Meet Eric, a New Yorker who plays the tabla, speaks Urdu and loves Noor Jehan

Entering the musician's studio is like being instantly transported from New York to South Asia.
Published April 14, 2017

Eric Alabaster, a Jewish American musician recalls being a “pure gora” back in the day. This was before the New Yorker met late Ustaad Mulazim Hussain, a tabla nawaz from Pakistan, and his life changed forever.

Today, his music studio in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Midwood — also known as ‘Little Pakistan’ — tells a different story. Entering the windowless basement studio is like being instantly transported from New York to South Asia.

Shot by Hussain Afzal; Producers: Fahad Naveed and Hufsa Chaudhry; Edit: Kamran Nafees

An Ajrak hangs on one wall. Persian, Pakistani and Afghan rugs are placed on the floor, with cushions and gao takias spread throughout the room. Various instruments are stacked in one corner of the studio; there is a piano, a drum set, tablas, a harmonium and some speakers. Behind the equipment a framed sketch of ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan is placed on a shelf.

Sitting on one of the rugs, Eric skilfully plays the tabla as Abdul Wahid Malik, one of his Pakistani-origin neighbours, sings Mehdi Hassan’s ‘Dil Veeran Hai’. Eric knows the lyrics and coyly sings along, but is clearly more comfortable playing the instrument.

A sketch of Mehdi Hassan prominently placed at Eric's studio. — Photo by Hussain Afzal
A sketch of Mehdi Hassan prominently placed at Eric's studio. — Photo by Hussain Afzal

How it all started

In the 1990s when Eric saw many Pakistanis immigrating to the United States, he could not help but draw parallels between their situation and that of his grandfather, who was an immigrant into the US. Like many of these men, his grandfather had to temporarily leave his family behind when he emigrated from Eastern Europe.

“…This is one of the first things, besides music, that intrigued me — the fact that a lot of single men had come to Brooklyn from Pakistan,” says Eric.

Photo by Hussain Afzal
Photo by Hussain Afzal

“I felt it was very similar to the experience that all immigrants to the United States have had. There was a community of men that was here, and over time people’s wives came or they got married here.”

Among these men was Mulazim Hussain, a tabla player from the town Pindigheb in Punjab.

As Eric, primarily a drummer back then, started interacting with Hussain, he was taken by the ustaad's command of the tabla.

Eric says, “[Even] a three year old can hold a stick in their hand and hit the drum, and get a sound. But with the tabla…” he pauses to make a sound on the tablas in front of him, “…it takes years just to be able to get that sound. It’s a lot more labour-intensive”.

Eric’s first question to Hussain was, ‘Can you help me become a better drum player?’

He was already about 42 years old at that point.

“I said, ‘Ustaad Ji, tabla is too hard… I would like to learn but I’m already a grown man.’ I put off the tabla in the very beginning, I was afraid to start,” he recalls.

But great teachers help students conquer their fears. Eric not only went on to learn the tabla from Hussain, but also became so interested in the culture that he has continued to explore it even after his ustaad’s passing in 2003. Every week, he meets with South Asian musicians at his studio, which has been rebranded as ‘Eric Ki Baithak’ [Eric’s gathering].

Photo by Hussain Afzal
Photo by Hussain Afzal

Sharing music and beyond

So what exactly is Eric Ki Baithak? The musician describes it as, “a place where we sit, talk, socialise and share music”.

“Every Friday we come [together], we take turns… bringing food and sharing music here.”

Today Eric's interest in Pakistani culture expands beyond music. He has also started to study Urdu on his own. “It’s been a slow process but I have learnt to read, write and understand Urdu to a certain extent,” he says.

There have been stumbling blocks along the way. One has been differentiating between Urdu and Punjabi. “I didn’t realise that most of my friends were speaking Punjabi… that they were two different languages,” he shares with a laugh.

Nonetheless, through trial and error Eric has gained impressive command over Urdu and speaks it with a certain degree of confidence. At our insistence, he shows off his linguistic skills and says, “Pakistan aik buhut ameer mulk music ke baray main, paise ke baray main nahin, lekin music ke baray main buhut ameer mulk hai [sic].” [Pakistan is a very rich country, not in terms of money but in terms of music].

He stresses that his interactions with musicians from the country have had a profound impact on him.

“I’ve noticed they always ask ‘Ijazat hai?’ [‘Do we have your permission?’] before they will play,” he says. “In my generation the attitude was, ‘everything goes’. And I think that the Desi and Pakistani community has changed me in this way… to have more respect and defer to one’s elders.”

This ‘respect’ comes through when he speaks about senior Pakistani musicians who inspire him — especially Noor Jehan. “Listening to Madam Noor Jehan was one of the things that anchored me, and really, like a fish I was hooked,” he says.

And then he inevitably comes back to late Ustaad Mulazim Hussain — Eric’s friend, teacher and, perhaps, biggest influence.

Eric has visited Pakistan four times now. — Photo courtesy Shahid Khan
Eric has visited Pakistan four times now. — Photo courtesy Shahid Khan

Pakistan: A second home

After moving to the US, Hussain spent the rest of his life here. Over the years, he and Eric started considering each other family. “He helped me be a better father to my daughter,” Eric says remembering his friend. “He was like an uncle to my daughter and like a brother-in-law to my wife.”

Unfortunately, Hussain was unable to spend much time with his own children back in Pakistan. “His son never got to meet him, and his daughters did not know him because they were very young when he left,” says Eric.

The late tabla nawaz would stay in touch with his family via telephone; sometimes Eric would also speak to them.

Eric plays the tabla as his neighbour Abdul Wahid Malik plays the harmonium and sings. — Photo by Hussain Afzal
Eric plays the tabla as his neighbour Abdul Wahid Malik plays the harmonium and sings. — Photo by Hussain Afzal

After his death, Eric has been able to meet Hussain’s family multiple times. “I have been to Pakistan four times now,” he tells Dawn.

The first time he went to Pakistan was in 2006. When he got to Hussain’s hometown a rickshaw driver came to pick him up. “He knew who I was and I started to cry.” The rickshaw driver knew that Eric had a relationship with this tabla player from Pindigheb.

Eric has subsequently also visited Pakistan with his daughter, who is also a musician. This was to attend Hussain’s daughter’s wedding ceremony.

“My second home is there in his village, with his family,” the musician says.

He hopes to visit Pakistan for a longer period of time but says, “I just have this constraint about not being able to get a long visa. [That is] something I am trying to arrange, a longer visa so I can stay for more than one month at a time.”

Meanwhile, he continues to welcome musicians and artists from the region to his studio. It seems Eric Ki Baithak is his little recreation of Pakistan — the perfect way to bring together both the places he considers home.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Mehdi Hassan as a qawwal; the story has been updated to rectify this error.