‘To sing in Kashmiri is political’: Ali Saffudin, the singer-songwriter who smuggled his album to the world

The 29-year-old’s bluesy debut album almost didn’t get made because of a communications blackout. He talks about utopia, the Kashmiri spirit and the fight for freedom of expression

‘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.”

Ali Saffudin: Saaz E Qalb – video

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.”

‘I needed someone to harness my music and get it out to the world.’
‘I needed someone to harness my music and get it out to the world’ Photograph: PR

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.

Dhruva Balram

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Singer-songwriter Melanie: ‘Woodstock was unbelievably frightening’
Overlooked and underestimated, Melanie was framed as a winsome folkie and left out of the pantheon of greats. Fifty years on from classic album Gather Me, she wants to be understood

Kat Lister

14, Dec, 2021 @3:24 PM

Article image
Readers recommend playlist: songs inspired by India
Artists taking musical inspiration on our final playlist include the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Monsoon and David Sylvian

George Boyland

02, Aug, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Scott Matthews review – engagingly thoughtful and classy singer-songwriter
Matthews returns after a three-year break with some elegant, quietly soulful vocal work to promote new album, writes Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

19, Aug, 2014 @12:35 PM

Article image
Bollywood film awards: Kashmiri spy thriller Raazi wins best picture
Controversial Padmaavat film also triumphs as Indian ‘Oscars’ held in country for first time

Rebecca Ratcliffe in Delhi

19, Sep, 2019 @7:42 AM

Article image
‘Evil customs’: why a Kashmiri village abandoned dowries
Dowries, illegal since 1961, still cause 20 deaths a day in India. But Babawayil has had no divorces or violence against women since it banned them

Aakash Hassan in Kashmir

12, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Blood brother: the Kashmiri man who is India’s biggest donor
The ‘blood man’ of conflict-racked Kashmir has donated 174 pints of blood since 1980 but feels ‘crushed’ by his poverty

Shoaib Shafi in Srinagar

15, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
'They want to erase us': the Kashmiri suburb defying Indian control
Civilians in the Srinagar suburb of Anchar say they are engaged in a fight for existence

Azhar Farooq in Srinagar

11, Sep, 2019 @11:12 AM

Article image
The Rolling Stones announce new album, Blue and Lonesome
Band’s first album in a decade returns to roots with 12 covers of blues greats, and will feature Eric Clapton on two tracks

Harriet Gibsone

06, Oct, 2016 @2:43 PM

Article image
Samia: the singer-songwriter with violent hooks, famous parents and a sensational second album
Now living in Nashville, the 26-year-old is back with a raw but poised second album, Honey. She talks being a nepo baby, disenchantment with the industry and why optimism is the saddest thing in the world

Shaad D'Souza

04, Jan, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
'They are custodians of the jungle': anger as Kashmiri nomads' homes destroyed
Kashmir’s gujjars say they are being forced from lands they have occupied for generations

Azhar Qadri in Kashmir and Hannah Ellis-Petersen

04, Dec, 2020 @1:00 AM