Nouraiz Leister Chaman is a regular at Corty Byron’s Jam Session at Tellus360.
Stop by on any given Sunday, and you’ll hear him rocking out to songs like Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and the Band’s “The Weight.” In between songs, Nouraiz chats up the other musicians about his favorite guitar styles or quizzes them on their knowledge of AC/DC’s lineup.
“They treat me very well,” Nouraiz says. “They treat me like I’m one of them. And I get free drinks from the bartender.”
His cocktail of choice: half Sprite, half Coke, garnished with four maraschino cherries.
That’s when you realize: Nouraiz is only 8 years old.
It’s easy to see past his age when he’s shredding his electric guitar on “Highway to Hell,” or playing his tabla, a type of Indian drum, along to a recording by Pakistani singer-songwriter Ali Zafar.
His musical talents have already taken him to some pretty exciting places. He’s performed with Byron at Tellus360’s annual Concert for Refugees, with Snapsquatch at McCleary’s Pub in Marietta, and even at a celebration for Dr. Asad Majeed Kham, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, earlier this year.
On June 1, he’ll perform on the tabla at Millersville University’s Ware Center during Utsav 2019, an Indian Arts Gala.
Nouraiz lives just outside Lancaster city with his parents, Jenni Leister and Yousaf Chaman, whose jobs at Bunyaad, a fair trade partner of Ten Thousand Villages, keep the family traveling. That at least partially explains Nouraiz’s worldly wisdom.
Byron ended up moving next door to Nouraiz, so he’s seen the young musician’s talents develop firsthand.
“He’s a hell of a good guitar player now,” Byron says. “He’s pretty amazing.”
At first glance, his room looks like that of any 8-year-old, decorated with a basketball hoop over the closet door, an insect preserved in resin, an AC/DC backpack hanging near the entrance. Nearby is a homemade sticker from a past election reading, “I would have voted if I was old enough.”
There’s one of those reminders again. This isn’t your average kid.
Nouraiz, who was born in Kazakhastan, joined Leister and Chaman’s family as an 8-month-old. Even before he was adopted by Leister and Chaman, he was showing signs of a deep connection to music. A nurse who cared for him in Kazakhastan prior to his adoption said he would light up when music played, Leister says. She shared the story with Nouraiz.
“She said I’d probably be a musician someday,” Nouraiz says of the nurse. “And here I am!”
Leister and Chaman curated a YouTube video playlist for Nouraiz when he was a toddler that included live performances from Coke Studio, a Pakistani live music series, and “Sesame Street Around the World.”
Watching all those music videos put a spark in Nouraiz that grew brighter when he was introduced to AC/DC by Leister’s father, who gave him an ’80s rock compilation with the band's song “Lick it Up.” (In an attempt to censor the song, Leister sang “Pick it Up,” making it a soundtrack for cleaning and organizing.)
Since then, Nouraiz has become a walking encyclopedia of all things AC/DC. He speaks with authority on the group’s members and history. He even named his pet fish Angus after the band’s lead guitarist, Angus Young.
Around age 4, Nouraiz told his dad he wanted to be a rock star. Chaman got Nouraiz a guitar from Pakistan, where his own cultural roots grow. At first, Nouraiz just tried to strum along. A year later, he started taking guitar lessons with Alan Hill at Drums Etc.
Hill remembers his first lesson with Nouraiz.
“He comes in, and he sits down cross-legged … like a college professor, like how Niles Crane (of the TV show “Frasier”) would sit down,” Hill says.
Hill greeted Nouraiz, and asked him how he was.
“He said, ‘I’m well, and you sir?’ ” Hill says.
He was taken back by the then-5-year-old’s politeness. As he does with all his students, Hill asked Nouraiz what music he likes to play.
“Hard rock,” Nouraiz replied.
“I was on my toes right away because I knew he was a special kid right off the bat,” Hill says.
Nouraiz started earlier than the majority of Hill’s adolescent students, who typically begin lessons between the ages of 8 and 12. His commitment to — and even enjoyment of — practicing at such a young age is rare, Hill says. That drive has helped him progress rapidly in just three years.
“His speed of learning was really outrageous,” Hill says. “I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I’ve always kind of hated the word prodigy … because I’ve heard it used in circumstances I didn’t think it applied very often. But this kid’s a prodigy. I have no problem saying it.”
Drums Etc. has a “Playin' with the Band” program, run by owner Rick Hamilton, in which students who take lessons there can get a chance to play with a live group. When he was 5, Nouraiz was already rocking out on a Green Day song with the band.
Last September, Hill invited Nouraiz to join his band Snapsquatch for a performance at McCleary’s. He practiced for 6 months.
The day of the gig, he showed up in a schoolboy outfit, just like Angus Young of AC/DC, his idol.
Halfway through “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” Nouraiz’s guitar strap fell off, and the cord to his guitar popped out. For many young —and even experienced — performers, the snag could have been disastrous.
Instead, Nouraiz just gave a nod for someone to help plug him back in.
“I just got right back in, and started over from the beginning of the solo,” Nouraiz says.
Hill was impressed.
“I’ve seen actual professionals freak out in those situations, and he just took it like a champ and rolled with the punches,” Hill says.
During the set break, Hill spotted Nouraiz walking around showing off a guitar. Snapsquatch’s bassist, Steve Shenberger, gifted his electric guitar to Nouraiz for a job well done.
“I literally was so surprised, Nouraiz says. “Like, sacrificing an Epiphone SG? Those are valuable!”
While guitar often gets Nouraiz the most attention, he’s still dedicating time to practicing his tabla, too, and takes lessons with a local instructor, Ajay Upadhyaya.
“There is so much diversity here,” Leister says. “It’s just uncovering it. So I’m glad the music scene is starting to do that.”
Nouraiz also has a chimta, a long jangly instrument he yearned for after seeing Punjabi folk singer Arif Lohar play one in a YouTube video. He got his own on a trip to Pakistan with his family.
Nouraiz is able to travel with his parents frequently because of his nontraditional schooling. Every weekday, Leister drops him off at Landis Homes, where her retired parents teach him using Global Village School, a globally minded and socially conscious curriculum. He’s able to start his school day a little later than most kids, which allows him to stay up a little later for after-school music and language lessons. (That’s right: in addition to being a killer musician, Nouraiz speaks Punjabi, Urdu and Spanish, and understands Hindi.)
Even with all his accomplishments, the 8-year-old boy in him comes out in between his lessons, when he’ll gladly show visitors his sticky fake worms toys, yo-yo tricks and impressive dance skills. Just ask him to “floss.”
Nouraiz has his eyes set on some future big gigs. Namely, he’d like to play at a Bernie Sanders rally.
“I would like Corty to take me and let me perform with him,” says Nouraiz. (Byron performed at Sanders’ 2016 rally at Millersville University.)
But that's not all.
“If I could work at ‘Austin City Limits’ and meet Willie Nelson or Lukas Nelson, that would be exciting," Nouraiz says.
He’d also like to be a cricket player and a Lego designer. He’s keeping his options open. Hill might have a future gig for him, too.
“Funny enough, I have a student I taught almost 20 years ago who is the Angus (Young) in one of the big AC/DC cover bands on the East Coast called Back in Black,” Hill says. “I messaged him on Facebook and I said, ‘Let me know when you’re ready to retire. I have your replacement.’ ”