There was a time in Karachi when restaurants used to play Pakistani music. I could have sworn it was Pizza Hut, but I have no recollection of when it first opened in Pakistan. I just remember being a small child at a restaurant and that riff from ‘Mera Pyar’ striking me as something unique, perhaps my first experience of hey-this-feels-amazing-to-listen-to, I am happy, is this what music does?
I’ve been blessed to be a part of that generation of Pakistani music fans who can’t recall that time in the music scene when there was no Aamir Zaki. My entire existence has been punctuated with Zaki moments in my life long quest for music. My love and understanding of Pakistani music begins with Mera Pyar and some Vital Signs songs. When I finally learned who he is, Aamir, Aamir Zaki; it felt like an important discovery. Like the first time they tell you about Allama Iqbal in school. There was always someone in the family who wouldn’t fail to mention that one time they saw him at the market near our house in PECHS. I would stare, wide-eyed, imagining seeing him at the market in my head.
Cut to, early noughties. That brief period I lived outside Pakistan, but in its shortness it proved to be the most crucial part of my life. One day, I, a pre-teen at this point, discovered that music magazine Arshad Mahmud had started, during one of my trips to Karachi. I have no idea what it was called, I just remember Zaki was on the cover, and in it was a CD that had instrumentals by some of Pakistan’s best guitarists. ‘The Day She Left’ was on it and that song has stayed with me since. I took that magazine back with me to that other life of mine ten thousand miles away from Karachi. I didn’t have people I could call friends, but Zaki and Junoon were always around. The best part about coming home was finding that CD waiting for me in my disc-man and me skipping to ‘The Day She Left’. Everyday. That song taught me how to feel music in my heart, in my bones. And led me to discover his first solo album.
When I got a strat, I used to play his songs in my headphones and pretend I’m playing, hitting every wrong note. When I managed to figure out how to play something that sounded even remotely like Mera Pyar’s solo to me (I wasn’t even close), the inspiration felt like a ball of warmth in my body.
Because Aamir Zaki meant more than just a desi dude with a guitar, he was an experience.
I didn’t see him play live until 2009 and that was the first time we briefly met. Before that I had seen a number of people on stage before, but nothing ever felt like how his music made me feel. It welled me up, it baffled me: guitar maestro, guitar virtuoso, these terms aren’t enough to describe the intensity of what I felt for the music of Aamir Zaki every time I got to see him perform. If I could melt into a puddle, I would. There was never the question: how does he do it? It was always an exclamation that wow! He can do that! And he rocks my world while doing it like nobody else has before.
The best part about being back in Karachi was also being around others who were in as much awe of him as I was. Sitting in school talking about him with my best friend for whom he was a mentor, finding his collaborations on the internet, a rare music video once in a blue moon on music channels. Meeting other musicians that had the privilege of learning from him, playing with him, that Zaki effect flowed through us.
We were the fans that saw him, a legend walk among us, and he was really, really nice to us. Boy did that smile make the surroundings blur. If you ever told him how much you appreciate his music, he would in turn humbly thank you profusely which would make you feel shy, embarrassed, that I, a mortal being, is being spoken to by Zaki in such a manner. Kya yaar, Aamir bhai.
The last time I saw him perform live was as exciting as the first, at the I Am Karachi Music Festival 2015. But this time it was Aamir Zaki, the Aamir Zaki set. Not something-and-someone featuring Aamir Zaki. And while many great musicians played that night, Zaki’s set reminded me once more of the love for music he instilled in so many of us when we had no idea music could feel so beautiful. He was the last man standing from the era of Pakistani music when most gave up, or went for the next best financial option that real music couldn’t always promise.
He was god sent, to remind us always that loving something wholeheartedly, and following it through, can be more rewarding on the inside than anything in this world. In my imagination, nothing would be more befitting right now than every Pakistani musician who’s life was changed by this man throwing the best live gig Pakistan has ever seen, for all those times Zaki couldn’t. Play for him, he did so much for us in ways we didn’t even realize until he passed away.
But we knew he was struggling. Everyone knew to some extent, people mentioned an anecdote here and there, and that’s all people do, could we have done more is another story.
Why does it happen? That when you grow up seeing someone as a hero, in your mind their struggles become something you’re just certain they will overcome. How can they not right? They often can’t though, but their image in our minds is forever of that of a hero. Invincible. Aamir Zaki, Pakistan’s guitar whiz, an infinite spirit.
aapki awaaz sunlengay, aapkay geeton mein hum, hamesha.