“Session playing isn’t all that great” – Waqar Ahmed Khan

By Sonya Rehman

Think about it; the vocalist – to the average listener and viewer – is always in the spotlight. Therefore, the vocalist’s persona always seems far more ‘tangible’ somehow, rather than the guy who holds the bass guitar, the flute, the saxophone, or the guy seated behind the drumming kit.

Audiences can be pretty one-dimensional like that. The media – at large – too. But that’s just the way it is. And at concerts and gigs no one’s focusing on the drummer or guitarist…no one cares about their chord dexterity, or how well each is contributing to the song at hand. It’s the vocalist, and the vocalist alone whose stage presence far outweighs the rest of the band members on stage.

And in retrospect, that’s pretty darn sad. Because the media will rarely give a flying aubergine about putting the spotlight on modest session players and musicians who prefer focusing on their music, rather than climbing the unstable and fickle social ladder.

This brings us to Waqar Ahmed Khan, one such musician, who the media has rarely batted its pretty little eyelashes at.

Standing as one of the few drummers the country has to offer vis-à-vis mainstream music, Waqar (or ‘Wacky’ as he’s fondly known as), truly has his act together.

Having worked with bands such as ‘Paradigm’, ‘E.P’, ‘Call’, ‘Jal’, the ‘Mekaal Hasan Band’, ‘Rubberband’, and a sprinkle of low-key cover bands (as a session player), Waqar re-caps his introduction to drumming fondly; “Xulfi [Call’s band member] taught me the basics of drumming initially. We used to be class fellows actually. After I got the hang of the basics, I began practicing on my own.”

But Waqar’s journey through the world of drumming was far from a merry little hop, skip and jump down the yellow brick road. Far from it actually. “To tell you the truth”, he says animatedly, “I got kicked out of fifteen places where I used to practice playing the drums. I first began jamming in my basement but it was an absolute nightmare for my family – and initially my family opposed it. Then, I decided to rent out a space in Raja Centre [in Lahore] to jam, and I remember this one time (late at night) when a guy (whose office was next to mine) got so ticked off by the noise that he locked me in by closing down the shutters! I was stuck there for an hour till the guard came and got me out. This was in 2003”.

But Waqar remained undeterred. That was just one incident out of “many others”, because as mentioned before, he was booted out with his drumsticks and drum kit in tow…did I mention, FIFTEEN times over?

Another time, hilariously enough, while practicing with Hassaan [E.P’s ex-bassist] in an open plot near Hassaan’s house, a foreign lady decided to go ape-like and bonkers when she threatened the boys to ship out or else she’d set loose her dogs on them! What a riot. The price one has to pay to jam and that too, in peace.

“To play the drums”, Waqar says, “One needs a conducive environment…because drums are loud, and you need sound-proofing”. Like hell you do. But what about now, does Waqar still have to scuttle, run and duck for cover when he thrashes his drum kit during a practice session? “I have my kit at Mekaal’s studio”, he answers smugly.

Having put his MA in Telecommunication Networks (from Australia) to good use, Waqar is currently working with a well-known telecommunication company as an Executive, and in addition, finds ample time to juggle projects – related to music – pretty effortlessly.

He works with Ahmed Ali Butt’s pet project ‘Rubberband’ (due to release its album soon), the Mekaal Hasan Band, Fawad Khan’s solo album (surprise, surprise!) and on a freelance basis with a few cover bands – one such being, ‘Lemon Fuzz’.

“For my long-term goals, one of them is to create a facility in Pakistan where people can learn music and different instruments”, Waqar states, “Because right now, we don’t quite have anything like that”.

Surprisingly, I learn that for Waqar, “session playing isn’t all that great. There’s too much monetary negotiation involved, and it just doesn’t pay well”. The trouble area? A “lack of ethics in the [local] music business”.

In addition, “people get pretty stiff about accepting new ideas. When I was in Australia, I recorded two albums for these two Australian underground bands. What was amazing was the fact that they accepted my input without letting their ego come in the way. They trusted and appreciated my participation, they weren’t the least bit threatened. Here, in Pakistan, it’s completely different”. True that, because locally the trouble is just this: big egos and stunted foresight.

Recently, roughly about two months ago, Peeru’s Café in Lahore hosted a gig (like it often does) which featured a drumming face-off between both Gumby and Waqar. And both drummers remember the event with a lot of fondness.

“When I first heard Waqar in 2003 during his E.P days,” Gumby tells me, “I thought he was a regular, non-serious drummer type. But over the years as I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve realized that Waqar is the perfect example of someone who works incredibly hard. He has a great approach to things. I remember this one time when I was at Mekaal’s studio and he rang me up and asked if he could meet me to get some tips on drumming. I was impressed. Wacky really is one of the very few musicians who believes in rehearsing…someone who’s motivated about playing. It really is a lot of fun playing with him. Waqar’s a simple, honest guy. He’s not complicated…he’s very black and white.”

So the next time you go to a gig or a concert? Shift your focus from the vocalist to the other players for a change and appreciate their role in the band, because without them, the vocalist on stage is really just the guy with the microphone.

Images, Dawn
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