Zakir Hussain Publicity Photo

Masters of Percussion:
An Interview with Zakir Hussain

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2008, Volume 15, #9

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Photo by Susana Millman

Fri September 12, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT

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The heart of Indian classical music lies in improvisation. Of course, as any fan of jazz or the Grateful Dead knows, the ability to create compelling music in the moment isnít the exclusive domain of artists from India. When musicians like Zakir Hussain perform, however, the discipline that is required and the approach that is taken are certainly unique.

Since arriving in America for the first time as a teenager, Hussain has been drawn to the kinds of experiences that have allowed him to expand upon his traditional repertoire. Stints with Mickey Hart, Airto Moreira, and John McLaughlin gave him the opportunity to expand his sonic palette by reacting in real time to great players from the worlds of rock and jazz. In every instance, the interplay with these other artists has opened up new musical vistas to explore, and without exception, Hussainís performances and recordings in these areas have been compelling and worthwhile. It would be a shame, however, to restrict oneself to listening to his collaborations with performers from the Western world. It is only when hearing how he interacts with other classically trained Indian musicians that the full breadth of his artistry truly can be appreciated.

In order to keep himself musically sharp, Hussain still spends three or four months each year in India. It was during one of these trips that he assembled his Masters of Percussion ensemble, which currently is in the midst of a North American tour. While the prospect of a three-hour concert featuring nothing but drumming initially may be off-putting to some, the experience of hearing Hussain and other highly skilled percussionists from different regions of India is one that simply has to be heard to believed.

Hussain explained the Masters of Percussion concept during a recent stop in Vancouver. "Itís a different show every time," he said. "Within the solos, there are new opportunities created every night, which invite somebody to contribute. All of that is happening, and there is ensemble stuff. Itís an amazing thing to hear all of these different elements come together."

"Some days we play for two hours; sometimes, we go for three hours. It depends," he continued. "If something is happening, we let it go Š la the Grateful Dead. If you ask me what to expect on stage, when I know, Iíll let you know. Every day itís different. The reason for that obviously is the whole process of improvising. Each player has his own solo moment. So, what will happen there, we donít know. At times, those solo moments turn into duos or trios or whatever the heartís desire is at that time. Itís like that. There are times when somebody is playing a solo, and we are in the wings. Then, suddenly we are chiming in. Itís like there is an interaction going on from offstage."

Hussain elaborated further by stating that he has found it amusing that many Western musicians have asked him how he handles the stress of creating art in this Ďby the seat of your pantsí fashion. "Unpredictability is fun," he joked. "Itís like this: These guys are so great, and Iím just one little part of this group. Itís not Zakir Hussainís show. When Mickey Hart and the Planet Drum get together, Hart is just one little part of that group. These guys in the Masters of Percussion should be let loose on the audience. They just tear them apart. They just do incredible things on stage. Itís amazing to be in the wings, and watch this incredible creativity. So, Iím very happy to let them do their thing because itís not about me; itís about drumming."

For someone who has been playing professionally for almost 50 years, it is delightful to hear Hussain exhibit a level of enthusiasm for his art that usually is encountered only in someone who is at the beginning of his career. Leaning on the edge of his seat, he can scarcely contain his excitement as he describes playing with his touring group. "These are great masters who have really become great practitioners of their particular art form in their part of India," he explained. "Someone like Vijay Chauhan, who is accompanying me on this tour, is the greatest living exponent of the folk drumming art form that evolved in Maharashtra. These are the drums that are played by the fishermen folk. After bringing back the harvest, there are these festivals and performances. The instruments and the rhythms represent their way of life. In addition, we have a frame drummer maestro from Uzbekistan named Abbas. He takes your breath away. The frame drumming tradition has its roots in India, and the rhythms and patterns he plays are interesting outgrowths of sounds that originally were developed in my country."

The common ground where musicians meet lies in their ability to react to each other in the moment that a sound occurs. Unlike improvisations in Western music that ó in the case of the jam band genre, in particular ó may have evolved out of experimentation with psychedelic drugs or other stimulants, the music the Indian masters play is grounded in years of disciplined listening and training. Often apprentices of Indian classical music attend their gurusí recitals before they even touch an instrument themselves.

Ram Kishan was one such performer. As Hussain and his group prepared for the Vancouver concert, they were still reeling from Kishanís on-stage death in New York a few nights earlier. "You ask me if I know whatís going to happen on stage," he said. "Oh, my God, no! Sometimes things happen that we couldnít foresee in a million years."

"Ram Kishan was a member of our group who played these beautiful drums from Rajasthan," Hussain explained. "They usually are played for weddings as ceremonial music. He was 72-years-old, and at the concert in New York ó while playing ó he passed away. It was a very big shock for us. He just passed on."

"I guess itís a great death for a drummer to go while he is performing," Hussain continued. "He had made the last hit of his solo, and when the group began again, he toppled over. He was behind me, and I didnít realize that he had collapsed. I noticed my brother Fazal Quereshi and sitar player Niladri Kumar look at each other and ask what happened. I looked back, and Ram had toppled over. They got him offstage, and we finished the show. We had to."

Obviously the unpredictable arc of the ensembleís music is mirrored by the random nature of life itself. To further convolute the whole process, Hussain has taken two young string players on the road with him in order to push the groupís older musicians into new areas. Hussain laughs with delight as he considers their role in the group before stating, "They are young punks, and they push us. Even they are given a chance to improvise, and they influence what we do. In the opinion of many Indian musicians, Niladri Kumar and sarangi player Dilshad Khan are the masters of tomorrow. They are both on the new Miles from India CD. Niladri also plays on John McLaughlinís new album Floating Point as well as on Global Drum Project. The way in which he plays sitar, he makes it sound like a guitar. It is just one more ingredient in the musical soup."

As his road manager brought him his tabla to be tuned, thereby prompting him to warm-up before the concert, I realized that spending time with Hussain is like being invited into a universe that you knew existed, but to which you never previously had been given the keys of entry. Itís easy to become envious in his company, not so much because of his incredible skills, but rather because of his focus and delight at encountering and playing with the implications that life throws at us all via its most challenging moments. The abilities to think on oneís feet and to improvise through the myriad situations that being alive entails are perhaps the greatest things that Hussain has to teach his audience. Existing and reacting in the moment has never appeared to be so simple. If it was all as effortless as he makes it look, the world would be a much happier place. As it is, seeing and hearing the Masters of Percussion in concert is as close to Nirvana as many of us will ever get.

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Of Further Interest...

Looking Backward and Reaching Forward with Zakir Hussain (2008)

The Future of the Guru System: An Interview with Zakir Hussain (2008)

Dead Symphony Comes to Baltimore: An Interview with Lee Johnson

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