The Pakistani drummer has made a name for himself against considerable odds.

Aahad Nayani is a bit of a miracle. The thirty-two-year-old is a self-taught, meticulous drumset player from Karachi, Pakistan, who despite years of government internet censorship, used banned YouTube and torrented video tutorials to earn a place in one of the most popular South Asian rock bands, Strings. From 2013 to 2017 on the internationally syndicated program Coke Studio Pakistan, Strings showcased a wide range of traditional Pakistani musical styles and performers, all anchored by Nayani’s magnetic presence and impeccable drumming. While touring internationally with Strings, Nayani has become the face of progressive drumming in Pakistan. We spoke to him during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown.

MD: What was the video you shared on Instagram recently?

Aahad: That video is me playing a konnakol—a South Indian tabla bol. I’m learning South Indian, Indian, and Pakistani tabla bols. All I have during this lockdown is my pad, so I’m practicing and making recordings with that.

MD: How did you get to where you are now professionally, working through the Karachi and Pakistani music scene?

Aahad: I started playing drums when I was two. My dad used to play drums as a hobby, so he was my first inspiration. After that, at about ten, I played in a high school flute band and was the youngest snare drummer they ever had. When I was in fifth grade I was leading the band. At the age of fifteen I realized that I wanted to pursue music as a profession. So from that time, I have sacrificed a lot.

MD: Like what?

Aahad: My scholarships, my studies, my cricket—I was a dedicated cricketer—just to play music. First when I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician, they were like, “No. There’s no future in Pakistan for a musician.” We were not financially stable, and the scene here was not so good, but I wanted to do it.

MD: Did you get a teacher?

Aahad: I’m a self-taught drummer. YouTube has been my only teacher to date. YouTube was banned for five years in Pakistan for religious reasons. I used to download tutorials from torrents. I used to listen to Mike Portnoy so much—I would search for Portnoy tutorials and DVDs.

Aahad Nayani

Tools of the Trade

Aahad Nayani plays Mapex drums (a Saturn IV set for live gigs and a Black Panther Blaster in the studio), Meinl cymbals, a Roland electronic pad, and an LP tambourine, and he uses Vater 5A wood-tip sticks and 64 Audio A8 in-ear monitors.

MD: Pakistan is a Muslim country; are you a practicing Muslim?

Aahad: Yes, I am. I have faith, but I’m not practicing so much. I want to. When there’s time, I do.

MD: How do you make a living?

Aahad: We were not financially well off until 2009, when I joined Strings. I am so blessed. I was playing on a mediocre TV show at that time, and the members of Strings were the judges. So these guys were appraising me. On the fifth day, Bilal Maqsood [guitarist and songwriter for Strings] called me and asked me to play in the band.

MD: Do you have students?

Aahad: I would love to teach, but the problem is that I have a really different mindset. I have given so much to music, so if a person comes to me and says, “I want to learn drums just for the sake of it,” then I won’t teach them. If anyone wants to learn drums to pursue music as a career, then I will teach them. But at the moment I don’t have any students.

MD: The Strings gigs must be massive; do you do smaller gigs around Pakistan and elsewhere?

Aahad: I would love to. The kinds of venues you have in the U.S., like jazz bars, blues bars, rock bars, metal bars, we don’t have that here. There are a few venues, but those places are not acoustically treated. The kind of music I would like to play apart from Strings is very different. I think that the U.S. and U.K. are my target now.

MD: When you were doing Coke Studio Pakistan, were you being introduced to new Pakistani musical traditions? You’d have traditional performers from all over the country come to the show.

Aahad: Oh, yes, definitely. I was so into rock and funk and jazz music. I was a very straight player. There wasn’t any swing in my playing. At Coke Studio there was a tabla and dholak player [Babar Khanna], and he was playing with a lot of swing, but I was not getting it. Somehow I managed to get through that first season. Afterwards I downloaded this app, iTablaPro, and I practiced with it regularly for four or five months.

MD: Are you looking to play outside of Pakistan? What would it take?

Aahad: Let’s be clear: I want to live in the U.S., play there, and earn there. Simple as that. I have played with the biggest band in Pakistan, every artist here; now what’s left? Where’s the growth? I am looking for places to grow. That’s why I was doing those South Indian rhythms. That is something new for me.

Story by John Colpitts, Photography by Insiya Syed