Inside Nescafe Basement: Despite the odds, tabla player Zain Ali is keeping the family tradition alive

Ali belongs to a centuries-old gharana of qawwals who used to play at Nosho Pak shrine
11 May, 2016

What does it take for a gharana to continue its legacy?

At a time when pursuing music may not make financial sense to most, it's only passion that keeps the youngest musicians going, and platforms like Nescafe Basement that gives them a much-needed boost.

In the final part of our series on Nescafe Basement's young stars, we talk to Zain Ali who belongs to family that's played music for centuries. And Ali's making sure that that doesn't change.

Zain Ali

Ali played the tabla in ‘Teray Jeya Hor Disda’, the Basement version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s timeless qawwali.

He belongs to an illustrious centuries-old gharana of qawwals who used to play at Nosho Pak shrine.

His great grandfather was a violinist. His grandfather, who lived in Sharaqpur, met NFAK in Faisalabad and with him moved to Lahore in around 1979. They connected through Manzoor Santu Qawwal and the two spent 18 years performing together till Khan’s death after which his grandfather played with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan for some time.

His late father was a government employee, and was drawn to music for spiritual reasons: he became a zakir, wrote qaseeday (poems) and composed music for them.

With a lineage like this, it's no surprise that Ali was musical from birth. “My uncle told me when he used to listen to qawwalis when I was a few months old, I would move with the beat. That’s probably when I got it in me. I started playing music on utensils when I was four years old. Five years later, I got a tabla but only found a teacher when I was 12-13 years old. My parents wanted me to study before that.”

They changed their mind when Ali's father saw him perform "at an event where neither of us knew the other was coming. His friend told him he loved my performance. That’s when he let me pursue music and now I intend to continue it.”

Ali’s first break was with his maternal uncle, who is a singer/composer/music director. He played the tabla at his younger brother’s birthday in front of several respected musicians of the time when his grandfather had thrown a huge party.

Zain with Asif, the other tabla player in Necafe Basement Season 4
Zain with Asif, the other tabla player in Necafe Basement Season 4

Ali’s life suddenly took a turn when his father suddenly passed away two years ago.

“That stopped my life. I’m the eldest child and had a responsibility towards my family. I forgot about music and stopped playing for at least four months. I was in a shock because it all happened so suddenly. But my mother motivated me to resume.”

Ali is a keen listener of classical music. His favourites are Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Ustad Ameer Ali Khan, Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasiya, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Roshan Ara Begum, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Zahida Parveen. He says he wishes to learn something from each of these great singers.

The vocalist of the song he played in Basement had been his classmate, who helped him get in. “He told me there could be a chance. I was busy with other concerts. Zeeshan called a month later to tell me we had to jam. I agreed only a week or so later. I thought of giving it a shot. Then I met Xulfi bhai for the first time and got confused as to what I should do. But everyone was cooperative.”

Xulfi wanted a qawwali touch to ‘Tere Jeya Hor Disda’ so added him in the line-up with the other tabla player, Asif Ali. It was the first time they were experimenting with two tablas in a song.

There was no nervousness, Ali says, but excitement. And now, he says, his friends list on Facebook has increased from 1,500 to 2,800. “Nobody knew me earlier, but such platforms give an identity to artists. Everybody was appreciative. A lot of musicians have told us we have done better than Coke Studio, whose own musicians have said that. Percussionist Babar Ali Khanna appreciated us a lot.”