Zakir Hussain is considered the world’s greatest living master of the Indian tabla. As the son of Ustad Alla Rakha, the tabla player for the great Ravi Shankar, Hussain not surprisingly formed a connection to the instrument when he was just two days old.
“My father would hold me in his arms and sing rhythms in my ear,” says Hussain, who will perform with his group, the Masters of Percussion, on April 4 in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert. “So by the time I was 3, I was a totally confused young kid. I had all this stuff going on in my head and no way of being able to express it until I came across the tabla. Then it all began to make sense.”
Hussain, now 63, is credited with bringing Indian music out of South Asia and into the world at large. He reached a new demographic as a frequent collaborator with stars such as jazz fusionist John McLaughlin (they led the groundbreaking Indian-jazz group Shakti) and the late Beatle George Harrison, not to mention his series of percussive explorations with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
A fearsome technician yet also a whimsical inventor, Hussain is open to exploring any number of percussive styles outside his realm. One of the ways he does this is his biennial Masters of Percussion tour. The Masters consist of Selvaganesh Vinayakram on kanjira (a frame drum) and ghatam (a clay pot), Steve Smith on Western drums, Niladri Kumar on sitar, Dilshad Khan on sarangi (a string instrument), Deepak Bhatt on dhol (a two-headed drum) and Vijay Chavan on dholki (another style of two-headed drum).
Each time he takes the Masters on the road, Hussain adds something new to the mix, including this time around two drumming traditions from India that haven’t been represented in past tours. One is the drumming style associated with fishermen on India’s western coast; the second is a more in-depth look at the traditions behind the dhol, the drum that sets the syncopated beat for Indian bangra dancers.
By his own admission, Hussain says the “wild card” in the lineup is Steve Smith, best known as the drummer for the rock band Journey and the first non-Indian to be included on Hussain’s biennial tour. “Steve has crossed the bridge to come to our world,” Hussain says. “He has learned Indian drumming, Indian rhythms and Indian repertoire. To have an American drummer converse with you in your language makes for an intimate, fun and challenging interaction.”
Growing up in Mumbai, Hussain was allowed to find his own way on the tabla until age 7 when he began lessons under the tutelage of his father. Even at that early age, he realized something musical lay underneath his so far amateur playing that needed to be guided and formed by a master.
His father would wake him at 2 a.m. for lessons when everyone else in the house was asleep. “He would sing rhythms to me in various combinations and talk to me about the old masters and the traditions,” Hussain recalls. In the afternoon after school, he would take all that information gleaned from his father and put it into his practice with the tabla. By age 12, he was an international touring artist.
Hussain moved to the United States at 20 to accept a teaching position at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was during a visit to his father’s Los Angeles home that he met Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Soon after meeting, Hussain performed on Hart’s first solo album, “Rolling Thunder” (1972). The pair’s musical partnership continued: they won the first-ever Grammy Award for best world music album in 1992 and took the category again in 2009 for their album “Global Drum Project.”
“Working with Mickey made me very humble because up to that point I felt Indian tabla’s repertoire was the best,” Hussain says with a laugh. “But I soon learned there were other traditions which are just as old and just as intricate. So it was back to the drawing board to start learning again.
“Thanks to Mickey, I was able to extend this other corridor in my rhythm house and that has actually enriched my tabla playing. I play very differently than other players who have not had exposure to so many other rhythm traditions. And I think that allows me to be able to interact with [jazz saxophonist] Charles Lloyd one day or Herbie Hancock the next day or John McLaughlin the next day.”
While on stage with the Masters of Percussion, Hussain offers explanations of the regional styles and techniques he employs, but much of the performance is left to improvisation. And the key to mastering these Indian percussive rhythms began with those early rhythms repeated over and over in a young boy’s ear.
“Those rhythms sung in your ear as a baby are the most important part of learning Indian rhythms,” he says. “When your hands are big enough, the knowledge is already in your head, so what you now need to do is get the information into your hands. We believe in Indian music that unless your brain is able to command your hands, you’re not going to be able to improvise spontaneously.”
Mary Houlihan is a locally based freelance writer who specializes in roots and world music.
VIDEO: Zakir Hussain, in concert, via YouTube.