was able to release a couple of songs. I was nominated for the Lux Style Awards, Pakistan’s version of the Grammys, for my first song. Then my song was listed as one of the top ten songs of 2019 in Pakistan. I was then able to put a band together, reach out to different partnerships and studios. I crowdfunded an album and raised about fourteen thousand dollars to record my album with the band Aam Taateel.
Now I’m here because it’s no longer enough for me to just give instructions to other people. I refuse to only be a bandleader for most of my life. I want to be a composer. I want to be able to hear the finished product in my mind. I want to be able to, you know, write it out, give people specific roles. I want to go to grad school to research the music of displaced people, especially refugees and those fleeing domestic violence and things like that. I want to see how their identity relates to music, what part of themselves they bring with them, or what they leave behind. I’m very interested in all those questions.
When I went back, the one thing that was open to me was to teach in a private school because Pakistan doesn’t have public education like the U.S. does. So, to be a teacher here, you have to have a degree or to be certified. You have to read the rules and regulations and everything. Pakistan is kind of like a cross between a George Orwell novel and an Old Western movie so, the requirements are very different and are more along the lines of “what is this person’s intelligence, can they be taught to teach, and do they take complex topics and break them down into simple explanations?” I could do that and so I was hired by this private school. I went on to teach at some inner-city schools.
“I sat down, and I just cried for ten minutes straight because the full realization of what it means to be in love with something hit me.”
I tried to be a space where my students could not only learn from me but also confide in me. I would help connect them with resources for the problems that they had. There were a couple of students who came and told me some very, very disturbing things. I couldn’t help them, because there were no resources for them. Over time, they started wearing down my spirit. I thought “I have to get out of this place” because I’d seen what it does to people. I have seen people who grew up with me – who used to be full of art, who would sing and draw and they had idealism about life, but now, they have none of that. I don’t want to lose that. I understand that growing up means moving away from nice idealism towards a more mature understanding of what the world is, but I didn’t want cynicism to be the dominant force in my life.
ÜG: Would you say that this album was meant to talk about these issues in your country?
AH: Political songs are talking about issues, such as the songs written during the folk revival in the US, about the miner strikes, and all of those things. I did not want to talk about issues in those ways; I just wanted to pose people questions. I wanted to take poetry that was culturally familiar enough that people can get into it and then realize, “Hey, something is wrong about the way this word is being interpreted. Something is wrong with the concept that is being expressed.” For example, the second song is a love song, but the way we did it, we tried to show that “Hey, this is not giving love; this is co-dependence.” It’s being sold as lovers. It’s not sad; it’s not supposed to elicit that reaction. You should hear these words and be like “that’s fucked up” because then we see what is the problem. That’s my problem with conventional religion, as well. Most men end up getting married when what they need is therapy and mainstream religions kind of endorse this idea with “Yeah, you can be a repressed rage-filled crack addict, and all you need is to have a child and then you look at the child and it’ll be magical and then, you know, God’s love will rain down upon you, and you will be like, ‘I am so sorry, I see the error of my ways. Now I’ll be a good human being.’” No, you end up as a terrible fucking father who hurts their children and creates trauma, which then they pass onto their children too. These are the kind of questions I wanted to pose to people with the way I composed, the way I chose the poetry to set to music, and things like that.
ÜG: How was the dynamic of the band? Did the other members share similar feelings as you when they were creating the music?
AH: Some of them came to it musically because they wanted to hear this kind of music. Other people came into it because they love the idea of neglected poetry. Other people came because they like the way we worked. The way we worked was very democratic. The song belongs to five minds because five minds are greater than one mind, that was our core ethos, and in the sessions that we had, there was this crazy and manic energy about it. We would sit together and throw out ideas and try things out.
“There were a couple of students who came and told me some very, very disturbing things. I couldn’t help them.”
There was no judgment – no one person in charge. There were ten songs and five of us. Everybody was the final creative authority on two songs. It was simple and straightforward. Even though I was coming up with the words in the tunes for most of them, it didn’t mean that they belonged to me. We shunned this idea and did everything democratically in equal terms with equal creative freedom. I think that attracted some of them as well.
The keyboard player and I had been germinating this idea for a very long time, we were the original creative force, then we were joined by other people. The second guitar and vocals player was my student, originally. The bass player, he’s now in the US as well. He’s studying at Northeastern in Boston. Usman came along in the end. He’s a famous guitarist from Pakistan. We knew of him before but he married my sister’s best friend. So that’s how we kind of got together.
ÜG: What are your plans for the future and how are you pursuing your music career here at Berea College?
AH: I am almost done with my second album – my first solo album. I’ve explored what I’ve learned since making the first one. I think one of the things that COVID opened up my mind to was the idea of collaboratively working with people. I don’t know if you saw, but there were a lot of people doing quarantine jams. I also did that with some of my band members. Then, I reached out to various musicians all over the world and we made 60-second music videos, as you can see on my Instagram
Then I thought, why don’t I make a whole album this way? And that is what I did. I used the opportunities that were given to me by the production lessons, which I highly recommend by the way. Douglas Drewek – fucking phenomenal teacher. I learned so much from him in one year than I think I have ever learned in ten years. I made use of the class as an opportunity to write my own album. Then I found people online, and I collaborated with them. I ended up with an album that has musicians from South Africa, Serbia, Taiwan, the US, Italy, and France. It’s spread all over the world. That’s coming out this summer. Apart from that, I plan to eventually be a professor of music at some college, hopefully.