Shahbaz Hussain – A Life Dedicated To Rhythm
“All humans are musical. Why else would The Lord give you a beating heart?” – Mitch Albom
This quote aptly defines the mantra Ustaad Shahbaz Hussain lives by. He is a Pakistani-British musician, born in 1979 in Bethany Rochdale, Northern England. His father had migrated to the UK in 1964. After completing his schooling in his home city, he went to University of Bolton for his undergrad degree and graduated with a BSc. in Computing. So how did a computing graduate ended up being a musician and that too someone who specializes in ‘tabla’?
Shahbaz believes that a musician is born, not made. One can learn all the theory and technical skills but all of this is not possible without a pre-existing pinch of natural talent.
“I don’t think I decided to become a musician, I think the tabla chose me.”
With his fair share of natural talent, he started his initial training with his father, Mumtaz Hussain who was a vocalist and had some knowledge of the tabla instrument. From there on, his formal training started around the age of 8 or 9 with Ustad Fayaz Khan who used to visit the UK every year for his concerts. Later on, he came to Lahore and trained with the maestro Mian Shoukat Hussain Khan of the Punjab gharana. Another one of his teachers, who he thinks himself lucky to have learnt from, was Ustad Allah Rakha.
Shahbaz first performed at the age of nine, at a small house concert in Manchester. His performance was appreciated and impressed his audience. From that first performance he has come a long way and now plays both solo and with various groups of musicians. There is variety in his music as he plays South Asian classical, instrumental, dance, jazz, and rock. He plays fusion music as well as performing with many African and American musicians.
“I feel rhythm is an integral part, a very important part in life. Without rhythm nothing is possible. From the very moment a baby is born, the heart beat signifies life. So rhythm is an integral part to existence. I feel that tabla for me is the vehicle to express this belief.”
We often hear people ranting about the lack of sensitivity of the next generations towards the classical genre of music. Very few are doing something to bridge the gap and Shahbaz is one such individual. He started teaching music simultaneously with his performances. For the past twelve years, he has been teaching at University of New Castle and University of Huddersfield. He also teaches at a special primary school in England and whose some 650 students he took to perform ‘qawali’ at the Royal Albert Hall in front of a packed hall of seven thousand people.
The best part about his teaching is that it is not limited to the institutional level. Shahbaz has a private space as well where individuals come to learn the craft of tabla. In addition to all of this he has an international student base who can benefit from his tabla lessons through Skype. Using technology to preserve our heritage like a pro!
He has a considerable list of accomplishments under his belt which include; being invited for a Tedx talk at University of Manchester – ‘The Art of playing Tabla’, his chance to have performed with some of the maestros of the industry, Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Raees Khan, Ustad Imrat Khan and Naheed Sadique at the Royal Albert Hall. For these he has been duly awarded as well. Recently he received the award for contribution to music education by lord mayor, has been titled as ‘Ustad’ in the UK and was crowned the ‘Son of Lahore’ in 2008.
Shahbaz considers becoming a disciple of Ustad Shoukat Hussain a turning point in life, an event that gave the seal to his destination. Losing his father at the age of sixteen and then just six months later the passing of his most loved ustad, shattered him completely. These two figures had the most influence and were his primary support system. This was a period where it was difficult for him to hang on to motivation and keep pursuing the path he had adopted but in the end he was courageous enough to pull through. Another major hurdle that he faced during his career was to prove that despite not being raised in Pakistan or India and despite having a British accent, he has what it takes to be master in the field of South Asian classical music. A prime example of breaking stereotypes.
Performing for the best part of last 25 years, Shahbaz has represented Pakistan and its classical music heritage in major cities of the world and hopes to continue doing so. For him music serves as a bridge between cultures.
“Music is a platform that brings cultures together.”
With this philosophy at the back end, his band ‘Indus’ plays their own original compositions. The band members include, Mohammad Ihsani, sitar player, John Paul, suntur player, Henrick Lelimen who plays the flauntis and Shahbaz on tabla. They have two albums in their name and with the help of UK arts council funding they went on a tour covering fifteen concerts.
Talking about breaking stereotypes about his roots and preserving the culture in his second home, Shahbaz shared that it is a constant struggle as there has been an unfair share of negative media coverage. He feels that those based outside the homeland have a responsibility to present the other side of the picture as well, highlight our culture and our association with it. Personally, he does this through his teaching and performances at whatever level he can manage and believes that if the government of Pakistan takes this seriously and lends a helping hand to individuals, this can be done at a much larger scale. It is important for nations to keep their heritage alive and for him, presenting the Pakistani music is imperative to fight the clichéd image of the country.
Here’s hoping that with his sincerity and dedication to his craft, Shahbaz Hussain continues to make Pakistan proud and keeps bridging gaps with his mesmerizing rhythms.
Interview by Anum Nawaz | Written by Fatima Arif