Garaj Mahal guitarist Fareed Haque says music teachers just show you how to teach yourself


By Steve Newton

Fareed Haque is one of those guitarists who’s always on the lookout for new ways to challenge himself. As a child, extensive travels and lengthy stays in Spain, France, Iran, Pakistan, and Chile exposed him to many different styles of music. By the time he was in his late teens he had won a jazz-guitar scholarship to North Texas University, where he spent a year studying with the renowned Jack Peterson.

A growing interest in classical guitar led him to transfer to Northwestern University, where he completed his studies in the form under David Buch, John Holmquist, and Anne Waller. But looking back, Haque can’t pinpoint any one instructor as being most responsible for his growth as a player.

“I’m a teacher, too,” he notes from his home in Evanston, Illinois, “and I will tell you that teachers don’t teach you anything about music; they just show you how to teach yourself. And so they all were very important. But I think some of the best lessons I had were single lessons, like a lesson with Joe Pass. And hanging out with [flamenco players] Angel and Pepe Romero—just hangin’ out with them—those were some of the great guitar lessons.”

In ’89 Haque joined the faculty of Northern Illinois University, where he currently holds an associate professorship in jazz and classical-guitar studies. And when he’s not shaping young minds in the classroom he’s blowing them in performance with the exemplary jam band Garaj Mahal, which includes his former NIU pupil, keyboardist Eric Levy.

“I guess I showed him some stuff,” says the modest guitar genius, “but in my eyes he was more of a peer than a student. We were jammin’ together and stuff.”

The love of improv is what first brought Haque and Levy together with ace bassist Kai Eckhardt and drummer Alan Hertz in 2000. As local jam-band fans will discover when the quartet performs at the Fairview on Friday and Saturday (May 23 and 24) and at Whistler’s Boot Pub on Sunday and Monday (May 25 and 26), the on-stage communication between the players is mind-boggling. Coming across a bit like Mahavishnu Orchestra, but with more of a blues-funk base, Garaj Mahal incorporates traditional and acid jazz with elements of classical music, rock ’n’ roll, and Middle Eastern sounds.

“I like the fact that there are four musicians who are all open-minded and virtuosic,” asserts Haque. “Usually those two things don’t go together. So we can go anywhere—almost anywhere. And it’s never one person’s vision. None of us are ever quite satisfied with what’s happening, so there’s a conscious kind of creative tension that’s really healthy, and always forcing us to reexamine.”

Apart from Garaj Mahal’s three live CDs, Haque has released two albums on Sting’s Pangaea label, three on the prestigious Blue Note imprint, and his most recent, Singh Song, on Haven Records. Some of the luminaries he’s worked with over the years include Kurt Elling, Lester Bowie, Arturo Sandoval, Dave Holland, Ramsey Lewis, Joe Zawinul, Cassandra Wilson, and Medeski, Martin & Wood. But the 40-year-old Haque’s most notable accomplishment occurred just last month, when he became a dad for the first time. Not that he’s in any rush to thrust a guitar into his new son Elihu’s tiny arms.

“My parents were real open with me,” he says. “They just exposed me to everything, and I made my choices. And I think we’ll do the same with him. You know, I’m not gonna predispose him to be a musician, but he has great hands! He definitely has great hands!”

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