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.

{pagebreak} Zakir Hussain

DRUM!: Tell us about the new CD.
Hussain: My tradition that is represented in this particular CD is the repertoire of solo recital of tabla. And a lot of this repertoire I learned from my father, one of the great masters of the past century. I felt that since I had never done a solo tabla recital for Moment Records, and my father having passed away a couple of years ago, it felt right for me to offer this homage. And apart from just him, I felt a need for me to acknowledge the contributions of some of the other great masters who, without them, tabla may not have survived or become so widely accepted. So that’s what the CD is all about: a homage to the teachings that have come down and have come to all us tabla players who are here today. And for me a special connection with my father. The repertoire acknowledges his teachings as well as the teachings of the masters of the past. Tabla is the instrument of that homage.

DRUM!: It seems we’re hearing tabla in nearly every conceivable outlet nowadays. Why?
Hussain: Lately, tabla has become an object of attention worldwide. When you talk about jazz, pop, rock, fusion, trance, techno, electronica, whatever, one of the principal sounds you hear in all these bass drum-oriented records is tabla. Then you listen to movie scores, television scores, and suddenly you hear a ping! or a buiong-ca-ping! and those are tabla sounds. For some reason those sounds have become a very commonly used element in music today. That’s why I end up doing a lot of fusion stuff, whether it’s Shakti, Planet Drum with Mickey [Hart], playing with various jazz musicians, or Tabla Beat Science. Tabla has become this very important element of underground, Asian underground, and the new sounds that are emerging.

Tabla is a very refined percussion instrument with a muscular tradition. You’re talking about an instrument where you have ten sticks. Plus you’re talking about an instrument with a full range of tones. So it is both a percussive and melodic instrument. Tabla can harmonically complement whatever instrument it is played with. It has some kind of hypnotic element. Your ears go, “What is that?” and you are drawn into it. You get the walking bass line with your left hand and also all these snare drum, Buddy Rich-like patterns with the right [hand]. Tabla allows an incredible array of patterns – rhythmic patterns, percussive patterns, melodic patterns – all emerging at the same time and coming right at you. So the possibilities are endless.

DRUM!: Is this broad integration of the instrument why you decided to release a CD of classical compositions?
Hussain: I just found that, keeping all that in mind, it is very important to bring to the attention of the listeners that tabla is not just that. It has a tradition of its own. It has a repertoire of its own. It does exist in a whole different environment as an entity to reckon with and therefore it’s important a record comes out that puts that forward. So this record is nothing but traditional teachings. That’s all it is. I’m trying not to do anything modern in it. Nothing contemporary. To stress that point I have actually included in the CD just one minute or two of one part of what contemporary tabla is. So, suddenly in this traditional performance, you do hear this one minute of a soundscape-oriented tabla just to give the listener an idea of what the differences might be.

DRUM!: Can you explain some of the components of these traditional teachings and compositions?
Hussain: Everything you hear on Selects is my solo performances that I did in India over the last three or four years. I’ve taken what I thought were the best parts of those tabla solos and put them in order that a tabla recital would be. See, there’s a particular order that a tabla recital must follow. There are movements, like a symphonic performance, four or five movements in a tabla recital. And I’ve listed them as separate pieces so you can go to the one you want to listen to. And I’ve described what those particular movements are in the CD liner notes as well as listed the names of the masters whose teachings I drew from for these performances.

Some of the repertoire is over 200 years old and some of it is 50 years old depending on which master it was drawn from. But it’s all traditional tabla playing. A tabla recital in India can go for 90 minutes – that’s just drums. It’s funny that when you go to a jazz concert and a drummer takes ten minutes, that’s considered long.

You have to realize there is one section of a tabla solo that is all fixed composition. And that section alone can be 50 minutes because you’re drawing on a repertoire that is 2,000 to 3,000 years old. So these are fixed compositions that have been composed over that many millennia. Plus whatever was taught to the player in recent times. So all these compositions you first sing, then you play them on the tabla. Then there is the opening movement, say the overture, which can be 20 minutes long depending on which master you are highlighting. And if you are highlighting more than one master, it gets even longer because each is different.

It’s almost like taking a Ginger Baker solo or an Elvin Jones solo and combining those solos and representing them in your own way. So you are improvising, but you base it on those two solos. The tabla connoisseurs can tell. It’s just like drummers here. You play a certain way and people go, “Hey that’s a Buddy Rich!” or “He’s trying to do Krupa!”

Zakir Hussain

DRUM!: Do you see an appreciation for these traditions in today’s younger tabla players?
Hussain: In today’s modern world it is such a common thing for the young tabla players to come to you and they are not only aware of their Indian music traditions, but they are also aware of everything else out there. The world has become so small now that they know about fusion, trance, techno, electronica and they are well-educated tabla players. It’s not like tabla players of 40 years ago where if I did something with Shakti they found it strange. Today’s tabla players are well versed in all these art forms and their performances are multi-dimensional because they are all at once playing traditional stuff as well as tonal things and fusion things.

It’s a joy to watch today’s young tabla player be a more complete musician than we had a chance to be at that age. People like Karsh Kale and Talvin Singh are way beyond where I could have ever been at that age as far as sound presentation goes. When I was at that age we were still struggling with the idea of tabla fitting with jazz. We were just at the initial stages of tabla arriving on the world stage. And we got it to that point. Guys like Talvin and Karsh have a much more educated approach to world ensemble. It’s great to see them taking what we’ve done and moving it forward to another level. I wish they’d play more tabla! They’re doing more and more other things and playing less tabla.

DRUM!: Have you found all of the sounds that tabla is capable of?
Hussain: I don’t think I have yet, no. I’ve found some. I know that my father left me with new sounds that happened from his teachings. And more sound came as inspirations from working with people like Hidalgo, Olatunji, and those guys. I heard sounds from their instruments and kind of imported them onto my tabla to make similar sounds. Their technique of playing helped to create more songs too. The melodic way tabla is played these days is an influence from Latin and African drumming. A Latin conga player, or even a drum set player, has three or more drums that he can play melodically. That led me to think about tabla doing the same thing. So these melodic ideas, I humbly say, are my influence into what the tabla is about. But they are all inspired by people I’ve worked with and played with. And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten, but I know, having listened to Korean and Chinese and Japanese styles of drumming, that there’s more there that tabla has yet to imbibe.