Yousuf and Shehroze
Yousuf and Shehroze

It was sometime in early 2016 that I watched a new tabla player, Yousuf Kerai, accompanying the accomplished Kathak dancer Farah Yasmeen Shaikh at the Pak American Cultural Center (PACC), Karachi. The surname Kerai was not too unfamiliar. His father, Shaheen Kerai, was once a colleague in a multinational pharmaceutical company and, whenever we met at the lunch table in the office canteen, our conversations revolved around South Asian classical music.

Back to Yousuf Kerai. When I went backstage after the curtain call, I was introduced to the young tabla maestro by the California-based Kathak exponent. A year or so later, I was enthralled by the young Kerai’s solo performance at a concert in Karachi’s Arts Council. He switched over from one laya (rhythmic tempo) to another with remarkable ease, and communicated with his audience as if engaging with them in a dialogue.

What is heartening is that he plays with the same degree of proficiency which a tabla nawaz from a traditional gharana would display. But he would not restrict himself to the nuances of one gharana, a quality he has picked up from his mentor, Ustad Khursheed Hussain Khan. Gharana, by the way, is roughly-speaking, a school of music, in much the same way as you have a school of thought in philosophy or literature.

“Khursheed sahib is a multifaceted genius,” the 37-year-old Karachi born tabla player tells me. “Apart from being a soloist par excellence, he is a superb accompanist for not just a vocalist or lead musician, he is also totally at ease accompanying a classical dancer.”

Yousuf Kerai may not be from a traditional gharana but he plays the tabla with the same degree of proficiency and style. And this mathematics teacher is out to spread his own love of South Asian music among the young

A month or so ago, this writer learnt that, apart from teaching mathematics to students at Habib University, Kerai also happens to be the Founding Director of the Centre for South Asian Music at the same institution.

When I phone him and ask him about it, he says, with his characteristic modesty, that he is only trying to inculcate appreciation of South Asian music among students. I readily accept his invitation to be a witness to his music class. But a week later, the coronavirus scare plays spoilsport. All classes are cancelled, so I have to confine myself to video recordings from the class. What is particularly noteworthy is that young students studying in different faculties seem eager to embrace the nuances of classical music, be it vocal or instrumental. Helping Kerai is an array of professional musicians, including stalwarts such as Ustad Khursheed Hussain and sitar maestro Ustad Sajid Hussain.

A few words about Kerai’s association with maths: he did his Bachelors in the subject and later his MATM (Masters of Arts in Teaching Mathematics) from Bennington College in Vermont, USA. This pairing of mathematics and music is a fortuitous one; music is often considered analogous to the wordless poetry of maths and much has been written about it.

On a Sunday Kerai visits my house, armed with his laptop. Before we settle down, he starts browsing through my collection of longplay records, cassettes and CDs. He pulls out an album, comprising two CDs of the tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain. “Where did you get this from?” he asks me.

“Zakir gave me this when I interviewed him way back in 1994 in San Rafael.”

“So I’m in good company,” he smiles. “I listened to him at a concert in the US, but could not meet him when I went backstage. He was mobbed by his admirers. All I can say is that the ustad has been my initial inspiration,” enthuses Kerai.

Yousuf Kerai - Photo: Bilal Ghouri
Yousuf Kerai - Photo: Bilal Ghouri

Why tabla and not any other musical instrument is the next question Kerai has to field from me. He keeps the album back on the shelf with much care and occupies a seat. “I was tutored in vocal music by Master Babu Khan when I was merely eight, and I was also taught to play the harmonium. But what took my breath away was the sound of the pair of drums,” he says. A young tabla nawaz played them during the sessions, he recalls. “What made my decision [to go towards the instrument] easier was the pair of tabla that my late paternal grandfather, a great music enthusiast, left behind. These came in handy when I finally started my formal training with Ustad Khursheed Hussain, at the age of 16.”

Having watched him and the group he had formed performing at the last Faiz Festival on YouTube, my next question was bound to be about the Tarz Group. How did it come about and what was the idea behind it? “When I returned from the US, I was disturbed by the dismal state of classical music in the country. With like-minded young and not-so-young musicians, I was able to form an ensemble. Despite monetary limitations we have been able to perform successfully in Karachi and Lahore, and have been able to launch an album: The Essence of South Asia,” Kerai says in one breath, only to add that the album is available online and in leading bookstores. He’s brought me a copy, however.

In all his talks and interviews, Kerai talks of South Asian music but that is a very wide term, I venture. He defends his stance. “There are no well-defined boundaries,” he says. “Terms such as classical, semi-classical and folk have been imposed on our music in recent decades.”

Changing the subject, Kerai says “I have had the good fortune of performing with some outstanding performers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, both in Pakistan and in the US. I would say that those were great learning experiences. More about it when we meet again, not necessarily for an interview.”

Kerai, whose wife is an investment adviser, also happens to be an avid qawwali aficionado. He hopes that their four-year-old daughter will appreciate his kind of music as well.

Does music keep his kitchen fires burning? “No, mathematics does that — music occasionally gets me a cup of strong tea,” Kerai replies, sporting his disarming smile, which is almost his trademark.

When he leaves, I’m left with his album, which I enjoy listening to again and again.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 15th, 2020