A music and computer science double major with a certificate in ethnomusicology, Tomal Hossain ’17 immersed himself in the Amherst music community through his ability to reach people with his art and his personality.
Hossain will spend the next year traveling around the world as a Watson Fellow, exploring the intersections of music and culture.
Since childhood, Hossain has grown up in the same apartment his parents lived in after immigrating to Los Angeles in 1990. “The locals in L.A. called it ‘Little Bangladesh,’ which is in the confines of Koreatown,” Hossain said. “I grew up with a ton of cultural diversities. It was a mishmash of different Asians [and] Latinx.”
At a young age, Tomal discovered his passion for music in Saturday classes. “We would get together as groups of children growing up, like a Saturday school, where I would learn Bengali and traditional Bengali music and instruments,” Hossain said.
His love for music differentiated him from the other students.
“Most children were super restless and were anxious to leave the confines of the classroom in this recreational center because there was a playground near by,” he said. “I always remember that I would always request the teacher ‘Can we do it again?’ People usually hated me for that.”
Hossain spent most of his time growing up practicing “traditional music-making — either in rehearsals, teaching, learning or performing.” After the age of eight, Hossain started learning classical music of South Asia more seriously with private lessons throughout middle and into the beginning of high school.
Hossain’s brother is also a musician, so the two of them often performed together.
“We did really well for our community both presenting music to other communities and traveling to other places [to perform],” Hossain said. “It was really nice to hear positive feedback from our elders, and, as a kid, you eat that stuff up.”
The positive encouragement motivated him to keep practicing and trying. “There was obviously a phase of wanting to quit and being fed up with things because it’s too much work, which probably happened around six or seventh grade,” he said. “That’s just a part of being a weird middle school student and going through puberty.”
Outside of music, Hossain used to run cross country and track. His academic interests were centered on STEM subjects, specifically math and chemistry.
“I would say back then I really didn’t think I would gravitate towards what I concentrated in here at Amherst,” Hossain said. “Coming in here, there was all this musical and humanities activity that I [was] attracted to. I still kept up with whatever inspired me to do the math and chemistry before, because I am a computer science major on top of being a music major.”
After becoming interested in computer science during the second semester of his first year, he continued to take these courses. For him, the material was interesting, and he enjoyed his summer internships related to web development.
“I decided that [I] didn’t want to go out on a total limb on the music major, so I would be well suited to have another degree to put on my resume,” Hossain said.
As for the ethnomusicology certificate, “I was a total nerd, especially in high school, so I had a bunch of interests like anthropology,” Hossain said. “The best way of bridging music and anthropology is ethnomusicology.”
Expansion of Music
Hossain’s extracurricular activities at Amherst have focused primarily on music. “My freshman year, I kind of dove right into the majority of my musical involvements: The DQ, Amherst College Jazz Ensemble for which I was the main singer,” Hossain said. “I did one Amherst College Jazz combo, and Glee Club, and I did side projects with fellow Hindustani, and South Asian classical music, with trio and duo things with people. The other club-related thing was the South Asian Student Association, and that was really it.”
As a sophomore and junior, Hossain kept the heavy focus on music, but switched out some clubs for others like Gamelan Ensemble, conducting lessons and individual voice lessons.
Hossain spent his second semester of junior year abroad at a music program in Vienna.
“It was a nice break from the divided lifestyle of a computer science and music double major,” Hossain said. “It was nice to go all out in the music scene, and I was reading a lot of piano music, which I didn’t grow up doing because I’ve always been an oral musician. That is where I started composing my senior thesis about a year before it premiered.”
However, in Vienna, Hossain also faced a major challenge: losing his voice. As a result, he had to drop his singing activities and took speech and voice therapy.
The wide range of musical genres countered the tendency to just stick to one thing nicely, but Hossain sometimes wishes he had done a wider variety of activities such as theater or dance. “Once you really get into something you become blindsided that prevents you from seeing the benefit [of] doing other things,” Hossain said. “I was just so into doing different types of music.”
He recommends that music majors branch outside of one genre and explore more.
“It’s super rewarding to think about things comparatively and to create a meta-comparative experience of my life. Choral music is really good for fostering a sense of collectivity and demonstrated to me that the importance and the benefits of really engaging others not only in a musical context but a whole bunch of collaborative contexts. Improvisation in general is a great skill, so it extends beyond music making. If you are an improviser then you are more poised to gage a social situation or a job application to make it work,” Hossain said.
Earlier this year, Hossain premiered his thesis performance, “Kundalini Rising.” Hossain tried to highlight Hindustani music as well as other influences.
“I tried to synthesize the very influences that affect my music-making up to the present day, so I hope to inspire not only … South Asian [people] to do what I did, but to inspire [people] regardless of their background to engage with their entire background as human beings.”
“I really did want to make a statement of where I come from and what I’m interested in,” he added. “I hope that would serve as a model regardless of your background and discipline.”
Long You ’17, who has lived with Hossain all four years, has gone to nearly all his shows in the past four years and described Hossain’s thesis presentation as “amazing blends of classical, South Asian, electronic. [Hossain] took a clash of all these different cultures and experiences and put them together. He speaks about his experience in a way that really connects with people.”
“[Hossain] added so much love and joy to the campus. He has also added so much beautiful music,” You said.
Hossain, who recently won a Watson Fellowship, will spend the next year traveling to Indonesia, India, Senegal and Morocco to work on a project, “Music Cultures of Muslim Majority Communities.”
“It’ll be a bunch of learning traditional music and studying the cultures in which they are produced with truly no expectations of any final project or presentation,” he explained.
Ayoung Kim ’17, Hossain’s friend since their first year, finds Hossain’s passion addictive and inspiring.
“I feel like Tomal is the kind of peer who, in a decade or two, [you can see] become a giant in their field and you feel really good about it,” Kim said. “You have seen them grow and accomplish and you know how passionate they are in that field and they are continuously growing. I’m really excited for his post-Amherst life.”
Hossain’s talents have gained recognition beyond the Watson program, as he also applied for and won a Fulbright Scholarship. However, as Hossain can only take one offer at a time, he has chosen to decline the Fulbright in favor of exploring his interests with the Watson Fellowship.
After his Watson year concludes, Hossain plans to apply for more fellowships, including reapplying to the Fulbright. He is also considering attending graduate school for ethnomusicology in the future.