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2016 Guitar Star series winner Zayn Mohammed

Alan Bryson By

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Appearing on the main stage at the Latitude Music Festival was Zayn Mohammed's prize for winning the 2016 season of the UK SkyArts TV series Guitar Star. He was welcomed to the stage by legendary rock producer Tony Visconti, of David Bowie fame, as, "an incredible performer, a consummate artist, great guitarist, great musician and a visionary!" George Benson, who like Visconti was a judge and mentor on the series, appeared via video on the stage screens with these words, "Zayn has a been an outstanding performer, because he shows what guitar is all about. Its about invention, it's about personality...he's truly a star."

Taking the stage he embodied two seemingly incongruous qualities, humility and rock star cool. He was in command on stage and seemed perfectly at ease as he announced to the festival crowd that he hoped they would enjoy a bit of funk and jazz. Much like his musical hero George Benson, whose crossover appeal took him to triple platinum heights, Zayn connected with the festival crowd. As he played his composition "Flow" and followed it with a salute to George Benson by covering "Breezin,'" the director intermittently cut to slow motion closeups of various teenage girls in the crowd swaying to the music. In a nutshell, that was how the television viewer experienced Zayn's final appearance on the series—rather like a dream come true.

It was a joyous and well deserved culmination of an arduous competition, which left me admiring how masterfully Zayn Mohammed had risen to the occasion. After interviewing him and hearing his compelling account of what it was like from his vantage point, my respect for his accomplishment has grown immeasurably. Unseen by viewers was the harrowing experience he endured, which is the stuff from which musicians' nightmares spring. Ultimately, his grace under extreme pressure was proof that he indeed possesses star quality—despite extraordinarily stressful circumstances he kept his cool and delivered the goods. Notwithstanding the limitations of ratings driven television shows, in this case the judges final decision of was proved right, and the television team managed to produce a very watchable series —thanks in no small part to Zayn's aplomb.

It wasn't possible to include his fascinating account of Guitar Star and a biographical conversation in one segment, so this interview is presented in two parts. Part one focuses on the Guitar Star experience, while part two deals with his musical development, influences, and interests. His musical roots are spread wide and go deep, beginning with a Suzuki violin program at age two, a decade of flamenco guitar starting at age three, rock guitar in his teens, and eventually jazz guitar. In addition to guitar, Zahn Mohammed also plays sarod, oud, and bass guitar.

Born and raised in London, England, he's the son of an art consultant, who was also a promoter of Indian classical music. As a child Zayn attended countless concerts, absorbing Indian music by osmosis, and spending hours backstage in the presence of some of the most renowned masters of Indian classical music. Jazz legend Ahmad Jamal happens to be a dear friend of his father, and his music also influenced Zayn from an early age. Eventually Zayn joined a select group of artists, which includes Esperanza Spalding and Hiromi, mentored by Ahmad Jamal. Speaking about this group he remarked: "I'm mentoring a young wonderful guitarist who's in the same category of brilliance, Zayn Mohammed, a brilliant guitarist..."

After graduating from Berklee College of Music, Zayn Mohammed spent some years in New York City honing his craft before returning to London. Shortly thereafter his London flat was burglarized and all of his laptops, computers, and hard drives were stolen. Yet another nightmare for a musician —in an instant years of work and irreplaceable media were lost. With nothing left to lose, he auditioned for Guitar Star and emerged as the clear winner.

After he left the main stage at Latitude, festival founder Melvin Benn, in ear shot of the film crew, told Zayn he wasn't made for the little stage, he was made for the big stage. Melvin Benn's perceptive observation was spot on, a delicate flower would have withered in that intensity. Not only did Zayn survive, he clearly thrived. Subtle, intense, emotive, inspired, inventive, resilient, resourceful, passionate, eclectic, and continuously evolving—that's Zayn Mohammed. Life has given him an exciting fresh start, and I'm eagerly anticipating the next chapters of his musical adventure.


Listen to part 1 about his Guitar Star experience

Listen to part 2, the interview

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