Abbas Premjee
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Abbas Premjee

Little Rock, Arkansas, United States | INDIE

Little Rock, Arkansas, United States | INDIE
Band World Jazz


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos



"The man who 'really' studied guitar"

Abbas Premjee opens the door with a smile on his face. "I hope you didn't have difficulty in finding the house," he says. Curly black hair that goes on till his neck, blue denims, black t–shirt, searching eyes – Abbas Premjee looks cute, in a rather intellectual sort of a way. He is polite, courteous and friendly. His voice is soft and calm.
Looking around, I see books on harmony, orchestration among many others neatly kept on a shelf. He drags a chair and he inspects me curiously. His eyes are on a constant move. He takes off his specs, cleans them, smiles and puts them on again. He's ready to go down memory lane as I probe why, despite acclaim by music insiders, he has been missing in action in the music industry.
Abbas has played guitars for Zoheb Hasan's upcoming album (whenever that releases); he played phenomenally for Ali Azmat's 'Teri Parchaiyaan', and he has played a couple of tracks for one of the many ventures of numero uno producer Rohail Hyatt. However, Abbas Premjee has always maintained a distance from the music industry at large, dealing only with people who understand him.
Abbas bought his first guitar at the age of ten. This was the time when Zia–ul–Haq had taken over the country and was creating (in his mind) a dream Islamic state. In those days, there were no concerts or videos and a Pakistani music channel was not even imaginable. It was then that the jams that lead to the pop music industry as we know it, began. Abbas was a front runner for the musical cause in those heady days.

He formed his first band with guitar prodigy Aamir Zaki in 1982 when they were both teenagers. "I learned to string a guitar mainly by teaching myself through listening," he remembers. Music was always a passion for Abbas, an addiction that found a way in his life despite strong family obligations. So when he went to the US to study Mechanical Engineering, he took a class in western classical music. "It was amazing!" Abbas exclaims and adds, "It was a one on one class and I was so inspired." It was definitely more exciting than any engineering course he had ever taken. By Abbas, good son that he is, graduated and then decided to follow his passion.
He applied for scholarship for the masters program at University of Cincinnati and got in. He studied there for sometime and later got himself transferred to Southern Methodist University. He not only studied how to string a cord properly but also the history of western classical music, instruments and orchestrations.
"I majored in classical guitar," he says with a proud smile. I ask him the difference between a classical guitar and an ordinary guitar. Abbas gets up, brings his light brown guitar. The difference is in the strings. "Classical guitar has nylon strings and is only picked with fingers," says Abbas as he plays an Italian composition for me. The difference is obvious. Ordinary guitars are simply not this melodic. Keeping his guitar on the side, Abbas says, "Apart from this guitar, only piano can be heard as a solo instrument."
The otherwise soft spoken Abbas is charged when speaking about music. Music is his territory and he is comfortable in it. His shyness magically gives way to articulation as he explains his art to a classical guitar novice. And he is particularly animated when recounting his years as a musician on the jazz clubs and bars circuit in the US of A. It was fun, but then reality struck hard. His father beckoned and Abbas came back to Karachi and began working for the family business. But in the evening, he would sit in his studio and gave into his passion. "I became edgy if I didn't play and create music. And I wanted to learn about other aspects of music – production, sound. I learned all of that through working at the studio."
In 2001, his father passed away. "He was the one with the business sense. Neither me nor my brother were good with it," he says with a sad look. In 2004, Abbas and his brother closed down the business and he began Sound Ideas.
I ask Abbas what it is all about. "Sound Ideas will cater to anybody who needs music on a commercial level."
It's a huge jump for the master musician who has always maintained a distant relationship from the Pakistani music scene. In the last ten years, Abbas has performed live only twice in Pakistan – once in 1998 and the other in 2005.
He may not have been in the spotlight but he understands the music scene in Pakistan very well. "Pakistani music is an exclusively live scene. If you can't perform live, you're out," he says. "Over a short period of time, Pakistani music has exploded. It has improved tremendously," he pauses and adds, "Pakistanis are very talented but there is no way for them to improve their talent."
Abbas has two finished albums and is completing the third. Called Identity Crisis, Elements and Big Blue Sea, they feature a melange of Pakistani talent. The music has been composed by Abbas and they feature amongst others Aamir Zaki on bass and Aliya Chinoy on vocals. Then there are a variety of unsung classical musicians. His tabla player is a man from Punjab who roams the streets of Karachi and drops in to Abbas' place to record. Abbas himself has a deep husky voice. He sang backing vocals on one of his many compositions., but knows better than to be lead singer. The music is eclectic, with jazz and eastern classical fusing in a novel way. And now, Abbas is looking to release the albums, because finally, it looks like the market has expanded to embrace genres other than rock and pop.
But Abbas' biggest reason for not releasing an album sooner are the illegitimate record labels. "The shape of things here is pathetic," he says gruffly. There is no regulation, no legit record labels who are willing to endorse and push an artist, no concept of royalties or sales. It's unprofessional."
Compelled to keep his music to himself, Abbas has high hopes for the future and he has perceptive of the music scene that has changed and evolved over time. "There was a time when I had the attitude that everything out there was crap," he confesses. "Now, I'm able to do more with my music and listen to all kinds of music and appreciate it for what it is. The album Elements has ethos of eastern as well as western classical music, which I think just might work."
Abbas is convinced that the time is right. World music is becoming more popular by the day, the Bollywood–saturated Indian music market is hungering for 'something different' and things are looking up right here at home as far as music diversity is concerned. The time is ripe for musicians like Abbas Premjee.
Abbas has always been less of a show man and more of a musician. That is a breed, the local music industry with all its one hit wonders and pirates–cum–distributors does not truly appreciate. Yet these are the people who will take the industry forward – and forward is exactly where Pakistani music is headed right now. Abbas Premjee's timing couldn't be better.

(The above article was printed in the News/Instep March 12, 2006)
- INSTEP, The News, Pakistan

"Running up that hill"

Abbas Premjee has been a part of the music industry for years. Like Aamir Zaki, he too maintains a low profile but the man, who has actually studied classical western guitar at University abroad, enjoys an immense amount of credibility within the industry. Having worked with names like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Rohail Hyatt and Ali Azmat, Abbas has finally surfaced with his first solo album, Elements that has been in the making for the last four years.

A lot has changed since Abbas began this record. Some incredible records have come out, pop stars have risen to skyrocketing fame (Atif Aslam, who else?) while others have vanished (Hadiqa Kiyani) and some have come back with more vigour than ever (Strings).

Ironically enough, despite all these happenings, the industry has never been more haywire, at least in terms of the future. With no India in the horizon (after the Mumbai blasts), the future looks bleak. But all this, strange as it may sound, makes for an interesting time to release an album. The competition is fierce but the work coming out is perhaps the best one has heard in years. And Abbas has now joined those ranks with Elements.

Ready to rise
From the first hear, it is obvious that Elements is of the fearless variety. Abbas Premjee tells us everything he knows - not by flashing guitar tricks but by putting on display his knowledge of old school raags, which led to these compositions. Most melodies have evolved from Indian raags and perhaps that is really the reason why they are so strong.

The lead single from Elements, 'Jhoom Deewane' which is currently running on airwaves, is a compelling beginning. With fabulous guitars and groovy drums paired with thumping duff and darbuka, the song maintains a very Middle Eastern vibe. Vocalist Manzoor Jhalla's notes soar to incredible heights and descend with equal ease. It's one hell of an introduction.

The Middle Eastern ethos with clap-like sounds and haunting atmosphere ala weeping guitars and crashing drums continues in 'Entrainment'. But this really is a song that showcases Rauf Sami as a singer. The son of Ustaad Naseeruddin Sami may not have reached the level of his father just yet but he is surely going in the right direction. As Rauf sings, "Sade dil de dharpan/Sajana tu hai", the impassioned vocals linger on long after the song stops playing.

Rauf Sami weaves his magic again on 'Seven Heavens' with Abbas leading the musical front with an almost flirtatious guitar, which is such an intriguing combination.

On the melancholic 'Mahiya', Irfan Haider is mournful, connecting with the mood of the song. And it has to be said that the rhythm of this tune is quite hypnotic. And the short title track 'Elements' lurches forward smoothly and it creates a mood that is almost like staring at a storm. It is just that powerful with Irfan Haider's explosive alaaps.

'Turn Inwards' is less inviting after the sheer force of 'Elements'. It sounds a little redundant. The feeling of redundancy, though, gets quickly replaced with 'Atonement'. Rauf Sami is haunting, really truly and is such a capable singer. And giving him support is Abbas finger picking the guitar in such a subtle and consistent fashion that is jaw dropping.

A swift turn in mood comes with 'Sajan Bana' - an adaptation of folk melodies from rural Punjab - with its merry-played guitars. It is rich in both textures and emotions.

The lyrics can be inscrutable at times but this works here. With each hear, there is a conflicting and unpredictable response. And that is always challenging and exciting.

'Seek Peace' is gentle, understated and soothing, with alaaps from the classically trained Manzoor and a voiceover from Aliya Chinoy just giving it more dimensions.

With these exceptionally powerful and moody tunes, the three instrumentals need a little time out. On their own, each song makes for pleasurable listening. Be it the soft 'Contemplation', the apocalyptic 'Heaven and Earth' or the resigned 'The Inner Sanctrum'. All three are curious musical pieces but they seem to get lost amidst the more powerful singles.

The bravery
Even though, in terms of public image, Abbas himself is just beginning, he doesn't shy away from introducing new names like singers Aliya Chinoy, father and son Manzoor Jhalla and Irfan Haider, and Rauf Sami (who is the son of Ustaad Naseeruddin Sami). The showmanship of these vocalists is grand. These are exceptional voices and they are all new to listeners. This is a beginning, not just for Abbas, but for all of them.

Elements also maintains solid credentials. Besides Abbas and his troop of singers,
Gumby is brought in on drums (on tracks 'Jhoom Deewane', Sajan Bana', Mahiya' and 'Seven Heavens') while Khalid Khan plays bass on singles 'Mahiya' and 'Seven Heavens'. Faisal Rafi, who co-produced Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's Charkha with Rohail Hyatt and was also the recording engineer on Strings's last offering, Koi Aanay Wala Hai, also provides expertise in the recording department.

The big question: does an album with classical guitar which crosses genres like jazz, classical rock, Indian raags and Punjabi folk melodies with a bunch of classically trained singers work? Yes.
This is intriguing music. It isn't plain and neither is it simple. It is sharp and melodic, but also musically driven. The arrangement and instrumentation is exquisite and tasteful. Abbas doesn't use this album to show off his guitar skills and keeps the vocals to add edge to songs. He doesn't use them as just mere fillers.

Abbas is not gunning to become the next big star in music and as such he doesn't fall into any clichés and traps that are consistent in most albums. A range of moods, smashing verve and musical ideas pretty much makes up the album.

And if the last few years have proven anything, it is the fact that listeners are always open to unpredictability. The success of Zeb and Haniya, Mekaal Hasan Band, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Overload and Fuzon (original) and Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan's Tabeer are the signs of the times.

That said, it should also be remembered that this music will not be digestible to all. There is no teenage drama happening here nor is this an album filled with youth anthems. And maybe that isn't a bad thing after all.

But Elements needs a major marketing force behind it to make it. And the simplest way to achieve that is with consistent shows - if Aunty Disco Project can manage shows on their own, so can Abbas. As it is, this album is certainly not catering to the masses as yet. It needs to build itself up and in the process, the man behind it.

Abbas is not a known face; he needs to appear on our telly screens more often. Ali Azmat can get away with not doing too many interviews - his star is too huge to ignore with or without interviews - but Abbas is still a stranger to the audience. They need to know him to invest in him.


***** Solid investment
**** Required listening
*** Good for a hum along
** Nothing ground-breaking
* Complete waste of money - Jang


Elements (12 tracks, world music)
Big Blue Sea (12 tracks, smooth jazz)
TVCs for Askari Bank and lux soap
News spots and shows for Dawn News
Various compositions, arrangements and productions for solo artists



Abbas has had a strong passion for music since an early age. Growing up in the eighties, he played rhythm and lead guitar for several bands in Karachi and Los Angeles, including a stint for a couple of years with “Stonewheat”. He completed his Bachelors degree in Music theory and composition from Loyola Marymount University, and then his Masters degree in Classical Guitar from SMU. A few years later, he returned to Pakistan and started his own music studio and production house. He currently resides in Little Rock, Arkansas. Abbas is also an exponent of the mohan veena, an instrument that is a modern hybrid between a guitar and a sitar, and has taken instruction in Indian classical music from the legendary sitar player, Ustad Rais Khan. Abbas firmly believes that the vast emotional library of Eastern music needs to be introduced to the West but in a manner that is culturally and socially relevant. His compositions are diverse in nature and range from introspective and haunting solos to lush and orchestral. Due to his diverse background, Abbas is comfortable writing music in many different styles ranging from ethnic, folk and world music to funked out jazz, rock, classical and everything in between. He has a natural ability to craft out melodies that stick to the listener. The guitar and the mohan veena allow him to cover the spectrum of Eastern and Western music.