In his Element... Abbas Premjee

"My first lesson in classical guitar was quite an interesting one," muses Abbas Premjee. "My teacher had given me this assignment, and when I performed it the following week, he said, 'okay, now let's make some music out of that' – for me that was a shock, I thought I was playing music!"

We're sitting at the home of classical guitarist Abbas Premjee in the suburbs of Karachi. Abbas is perhaps one of the lesser known of members of the Kolachi Quartet, the improv fusion jazz group. While the rest are associated with big bands and record labels, Premjee is not that well established with audiences. In the coming weeks, his debut album and video and set to be released. The musician discussed the album, the video and all things classical and jazz.

"I picked up the guitar when I was about ten years old," recollects Abbas, "and I taught myself how to play it. I've been involved in music ever since." A humble hobby soon became a lifelong ideal, as through the years Abbas continued to learn and play the instrument. His early influences were broad, "In those days you would get influenced by whatever was there to listen to, you didn't have a choice actually." But Abbas was not alone in his hobby. "Amir Zaki used to live near my house, we were friends, and I learned a lot from him, and he may have learned some stuff from me." It was during these stern times of the country, the two guitarists would share their arts and guitar techniques; everything from cords, solos and leads.

In the early eighties, the country's music scene was in its conception stage, scattered musicians searched for an output of their fledgling art amid the concrete ruling of martial law. Some would eventually find that release, whereas others would have to wait longer.

Abbas Premjee on the other hand was not going to be part of history, for the moment, "In 1985, I finished my secondary education and left for the United States for higher education in engineering." Though his heart was set to the tuned to the strings of the guitar, his responsibilities to his family had to come first.

At that point in time, many of the country's musicians were poised to take a bold leap into stardom, though ventured into obscuredom. But those that did survive became Pakistan's pillars of pop and rock. Family responsibility however steered Abbas away from music and into the world of engineering. "But I was still playing the guitar though, even when I went to the States, I was a part of a band there. And being part of that band, especially the fact that it was jazz, literally opens your vocabulary in chords and melodies. I didn't however consider getting an education in music there, at that point in time."

But in his senior year, he opted for a class in classical guitar; it would mark a turning point in his musical ambitions. With a classical rock influence and a part in a jazz band in the States, Abbas dove head in to the world of classical guitar, "I had no idea what it was, because it's a pretty isolated little field. It has its own ideology and discipline, and I wasn't exposed to any of that."

Following his first lesson, he was intrigued. What became a single class became another degree in music. And then another. A series of scholarships later, Abbas felt the tug to return to his home. Finally, after nearly 10 years abroad, he did so.

"It was actually a culture shock for me," he recollects, "I was in a specific environment, totally immersed in the guitar and I had come back changed to a changed environment."

First things first, once again Abbas' call to music would be cut short. Family business obligations had to be dealt with first. His family's business was suffering a lot of setbacks and ultimately his father passed away.

In 2004 Abbas Premjee pushed all of his setbacks aside and began to record music. These recordings, or sketches as Abbas calls them, would eventually become the base of Elements, his upcoming debut album. Around this time, he also started to delve deep into eastern classical music. "I thought if I could get into eastern music, I'd get into something that's appreciated in this region." But it things weren't easy for him as he soon found himself in a world of gharanas and being from a house with no music history, learning eastern music would prove to be a difficult task. "Unfortunately, there's a reluctance to impart knowledge out here," he speaks about his ordeal. "I then got a hold of books, the right kind of books that helped me eventually learn."

But Abbas was not deterred and continued to learn music and make compositions. So much so that he procured a mohan veena, a classical hybrid instrument that has deep roots in the eastern music field.

Ultimately, his growing musical knowledge and prowess would prove to be the strength of Elements. But would that strength be enough to attract an audience? "It wasn't easy," Abbas speaks about getting a music deal, "but there are some people who want to encourage new kind of music and they made this possible." At the same time, he acknowledges that he is a very un-commercial artist in a commercial driven market. "I don't fit the profile of a commercial artist, and in that sense this could be a bit of a gamble."

In the coming weeks, his album will be released and only then will Abbas find out if that gamble has paid off. Abbas was kind enough to offer a preview of the upcoming album. Abbas has had good help from the likes of Gumby, who helped out on drums and Khalid Khan who filled in bass duties.

The intro track coaxes you straight in. Like a warm greeting, we're being told to relax, sit back and to relish the journey in store for us. Titled contemplation, the track defines a meeting between the east and the west.

Immediately following is Jhoom Dewanay, the track for which the video has been made. With vocals by Mansoor (a singer Abbas discovered himself), the track is literally a composition of a story. The motifs of the album, a note here and there, are scattered throughout the track, being the smaller part of a bigger picture. The video co-directed by Abbas and Sharik Chapra, composed entirely of photographs and digital paintings. In it we delve deep into the world of mystical Arabia, where the story of the song unfolds. Not only is the video eye-catching, it is entertaining and most of all quite different than the dancing videos out there.

The next track is quite upbeat—the first one of the album—and features Irfan on vocals. Abbas is keen to work with unknown vocals because according to him he can "polish the vocals" according to his own advantage. Singing in his native multan tongue, Irfan's vocals not only stand out but blend in gracefully with Abbas' composition.

Entrainment is a brooding number that follows. The vocals here are strong and lead one deep into the song, tugging at emotions. Seek Peace is an award winning track that was featured in the United Nations World Music competition. Although it didn't win first prize it came second and after listening to it one can imagine why out of 15,000 entries, this track was one of the few that stood out. Featuring a quote by Hazrat Ali, the track is light, thought-provoking and seemingly fits into the mood of the album.

Although he talked openly and extensively about the album and his music throughout, it is ultimately his music that will speak for him and perhaps even speak to audiences.

(Photography by Asma Inayat -- asma.inayat@gmail.com)

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