Ali Zafar – London, Paris, New York (Music Review)

February 28, 2012

By Mutee

While Ali Zafar has multiple mega hit tracks to his name with lots of awards and vast recognition, it wasn’t until very recently that the poster boy for Pak-Pop showed the world that he deserves all the attention for his music. The improvement was first highlighted with his various appearances in Coke Studio series, performing some of his old material but mostly leaning towards a new soulful musical direction. This great musical growth was sustained pretty well in his 3rd album “Jhoom” which was released by his own label Alif Records (and by YRF Music in India) roughly a year ago. “Jhoom” discarded his cosmetic charm based approach to creating songs and delivered substance with his new-found affection for melody.

12 months later, Ali Zafar is writing both the lyrics and the compositions for a soundtrack of an upcoming Bollywood film called London, Paris, New York in which he also stars in the lead. Singing on almost all of the songs, Ali managed a number of collaborations from both sides of the border to share his spotlight. A Bollywood soundtrack album is fundamentally different from a regular musical record in which things like compliance with the market trends and supporting the story and tone of the film come into play. With this in mind, let’s go through the 7 made-in-Pakistan tracks and see if Ali Zafar brings home the medal for a worthy Bollywood music producer.

The album starts with a saccharine Pop duet between Ali Zafar and Sunidhi Chauhan. The pace of the title track, reminiscent of his earlier hits (“Channo”, “Huqa Pani”), doesn’t overshadow the sprinkles of delicious melodic hooks and brilliant depth. Unlike other similar songs from Bollywood (“Uff Teri Ada” which has a similar progression), Ali Zafar balances everything perfectly with intro, verse and chorus evenly laid and impressively orchestrated. Although each part has a hook in this song, the chorus is especially notable for its anthem-like quality and tasteful harmonies, making it impossible not to tap your feet along the beat.

The second track is another head-turner which starts on a subtle note and slowly shapes up to be a carefully written fun-filled love song. With crafty lyrics and a chirpy vocal performance, “Voh Dekhnay Mein” carries a consistent mid-tempo to the right effect, making it the catchiest number in the album. The song relies on delicate piano work which provides the primary rhythm with dexterous guitar work credited to ace axeman Mr. Asad Ahmed (Karavan, Awaz, Coke Studio) who wields his weapon throughout the record.

Ting Ring” is perhaps the most out of place song in this collection if you evaluate the listening experience. Its vintage Ali Zafar with an edgy flow and a rough Bhangra arrangement, the song doesn’t have anything special to offer other than Ali Zafar’s strong vocals performing the Punjabi lyrics. The chorus is forgettable and clearly lacks the same quality found elsewhere in this record. With a severe lack of melody (other than the usual associated with the Bhangra style), this is definitely a track that is not here for musical fulfillment.

Change of gears in the 4th track, “Thehree Si Zindagi” which also features London, Paris, New York’s female lead (Aditi Rao Hydari) sharing the vocal duties with her co-star. Before you can say “parchi” Aditi delivers pitch-perfect performance with a voice that has traces of that classic Bollywood timbre (Lata Mangeshkar, Alka Yagnik, Asha Bhosle) quite similar to Ali Zafar himself (remember his endless comparisons to Kishore Kumar in the early days?). The big sing-along chorus provides a contrasting deviation from the serious sounding verse and pre-chorus parts. The emotional thread however is not broken and the seriousness manages to seep in during the ending chorus.

Ooh Lala”, the soundtrack’s second odd track is thankfully overloaded with melody and atmosphere, the resulting experience is quite different from the first one. An unlikely collaboration between Sanam Marvi, Hadiqa Kiani and Ali Zafar, the song is an electrifying fast-forwarded trip-fest. Laced with a spellbinding folk melody sung by Sanam Marvi, a haunting bansuri and a chilling female voice whispering stuff in French the track marches forward in a liberal progression weaving through dark to aggressive to Reggaeton and reverses back to its roots. Majority of the vocals are by Hadiqa who sings the verse and chorus parts with Ali Zafar closing the track. A unique and spectacular oddity that is immensely satisfying.

Since the running time of most soundtrack albums is usually short, there is no breathing room or filler tracks to ease the listener into different moods, leaving the experience to be very dramatic and steep. But somehow a tiny connection is present between “Ooh Lala” and the next track.

Aaja” starts off with a relatively silent intro with echoes of sadness and despair before launching into an aggressive frenzy of fast guitar riffs and blistering solos. Like a pro he is, Asad Ahmed’s manages to keep the gloom going on top of all the Rock fury while Ali Zafar sings lyrics that drift back and forth between Sufi and Folk poetry about lost love. The song ends too soon though, both parts of the song could have used more time to grow.

The last track of the record is a reprise of “Voh Dekhnay Mein”. Featuring just Aditi on vocals with slightly altered lyrics, this much shorter version only serves as the cheerful little throwback to the happier parts of the record, concluding the album in a typical Romantic Comedy storyline fashion.

The record refuses to lose grip and keeps the listeners on their toes. Each track demands attention with the spectacular succession of opposing moods so there is something here for everybody. With the running time of less than half an hour, Ali Zafar manages to pack everything from punch and drama to passion and lighthearted fun in a masterful fashion. I do feel that the songs were deliberately cut short even by the standard of this format, this should increase the replay value of the songs to some extent at the price of less satisfying initial experience.

While “Jhoom” marked a complete transformation of Ali Zafar as a musician displaying outstanding mature musicianship with multilayered songs that featured semi-classical and folk influences, the news of him composing a complete soundtrack for a Bollywood romantic comedy suggested he would be emulating the radio-friendly, conveniently-simple Dance Pop approach that the film market demands. All of these things appeared to be true on the surface, but a closer listen revealed that Ali Zafar is not ready to compromise his union with sophistication, making London, Paris and New York a solid highlight of his prospering career and a damn good listen.

-Artwork by director/artist Abdullah Haris