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Every once in a while, there comes a musician who sweeps you with sheer charisma and “adaa” (meaning “grace”), that one can’t help but participate and rejoice in it. A musician, especially the “experimental kind” is a very rare breed in today’s music world. Anu Gopalakrishnan, has an exclusive chat with the charming, electrifying percussionist, Numero Uno Tabla Maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain.

One vividly remembers an old 30 sec jingle that relates to the old Taj Tea where one sees Ustad Zakir Hussain in his own signature style performing and the narrative voice declaring how the Ustad spends several hours in “riyaz”(meaning practice), his unique style and his taste for good music. The narrator further celebrates Ustad Zakir Hussain as “Wah! Ustad Wah! And then the man himself proclaims “Arey hujoor - Wah Taj Boliye” – the sound of the tabla continues to ring even after the jingle ends. Such is the music of our esteemed jewel of India Ustad Zakir Hussain.

We all look for inspiration and motivation outside of the self, but here is a true musician who in spite of being the son of the legendary Allah Rakha, survived and surpassed the expectations of music lovers to become a fitting example to the musical instrument “Tabla”. Today, Ustad Zakir Hussain is a household name for the young and the old. Think about tabla and percussion, every conversation is incomplete without raising a toast to Ustad Zakir Hussain.

Some excerpts…


You have been shuttling between the United States and India –How do you feel about the two different worlds in terms of social lifestyle and most importantly teaching.
ZH: According to me, in today’s world there is a very thin line of difference between the two societies. Internet, social medium like Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube has brought the communities together and has also facilitated teaching. As an example, there is Ali Akbar College of Music and Shankar Mahadevan Academy which are extremely popular.

It is not that difficult to go back and forth in curriculum and crossover in styles of teaching is more prevalent. I have always had students across the globe coming to learn whether it is the US or India. Students spend around 10 days in a retreat with me, spend the music season in winter and with all the communities becoming smaller, travel is just easier. Surgeries happen online. Online teaching is not very difficult and one advantage is that I need not design different ways to express our tradition to the students. It is a challenge to advise someone in another part of the world but technology has literally changed the way teaching happens. In those days students used to send me cassettes where it would be very difficult for me to assess the quality with just audio. Now, with you tube, visuals become more appealing when I have to point out mistakes, differences are blurred thus making the student-teacher look at the sameness in music.

What’s your most challenging collaboration of all?
ZH: Every collaboration is unique by itself. Every concert involves different ways of interaction; whether it is Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pt. Ravi Shankar or Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia. It is very hard to tell. The challenge lies mainly in striking a chord on stage especially when you rely on instruments only. We have to create a storyline with a melodic pattern. In essence, the challenge is to reach a point where you have crossed all boundaries, sort of become like a family, where by your interaction is on many different levels.

In 1992, Hussain founded Moment! Records, which features original collaborations in the field of contemporary world music, as well as live concert performances by great masters of the classical music of India. The label presents his own world percussion ensemble, The Rhythm Experience, both North and South Indian classical recordings, Best of Shakti and the Masters of Percussion series. Moment Records’ 2006 release Golden Strings of the Sarode, with Aashish Khan and Zakir Hussain was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album category for that year. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

So, does your partnership entail knowing the individual off stage?

So, basically the musicians I connect well are individuals I have known for several years, both on a personal and a professional level. This relationship building is what is called chemistry which shows in all my collaborations on and off stage. This helps in having conversations via our music on stage. To me, music is a package, a “Rogan josh” (combination) of all levels. The challenge is to the reach that point. We talk about many things on stage. We converse about weather, about family, about things that happen in everyday life. Again, this is not with everyone, only with some people whom I have had the good fortune to interact. I have been lucky in that front where it is a blessing to have that kind of relationship with all these musicians. I am in a lucky position to be able to express to stage.

To all your fans and ardent followers, every time Ustad is on stage, he performs with the same charm and excitement. What do you have to say about that?
Thank you for the kindness. I don’t manage to put on a show. The passion and excitement is within me and I am in love with what I do. Music really drives me. It keeps me focused and excited. My audiences cheer me up completely. They are my inspiration and I react to that. I didn’t have to separate myself with my instrument. I have always spoken about this – when I saw my dad (reference to the legendary Allah Rakha Khan) at the age of 70 playing the tabla with equal zest and passion after hours and hours of hard work and discipline, I realized that was the greatest lesson one could learn from the master. My father’s love for the toy creates a relationship that ends as a friendship with his inner spirit. That connection you establish within yourself and the passion you have is second to being with family.

Hussain was a child prodigy, and was touring by the age of twelve. He went to the United States in 1970, beginning his international career which includes more than 150 concert dates a year. In 1973, he appeared on George Harrison's Living in the Material World album. A prolific composer, he has received widespread recognition. Hussain is a founding member of Bill Laswell's 'World Music Supergroup' Tabla Beat Science. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Does that focused spirit create conversations with your fellow collaborators on stage?

Yes, of course! That kind of love and emotion you go through with your work, and the relationship that you share with your spirit makes me scream out loud via my music that is waiting to be shared and experimented. Five out of 10 times I work with a different combination of musicians. So, there is a lot to do, improvise and experiment with new patterns. This allows for a large amount of spontaneity and keeps the challenge at a very high level. This will take us back to the connection we spoke about.

If there are a few characteristics you can draw out of your experience and education, what would they be?
Challenge of relationships, learning to be open to your heart and mind so that you can allow certain influences to take root within yourself. Most of the time, inspiration is part of the growth process and it makes you a complete musician. For me, my faults and mistakes appear to me through them. They become the mirror where in things I have overlooked in my music is displayed big and bold in front of me. That inspiration could be individuals, nature and can come in any art or scientific form. This will allow you to repair anything that needs to be fixed which according to me, is a very significant element in music.

Coming to your pet project, what is Masters of Percussion?
This idea emerged out of my tours with my father in early 1990’s. My father has always been my master and I was always his student. He questioned as to why I couldn’t focus on bringing all those rhythm traditions in remote areas to a global audience. So, I went about discovering rare gems from regions that were showcased nationally and internationally. I created the Masters of Percussion and enthused by the “big success” of the 1996 tour outside India, percussion traditions have been consolidated as one package and performed with equally passionate musicians.
What goes into the making of Masters of Percussion?
Some of the rare talent is just around me. Rakesh is the nephew and child prodigy of flute maestro Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, then we have Navin Sharma, Sabir Khan, Uma Shankar – all these young musicians are par excellence. My younger brothers Fazal and Taufiq are also part of this movement. When all these players form a rhythm and speak a story spanning classical, folk, traditional drumming and even dancing, we see an extensive landscape of music on stage. The ensemble mode is so smooth and so seamless from one to another. Think about a satellite map of a region you are looking at. This ensemble of sounds and rhythm will be exactly that. A satellite view of India, a story gets interwoven with the drums and sounds of India. The story explains the law of the land, the way of life, how people are, how contemporary life exists, how people and their behavior co-exist. The Masters of Percussion is meant to cover the journey through the length and breadth of India. All these sights and sounds visually appear on stage and the interaction with all these musicians provides that vibrant spectacle of life and passion for music.

“…When Hussain first started performing with McLaughlin, his father, like any traditionalist, was upset with his son for crossing over. Hussain continued to play in both worlds and his father eventually came around. But Hussain had to remind him once or twice that Ustad Allah Rakha Khan had once recorded with jazz drummer Buddy Rich…” (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

In his closing comments to and the media in general, Ustad Zakir Hussain really believes that the music in India is evolving and it is the media’s responsibility to write more about the musicians/instrumentalists. According to the Ustad, the band strength of the Indian instrumental music is growing real strong and people are now out of the woodwork working on several collaborations nationally and internationally. “If we sift through all that’s going on, several artists are waiting to be explored and media should work collectively in introducing those names to music lovers”, he said.

Ustad Zakir Hussain will be performing along with several electrically charged musicians bringing to us an eclectic mix of master percussionists who according to him “are superbly talented, passionate enthusiasts who love creating conversations using instruments on stage”.

Zakir was naturally excited about his performance and spoke to about the various nuances that go in to his performance, his consistency of delivering quality music and how technology has minimized the barriers and boundaries of learning. Ustad Zakir Hussain teaches Tabla to advanced students in both San Francisco and Mumbai. Zakir participates in the Global Drum Project with percussionists from around the world.

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Interviewed and written by Anu Gopalakrishnan |  For feedback and comments, please email  |  An Miindia Exclusive ©2012

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