A few years ago, the musician Ali Sethi was driving through Punjab, behind a jingle truck—the long-haul trucks known in his native Pakistan for their filigreed paint designs—when he spotted a phrase in florid Punjabi calligraphy on its back. “Agg lavaan teriya majbooriya nu,” it said—a call to “set fire to your compulsions.” It’s not uncommon to glimpse bits of verse, or dire warnings—against straying eyes or losing yourself in the big world out there—among the fluorescent parrots and tropical fruit schemes of jingle trucks. But Sethi couldn’t stop thinking about that phrase.
It inspired the first line of “Pasoori,” the thirty-seven-year-old’s latest single, a joyous, dance-fuelled hit that has drawn more than a hundred million views on YouTube since its release three months ago and is playing on the radio everywhere, from the United Arab Emirates to Canada. The song is stealthily subversive: a traditional raga—the classical Indian framework for musical improvisation—has been laid over an infectious beat that sounds South Asian, Middle Eastern, and, improbably, reggaetón, all at once. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can tell that it’s a song about longing. “If your love is poison, I’ll drink it in a flurry,” Sethi sings in Punjabi with smooth anguish, in a rousing duet with Shae Gill, a Pakistani singer and Instagram star. “It’s my favorite genre,” a friend of mine said. “A love song that sounds like a threat.”
The idea for the song began when Sethi, who lives in New York, was invited to collaborate on a project in Mumbai, which he had visited many times before for literary festivals and music gigs. But any travel to India for Pakistani nationals is subject to the politics of the moment, and Sethi was told by the producers that he wouldn’t be able to work there as a Pakistani artist, because extremists might burn down the studio. The danger of arson reminded Sethi of that line from the jingle truck. “So I did what desi bards have done for ages,” he said, referring to South Asian songwriters of yore. “I might not have been able to travel to India, but I knew my music could.”
“Pasoori,” a Punjabi word that translates roughly to “difficult mess,” is about an age-old situation: two people who are forbidden from meeting each other. It’s written in the style of a courtesan song, a genre with origins in medieval South Asian poetry that emerged in response to the custom of arranged marriages. (Often the song is about an extramarital affair, and a courtesan is trying to persuade her married paramour to stay the night.) Full of puns and erotic innuendos, courtesan songs typically lament trysts that must take place in secret, meetings that don’t materialize, and the oppressiveness of polite society. “Pasoori” is ostensibly about star-crossed lovers, but it’s also an apt metaphor for the relationship between two countries in perpetual conflict whose histories and cultural touchstones are entwined.
In early 2021, Sethi sent a voice note with the melody and the first few bars of the lyrics he had in mind to the producer Zulfiqar Khan, who goes by Xulfi. Xulfi had just been brought on to helm the fourteenth season of “Coke Studio,” a popular musical TV series in Pakistan produced by the soda company. “I had goosebumps. I wanted to dance,” Xulfi said. “I knew that people were going to love it, and that they wouldn’t know what hit them.” Xulfi found Anushae Gill, aka Shae Gill—a student of economics whose best friend started posting videos of her singing on Instagram in 2019—and brought her into the project, thinking that her smoky voice would pair nicely with Sethi’s rich tenor.
“Pasoori” opens with a series of hand claps, which calls to mind desi musical traditions but also comes straight out of flamenco. “It was very deliberate, the musical hybridization,” Sethi said. The track doesn’t feature traditional desi instruments. When they needed strings, Xulfi recommended the Turkish bağlama. Abdullah Siddiqui, a twenty-one-year-old music producer and musician who worked with Xulfi on the song, sampled from his library of sounds, using whale calls for what Siddiqui described as their “bendy, deep guttural tones” and a reggaetón beat —“a cousin to our bhangra, if you think about it,” Sethi said—to create a sound Sethi has been calling “ragaton.”
The video, shot in old-Bollywood, Technicolor style and directed by Kamal Khan, introduces Sethi and Gill, dressed in boho interpretations of traditional outfits—he in a striped kurta pajama in jewel tones and a matching cap, she in a flowing white dress and embroidered vest—as they sing in the courtyard of an ancestral home. Their duet is intercut with glamorous stills—a young man in gem-studded makeup, a woman in elaborate braids. Each character sends a message of inclusion, from Sheema Kermani, the bharata-natyam dancer and activist from Pakistan, who spins slowly between two columns, to Gill, who is from the Christian community, which makes up only 1.59 per cent of the population of Pakistan. A pair of boys performs a delicate jhumar dance, the hems of their kurtas flaring. Like many desi classics, the song operates outside traditional gender roles—here Sethi sings to a man—with the singer in the role of a narrator weaving a tale.
As it happens, I am finishing a memoir about being from Kashmir—that complicated region where India and Pakistan meet—and after I first heard “Pasoori,” in March, I kept listening to it on a loop while driving around LA, where I now live. The song felt at once instantly familiar and thrillingly new, and I was curious to find out more about its creator. I had recently corresponded with Sethi’s sister, Mira, through our mutual book editor. Mira, who is also an actress, introduced me to her brother over WhatsApp, the desi messaging app of choice, so that I could find out more about him and how the song came to be.
Sethi was born in Lahore in 1984; his parents are the prominent journalists and publishers Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. His childhood home was “full of jail-going writers and activists,” he told me, over Zoom, from his apartment in New York, and, by middle school, he was taking calls for his parents from Amnesty International, giving rote updates on political dissidents, such as “Habeas corpus has just been filed!” His mother, when not marching for equal rights, played a lot of Qawwali, a genre of Sufi devotional music. Sethi began singing Qawwali and ghazals—lyrical poems—in his clear, young voice to impress his parents ‘friends. “Song and protest were intertwined for me,” he said. He started to realize that, in a society with so many fault lines—along caste, class, and ideology—folk music made everyone feel welcome and accommodated. Traditional music felt like a safe place to express himself and to explore the dawning awareness of his own queerness.
Sethi was an exceptional Ivy-or-bust student at Aitchison College, the prestigious boys’ school in Lahore, and he didn’t find an outlet for his emerging voice right away, but he remembers singing in the art room, where he made his closest childhood friends, including the painter Salman Toor. After graduating from Harvard, where he majored in South Asian studies, Sethi wrote a novel—“The Wish Maker,” a story of contemporary Lahore told through the eyes of a man returning from studies abroad—that was published in 2009, just before he moved back to Lahore. “I was buying time,” he said, about writing fiction. Sethi’s mother and father were anxious about his job security and glad to have him home while he ostensibly researched his second novel. But Sethi felt hemmed in by the sociopolitical narrative that he thought the world wanted from him as a Pakistani writer in the decade after 9/11. “Thousands of words on Partition,” he said, laughing. The thinking from editors was something like “Terrorism—more about that!” he said.