Evolution of Alif: ‘Siyah’ pushes the boundaries of original music

Alif’s new album Siyah has dropped. Haal is the first of the four volumes of the Siyah series.

For many, it may come as a surprise that Siyah is only the second album release for more than a decade old band. The other being Sufayed which released in 2017. The reason being that the albums take longer.

It is a short attention span world, the longer it takes to produce content – the more obscure the artist gets. Hence singles are the established norm and a better business decision.

Before we get into the album, let’s look at the life of Mohammad Muneem and his evolution into this powerhouse of Kashmir’s new generation of music.

Mohammad Muneem started his musical career back in 1998 at a stage performance. He says at that time, “the guitar was known as setar,” Kashmiris were at the far end of the Ghazalesque sound that dominated the airwaves and cassette stores. The birth of the Bollywoodised sound was about to be born which would obliterate the identity of the Koshur sound for the next decade.

Muneem would leave Tyndale-Biscoe school and move to India in the early 2000s to get his college education. At this time, he was getting acquainted with the local music scene in Pune. He started a YouTube channel and a ReverbNation artist page called ‘Aatish-e-Chinar.’ He would release his rock covers of old Kashmiri songs like Cheerith and Roshay in 2007.

At the same time, his association of Sufi music and rock led to the band Highway 61 – named after the famous album by Bob Dylan. It became one of the most popular indie bands in Pune with original songs and rock covers. In 2013, Muneem travelled home to collaborate with the pioneer of Koshur rap – MC KASH.

Highway 61 disbanded in 2015 and evolved into Alif. Hardik Vaghela and Muneem continued to traverse the journey they had started in Pune. They started with collaborating with various indie and international acts finding their unique groove. Two years later Sufayed dropped and then Alif ventured into Bollywood with Imtiaz Ali’s Laila-Majnu that pushed their status.

But the fact remains that Alif has stayed true to its roots of Sufiyaana and philosophy through its sound. Alif’s Ride Home in 2019 – with little known street musician Noor Mohammad became viral – partly also due to the video directed by Ruman Hamdani – who also is behind Haal’s film.

It could have stayed consistent with that sound of covering a folk song and giving it a modern twist. But like all Sufis, comfort zones are a form of arrogance. We saw that in Hosh Ha which had its darkness and death – a quintessential take on Kashmir’s Sufi tradition.

In Haal, Alif has taken that risk to obliterate the genre it has pioneered for over a decade. This is a wild experiment at a time when there’s a new cottage industry of YouTube artists who are churning out mediocre sound with looping beats. A time when paid views and regressive pop has choked the originality of sound and lyricism that is relevant to our times. If our music doesn’t reflect the reality of these dark times, then are we true to our art and ourselves?

Haal has four tracks divided into various stages of life: Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and the present.

Khilona in Urdu – is a quintessentially Mohammad Muneem song that delves into the depths of nostalgia much like Hukus Bukus – a collaboration with MC KASH. The next track is Zindabad-Murdabad, a response to the age of social media where performative judgments is a norm.

I will skip Dilgeer (that’s a larger discussion). Shaand completes the essence of the album. It is a moment of realisation as we go through the experiences of life.

Dilgeer is not just a song in the album. Its layers and textures of sound make the rest of the album underwhelming. It’s that one song that stays relevant for ages to come. It is about death and the life that is renewed by death. It’s about those graveyard irises that bloom among the dead. It is one of the greatest musical moment in decades.

There’s a moment before the song transitions from death to a promise of life. It is when the wanwun begins. Wanwun has been part of our weddings since ancient times. It is when our women come together and break a leg with the Rof surrounding a groom or a bride. Usually, it references the old folk songs around the groom or the bride. But here’s what Alif does something that just breaks from the tradition into a new modern genre.

This Wanwun is laced with Sufi poetry and serves a life lesson of depending on the true God. As if the Wanwun is happening when we are departing into a different journey of life.

It also reminded me of ZanaanWanaan’s Bella Ciao which was Wanwun on the beats of an old Italian song. But here Alif composes it on the ancient tradition with the Eenhs and the completion of its larger meaning.

Alif’s Haal series is only the first one, but it has shown that original music is the only way to go forward. It has taken the risk to not repeat what it has already accomplished. It opens doors for artists who are staying true to our roots.

The crows and the uncles might be dominating the YouTube and TikTok space of Kashmiri music. But these Dilawars that are taking the fight to this empire of mediocrity; the likes of Parwaaz, Ali Saffudin and Alif will eventually end the war.

Hopefully when the war is over, the world will know the unique sound of the new age of Kashmiri music.

For now, I will borrow Haal’s Shaand till Ali Saffudin drops his debut album.


Muhammad Faysal curates the museum of memory at Made in Kashmir.

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