Accord’s Musician of the Month is the charming and witty Saadi Zain. He joined us virtually from his home in Manhattan, New York.
Could you tell us a little bit about your family background, and your connection with South Asia? My father was a Muslim born in Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh, India). His family remained in Kakinada after the partition and he went to high school there and later to Aligarh Muslim College (Uttar Pradesh). After his studies in Aligarh, he decided to take a job in Karachi (Pakistan) at the university, figuring he would be able to go back and forth between the two cities. Unfortunately, as tensions between the two countries grew, it became increasingly difficult for him to travel to India. He eventually went to the United States for his graduate studies and that’s where he met my mother. During this time, his mother passed away in Kakinada. South Asian politics has played a significant role in my father’s life, and it continues to do so in mine too. For example, when I applied for a visa to come to India for Chiragh’s first concert, the process took a lot longer than they did for the others (45 days!), and all I could do was wait.
What’s the atmosphere like in the South Asian community in the United States? In my experience in New York and Europe, South Asians there don’t really see me as one of them, but if I start speaking to them in Hindi or Urdu, they then usually feel a connection to me and see me differently. I remember being on a train in Italy, and there was an Indian family sitting across from me. For the first half-hour, I didn’t say anything to them as I was practising speaking Spanish with the Italian woman sitting next to me. At some point, I decided to start speaking in Hindi to the father, and the dynamic changed completely! Here, in the US, South Asians are a minority. So any kind of South Asian connection we see brings us together. We want to hang out together, have some biryani and gulab jamuns, and share our culture. It’s very unified and there’s no strong differentiating between Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Indians. Rather, there’s a greater sense of all of us being South Asian, and strongly culturally connected. You start to appreciate the similarities more than the differences when you’re part of a minority.
How did you begin your foray into the world of music? Music as a profession was introduced to me by my mother, who was an amateur violinist and a fan of classical music. She used to take me to concerts when I was quite young. I remember one being an American violinist who came to Karachi and did a whole concert on Paganini. He played solo the whole concert, and played all these pieces by Paganini and described his life and the history behind the pieces. My mother also got me a little Ladybird book on musical instruments and their role in the orchestra, so I was exposed to and fascinated by that. When I was 11, we returned to the US. My school offered instrumental music lessons so I wanted to learn to play an instrument. My mother had a violin around, and so I started with that but I was already attracted to the big instruments, like the trombone. The dynamic with big instruments is really different than the smaller ones. For instance, the bass is like another human being! It’s pretty imposing, not just like a violin, flute or clarinet that you can shove under your bed and forget about it. The bass is like a companion – it becomes like a friend, partner or roommate. It demands attention – “You need to play me!” – you can’t just ignore it. The next year, when I got to seventh grade, I got thrown into the orchestra, and right away I started hearing these deep sounds and found myself often fixated on the two bass players at the back. They sounded and looked cool, but I never thought I’d be able to play something so big. The school had a jazz band and in the ninth grade, the band director started a junior jazz band. I asked him if I could play the electric bass and he said yes. This instrument has the same range and layout as the double bass which eventually made my transition to the upright bass much easier. But it wasn’t until I got to college that I picked up the double bass as a jazz player, and then slowly got interested in playing in the orchestras there. Since then I’ve had a broad musical experience of playing and studying lots of different genres intensely – classical music, jazz and world music. What’s the role of the bass in an orchestra or band? In any ensemble, the bass provides the harmonic foundation – the fundamental notes around which everything else rests on. I toured with an Indian singer, with a harmonium and tabla in the band. As the (electric) bass player I was providing a more modern sound and harmonic foundation to the music. In more traditional forms of Indian music, often there’s no bass, yet there’s usually a drone (the tanpura), and this is essentially your harmonic foundation. In more modern music, like Bollywood music, the bass (as the drone) is more free to go to different places and play different notes within the harmonic framework. For example, in the key of d minor, the bass player could just hang out on a D, but may also shift to an A of an F natural, which dramatically changes the sensation. We hear harmony from the bottom up and so we want to hear what we think is an F chord but it isn’t – it’s turned around (inverted), and this movement can then impact the harmonic rhythm as well. In a band, the bass has an even more important rhythmic role. Also, when you look at early classical scores, during the time of Mozart for example, there were no independent parts written for the bass. The bass players doubled the cello parts, one octave below. The bass isn’t really part of the violin family like all the other strings, it was adapted from an older instrument called the viola da gamba. As harmonies got more complex and dissonant, composers realized that the string orchestra needed more depth. And as composers got more complex and bass players got more skilled, the bass developed into a much more independent voice.
What was the experience with Chiragh like? It was a really great bonding experience. I really made an attempt to reach out to everybody, and they were very friendly. It was an impactful experience – being back in India (I hadn’t been to the subcontinent in a long time) and being able to connect to my culture. And to be able to do it in such a way – not as a tourist, but rather creating music with South Asians from all the regions – was really special. People were curious about me, as I was what I call one of the “fringe people” (as opposed to “core people”) because we had just one person from Bangladesh, one from Nepal, and one from Bhutan. I guess I was the token Pakistani. 😉 On a microscopic level, we were all playing parts together under one baton, but in the larger picture, while making music we were experiencing something larger, we were experiencing the feeling of being unified, sharing the same space, breathing the same air, and living on the same planet together. I remember riding on the bus with the percussionist from Bhutan (Samten Chhophel) while he was telling me about his country, and he gave me a postcard from Bhutan, which I still have. Being part of SASO really raised my awareness of South Asia, and the connectedness of the region.
Saadi Zain is an established bass player, based out of Manhattan, New York. He lives in a home full of musical instruments including everything from bass guitars, upright basses, a ukulele and some percussion instruments. Well-versed in the classical and jazz idioms, he has performed with orchestras as well as jazz and rock bands. He was the section leader of the upright bass section of SASO for the inaugural concert in Mumbai last year. Catch more of his performances on his website!