The year of 2014 had brought the Indian nation and its neighbours something to anticipate; and these were not just the elections! During the course of May, London held its 5th Annual Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Center. It played host to various cultural icons of literature and the performing arts and included all the flavor-some effects from the streets of India. Yet one of the most stunning performances was delivered by the dexterous maestro, Taufiq Qureshi. He endeavored; quite daringly to create a performance uniquely composed for the Alchemy “Manch”. This work known only as “Flight,” was completed in collaboration with Kathak dancer Gauri Sharma Tripathi and vocalist Geetika Varde. With the festivities now behind us, Mr. Qureshi dwelled us deeper into his great musical transformation in his cozy studio, here in Mumbai.
1.) Since when have you been making music?
To be honest, a journey for a musician begins from the moment he is born. As a child, music was always present in the house. My father, Ustad Alla Rakha and my brother, Ustad Zakir Hussain were dedicated to their practice, and I admired their loyalty to the instruments even at a young age. I myself would take pots and pans and recreate beats that I heard. As I grew older, I was drawn into the technical aspects of music and professionally learned the art of percussion. I had even created a band, ‘Surya’ which contained members who are famous names in the musical world today.
2.) Coming from a prestigious background such as yours, have you ever been inspired by a musician from outside your family?
The tabla was always present in the family. However, my influences came from all types of different elements. Apart from my father and brother, I admired the Great Buddy Rich, a senior drummer who had made an album with my father and had introduced my ears to a new sound: drums. Later in my life I was inspired by the genius of traditional Indian gurus.
3.) Your father was a man whose life was very much entwined with music. Did you learn everything you know from him or did you develop your own style of music?
Much of my training happened under my father’s wing, but he always advised me to view music as a limitless possibility. With this view, I would see music everywhere “without blinkers”. I expanded my knowledge from all origins. For me, rhythm can be created from everything; “dabba” to “baatli” and even a trash bin or a chair or bench. I have learned endlessly on my own by incorporating elements and exchanging ideas.
4.) You have been known for playing percussion instruments of global origins. How did you manage to observe them back in your youth and how did this come about?
In our time, we did not have the facilities of electronic media. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on instruments from across the globe. So even though tabla was my groundwork, I used God’s given gift for the touch of a percussionist to experiment with these instruments and increased my repertoire of my world percussion knowledge.
5.) Your signature instrument is the Djembe. You have succeeded in mastering Indian rhythms onto this instrument of African origins. How did you achieve this?
I actually had the Djembe with me, as a gift from my brother. I did not however, see it as an instrument to define my talent with. About ten years ago, I found myself playing a tabla “taal”on it. I explored it further and discovered that I could play all three frequencies; the base, mids and highs that combine to make the composition. This revelation makes sense to me, as the djembe is older than most instruments.
6.) What are your thoughts on international audiences?
I have had some amazing experiences with international crowds. I create beat boxing using my breath, and it is a new concept for many people. So I guess they’re just as fascinated with me, as I am with them!
7.) You have won many awards in the past for your compositions. Which are your most recent ones?
I had composed a track in 2009 for the Indian railways using vocal percussion, which won the gold prize at the Cannes International Festival in 2010. I have even done a jingle for Nike, which won the Bronze prize at the Cannes International Festival last year and the Gold at the London International Festival.
8.) Speaking of London, you have performed at the Southbank center on the 17th of May this year for the Alchemy festival. Who approached you for this opportunity?
Yes, I performed in the Purcell Room at the center. The organizers had invited me as a special guest. I thought that it would be a chance for me to be presented as a composer and percussionist. My wife, Geetika Varde and son Shikhar also performed alongside me, so I had all the support I needed right there! The famous dancer Gauri Tripathi was a major part of the project, so it definitely was a “soaring” partnership of music, song and dance.
Indeed, this show turned the polished festival into gold!