Inside Nescafe Basement: Nazar Abbas prefers psychology to music, but won't stop playing

The young musician's weapon of choice is the flute
Updated 12 May, 2016

It's not easy to make a mark in Pakistan's music industry when you're playing an instrument like the flute. It's especially difficult when you're a young musician who's just starting out.

Luckily, several platforms exist today that raise the profile of these very young musicians, giving them the hope that they might be able to cash in on what they might've otherwise dismissed as a hobby. Nescafe Basement is one such platform.

In our series on Nescafe Basement's young stars, we take a look at what Pakistan's new, raw talent has to say about the process of finding one's voice as an artist.

Nazar Abbas

There is no missing Nazar Abbas. He's the flute player featured in Nescafe Basement's versions of NFAK’s classic ‘Gorakh Dhanda’ and Ataullah Essa Khelvi’s iconic ‘Kameez Teri Kaali’.

Like some of his peers on Basement, Abbas also belongs to a musical gharana. His grandfather, father and uncles have been renowned flute players of their times. His grandfather Ustad Saeen Allah Ditta Qadri played the flute in almost all of Madam Noor Jehan’s songs throughout the 70s and 80s. He claims his grandfather’s uncle, Saeen Marna, invented the iktara.

“When it was my turn, my father wanted to change the trend of musical families focusing on music only, so he put me in Lahore Grammar School and then Forman Christian College and spent all his savings on my education. I want to pursue psychology. My father used to say Pakistan has the best musicians in the world, but so many of them are hand to mouth. Now education is also very important; it is enlightening.”

Abbas says his father wanted him to study first to develop a strong academic background and then turn to music. He had him learn the piano in the fifth grade so he becomes familiar with the 12 essential notes, tempo, chords and ragas. This went on for a year after which Abbas started learning the flute from his father.

Abbas feels someone who truly loves you will respect your feelings and won’t ask you to quit music. His friends, he says, used to make fun of him, but now the same people want to hang out with him.

“The first song I played on the flute was ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ on a March 23 function at school. Since then I’ve performed all over the country. At a US embassy event, an American musician saw my younger brother play and called him the ‘Pakistani Jimi Hendrix’. I’m glad other music families are sending their children to schools, which is very important.”

His first public performance came at the ago of 15 at the US embassy that had organised a concert to pay tribute to slain journalist Daniel Pearl. He opened the show for Arieb Azhar.

“Music is still not my career. I want to get a PhD degree in psychology; this is just a hobby and passion and family tradition. I keep practicing music; it gets me good pocket money and I don’t plan to quit it. Any way I’ve not taken up music or a degree just to earn money.”

Nazar Abbas in Nescafe Basement Season 4
Nazar Abbas in Nescafe Basement Season 4

Taking a cue from his Basement fellow Asif Ali’s tales, Abbas feels someone who truly loves you will respect your feelings and won’t ask you to quit music. His friends, he says, used to make fun of him, but now the same people want to hang out with him.

Abbas says he has written and composed some songs based on life and wants to speak to his Basement mentor Xulfi about recording them. “Let’s hope for the best.”

His foray into Basement happened through his father. “The tabla player on Basement seasons 1, 2 and 3 had gone to listen to my father at a concert in Islamabad where they got to meet each other. My father showed him a clip of me playing the flute. Later, when Basement needed a flute player, the tabla player remembered me and asked my father to send him a clip of me playing. I sent him a fusion I had played with my father earlier. Xulfi bhai listened to it and called my father a week later. Season 3 was my debut.”

Basement has made Abbas a popular face. “Now people come up to me in college, hug me, want to take pictures with me and comment on my work," he says

Abbas says he performed three wind instruments this season: flute, alghoza and harmonica, and plans to play a Chinese flute in the next season that he says he hasn’t seen many people playing here.

Jamming before recordings, he says, was quite taxing. “The jam for ‘Gorakh dhanda’ lasted 15 hours and that is the maximum I have ever jammed. We survived on coffee only. For our classical performances, we don’t need to jam; we just go and perform.”

Basement has made Abbas a popular face. “After my first season, people came to know about me, and now they know me better. It’s not just the public, but professionals, the stars in the field also appreciated our performances. Now people come up to me in college, hug me, want to take pictures with me and comment on my work. Recently, I met Rafaqat Ali Khan sahab, who hugged me and told me he had become my fan and loved my work.”

Ali Zafar and Ali Azmat are some of the industry stalwarts who have showered praises on Basement and shared videos on their social media accounts. “Kami Paul was very supportive. He met every artist separately and said you guys are the future of the industry. That was really encouraging.”

He’s all praise for Basement founder Xulfi. “He’s an amazing musician, no doubt, but he’s a much bigger human being. He understands sound so well, observes so well. The variations and the experiments he has in his mind.”

At present, Abbas is studying hard for his board exams, so he doesn’t miss out on any events or concerts coming up.