Afzal Yusuff is an Indian music composer hailing from Kerala, working predominantly in the Malayalam cinema industry.
We meet Afzal on a typical monsoon day at his home in Thrikkakara. The heavy downpour outside seems like a scene out of his own song Karkidakam, released last year. By the time we sit down for a chat with him, the sky has cleared up and looks pleasant. Quite befittingly setting the tone for our ensuing conversation.
Afzal Yusuff (43) was born in Kodungallur, Kerala. Visually impaired from birth, his early days were spent in the Calicut University campus in Malappuram, Kerala, where his father worked as a teacher. Like most kids of those days, Afzal’s introduction to music was through the radio and audio cassettes.
“I have a vivid memory of spending a lot of time beside our radio and our tape recorder while residing at the Teachers’ hostel in the CU. I used to spend my vacations with my grandfather, a music enthusiast, and he influenced me quite a bit too,” Afzal looks back on his childhood.
The family soon moved to Ernakulam when his father took up a job at CUSAT, Kochi. He was enrolled at the School for the Blind in Aluva, where he studied from the 1st standard till the 7th.
“During the admission process, the school authorities advised my parents to let me stay at the hostel. They suggested that if my family wasn’t around to help me with the smallest regular tasks, I’d learn to do them on my own and become adept at it faster,” he recalls.
In hindsight, this was such a sensible decision, Afzal says. The training he received at that school early on, made him self-dependent in several practical aspects of life.
Learning Music: Then vs Now
Afzal was equally fascinated by musical instruments too while growing up, albeit never taking any formal music lessons.
“The school had various instruments we could practise on, but not many students cared about them much. This meant that I got enough time to spend with them, like the harmonium I picked up at the hostel.”
He took up the keyboard later, which he taught himself by playing and practising persistently. But Afzal points out how this approach comes with its drawbacks as well.
“A music teacher teaching you how to play piano or keyboard will be particular about everything from the finger positions to the minutest of things. If you learn something all by yourself as I did, it will take a great deal of patience, and a much larger effort to change those techniques later on in life,” he notes.
But learning music in his younger days wasn’t as structured a process as it is now, Afzal says. “There weren’t many institutes or teachers who taught music based on a globally acknowledged syllabus like the Trinity College London’s. Such courses are aplenty nowadays, followed by exams and certificates,” he muses.
He also feels that with the remarkable rise of technology and greater accessibility of the internet to the masses, there’s less need to rely on others to learn music. Someone could easily grasp the basics of learning a musical instrument through Youtube tutorials these days.
Beginning of the Journey
During Afzal’s pre-degree days, an orchestra group visited the college for an event. One of the musicians observed him playing the keyboard and was impressed by his finger movement. He offered Afzal some tips, especially on certain technicalities to be maintained while playing in an orchestra.
Afzal joined for BA Literature after completing his pre-degree, winning prizes in the MG University Youth Festival competition during the 1999-2000 period. He was on the verge of continuing his postgraduate course in the same stream when he came to know of a new course that had started in the Maharajas College, Kochi – of BA Music.
“The positive experiences in those years had helped me become more confident about choosing music as a career path itself. I had realised by then that I was passionate about this field and it wouldn’t limit my opportunities as much as many other jobs. Of course, people around me were apprehensive as well. But my family was quite encouraging and it helped that I had already been earning a bit through some keyboard playing gigs by then,” Afzal recalls.
It’s often advised that pondering over the What ifs from our past is a tiresome activity. And it’s only fair to say that had Afzal not decided to join Maharajas, he may still have been destined to achieve what he did in the field of music. But the pivotal part that period played in his musical journey is undeniable.
Afzal continued to win prizes in music competitions at Maharajas and formed acquaintances with several college mates having similar artistic inclinations and aspirations. Some of them would later foray into the cinema field like him, including filmmakers like Aashiq Abu (Salt N’ Pepper, Virus, Mayanadi) and Anwar Rasheed (Rajamanikyam, Ustad Hotel, Trance) and screenwriter Bipin Chandran (Best Actor, 1983).
In 2002 he collaborated with Aashiq Abu to launch his first independent music album, titled Shalabham, a stepping stone to the movie industry for both of them. Afzal composed the song, “Vasantham Pole”, and Abu directed it. The lyrics were penned by the distinguished lyricist Girish Puthencherry and rendered by the leading singer Srinivas.
Entering the Industry
Afzal made his official entry into the music-cinema field as a keyboard programmer after working as a keyboard artist with several composers. Swapnam Kondu Thulabharam (2003) was the first movie he worked for, under the composition of Ouseppachan.
“It was such a privilege and an exciting experience for me; performing for a remarkable musician like Ouseppachan sir, with the great Dasettan (K.J. Yesudas) giving voice to the song,” Afzal fondly recalls.
Over the next few years, he would work in the keyboard programming role for many other composers, Raveendran Master, Berny-Ignatius and Bijibal to name a few. Some of the other notable movies he was a part of as a programmer during this period are, Swa Le, Best Actor, Arjunan Sakshi and Apoorvaragam.
“Biji (Bijibal) and I were already good friends when he made his music directorial debut through Arabikkatha in 2007. He had played the violin for many of my compositions and I had programmed his independent works before. The superhit song Chora Veena Mannil was orchestrated by me,” Afzal reminisces.
His debut as a music director in the industry was technically through an academic movie called Chandranilekkoru Vazhi in 2008. But his breakthrough came with Calendar (2009). Since then, Afzal has composed for around a dozen movies or so, with numerous hits to his name. His songs for movies like Bombay, March 12 and Immanuel (both starring Mammootty), Mylanchi Monchulla Veedu and Theeram were particularly well-received by the audiences.
Afzal also released an independent music album in 2015 called Nilathattam, featuring the single “Kanavile” sung by Sithara Krishnakumar. But it was after the pandemic hit and the lockdown came about in 2020 that he decided to spend more time composing singles again.
“Since movie production was affected, this was an apt time to try out newer ideas for content. I did an album called Nilaanadi in collaboration with Arya Dhayal. The single “Karkidakam“, had a folk song touch to it. I also lent voice to the song “Mazhathoovimanam”,” Afzal says.
“I rarely sing the songs I compose though,” he clarifies laughing.
Memories and Experiences
“Right from my first stint with Ouseppachan sir, I’ve had good experiences with whoever I worked with. Perhaps also because we usually choose an artist only if we have the confidence that their voice and style will suit our composition,” says Afzal. “There have been instances when the date for shooting a song got pushed too soon and we had to record our track on an unexpected deadline. They do cause a little bit of worry, but we usually manage to finish on time nevertheless,” he notes.
Over the years, he has worked as much with the senior singers of the industry as with the current-generation artists and enjoyed both experiences equally. He has particularly relished his collaboration with Najim Arshad, Afzal says, who has worked in almost half a dozen movies alongside him. His songs have featured several non-Malayali singers too, like Sonu Nigam, Armaan Malik, Kailash Kher and Shreya Ghoshal, an artist whose work ethic and skill he especially admires.
One of the most memorable experiences for Afzal was composing for the movie Immanuel.
“Getting to make music for a movie is a big aspiration for many musicians as cinema is such a popular medium in our country. For me, being part of a successful film was a massive dream. Even though I had worked on many films before that, Immanuel was special for me. It was the work of a popular director like Lal Jose, whose previous films featured such wonderful songs, and had an amazing cast including Mammootty and Fahadh Fazil. It gave me my career break too.”
But perhaps the greatest appreciation that he has received as a musician, Afzal feels, was from Yesudas. When he had completed 50 years in the music industry, Yesudas was asked to select 50 favourite songs of his career. One of the songs he chose was from Calendar, Afzal recalls proudly.
The “Programming” Process
A keyboard programmer, also commonly referred to as a music producer or music arranger, is to a music director almost like how a cinematographer is for a film director, Afzal says.
“Firstly, there are multiple tracks for a single song. A basic structure of a song will be composed initially. Then we will identify what the live instruments needed for the song are. The respective musicians will play the compositions that are recorded separately in a music studio. These individual segments are mixed later with the original track. It’s like composing the entire orchestration sitting in a single room,” he explains the process.
The creative contributions provided by the keyboard programmers in this whole process can help make a song even more wonderful, he reiterates the earlier point.
As a keyboard programmer, it’s crucial knowing the technical aspects, especially what software you need to use and so on. “I entered the field during a time when we used hardware devices like keyboards, samplers, modules and so on in keyboard programming. But the whole music industry had completed the shift to using software entirely between the late 1990s to the early 2000s,” Afzal recollects.
Challenges in the Field
Afzal points out how the technological revolution in this century, a boon in many ways, can also pose specific challenges to a visually impaired person entering the music production arena.
“More than half the work we do is driven by technology. Yet, a lot of the software used in keyboard programming, production and composing aren’t compatible and user friendly for a visually impaired individual,” he observes grimly.
Ironically, it wasn’t as difficult during the hardware era, he remembers. The devices consisted of switches and buttons for all functionalities, which one could touch, feel and figure out with time. With software though, since it is pretty much based on what is on the computer screen, activities like looking at a graph and its values, etc. are quite challenging. While he had always enjoyed keyboard programming, limitations like these forced him to take a step back from keyboard programming when he turned to music direction, Afzal says.
These points have been raised globally and there have been efforts to improve the accessibility for the visually impaired community. But even if the digital-audio workstations offer their extended support, there are numerous third-party plugins used in music production software and they need to be compatible too, he points out.
“The giants in the music software industry, like Apple, Avid, Logic Pro say that they’ve brought up this issue with the plugin companies. Pro Tools owned by Avid is a commonly used audio software by us, and it’s one company that has started to give software support for the visually impaired community. Then there’s Final Cut Pro, a tool by Apple that’s also a popular choice.”
He mostly uses the software Logic Audio (also owned by Apple), as it’s convenient for both programming and music production purposes and is supported by the operating system macOS which is known to be quite stable.
Changes in the Music Scene
Afzal remembers that most musicians of his generation took it seriously as a profession only by their early or mid – 20s. This is a far cry from the current crop, who are so much more skilled and confident too of their abilities, at an early age itself. Reality shows have played a principal part in seeking new and young gifted artists, he observes. He has been a part of some junior talent shows as a judge too.
The way social media has become an integral part of our lives has also helped music artists, particularly budding talent, a great deal, Afzal feels. The likes of Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, etc., provide a multitude of opportunities to showcase one’s talent. How efficiently you can engage the audience with your music, or “content” as it’s often termed, will determine the way the social-media algorithms play in widening your reach too.
“Take for example Clubhouse, which became quite a hit in recent times,” he adds. “That was purely sound-based, contrary to the other social media platforms designed for visual elements. From a music perspective, I felt it was tremendously helpful as we are listening to a singer in real-time. There cannot be any tweaks done, which helps us – the audience – form a better judgement of the music.”
Paying it Forward
As a music lover, he enjoys following many other professional musicians’ channels, Afzal says. At the same time, he also likes to use the online spaces to listen to independent artists a lot.
“That’s something I’d like to focus more on in the future – helping such young talented artists get recognised. A lot of them aren’t able to showcase their skills to a wider audience because they don’t get the right opportunities at the right time. And I hope I can discover and bring to the front such musicians,” he remarks confidently.
The pandemic hit the world hard in 2020, with the cinema industry being one of the most affected globally. It wasn’t much different in India and Kerala as well, with several movies getting postponed, or even shelved in many cases. The movie Qurbaani starring Shane Nigam is one such delayed movie that Afzal is a part of.
“Qurbaani will be released soon enough, hopefully. I have some other movie discussions going on as well and a few more independent projects in mind too,” Afzal concludes on a positive note.
*All the photos used in this article are from Afzal’s personal collection