Zakir Hussain: Incredible Shrinking World

Zakir Hussain

Legends drum among us. Some are the fastest, some the newest. Some are the strongest, some the smartest.

Some are the most creative, some the hardest working.

Some are the most talented, some the most courageous.

Some are the most complex, some the simplest. There is one who drums among us who is all of these, and more. He sits not high atop a shining throne, but cross-legged on the humble floor. His hands are his chops.

His sponsor: ancient history. His stage: the world.

Zakir Hussain is likely the most prodigious tabla player the Western world has ever known. He has accomplished more with his hands and heart than most artists of the world, let alone percussionists. And today, his father, the legendary tabla master Ustad Alla Rakha, looks proudly upon his son from the far (or near?) reaches of the afterlife.

The great Rakha was not only a loving father for Hussain, but an irreplaceable tabla guru as well. Rakha’s teachings were ceaseless – from the moment Hussain took his first breath to the day Rakha took his last – and were thoroughly absorbed with open ears and a will for greatness.

Zakir Hussain took Rakha’s words and ran with them. Seven years old, he began playing concerts with the sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Kahn. By age 12 he was touring regularly. In 1970 he hit the States as an accompanist for Ravi Shankar before forming his own group, the Tal Vadya Rhythm Band. It was a go for launch and the following years were packed with big names and awards, averaging about 150 concerts each year. The recording credits seem endless. The Indian government has bestowed upon him many prestigious awards for his accomplishments in representing their culture across the globe. So, too, has the United States, including a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 1992 for Planet Drum, a fascinating record co-created and produced by Mickey Hart. You’ve certainly heard his work with groundbreaking groups like Shakti and Tabla Beat Science.

And now he’s releasing his latest in a string of impressive solo albums. Selects (Moment) is a return to roots for Hussain. The album, a tribute to the teachings of his father, is a collection of live traditional Indian solo tabla compositions. It’s a fascinating work that gives keen insight into the complexities and requirements of traditional Indian music.

This interview was conducted at a beautiful historic manor in the quaint town of San Anselmo in Northern California where he and his wife and their dog Boomer operate Moment Records, an influential label for classical Indian and contemporary world music. Hussain met us at the door with his Jim Morrison-meets-troll doll hair and simple black hooded sweatshirt. Then we sat down and talked tabla.

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