Meet Sumaira Waris, the hijab-wearing tabla player

Tabla player Sumaira Waris on making music in a man’s world

Mehek Saeed March 22, 2016
Waris has been playing the tabla ever since she was a child. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

LAHORE: After Nescafe Basements all-female rendition of John Newman’s Love Me Again, social media became a hotbed for all kinds of emotions. Some liked it, some did not, but almost everyone agreed that the song’s young tabla player Sumaira Waris would go a long way. In fact, she garnered a great following after the track was released. The Express Tribune spoke with the youngster to find out more about her career and how she ended up playing an instrument generally associated with men.

According to Waris, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. She had been playing the tabla for nearly a decade until she performed at the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC) in 2012 and struck gold. “I just wanted to show that a girl could play tabla too – that was always my driving force,” said Waris. One can understand where she comes from, as Waris has always found herself in a 6:1 ratio everywhere – from her classes at school to APMC, where she was often the only girl. In fact, Waris said people had mixed feelings when she won the competition too. “Most appreciated me but there were those who were shocked. They wouldn’t out right ask me why I’m doing it but there would be an underlying question about how? How did I get here and how long will I be able to stay,” shared Waris.

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In the time she has spent within the music industry, Waris has learnt a lot about those around her. “I feel that people can be quite patronising towards women, particularly when they are performing live,” she said. “I often get questions like ‘Are you sure you can do it?’ I don’t think a male musician would be asked that.” For Waris, girls making music automatically becomes a point of contention in Pakistan. The instrumentalist also added that to some extent, people feel women who play music are somehow deviating from their femininity by doing so.

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But while there may be plenty of naysayers, Waris is grateful to those who helped her power through in a mostly male dominated industry. “I think people should give us more opportunities [like Xulfi] so we can show we are no less than our male counterparts,” she said. Before Nescafe Basement, Waris had never played with any other girls and was ecstatic to be able to do so. She hopes to re-band with the Love Me Again ensemble in the future but until then, will keep her Ustad company.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd,  2016.

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