Jam Tales: Khurram Waqar
Updated: Jun 3
In 2015 Khurram Waqar showed up at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at BBs. Americans have such a hard time correctly pronouncing his name that he goes by, “KW.”
KW is a Pakistani guitarist who makes a living in IT and was in town doing something at the Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.
I didn’t know him or anything about him; he was a complete stranger to me.
He sat in and played well; if I remember correctly, he played a Les Paul. My impression based on his look and his playing style was that he was heavily influenced by 80s Rock and 90s Grunge.
It didn’t appear that he was with anybody; he was on his own and after playing stayed the whole afternoon listening. His English was very good although it took a few minutes for my ears to get used to his accent. He asked me if I taught, and upon learning that I did asked if I had time to talk to him after the gig. I did.
So we sat down in a booth at BBs. The first thing he did was send me a Facebook friend request and had me accept it immediately.
He asked me about my teaching; he wanted to hear about my guitar method, my business model for the website and so on.
He then began to talk about the state of guitar playing in Pakistan and the Muslim world in general. About how hard it was to learn and to find resources. There were few guitar teachers and music schools. He said most guitarists hole up in their bedrooms learning from YouTube. It's somewhat of an underground activity.
He laid out a vision of live interactive internet-based guitar classes or clinics that would potentially have hundreds of viewers who could watch, ask questions and interact with the teacher (me!) in real time.
I was skeptical about the technological aspects of such a venture - this was before Zoom was well-known. I had generally negative opinions about online teaching based on my own attempts; I still am not a fan of it. See Skyping Guitar Lessons and Skyping Guitar Lessons: Where's the SOUND? There's no substitute for one-on-one, in person.
However, there were several things that were attractive to me about what KW was proposing:
The opportunity to connect with guitarists of a different culture and background from myself and bond over our shared love of the guitar and music. Plus, I am always open to the music of other cultures and how that can affect my own playing in new ways. I fully expect that they have something to teach me! Not to mention the potential of music to build bridges, foster peace, love, joy and understanding in the world.
KW assured me that, technologically, it was possible; after all, he was an IT guy, a software engineer, and knew way more about it than I did. True dat! I decided that I would trust him for the tech stuff. One less thing.
A huge potential new market for MasterGuitarSchool.com.
Maybe someday I could wind up onstage in Islamabad! One never knows! Stranger things have happened - even to me.
So I told Khurram to count me in, I was interested. We shook on it and went our separate ways.
Over the ensuing months and then years, I researched a little and watched KW's activities from afar with curiosity and interest.
The internet can be a very deceptive place; you can manage your image and appear to be something more than the reality. Happens all the time.
However, it appeared that KW was indeed a well-known and established guitarist in Pakistan and beyond. He has a very active web presence. You can read his Wikipedia entry here (I suspect it was written by himself). His website is here. Listen to his music on SoundCloud.
I can relate to his philosophy of not becoming a slave to corporate interests, record labels and so on. His DIY attitude is something I respect and share.
He is a strong proponent for NOT depending on music for income; it helps keep your art free from commercial considerations.
We are a little different in philosophy on that issue; my income and my guitar playing are not independent of each other although I am not exclusively dependant on performing for income (performing accounts for about a third of my income).
One reason for the difference is that, while this hasn’t always been the case, I have no motivation to create influential, uncompromised original music, i.e. "Art"; I just love to play the guitar, pure and simple. Issues of genre, covers vs originals, art vs commerce etc...all secondary to me.
In spite of our difference in philosophy on this issue, I'm glad he operates the way he does, after all, if not for his IT career, he would have not wound up at Sprint Headquarters in Kansas and we would have never met.
Another thing I appreciate about him is his positivity. He doesn't countenance negativity and complaining. There's plenty of bullsh----t in the music business - no question. It's not hard to be negative and complaining. He's complained to me about complainers! Ha! He is all about doing what you can with what you've got; another example of his DIY attitude.
Listening to his music reinforced my initial impression that he comes from a Rock and Grunge background. He's modally-oriented and additionally incorporates various ragas from Indian classical music into his playing. This is something that I have an interest in, motivated primarily by my exposure to Shakti in the mid-seventies. See, Shakti: My India Connection.
I do regular FaceBook ad campaigns, funneling people to my website and soliciting those who are interested to sign up as a site member. I generally market to English-speaking countries; US, Canada, England, Israel, Ireland, Australia etc.
Because of my encounter with Khurram, I included Pakistan in one of those campaigns. The response on FaceBook was massive. Likes, comments, follows - all kinds of interaction. So much so that the FaceBook stats were very skewed Pakistani for the whole campaign. However, there were relatively few Pakistani sign-ups to the website.
I've never been able to figure that one out. Was it money? Sign-up is free, no money required. Was there some kind of political or cultural inhibitor I was unaware of? Lord knows I am more than capable of being culturally insensitive. I'm regularly insensitive in my own culture! Just ask my wife.
I contacted KW and asked him these questions. He told me I was getting the response I was because of him and his influence but he couldn't answer the question of why very few were signing up. C'est la vie.
Sometime after our initial encounter, KW showed up at BBs again. When he sat in this time he told Allen Monroe, our keyboard player, that he wanted to not do a song per se, but he wanted to improvise a jam in the Phrygian Mode. As I explained in a previous blog, The Perils of Perfect Pitch, Allen can be fuzzy when it comes to technical music-theory terminology, but he has great intuition as well as perfect pitch and when he hears something he's good to go.
KW plugged his phone into the PA. The phone played a Tanpura drone that provided the tonal center around which he employed the Phrygian Mode. It took Allen about 10 seconds to get the concept and then he played right along with no problem.
This is something that I saw several times when I was in India in 2019; solo musicians with phones playing a drone to which they improvised using various western modes and/or Indian ragas.
BTW, when I was in India I contacted KW and said, "Dude, I'm closer to Pakistan than I've ever been! Let's get together! Ha!" Of course there was no way.
Anyway, the concept KW presented to me that day in 2015 at BBs never came to fruition. However, something else has emerged...
In April of 2021 KW launched what he called, "Guitar Collective." Because we've stayed in touch, I became aware of it almost immediately. My initial impression was that Khurram was attempting to encourage and help some of his musician buddies in Pakistan who were in dire straits by not being able to work due to the COVID shutdown. I get it; the same thing has happened here in the US and all over the world, actually.
From the Guitar Collective FaceBook page:
The goal is to establish an online collaborative environment to engage, facilitate and encourage independent musicians and raise awareness of the general masses to diversity in music.
"That's nice" I thought. Being successful as a musician is all about networking. And shameless self-promotion. But the statement struck me as rather vague; it left me wondering what to do.
Because KW makes a living apart from music, he's weathered the COVID storm just fine. But the same cannot be said for many of his peers who are dependant on gig income for survival.
This is also the case here in the US; I have come through the COVID shutdown so far with no financial problems (see, Can You Afford to be a Musician?), but many of my musical compadres are not in a good place. So I get it.
He is working long-term towards members of Guitar Collective being able to give concerts from their homes through streaming technology and get paid for it. He has set up specific protocols for what hardware/software is needed to ensure good-quality sound and video. Remember, he's IT.
We plan to schedule regular online live sessions on the available social media platforms starting from April 2021. These live sessions will be a combination of talks and performances, which we will build upon as we progress. Since we are all primarily guitar players and producers, we will dwell on subjects ranging from our guitar playing styles, individual approaches to music, songwriting and upcoming projects.
This is all well and good but I wasn’t inclined to participate; for one thing the 9 founding/core members are all from Pakistan and Dubai. I'm from Kansas City, smack dab in the middle of the USA. Could I be relevant? Would they even want me?
Secondly, from what I see COVID is still raging in that part of the world, especially India (KW says things will be locked down there for at least another year), but things are starting to open up here. As I write this (May 2021) I have averaged 3 gigs a week in April and 4 gigs a week in May; that's pretty much the same as my pre-shutdown gig schedule which completely went away in 2 days time in March of 2020.
So I'm not desperate for playing outlets or in need of gig income. "Let the guys who really need it, get it." I thought.
But then...Khurram reached out and personally solicited me to join.
As I understand the structure, there are the 9 core members from Pakistan and Dubai. Then there is a WhatsApp group that has well over 100 members. KW unilaterally added me to the WhatsApp group. Then there are various Guitar Collective social media pages; FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter etc.
The WhatsApp group meets via Zoom on Saturdays at noon my time - Islamabad is 10 hours ahead of me. Thankfully, the meetings are conducted primarily in English, otherwise I'd be left out in the cold. I've been able to attend several of those, at least partially, before I have to leave for a gig - the very same gig where I met Khurram.
My impression is that almost all of the members are from South Asia; Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Dubai and so on. Those members who are in the West appear to be Pakistani expats or are of Pakistani, Indian or Arab heritage. So far I'm the only white guy I've seen in the Zoom meetings. I appear to be the only guy who doesn't have a foot in both cultures; I feel disadvantaged in that respect but that makes it much more interesting to me.
I appear to be the only guy who speaks only English but...we all speak music! And music is truly a universal language.
I consider it a wonderful opportunity, and an honor, to be included in this initiative and exposed to a world that is foreign but in many ways familiar to me - after all, we are all guitarists!
There's a lot of self-promotion on the group chat. I've seen some really good guitar players there! There are many apparently well-known guitarists involved - well-known in the East! - but I had not heard of any of them. There's a lot of gear-talk, technique discussions - you know, typical guitar player bonding.
When I check the WhatsApp group in the mornings sometimes there’s 80 or more messages. This amp, that app, this software, soliciting advice for this problem, that problem, sharing videos and so on. That's part of what Khurram is after, and I understand; all my guitars have stories (see the blog category, Gear), but I don't have enough interest in technical things, what kinds of pickups, strings, pedals etc, or the time to keep up with all of it. I'm old; I know what I like and why I like it.
What I do like is hearing stories, philosophy, attitudes and discussions about content; that is, what to play and why to play it. I want to know if and how these players might be thinking differently than me about music, performing and the guitar.
Some use various traditional instruments with which I am unfamiliar combined with a guitar in their recordings and compositions; I am very interested in that kind of thing.
I have struggled in my own mind about what I could contribute that would have value to the group. Obviously, Khurram thinks I have something. He has mentioned my Jazz background (there’s an abundance of Metal players in the group) and my age/experience as something I could bring to the group. I think I might be the oldest member!?! Not sure how that would work; do I just sit there being jazzy, old and experienced?
Here's my idea:
In general, what is unique about the music of the West is the vertical evolution, i.e. CHORDS!
Classical Indian music is highly evolved both linearly and rhythmically but doesn’t have the vertical dimension that has occurred in the Western European tradition. That tradition culminated in 20th-century Classical music and it's uniquely American parallel stream - Jazz.
Kansas City is historically important in the development of Jazz and has a "scene" to this day. Thus the gigging. Furthermore, it is in Kansas City that I grew up musically and where I reside today.
See the 2011 documentary film: Kansas City Jazz and Blues; Past, Present and Future. I appear here and there in this film (for a few seconds each time!) and one of my recordings was used in the soundtrack.
I have a unique approach (received primarily from my teacher, John Elliott) that applies what he called, "The Theory of Harmony" specifically to the guitar. I've taught it for almost 40 years, added to it, changed a thing here and there to make it more guitar-friendly (John was a pianist, he didn't play guitar) and proven the veracity of it through decades of performing - I estimate more than 10,000 shows since the early seventies (see A LIttle Story). It works.
Studying with John and going through his method elevated my playing by a quantum leap in a very short period of time. In my opinion, this method is what I have to share that's unique.
As I said, many of the players I've seen in the WhatsApp Guitar Collective Group are impressive players. At least one has studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston, so I would assume he has a solid grasp of harmony.
But in general, I'm wondering how many of these impressive players I see are playing by rote, without an understanding of what it is they're doing?
I know that many, many players that I've taught came to me because they were playing beyond anything they knew. Their playing sounded impressive but they didn’t know what they were doing. It’s actually quite common. But when you play by rote, sooner or later you hit a wall that you can't get over by yourself.
The Guitar Collective FaceBook page currently has over 2,000 members and counting but is tightly controlled; only admins and moderators can post. Anyone else who posts must be approved. Moderators are chosen from the WhatsApp group by random lottery and assigned a day-per-week to post.
I've recently been chosen as a moderator and I've decided to try and present my method and see what happens. I'm starting at the very beginning - just in case some of these impressive players don't have any idea of what it is they're doing. Plus the more beginning and intermediate-level members will not be passed over. I love teaching someone from the ground up.
At my first lesson John says, “Well, I've been hearing about you. Why don't you play me something; show me what you can do.”
So I played him this thing that I'd written. It had all kinds of altered 9th inversions in it – I didn't know what they were, I'd just worked it out by ear (trial-and-error). He said,
“That was pretty good, I've never heard that before. What was that?”
“Just something I wrote,” I said as my head swelled up to gargantuan proportions with delusions of grandeur!
“Ok, we'll start here,” he said.
I think we started with altered 9th chords - probably because that's what John heard me play. It didn't take long for my swollen head to get stuck with a pin and completely deflate. It was the very same lesson (the first) that John said,
“I can see you have no idea what you're doing so we're going back to the beginning.”
“You're the teacher,” I said, “I'll do whatever you want.”
Believe me when I say I know what it's like to be playing beyond what you know.
My hope is that someone in the group who is knowledgeable will take what I have to offer and integrate it with the Classical Indian approach to melodic and rhythmic cycles to which I am only nominally exposed.
I also have a hope that something completely unforeseen and impossible to predict will happen as a result of this potential East/West cross-fertilization.
Then again, maybe I'm just whistling Dixie.
If you want to join the Guitar Collective FaceBook page to see whether I'm waaay out in left field or not - or you want to take advantage of the free lessons I'm posting there, just join the group: GUITAR COLLECTIVE.
My day to post is Sundays. So every Sunday will be the next lesson in the series. All the lessons are hashtagged #jayeudayguitarcollective so they can all be grouped together for convenience.
And so it turns out that 3 out of the 4 things that were attractive to me about KWs’ initial proposal have come into play, though not necessarily in their original form;
1) I am relating with many guitar players of a different culture, forging bonds based on our shared love of the instrument.
2) KW and Zoom handles the tech end.
3) MasterGuitarSchool.com has seen an uptick in sign-ups and activity from that region of the world.
All that remains is the gig in Islamabad!
Life and the universe throws open doors that you could never plan for nor imagine. Nevertheless, you must be aware, ready and willing to walk through them when they open, even if you don't know what's on the other side.
My relationship with Khurram Waqar is just such a circumstance; one of many initiated by reason of playing the Saturday Afternoon Jam, week in and week out, for over 3 decades.
Guitar Collective Joint Statement
Guitar Collective has been successfully launched across the subcontinent and currently consists of 125 renowned guitar players from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Dubai and expats from USA, UK, Canada and Australia.
All the guitar players have decided to join forces and bring their combined knowledge & expertise to the forefront for anyone who is interested from upcoming musicians/guitar players to bands to producers to listeners. This is a DIY effort to promote positivity and instill motivation in these unpredictable times due to COVID-19.
The long-term goal is to establish an online collaborative platform to engage, facilitate and encourage independent musicians and raise awareness about the guitar as a key instrument among the general masses.
The Guitar Collective Facebook Group will release introductory videos of all the guitar players so the community knows about them and their upcoming music. There is daily content being published on the Facebook group from all the guitar players on the roster and is moderated strictly to ensure quality of content.
Starting from May 22, two live sessions will be conducted every week from Guitar Collective Facebook Group. These sessions will revolve around discussion on guitars, gear technique, theory, social media presence, online distribution & licensing and practice routines. This will pave the way for online live jams leading to online live concerts.
Everyone is invited to join the Guitar Collective Facebook Group and be a part of this journey to bring positive change.
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