Indian classical music
Exposed to rock in his earlier years working with legends such as George Harrison on his “Living in the Material World”
album, Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain began dreaming of becoming a rock drummer.
Talking about this desire in a London studio one day, Harrison persuaded him to stick with the tabla.
“We were suddenly bombarded in India with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and you’d see the occasional newsreel of the girls screaming at the Beatles,” Hussain recalls. “Indian classical music wasn’t stadium oriented with people going nuts and fainting. So of course I wanted to be a rock star, and I told George Harrison that I wanted to play drums.
“He had a confused look. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘You are a star to me; you have something unique. I have learned sitar with Ravi, but I know I’m not a great sitar player, and playing it on stage would be an injustice to the teachings of my guru, Ravi Shankar. But I can take that information and transpose it to my guitar and pay homage to it and expand my repertoire and vision. That’s where you need to go. You are a young tabla player who understands Western rhythms. Take that and put it into your tabla, and become a unique tabla player that everyone would want to play with.’ “
And that’s what Hussain did.
The world’s most acclaimed tabla player, Hussain has performed with an extraordinary range of great musicians from sitar master Shankar and jazz guitar legend John McLaughlin, to cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma and The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart.
Recently touring as a super trio with banjo genius Bela Fleck and classical double bassist Edgar Meyer, last month Hussain journeyed to London to play with the Symphony Orchestra of India, and he just performed with McLaughlin in Mumbai.
He will make his Maui concert debut performing at 7:30 p.m. March 21 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului with sitar player Niladri Kumar.
The tabla master has described Kumar as the “Ravi Shankar of tomorrow,” while Kumar has called Hussain, “a guru, guide, role model and God in motion to me.”
Looking forward to playing with the acclaimed sitarist, Hussain explains, “He’s one of the hottest instrumentalists on this planet. He’s a really special musician. It’s going to be a great challenge and big happiness to be on stage with him trading rhythm and melody. It’s so special to play with the young musicians of India today.
“When I was 20, I got my first introduction to jazz and rock in detail. I had to restart being a student again and learn from scratch about these other forms of music, and find some way to incorporate that language so my tabla could be more universal in its musical exchange with other genres. It took a while to get to some kind of conversational level with John McLaughlin or Van Morrison or anybody else.
“The young Indian musicians of today have information of all sorts of music from the world available at their fingertips online. These young people look at music as a universal entity, so while they are improvising on a raga, they can incorporate other musical ideas. By the time they are 35, they are more worldly as performers than I could have ever been.”
The tabla hand drum has been an essential element in Hindustani classical music since the early 18th century. In the hands of a master like Hussain, rhythmic patterns may be played with unimaginable speed, combined with an astonishing level of dexterity and sophistication.
Hussain’s father, Allah Rakha, was a legendary tabla player who accompanied Shankar for years, performing with him at both the historic Woodstock Festival and the Monterey Pop Festival.
In time, Hussain would record or play in concert with such leading musicians as Van Morrison, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, former Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Carlos Santana, Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders and Charles Lloyd.
After making his American debut accompanying Shankar, Hussein teamed with guitarist McLaughlin in 1974 to form the groundbreaking Shakti, the first world music supergroup.
“Blistering guitar runs, unison playing among all the players, and mesmerizing percussion duels make Shakti one of the most exciting live recordings,” praised an AllAboutJazz.com recap of the group’s debut recording.
“John McLaughlin is a genius beyond any definition,” says Hussain. “Unlike any other guitar player in the world, he’s totally at home with any genre of music. None of us had to accommodate in any way John being the only Western element on the stage. He knew exactly what to do because he took the time to study and learn Indian music. Indian musicians have the intuition amongst themselves to spontaneously improvise, and John was able to do that. The intuition was collective, all of us working as one.”
Twenty years later, Hussain was instrumental in forming a new version of the East-West fusion group called Remember Shakti. The revived band went on to release albums like “Saturday Night in Bombay” and “The Believer,” and appear at the 38th Montreux Jazz Festival.
Having just performed in concert in India, McLaughlin and Hussain are currently collaborating on a new album.
“We just did a recording session in Mumbai,” he notes.
Besides McLaughlin, Hussain has also enjoyed an enduring musical relationship with the Dead’s drummer Hart, who has lauded the tabla maestro as “the most advanced rhythmist on the planet.”
Featured on Hart’s debut “Planet Drum” album, Hussain shared the 1992 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. The subsequent “Global Drum Project” recording also won a World Music Grammy. Most recently Hussain played on Hart’s latest album “RAMU.”
One of his most intriguing collaborations features Hussain with Fleck and Meyer. The trio recorded the Grammy-nominated “The Melody of Rhythm,” a concerto for tabla, banjo and double bass, with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They toured last fall and plan more shows this year.
“Any musician who has reached the top shelf will tell you the best is yet to come, and they are still learning and they need to expand their repertoire or reinvent themselves,” he says. “Then your mind is open, there are no fences or borders. I’ve learned to speak tabla in jazz and in hip-hop or Western classical and so on, and someone like Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer are similar in their thought processes. They wanted to learn more and expand their horizons.”
Occasionally touring with Hancock, he is included on the jazz great’s forthcoming album, which also features saxophonist Wayne Shorter and hip-hop stars Common, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg.
“That album is like our planet being a neighborhood, and the neighborhoods interact and seamlessly flow into each other,” explains Hussain. “His idea is you’re in a neighborhood called jazz and you turn the corner and you’re in a neighborhood called Indian music. There’s musicians of all genres of music.”
Also on the horizon, he has a new recording project with Fleck and Meyer plus Indian flutist Rakesh Chaurasia. There’s a trio album with jazz bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter set for August release, and in May he travels to Florence, Italy, to present his “Peshkar Tabla Concerto,” conducted by Zubin Mehta.
“There’s never a dull moment,” he enthuses. “It keeps the fire burning, and then you have someone like Niladri Kumar who puts you to the test. It’s great. It doesn’t in any way make life boring.”
As far as the Maui program, Hussain says, “in a nutshell it will be Indian classical music as it was, then a younger view of what Indian classical music is today and then approaching to where Indian classical music is going in terms of what it’s influencing.”