Zakir Hussain: Tabla Prince to Whom the World Listens

Jeff Kaliss on March 20, 2014
Zakir Hussain
Zakir Hussain

 Zakir Hussain earned worldwide and cross-genre acclaim as a virtuoso on the tabla, the Indian percussion instrument on which his father, the late Ustad Alla Rakha, accompanied the late sitar master Ravi Shankar on world tours. Shankar and the late sarode virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan shared the generation that exported North Indian classical music to American concert audiences and record buyers in the 1950s, engendering cross-fertilization of classical and jazz genres and, in the next decade, rock ’n’ roll. Young Hussain began his traditional training in rhythmic patterns and ragas as a small child in his native Bombay (now Mumbai), but was listening to rock on a boom box by the time he reached his teens. Substituting for his father in Shankar’s ensemble, Hussain toured the U.S. at age 18, in 1969, and secured a teaching job on the ethnomusicology faculty of the University of Washington.

He relocated to Marin County, California, to teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music, established by Khan a couple of years earlier, and soon became active in cross-genre groups founded by a new generation of musical innovators, among them The Rhythm Experience and Diga, involving jazz saxophonist Mel Martin and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. On tour with Khan in 1973, Hussain encountered English guitarist John McLaughlin, with whom he created the groups Shakti and Remember Shakti (Hindi for "energy").

In 1978, Hussain married Italian-American Antonia (Toni) Minnecola, a practitioner of kathak Indian dance, who also became executive of their Moment Records, established in 1992 and based near their home in San Anselmo. Continuing to concertize and record across the spectrum of his musical interests, Hussain will be appearing at Zellerbach Hall on Sunday with the Masters of Percussion (MOP). He took a break for a long and loquacious lunch with SFCV at Comforts cafe in San Anselmo, shared with his publicist, Dennis McNally.

SFCV: Dennis tells me you’ve just returned from India. Was that an extended stay?

Zakir Hussain: The middle of November till, say, the middle of March is the music season, because it’s cooler in India. Many of the traditional festivals are around that time.

Over here, we’ve gotten used to your being the paradigm of eclecticism. What do you perform over there?

I’m mainly doing traditional music, North Indian classical or [the related but somewhat different] South Indian classical.

Do musicians from North and South share festivals and open up to each other?

It’s a generational thing. Like with my father, who said to Mickey Hart, “It’s a little difficult for me to step away from what I do. Why don’t you take my son, who’s young enough to find his way around things, where my upbringing might not allow me to accept those [new] rules?” And what’s interesting about Indian traditional musicians of today is, they’ve grown up with the knowledge that there is an alternate thinking about music. Before, it was impossible to hear, say, a Paco de Lucía (god bless him, he just passed away), or John McLaughlin. But for today’s Indian musician, he just goes online and to YouTube and is able to hear Coltrane and whoever else. And next morning, he sits with his instrument and is influenced by what he’s heard, and is able to find a way to transpose all that information to his instrument.

Your current edition of the Masters of Percussion is made up of Indian musicians from that next generation, after yours. And aside from the percussion, you have two string players.

Niladri Kumar, who’s playing sitar, by many musicians in India, is considered the master of tomorrow. Dilshad Khan is our sarangi player. [The sarangi] has gut strings, like the old cellos used to have, with three main playing strings, but 36 sympathetic strings, which means it has its own echo chamber. That means that when he’s playing, say, the tonic note, you’ll hear, depending on the way he’s tuned it, either a dominant or a subdominant note of the raga he’s performing. What’s interesting is that both these musicians, from the age of 16 or 17, were session musicians for Bollywood [film soundtrack] music, and that meant playing popular music and folk music, as well as traditional music. I had to convince Niladri that’s he’s not throwing away his Bollywood career by coming with us on tour! But it’s infectious when people applaud you and want your autograph and to interview you. You’re not just a session man who does your session and goes home.

Is it a big deal to be gigging in the U.S.?

I think it’s much more important for an Indian musician to be revered, loved, and recognized in India. In Indian music — or jazz, for that matter — how do you get to know that this is a great musician? Not necessarily from PR, but from word-of-mouth of other musicians, and connoisseurs. If the fraternity is not behind that person, that person will not stand the test of time.

Where do the Masters of Percussion stand in that fraternity?

They are the top dog of their particular genre of music. Like I’m the top dog today of tabla. Every dog has his day, and I’m the dog today!

But you’ve been “the dog” for a while. You turned 63 earlier this month, though you certainly don’t look it.

I’m one of those dogs who has a longer life. [Laughs] I’ve been very lucky. Because, even if I were just playing Indian classical music, I may have outlived my shelf life. But having played with so many different kinds of artists, continuously, it allows me to appear under so many different hats that it keeps it interesting for the audiences.

Khansahib and Raviji [making use of their Hindi honorific suffixes] maintained their lights right up to the end.

They are the Bach and Schumann of their time, and their place will not be touched. Nobody even tried to do that.

What’s interesting about Indian traditional musicians of today is, they’ve grown up with the knowledge that there is an alternate thinking about music.

Are you bringing their tradition along?

More and more I’m getting to the point of asking myself, what is tradition? I came across a recording of my father’s teacher, and my father didn’t sound anything like that guy. Then later, listening to Ali Akbar Khan and his father [Allauddin Khan, also the teacher and guru of Ravi Shankarji], it was clear to me that Ali Akbar Khan was nothing like his dad! We have a loophole in Indian classical music: We are supposed to be traditionalists, but at the same time we’re supposed to improvise, do something fresh. It’s like, you’re supposed to play a Rachmaninov concerto, but you’re supposed to make it different. So what is tradition? Mickey and I, John McLaughlin and I, have had lots of conversations about that. It all comes down to knowing that every melodic phrase, every rhythmic pattern, has already been played, over 5,000 years. There’s nothing new to do, but somehow you’ve got to find a way to be able to say it with an ability that convinces the listener that you’re saying something new.

It makes me think that, when you study with a master, you’re not supposed to be learning to imitate, but rather the master’s love, the master’s way.

That’s the trap most students fall into; they want to be the carbon copy of their master. They don’t realize that carbon paper gets thrown in the wastebasket. [Giggles] Someone told my dad, “Ustadji, your son is just like you; it’s amazing!” And my father said, “I hope he plays better than and different from me. If he does like me, it’s like putting stale bread on somebody’s plate.”

Let’s talk about the history and mission of the Masters of Percussion.

My father was traveling with Ravi Shankarji all the time; for about 26 years they went all over the world doing concerts. Then it got to the point where they were both getting older, and it was difficult for them to look after each other. It was a golden opportunity for me, because now my father was free to be able to lay his eyes on me. That was in 1992. So I told my father, “I’ll organize some concerts, and you’ll travel with me, and I can look after you.” That kind of bothered Ravi Shankarji, because he was hoping I would travel with him.

It’s much more important for an Indian musician to be revered, loved, and recognized in India.

But I wanted to spend some time with my father; we had not spent time for 17 or 18 years in that way. So he came out and we played a few concerts, just him and me and Sultan Khan, the sarangi player who’s the uncle of Dilshad Khan. It was so successful that we had offers for another season, in 1994. He was establishing a school in Bombay, so he couldn’t do it every year, and he didn’t have a green card, but I brought him back over, and we hung out, and I learned so much! To be with him and just watch him and talk to him. This was the phase of our relationship where we became not only colleagues, but friends.

How nice to be able to say that about your own dad!

Yes! We’d go to dinner together, go to movies together, joke; it was fun. We’d look at a beautiful girl walking, and comment on it. It was just such a special relationship. At one point he told me, “There are so many other drummers in India: dholki players, kanjira players, pakhavaj players, and everything [referring to the varieties of Indian percussion that have contributed to the Masters of Percussion ensemble]. We should find a way to show the world that tabla is not everything.” So in 1996, I added two more musicians. My wife, Toni, coined the name “Masters of Percussion,” and every other year since then I’ve added one or two people who haven’t been seen on the world stage. What I do is, when I’m in India, in the winter season, I have the time to go traveling in the remote areas of India, to see if I can find drummers.

Having played with so many different kinds of artists, continuously, it allows me to appear under so many different hats that it keeps it interesting for the audiences.

How did you assemble the group and the set that we’ll be seeing and hearing at Zellerbach?

I don’t choose instruments, I choose people. And my main objective in the whole evening is to find spots where all these great masters will be highlighted, be let loose, individually, and in duo or trio and so on. I’ll be the MC of some sort, and I will curate the “conversation” on stage. Ideas will be passed around, with the eyes glancing and heads nodding. We have an outline, we’ll begin this way and end this way, and in between have elements where this guy or that guy will be showcased. An added element is Toni, doing kathak dance. Having studied kathak myself, when I was 10 or 11, and having played for kathak most of my life, I’m aware of which elements will work well with dhol or dholki or kanjira or tabla — or with the drums of Steve Smith [former drummer with the rock group Journey]. Steve studied Indian drumming in India, and actually wrote some academic papers on it.

I’m impressed with the success of Indian percussion instruments, including yours, in making the drum melodic.

We have a loophole in Indian classical music: We are supposed to be traditionalists, but at the same time we’re supposed to improvise, do something fresh.

Well, what about [jazz drummers] Max Roach and Elvin Jones? But I have to say, because the Indian instruments are made with sound-retention capability, it allows them to modulate the sound, so along with the rhythm the melodic element is added. And you’re also magnifying the harmonics. You’ll hear a third or a fifth [interval] in the skin’s vibration itself. Did I tell you what Keith Jarrett said? “If I weren’t playing [jazz] piano, I’d be playing tabla.” [Zakir’s wife, Toni, stops by our table.]

Toni Minnecola: On the day Michael Jackson died, Zakir had a gig that night at Yoshi’s, with [jazz saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders. Zakir was taking a solo, and in the middle of it, he just went into [a melodic quote from] Billie Jean. It was startling! But so many people in the audience got it.

That can segue us to The Melody of Rhythm, your 2009 recording [on Koch] with Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck, and to another genre, since the National Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin were also involved.

Hussain: I provided Indian rhythmic and melodic elements, and Edgar provided the orchestration of those elements, to fit in with the National Symphony. Indian classical music requires that you adhere to the purity of the raga, which has only so many notes in a prescribed combination. The tabla [consisting of two drums] has one tone on the right-hand drum, tuned to the tonic of the raga. As soon as you start harmonizing, you add other notes, which could destroy the shape or face of the raga. So Edgar found an ingenious way of being able to work with three ragas with a common note, B, with my tabla tuned to B, and the harmonies and counterpoints and canons didn’t disturb the shape of the ragas. It’s important to have someone with that kind of thinking ability.

How much Western classical training have you had?

Thank god for my father’s vision. In 1964 or ’65, one of the students of Ravi Shankarji, a pianist, Penelope, came to stay with us [in India], and she took the time to educate me about the piano, I was 14. Later, hanging out with John McLaughlin in Shakti, through the evenings, I would teach him Indian rhythms, and in return he would teach me the jazz chording system. Still, writing for orchestra is a whole different ball game; you need to know the ability and range of instruments, and what kinds of lines to write for them. There, I’ve gotten help from Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck; I’d send them stuff, and they’d call me back. … And I’ve found an orchestrator, a guy named Alex Kelly, who lives in San Francisco [and has authored a cello method book]. Just a few days ago, I was asked to write a tabla concerto, for the Symphony Orchestra of India. It’s going to be premiered in Switzerland, in January of 2016.

What’s the status of Moment Records?

Their newest project is actually a three-hour DVD of my residency at SFJAZZ, which my daughter Anisa Qureshi and my son-in-law Taylor Phillips shot with 12 cameras. Steve Smith and Niladri Kumar from the Masters of Percussion are on it, and it will be on sale at Zellerbach. We’re also rereleasing the Golden Strings of the Sarode [with Aashish Khan, son of Ali Akbar], which was a finalist for a Grammy. We’ve just signed a distribution deal in India, with Times Music. We’re not trying to sell a million records, we just want to put out music we can relate to.