Taking a tradition in a new direction
By David Malitz
Friday, Mar. 16, 2012
"Don't try to be a master. Just try to be a good student, and you'll do fine."
As a young man, Zakir Hussain received that piece of advice from his father, the late Alla Rakha, once the most famous tabla players in the world, a title now held by his son. Hussain, who introduced the traditional Indian percussion instrument to a worldwide audience, has collaborated with a seemingly endless list of musical superstars.
In his mind, though, Hussain, 61, is still just as much a student as a master.
"Great gurus will be the first to say that they are still learning, and I've seen this happen whether it's John McLaughlin or George Harrison," Hussain says, referring to two of his many famous collaborators. "[They] looked outwards to see what they could learn, what they could absorb to make their lives of musical expression better."
Hussain's life plays out like a musical fairy tale. If the tabla wasn't a part of Hussain's DNA upon birth, his father did his best to make up for it. Hussain says that his father started singing rhythms in his ear when he was just 2 days old and that as a child the tabla rarely left his side.
"I'd be playing it in the middle of the night, and I'd fall asleep with the tabla right there in my bed," he says. "Then when I would wake up I'd be playing it again." It's no surprise that Hussain became a child prodigy and was playing concerts by age 7. By the time he was a teenager, he was one of Indian classical music's biggest stars. It was a relocation to California - and a healthy bit of happenstance - that was the catalyst for Hussain's transformation to international superstar.
He was 20 and in the right place at the right time: A teacher at a San Francisco Bay Area music school returned to India and Hussain got the job. This was 1971, when there was a burst of interest in Indian music, particularly within the rock and jazz communities. Soon, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and guitarists Carlos Santana and McLaughlin (a top cohort of Miles Davis's) were walking in the door looking for knowledge. Hussain proved to be the perfect Indian music guide.
"I was young enough and open enough to be able to not worry about rigid tradition, yet at the same time had 15 years of traditional training inside of me so as not to lose my way," he says. "I was very lucky."
Those musical relationships have lasted more than 40 years. Hussain and McLaughlin's '70s group Shakti played a groundbreaking Indian-jazz fusion mixture, and the two still perform together. Planet Drum, a project with Hart and other percussionists, has resulted in multiple Grammys. And Hussain will re-team with Santana (and jazz icon Herbie Hancock) for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl this summer.
"That combination hasn't happened. I'm really psyched up about that," Hussain says in the casual manner of someone for whom playing with two such icons is really just another gig.
But even if Hussain hadn't landed in such rarified company, one thing would be certain - he would still be playing tabla somewhere, probably "just" in a big city in India and not touring the world.
"I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. I love it, and it loves me," he says of his instrument. "People ask me, 'If you weren't playing tabla what would you play?' and the question is a moot one."
To many people the tabla may not look like much more than a pair of bongos, but Hussain is still working to draw out its every sound and texture. It is both a percussive and melodic instrument that lends itself well to harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment and is capable of dozens of tonal changes. For someone who has been playing for nearly 60 years, Hussain is still in awe of the instrument. "It is an animal yet to be fully explored," he says.
Hussain's current Masters of Percussion tour continues his exploration of the tabla and also furthers an ongoing learning process - for himself, his fellow musicians and the audience. The give-and-take among the nine-piece group and the subtle changes and improvisations that vary from show to show keep his excitement level high. His name gets top billing, but Hussain insists that it is a ensemble performance.
"I'm just one small part of the show," he says. "I will be just one of those little specks on the stage."
As master or student, he maintains his modesty.