Pakistani Pop star Ali Haider, who rose to fame in the late eighties with albums, Chahat and Qarar, performed live in Austin on February 11 at the GAMA Hall in front of a fan audience of about eighty swooning to his beat and reliving its college days. This was not a typical concert in an auditorium with the audience giving undivided attention to the star. This was a cross between a carnival and a gig. And this would happen only in Austin.
I sat in the fourth row with a bunch of my friends. We had all arrived unplanned and knew we would run into at least some friends. The concert was free so there was no stress about purchasing tickets. We had scanned the crowd present until we had found a row that would seat all of us. One seat was short, so I pulled a chair from the row behind and squeezed it in closing the gaps between the chairs in ours.
There was hustle and bustle and noise of excitement all around the banquet hall, a rectangle room with a gaudy orange colored carpet and large chandeliers. A stage with musical instruments stood in front of the room. An imported sound system and a mike awaited the arrival of the super star. Kids and adults were moving about the room in colorful ethnic attire. The women in long colorful shirts and pants, some with scarves and others without were buying appetizers and hot tea from vendors who had set up along the sidewalls of the banquet hall.
Five years ago this would have been quite unheard of. While Houston and Dallas were always a stop for South Asian musicians, Austin was never on their radar. This has changed because of the dramatic increase in the South Asian population in the city. According to City of Austin Planning and Zoning Department website, the South Asian population stands in Travis County alone at 6.5% of 1,121,000 or about 76K people. The population has more than doubled since the nineties “leaping from 3.3% in 1990 to somewhere near the 6.5% mark today.”
“Do you want some tea? I am going to get some,” said Maheen. She and I had been friends for over twenty years and had seen this city ‘explode’ with the South Asian population. I remembered the time when her husband would sing and play the guitar and Nadeem and I would clap and sing along. That was our concert and we were the stars. “Sure, I’d like some, I hollered as she made a dash to the counter a few feet away.
Ali Haider was a star of the nineties when I was in college. I remember sitting in the second row with my sister at the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi listening to his songs in the cool sea breeze. “Your tea,” Maheen brought me back to the present. “Good timing, the lights are dimming.”
It was a night of nostalgia – in a performance that was intimate, raw and unplugged. The smooth as silk singer rolled through just under 20 songs in a nearly two-hour concert that featured his hits and more from a two decades-long career of pop, sufiana, sana, movie songs and jingles from television dramas. Ali Haider also paid tribute to late legends Nazia Hasan, Junaid Jamshed and Ahmed Rushdie, stars of eastern pop.
Exuding the coolness and confidence of a seasoned professional, Ali Haider appeared on stage in a maroon sherwani (coat), and black scarf after a short violin piece performed by a local artist, and proceeded to stand center stage – where he spent most of the night – launching into “Purani (old) Jeans” near the end for which he changed into jeans!
He addressed the audience saying, “Austin, tonight you are the best audience.” Ali did not disappoint anyone. “Zalim Nazroon sey [from the cruel eyes]”, “Dil ka Qarar [heart’s desire]”, “Kaisa jadoo kia [you have cast a spell]”… He encouraged the full house to keep the energy going. He thanked his fans for supporting him through out his career including six low years. His humility was touching.
Shaam Entertainment, the organizers Ishtel uddin and Khurram Mohammed, had worked hard to find the sponsors to bring this event together. Once they knew Ali Haider was in Houston, they reached out to him to also plan something in Austin. Ali Haider had heard a lot about the music here and was keen too because of the large South Asian presence in the city. He wanted to test the waters. All this to our advantage! Ali Haider's voice was pure and the music un-amplified devoid of fancy trimmings.
Towards the end of his performance, Ali Haider stepped down from the stage and talked about his daughters and sisters. He kept singing and tried to mingle with the crowd standing on a chair at one point to reach to the biggest fans in fourth row. People lined up to take pictures with him. Seema Shah, who remembered her college days said, “I came to listen to him. I liked it when he started singing Purani jeans.”
What a way to end the night. And from the looks of the fans, it sure was a memorable ending to what seemed like a personal concert. We had sung every song at the top of our lungs with wild abandon, each one of us reliving some part of our earlier days. They sure were good days, but so were these. That time I had just hummed the songs, and this time I had sang them out loud.
We crowded around him. Ali Haider reminisced about his early career, “I used to take part in gigs… EMI, a big music production house, was present in a gig and thought of me as a young chap with potential. Everything was proper chanel.” His early career was mostly pop music, but in the year 2009, when his son passed away, he went on a spiritual journey for self-good. During that time, there were no TV appearances except to recite spiritual songs.
Ali Haider said that he is happy to see South Asians do so well in life and raise kids with care. He regretted that a few people ruin their image and destroy the work of the majority who take care to take part in community building. I could not help but agree with him. We wished him well and said good byes like friends do happy and content that the best happens in Austin.