Visiting Ali ’22 on the third floor of Kettering Residence Hall is a Sunday-evening ritual for a group of 10 to 15 students who know about his culinary talents. On the way to his floor, the residence hall elevator shaft is perfumed with the scent of Karachi’s spices—cardamom, turmeric and Garam Masala sautéed in olive oil—as its aroma pervades multiple floors. While making a Pulao that melts in your mouth, Ali often bursts into a song, either Hindostani, Western Classical or a fusion of both.
Ali is a music major in possession of artistic and scientific skills and temperament that range over many domains, from cuisine to policymaking, teaching, mathematics and chemistry. For him, cooking is the means to get away from academic stress and expectations.
“Berea’s academic rigor is not a joke by any stretch of the imagination,” Ali said. “So, everybody needs a way to relax. For most people, that could be music. But when you start studying music, you might sometimes lose the ability to listen to it only for pleasure. Because when I listen to music now, my brain switches on instantly, and I’m off analyzing it and doing things like that. So, I had to find a way to relax, and cooking became that thing.
“My mother was a very conservative woman, so she didn’t really appreciate men in the kitchen back home in Karachi,” Ali continued. “So, when I got a chance here, I was like, ‘I like this.’ I’ve always been intrigued by cooking.”
There are many ways Ali experiments with music and food, and practices making both. He believes that practicing one’s craft is the only way to master it, and he spends four hours each day on his drums or extending the notes of his vocal range. Music is his meditation, his submission to something larger than himself.
The 34-year-old displays a brazen yet upliftingly respectful sense of humor that can make anybody burst out laughing. Yet, his jubilant demeanor is an essential part of his personality that has withstood and overcome so many challenges in life as he discovered his love and passion for music.
“This is my second chance at life,” Ali said. “This is my second time in Berea. I was here 12 years ago and had to leave in the middle of my sophomore year because my mother had cancer and was very ill, and I needed to take care of my sister and fulfill responsibilities to my family. I came here first as a math major, fitting the stereotypical expectations of a South Asian. But right after I took my first music class with Mark Calkins, one of my favorite people on the planet right now, I decided to become a musician. It was in his class that I learned the distinction between existing and living—what it feels like to love something. I felt, for the first time, called to music. I felt that, if I were to do this, I would make the world a better place. If I were to do anything else besides this, I would make my own circumstances better but may or may not make an impact on the world.”
After returning to Pakistan, Ali started to learn music by himself, alongside his careers as an educator and a policy maker at a local liberal arts university. With what he learned from Berea and the skills he picked up himself out of sheer grit, he released his first single, “Chaaraasaazi,” which was nominated for the Lux Style Awards, a national recognition in his country. He crowd-sourced his first music album, “Khudsar,” with his band Aam Tateel, which is available on Spotify. After making sure his sister had finished her education, and confident that he had made fruitful use of his time, Ali decided to reapply to Berea to re-explore what he had left unfinished.
This time, Ali is moving his career and learning forward at trailblazing speed. He has a perfect 4.0 GPA and
won second place at the Kentucky Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing Fall 2021, which was his first music competition in the U.S. He also is working on composing and producing his second album, which he envisions as an intermingling of diverse musical styles. Ali embodies hard work combined with talent, and his journey exemplifies the way a Berea professor can inspire a life.