How much does money factor into a musician's decision to pursue it full-time? A lot, unsurprisingly.
We talk to Amal Nadeem, the violinist of the all-girl band of Nescafe Basement Season 4, about how getting exposure at Nescafe Basement has triggered a conversation about whether taking the plunge into music is worth the financial risk.
Amal is a 19-year-old second year student of economics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). And she also loves music, which has been a big part of her life since she was only four.
It was at that age that she first picked up the violin. Learning the instrument at school in the UK, “she liked the instrument, how elegant it looked and how good it sounded and the music composed on it,” tells her mother.
Since this first brush with music, Amal has learnt multiple instruments: the keyboard when she was 12, the guitar at 13, and ukulele a year ago.
“Music is neither my Plan B nor my true calling. It’s always going to be a part of my life but I’m not sure if I want to depend on it for a salary. I don’t want to have music-based deadlines, do something completely different than what I want to do, play different sorts of music I'd rather not play. I like the fact that I can take some weeks off, not really playing a lot of music and then go into it full-on playing hours and hours of music everyday for another month. I want to do it on my own terms, but then I never thought I’d do something this big (Basement), and when the opportunity came I couldn’t refuse.”
Amal doesn’t remember her first public performance but she guesses it was probably when she played with a big orchestra in front of a roughly 3000-strong audience when she was six or seven years old in the UK.
Music is neither my Plan B nor my true calling. It’s always going to be a part of my life but I’m not sure if I want to depend on it for a salary... But then I never thought I’d do something as big as Nescafe Basement, and when the opportunity came I couldn’t refuse.
Her musical training switched gears when her family moved to Pakistan when she was 10. When she came to Pakistan, nobody in her class knew what it was and she had to show them pictures. Then they would ask her questions like ‘This looks like a guitar, what’s a stick doing with it?’
Amal found a violin tutor a year or so later, but stopped training at the age of 14. She then drifted away to other instruments: keyboard, piano and ukulele that she completely learnt herself off of Youtube.
Amal says she wanted to learn piano and guitar because people were more familiar with them and as a teenager one can identify their sounds in songs.
She took out her violin once again last year because she thought she understood the instrument better than most and could experiment with its sound. Western classical was Amal’s choice of music to play on the violin because it played the most at her house. Having played western classical helped her understand structure and reading music. She can now mesh it with the rest of her music.
“Now even when people know about the violin, they don’t know any of the western classical pieces I play. And I don’t know any of the songs they knew because I was only listening to western classical.”
Amal's playlist is focused on English pop, rock, rap, and she's only listened to Pakistani music when it’s played by someone else. Maybe that's why she didn't know how big Basement is when she first auditioned for it.
Friends at university pushed her to try, and Xulfi, she says, was impressed by her skills.
“He wanted me to do a few things on the spot that I hadn’t tried before. He liked how I picked those things up. He sang a song and asked me to replicate it on the violin. I did it and he loved it. He told me about the concept of an all-girls band, which I really liked and that’s how it started.”
But there was another audition Amal went through before she was made the final cut. That was in the Basement studio. “I was shaking so much during the audition. I messed up a song in the middle. Xulfi bhai asked me to play another piece. He asked me if I had composed any of my own, which I had, so I played something on the guitar and he asked me to slide it onto the violin to see if I could catch notes.”
I got to meet Sharoon Leo who was also in season 3. When I was watching videos before the audition, I showed him to people and said this is what they have, this is what I’m up against and I’m never going to get in. Now I’ve spent a lot of time with him, he’s taught me a lot, it’s amazing. So that was the coolest part: the people you meet there.
She reflects on the experience now that it's over, “The Basement experience was amazing, but hectic. There were different stages of recording. I got to meet Sharoon Leo who was also in season 3. When I was watching videos before the audition, I showed him to people and said this is what they have, this is what I’m up against and I’m never going to get in. Now I’ve spent a lot of time with him, he’s taught me a lot, it’s amazing. So that was the coolest part: the people you meet there.”
Her new-found popularity is also a plus. “The first two weeks I’d be walking on campus and 10 people would stop me and say they saw my video and it was amazing. I got messages from old teachers and friends. Somebody I had interned with earlier is now heading TEDx so the girls and I got to play at TEDx a couple of weeks ago because he saw the video and really liked it. That’s also one of the best parts because I’ve been watching TED videos for so long and never thought I’d be so good to be able to perform there.”
“My sisters have been so excited about [the video]. They put it on repeat for quite a few days. My father was pretty proud of this accomplishment, and had told me to make sure they watch it as soon as it came out. He always said I can do it and as long as it doesn’t affect anything. All parents have reservations with letting their children do music that’s considered risky. We hadn’t really talked about it before. But then I never imagined doing something like Basement or doing this for a career, which my income would depend on. So there’s not been much discussion on this.”
Besides making music, Amal says she learnt how recording worked, new techniques on violin she hadn’t tried before, a lot of things Xulfi thought she could do but she hadn’t tried before. “He kind of pushed me a bit.”
Amal's not sure if she’ll continue performing. Concerts tend to interrupt her schedule a lot. "It’s not really flexible, and happens all over the country,” she said. So, she's just taking things one day at a time.