An Interview: Fareed Haque

Photos By: Jessica Pace

… My phones rings, I glance at the clock; 2:55 am. I press the record buttons on my recording devices. I glance down at my phone to see the name Fareed Haque. He tells me he is driving through the night, from Saratoga Springs to Indiana…

J-man: First off, I want to tell you how much I appreciate this.

Fareed: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

J-man: Can you describe the music of Garaj Mahal for someone who may not be familiar with the band?

Fareed: Yeah, Garaj Mahal is less about a specific style of music and more about an approach to music. We are all virtuosos on our own instruments and unlike most virtuosos, we’re a lot more into to having a good time and laying down a groove than we are about showing off chops all day long. The music is sophisticated and yet, fun and usually pretty danceable. That being said, there is a lot of world music influence in the band. Specifically; Kai and myself, spend a lot of time playing different music’s from around the world… particularly Indian music and we’re all pretty solidly established in the jazz world and at different styles. So for the most part, we’re sophisticated, danceable, well-played, hip music with a world music flair and a good pocket.

J-man: Looking at your tour schedule I see that currently the majority of your dates are festivals. What do you think of the festival scene and what role has it played in relation to exposure for Garaj Mahal?

Fareed: Festivals have been really important for Garaj Mahal and continue to be. In a lot of ways Garaj Mahal is a festival band because we make a big sound for a quartet and we’re really served by a big sound system and an arena approach to some of the music. The audiences love to party down with Garaj Mahal to be perfectly frank… and festivals are a good place to do that. whether it’s dancing, or tripping, or whatever it is they want to do, to music, Garaj Mahal seems to fit the bill. We have our trippy elements, we have our intense elements, we have our jam band element and it kind of flows nicely at festivals especially. It’s nice to get a festival where you can kind of create a drama, because you have a really great space to create the drama in. Clubs are great too, but they are really different. Clubs are more about personal interaction… You can’t really put on a huge light show in a jazz club, you know? You can’t really get the volume and the sound, on a small stage, so it becomes a lot more of a jazzy experience. Where as on a bigger stage, it can be a lot more powerful. Not that the jazzy/intimate experience isn’t powerful, it’s just powerful in a different way. In a small club, which we do enjoy it as well… a lot… we love it, but in a small club it’s more about everybody getting down and partying together. Where as on the big stage we can really craft an experience that’s unique. That’s one thing about Garaj Mahal; that every show is completely unique, because we’re all really strong improvisers. Arrangements change, introductions change, formats change. All of that changes. But really it’s a live music experience. A lot of the bands we have toured with are great, but after you see ten shows and they’re the same… That’s kind of interesting. But Garaj is never the same.

J-man: That leads into my next question; What does improvisation mean to you and your style of playing?

Fareed: Improvisation to me means the ability to react. The ability to be spontaneous. The ability to take the moment, whatever that is; and make it magic. That’s what improvisation empowers one to do. I think a lot of instrumental musicians get so wrapped up in, you know… “Damn, I can play fast!” or “Damn, I can play loud!” or “Damn, I can improvise! Look at all I can do…” It kind of takes over and begins to effect the music in a negative way. It’s kind of like showing off, if you will. After a while there is only so much interests that people will have in watching you flex your muscles. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger had to have a career… (Laughs) After a while there is only so much time you can spend looking at someone’s greased up muscly body. It’s not that different with music. There is only so long that you can listen to someone play the shit out of the guitar before you’re like “Yeah, so what?” It’s just a tool… Virtuosity is just a tool and virtuosity in improvisation is also just a tool. If you can use that tool to create magic; then it’s a fantastic ability to have. But, if it serves itself it becomes kind of empty. If there is a left turn, or somebody in the audience says something, or you get a request; or if we improvise a different groove or a song and we can all go with it. That creates some magic. Sometimes we’ll play a song and no one in the band will know what song we’re playing until all of a sudden we can find our way to the melody. The audience is like “Oh, I had no idea they were playing that tune; I like that tune. But it’s a different version so… It can be really exciting. Improvisation is a means to get to the magic… spontaneous magic.

J-man: You have a really impressive list of people that you have recorded with, who has challenged you the most, musically?

Fareed: Well, challenges are very different. There are many different kinds of challenges in music. I’ve played with a lot of different musicians in a lot of different contexts… I’d say probably the most challenging musical experience I ever had, which is not to say that it was difficult, but jut to say that it was different; was working with Joe Zawinul and his group. Joe Zawinul of course the seminal keyboard virtuoso wrote the famous tune “Mercy Mercy Mercy”, began as Dinah Washington’s accompanist, back in the day, and then toured with Cannonball Adderly and wrote a bunch of the music for the Cannonball Adderly Quintet. After that he toured a lot with Miles and then he formed the group Weather Report along with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and later on Alex Acuna... Later on Peter Erskine. Then he went on to form Zawinul Syndicate after Weather Report broke up. I worked with the Syndicate for about a year and it was very challenging because Joe really had specific expectations for each member of the band. So it was a little less about me being me, and a little more about me being what Joe wanted me to be (Laughs). Sometimes what Joe wanted me to be, changed from night to night. There were nights were Joe would single out members of the band, and just rip the shit out of them… In front of everybody on the tour bus. I remember one time he just ripped the shit out of me. “What the fuck are you doing?” and “Why are you fucking up my music?” and “Why do you play that shit?” Da-da-da-da-da… Next night, we’re listening to the tape of the night before and he says to me “That’s the shit I want to hear! Why the fuck aren‘t you playing my music like that?” (Laughs) So, it was like, he was very mercurial to be… Polite about it. One day he would be saying I played the worst shit in the world, the next day he’d be saying the same shit that was the worst shit in the world the night before was the best shit in the world. It was interesting trying to get into his head. But, it taught me a lot. He taught me a respect for folk music and for simple music that hadn’t really quite sunk in up until then. He taught me to be strong. At a certain point it didn’t matter whether he loved or hated what I played… At a certain point it was about me standing by what I believed in. Joe Zawinul said something to me that was great, that has really changed my life. He said; “Fareed, Man, you are a weird mother fucker and when you can realize that you’re a weird mother fucker, and let that weird shit come out in your music, you’re going to be alright.” (Laughs) I think I have taken that to heart… and that’s a big reason why I am driving across the country at three in the morning, talking to you and happy about it.

J-man: Right on. Can you tell me a little about the sitar you play? Which did you play first the sitar or guitar?

Fareed: I don’t play the sitar. I play the guitar and I have a custom built instrument which is called a “Guistar” (By Kim Schwartz), which sounds like a sitar but it’s actually played like a guitar.

J-man: I see. I assumed it was some kind of electric sitar that you were playing. I guess my assumption was incorrect.

Fareed: it’s kind of a hybrid.

J-man: I see.

Fareed: So, I started on acoustic guitar and sort of informally played classical guitar, kind of self taught. Then I got interested in Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia and the album “Elegant Gypsy”. My mom also, a great help because she went out and bought me two guitar albums when I started showing an interest in music. She bought me Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake”. My mom, right? (Laughs) And she bought me Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life”. Between those two albums and “Elegant Gypsy”, there is a shit load of great guitar playing. It was just a real amazing revelation, because between Pat Martino, who was a real bee-bop musician and Path Metheny, who really had a love for country music. And of course, Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola really embraced Hispanic sounds. I was really blessed to start off with some of the greatest masters as inspiration. Then, not long after that I discovered John McLaughlin and Shakti. That sort of completed the connection between; the classical guitar world, my Hispanic roots on my mother’s side, and my Pakistani/Indian roots on the other side… And of course my love for jazz and American music. So, I have been blessed with a uniquely, sort of global perspective. It’s taken me a long time to be peaceful with that. For a long time I really wanted to be black man from Indianapolis, in 1968. It took me a while to realize that wasn’t ever going to happen (Laughs). So I made peace with embracing who I am, and what I am and it’s starting to make sense. It’s taken a long time, but it’s starting to make sense.

J-man: I see that you are a professor of Jazz and Classical Guitar Studies at Northern Illinois University, how long have you been teaching?

Fareed: Damn, man… Since 1988. So what is that? How long is that?

J-man: 22 years.

Fareed: Yeah, so it’s been a minute. I started pretty young, I think I was 23 when I started my professorship there. So I have been there for a little while and really have a good situation there. The faculty is pretty hip at this point, and they really appreciate groove, rhythm and fundamentals. I think there are a lot of university programs that haven’t really prioritized rhythm… and groove as the essential musical skills. Let me spend a minute talking about that if you don’t mind…

J-man: Please.

Fareed: One of the crucial missions I think of any music education or arts education is to be relevant. To be relevant to what’s going on. If art isn’t relevant, if it’s not connected to the voice of the people, it really in many ways ceases to be meaningful art. It ceases to be a social force, if you will. The truth is; for more and more years than I care to remember, music education establishment has pretty much marginalized contemporary popular music. Really that marginalization has gone on for so long that it became kind of absurd because you can’t really marginalize the Beatles. You can’t really marginalize Bob Dylan. You can’t marginalize so much meaningful art in the 20th century and music in the 20th century. It got to the point where we’ve really marginalized a lot of black music, particularly; funk, r & b… Later on hip-hop, rap and all of the different genres of new American music. It’s got to the point where you can make a million, or a hundred million dollars as a musician and not have a music education. But you could have a music education and you’d be really psyched if you made thirty grand a year. At a certain point; why go to music school? (Laughs) Right?

J-man: Right…

Fareed: If you can get your drum machines and your set-up and start producing house music and producing pop music and make a lot of money, and you get your degree in a music school and you’re living in a crappy apartment you know, geeking it out on two incomes. Well, the bottom line is, what brings all of these different musics together, is rhythm. If you’re a brother with no education and you can groove; you’re gonna work. If you’re a Latino guy, a Mexican guy, a Tex-Mex guy with very little musical education, but you can groove and you can create a pocket. Whether it’s live or through your digital machines or on your computer; You’re gonna work. If you’re a bass player in Columbus, Ohio and you can play funky bass lines; you’re gonna work. If you’re a jazz guitar player and you can play a simple rhythm guitar part and comp nicely behind the soloist; you’re gonna work. It goes down the line, so now that the university; particularly NIU, is embracing the idea of rhythm, rather than virtuosity as an essential skill to success. It changes the whole playing field. You’ve all heard the story of the typical uneducated young musician that comes to music school and can’t read, but can groove and can and can swing. That person might fail in the music school environment. Then the other person who is very well educated and has had clarinet lesson since the were six years old, and can read all of the dots; but can’t really play their way out of a paper bag. That person is going to succeed in music school… That has to change, that has to end. Cause the clarinet player is going to end up in an orchestra, maybe if they’re lucky; but probably teaching in a high school. That guy who can groove, or that gal who can groove could go on to do great things… Financially and artistically. So we’ve got to find a way to embrace the value of rhythm and not be afraid to say “You’ve got great rhythm, you get an A.” and “You’ve got crappy rhythm, you get an F.” Then mom and dad come and say “Why did my son/daughter get an F?” and you say “You know what? They’ve got crappy rhythm… They can‘t make me dance.” That’s really hard to back up with a test. You know what I’m saying?

J-man: I do.

Fareed: So, you’ve got to be able to stand there and look at people and say “This is the criteria that we’re judging them on and it’s the real world criteria. If mommy and daddy don‘t get it, tough beans.” That’s a very forward looking, but also precarious place to be as an educator in general. You open yourself up to all kinds of possible spurios grading charges and all kinds of stuff. But at a certain point you have to stand up for the real world and say “This is the way the real world is, and if we don’t mirror the real world on some level, we’re not relevant to the real world. On some level, over the course of the next generation we’ll be more and more marginalized and eventually obsolete.

Fareed: I just played a gig, not with Garaj Mahal, not with The Flat Earth Ensemble, but with the Ball State University top Jazz Ensemble. We had people dancing in the aisles, we had people Hootin’ and hollerin’. We played some Freddy Hubbard funk tunes, we played some of my original music… We got everybody dancing and that’s really what people connect to at first in music is rhythm. Later on they connect all of the other stuff, but at first it’s rhythm. I think if you start there, then you get them. It was great to be doing a college gig, at a university and still bring down the house with a jazz party.

J-man: That’s really cool…

Fareed: So, things are changing… Things are changing for the better.

J-man: I hope that’s true. Fareed, I appreciate all of your insight. I will save the rest of my questions for another time.

Fareed: Sounds great man, sounds great.

J-man: Again, I appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Fareed: Alright, we’ll talk to you soon, brother.

Check out and check out Garaj Mahal’s two new albums; “More Mr. Nice Guy” their new studio cd, and their new electronica album, which is a collaboration between Garaj Mahal and Moog.

As well check out Freed's new cd with his Flat Earth Ensemble. The cd is titled “Flat Planet.” The follow up to “Flat Planet” is going to be titled “Bing Bang Boing” which Fareed is just finishing up. It should be realeased in a couple of months...

Garaj Mahal Live at Blind Melon's on April 10, 2005.


  1. Solid interview! Unfortunately i haven't heard as much of these guys as i need to.

  2. I wonder what he thinks of Return to Forever and did they give GM ideas about how they wanted to approach their tunes?
    return to forever sounds like to me a great pre-cursor for Garaj Mahals sound.

  3. Jordan, Thank you.

    Anonymous, I agree.


  4. Great interview, it's a pleasure to see Fareed continue to have such a great career. Just one correction - Joe Zawinul is not a "Seminole" keyboard virtuoso, he is a "seminal" keyboard virtuoso.

  5. Thanks for the correction and kind words.


  6. Another phenomenal interview J-man. Hoping to have Fareed Haque perform at Wuhnurth.

  7. I am pumped for two shows with them at bearcreek.

  8. I would love to see Fareed/Garaj at Wunurth! I'm also extremely pumped for Bear Creek.


  9. Fareed has such great insights into music...I love his take on groove and rhythm in music education!!

    How amazing would it be to see him collaborate with MMW? If he has in the past, I must find that show/album.


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