‘If someone like Neil Young or Bob Marley were born in Kashmir, who do you think they would have supported?” Ali Saffudin asks. “The oppressed. These are my inspirations.” For Saffudin, a Kashmiri folk singer-songwriter, his music is a way for people to understand the plight of Kashmir, a volatile state in the Indian subcontinent which has been the subject of territorial dispute, separatist insurgency and resistance against Indian rule since it was split during partition in 1947. It was only in 2020 that the parliament of India recognised Kashmiri as an official language. “We are living in the most militarised zone [in India],” Saffudin says. “To be Kashmiri is to be political. To sing in Kashmiri is even more political.”
On the eve of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Saffudin is calling from his home in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir. The 29-year-old is weeks away from the release of his debut album, Wolivo, a politically urgent record addressing the Kashmiri people’s continuing fight for a life free of persecution. Underpinned by punchy guitar indebted to Led Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine, Saffudin sings with anguish and intensity about resistance, existentialism and spirituality, capturing the anxieties of a generation that bears the burden of carrying on the fight for azadi (freedom) in the future. “Geography is political,” he sings on Vaidyon, a song written on a long bus journey from Delhi to Kashmir as he noticed “how many mountains I have to cross to reach my home, how geographically separate Kashmir is from India. It is a plain while we live in the Himalayas. Even the nature in Kashmir is making a political statement.”
On Behta Gaya, Saffudin attempts to sum up the feelings of his generation, his voice floating delicately over soft guitar strums. “The Kashmiri spirit, like a river, never stops flowing,” he says by way of summary. “It’s in constant motion. We feel like we don’t have a land of our own. We have no future, but, still, somehow, we are flowing forward – that’s the spirit I wanted to capture.” Sleep Song offers a departure from this conflicted reality. “Sleeping is the only escape,” he says. “I see these utopia-like dreams where everything is fine. People are happy, calm and things are alright.”
Wolivo draws from songs written throughout Saffudin’s life. Born and raised in Indian-administered Kashmir, he picked up a guitar and started writing to make sense of his surroundings. Despite craving a career in music, he studied journalism and communication in Delhi to reassure his parents about his prospects, all the while performing and releasing political songs. “Gradually, music picked up,” he says. “For me, it was a clear thought: even if I don’t have an audience or get paid, I will make music.”
Recorded with a four-piece band over 10 days in Delhi, the album is heavily influenced by Saffudin’s love of the blues, and how it connects the plight of his people with other oppressed groups around the world. “I wouldn’t have been a musician if I hadn’t discovered blues,” he says. “Like the way poetry is to language, I think blues is to music – because it somehow beautifies pain.” They kept the production “old school”, he says. “No fancy electronic production, no experimentation with sound. It was just human beings creating music.”
When it was finally ready, Saffudin couldn’t believe he was releasing a rock album “because that scene is dying out in India”, he says. “It’s faded away with the coming of electronica.” But Wolivo may never have been released if it weren’t for a bit of ingenuity on his part. In 2019, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party, led by prime minister Narendra Modi, abrogated the state’s special status and split Kashmir into two union territories. There was a communications blackout and Saffudin was unsure how to get his demo to Azadi Records, a label who were interested in his work.
“Signing to a label was something I never thought would be possible,” he says. “I figured out I cannot do this alone. It made me feel very helpless. I realised I needed someone to harness my music and get it out to the world.” He smuggled a USB of his music to Uday Kapur, co-founder of Azadi Records, via a friend. “A month later, when landlines were restored, he [Kapur] said he wanted to release an album of my work.”
It’s taken nearly three years from that moment for the album to be released. Saffudin is just grateful for its existence: “Even if 10 people read our story and get to hear the truth, then it all makes sense.”
• Wolivo is released on Azadi Records in October
• This article was amended on 30 August 2022. Due to incorrect press information the album was referred to as Woliver, not Wolivo. The release date has also been changed to October.