By Sonya Rehman
He was a well-known playback singer of the Pakistani film/music industry; with hits such as Sawan Aaye, Sawan Jaye, Sona Na Chandi, Saathi Mere Bin Tere, and others, the late Akhlaq Ahmed was one of those most well-respected singers of his time (in the 70s and the 80s).
Born into a lower middle class family, Ahmed’s family moved from Delhi to Lahore immediately after partition. Starting from humble beginnings, Ahmed’s career in the local music industry was an organic process – from singing for friends at gatherings, to being a part of a singing group that would perform at parties, Ahmed’s foray into mainstream music in Pakistan began via television and radio at the time. With approximately 300 songs to his credit, Ahmed’s voice was widely recognized in the Pakistani film/music industry. However, after a long battle with leukemia, Ahmed passed away in 1999.
In an exclusive interview with Ahmed’s son, Afaq Ahmed (a musician based in the UAE), The Diplomat spoke with Afaq about the man, the singer and the father behind all those wonderful, memorable hits that contributed to the local film/music industry’s golden era, much-revered today.
Was your father always inclined towards music and singing? How did he make his entry into the local film/music industry at the time?
I guess his career chose him because he was musically inclined and God-gifted. Also he was at the right place at the right time and everything fell into place. Besides, the film industry was going through a golden age back in the late 60s well into the early and mid-80s.
I don’t know too much about the history, but interestingly enough, one of his friend’s, who was part of the cabin crew in PIA (Pakistan International Airlines), had some connections with music directors at that time. It was this very friend who got him an audition and my father ended up recording his first song for television. It was also with this friend that my father met his future wife (my mother) at a PIA gathering where he was performing. He also relocated to Lahore at around that time as the film industry, Lollywood, was established there. In 1973/74 a few months after my parents got engaged, my father recorded a song (which was a big hit) that really skyrocketed his career. It was none other than the great Sawan Aaye, Sawan Jaye, composed by the legendary Robin Ghosh. This started their partnership of great songs for the local film industry. My father’s first-ever film song was Raaste Ka Patthar, the title track of the film of the same name. An interesting story related to the song Sawan Aaye, Sawan Jaye back then is that when the late Mohammad Rafi was in Dubai for a concert and the people he was staying with were listening to my father’s song, Mr. Rafi – quite bewildered – asked: “When did I record this song?” to which they replied that the song was sung by a newcomer in Pakistan. Mr. Rafi and my father’s voice and singing style were very familiar, which is why Mr. Rafi had mistakenly thought he’d sung the song. Mr. Rafi had been very happy when he was informed and said that the next time they visited Pakistan, to please convey his best wishes to my father. It still makes me proud when I remember that story.
Did he encounter any difficulties in the local film/music industry?
Things were quite different back then and although there wasn’t too much competition, it was still quite difficult to get into the business. The competition was very healthy and everyone had respect for one another. I don’t remember my father ever talking about professional jealousy or spats etc. I suppose the industry recognized his talent and he became a household name.
I also have to mention his manager and childhood friend, Mr. Ayub, who had always stuck by him. His passing back in 1990/91 was a big shock not only to my father but our entire family.
What was Akhlaq Ahmed like as a father?
He was very supportive. He was very strict when it came to my studies, and together with my mother, was quite determined to educate me well. I remember going to a lot of his recording sessions at PTV and various studios around Lahore. I was six years old when he was diagnosed with Leukemia. It was 1985. At that age, it’s just a big word you don’t understand but it was a really traumatic time for my family. There were hardly any doctors or hospitals that were focusing on cancer back then and you had to go abroad for treatment. He passed away when I was in my late teens.
Just like any teen, I used to throw tantrums, to which he was quite adept. He was always open to what I wanted to become (and after kids of my own, I’m still figuring it out). I used to love spending time with him and we would enjoy watching TV together or he would take me to record shops around central London where we used to spend hours looking at music. He would be in the golden oldies section and I would be trying hard to find Synthpop/New Wave bands from the 80s. He didn’t like my choice of music much. But both of us were passionate about ABBA.
Was your career in music inspired by him?
I guess I was always interested in music and it got to a point where my friends would call me up to find out which band played a particular song and oddly enough, I would know. I guess my love of music was because of him. My earliest memory of being crazy about music was when I begged my parents to get me a birthday cake in the shape of a guitar (this is when I was maybe 2 or 3… I didn’t even know how to spell the word, let alone know what exactly it did). I also remember when my parents bought me a plastic toy guitar; I would put on Alamgir’s cassette and strum along to the songs.
I’m currently working as an Audio Producer and Broadcast Engineer for a radio station in the UAE. It’s now been almost 9 years that I’ve been in the radio industry (a year in Pakistan and the rest in the UAE) and as much as I would like to change my career, my career won’t let me change it. As for playing music, I am a bass player. I wanted to be a keyboard player for an 80’s revival synthesizer band (my early teens), then I wanted to be a drummer for a hard rock band (my early 20’s) but I ended up playing bass and do a lot of live and studio sessions for various bands around Dubai. But the band I’m associated with is Fables of Cantt and now I’m also trying to start my own Jazz+Funk project. My only regret is not starting to play an instrument earlier in life (I started when I was 26). I’m still learning to play and have recently signed up for bass classes with master bassist, Tony Grey.
In your opinion, as his son, what was Akhlaq Ahmed’s greatest achievement?
I guess, to me at least, that he could sing what was given to him. He sang every kind of song with the depth of his feeling even if it was a comedy song. Also, he sang all over the world representing Pakistan. He was very down to earth, would always talk to his fans and never had a ‘star’ attitude. By the grace of God, his whole career was his high. Everyone loved working with him and he was a good friend when someone needed him.
The Diplomat Magazine