Looking Backward and Reaching Forward:
An Interview with Zakir Hussain
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2008, Volume 15, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Photos by Susana Millman
Wed June 4, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
For even the most worldly 18-year-old, the notion of being dropped off at Mickey Hart’s ranch during the height of the psychedelic era is akin to waking up in the eye of a hurricane. Nevertheless, this is precisely what happened to Zakir Hussain. When Indian tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha asked the Grateful Dead drummer if he could look after his son while he was touring with Ravi Shankar, it’s unlikely that he knew how much the young prodigy’s life was about to change.
More than 35 years later, Hussain smiles as he remembers life at Hart’s ranch in Northern California. "I think my father had some clue about what was going on, but he also had some faith," Hussain explained. "He knew the experience would be important, but I don’t know how he knew that this was something that was going to shape my future. Maybe he knew that the world was going to change a lot in the next 15 to 20 years and that his boy had to be prepared for that. Maybe he had faith in Mickey. I don’t know what it was."
Until then, Hussain’s life had revolved around India. Said Hussain, "Day in and day out, I would practice Indian music. Having grown up in India, where the guru-student system exists and where at a young age you are pushed onto the guru’s lap, you learn the life of being a simple student. There isn’t the same worry and individual ego that we encounter in the West."
"My father always told me not to try to be a teacher. He’d say, ‘Try to be a good student, and you’ll get along just fine,’" Hussain continued. "For us, it is natural to wash the guru’s feet, to wash his clothes, and to bounce to his every whim. You grow up in that atmosphere, and it makes it easy for you to be open to everything else. And, that’s all you need to know. New experiences are something that, with an open heart, you’ll want to be a part of."
Even though Hussain was trained in a traditional discipline that by Western standards has demands that are extremely rigorous, his father was by no means a purist. "I was always listening to a lot of music that was not Indian," Hussain stated. "My father would bring records by The Doors, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Duke Ellington, and Blind Faith back with him from his tours. He wasn’t especially interested in them himself, so he just passed them on to me."
"Often, it would take me a little bit to appreciate the music," Hussain continued. "Quicksilver Messenger Service with John Cippolina stands out in my mind. It took me a while to really understand that record. Blind Faith was also one such record, but I loved it: Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce. ‘A great album,’ I thought. That’s where I first heard a real drum solo. I listened to Ginger Baker and thought, ‘wow, they play solos, too.’"
"Later, I heard Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and various other records that featured artists soloing. I learned a lot from this music," said Hussain. "It’s not so strange really, if you think about it. India is a very open country because they have always been influenced by or looked to the West for other forms of music. We grew up watching Hollywood movies: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, John Wayne. All of our popular music of the 1950s and 1960s was linked to what the music was in Hollywood movies and musicals. In that way, we have been open. In many ways, we’re ahead of the curve when it comes to appreciating a whole range of music. The West is only now looking at non-Western stuff as source music."
Exposure to the world’s music came early for Zakir Hussain. A student of the tabla from the age of seven, he played on his first recording session only five years later. The experience of recording Bollywood film soundtracks introduced the young percussionist to material from a variety of traditions. "What these sessions actually entailed was a large group of musicians sitting together in a huge room," he explained. "On one side of the room was a whole string section with violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Then, there were the woodwinds and horns, and you also would have Western drums and piano. At the other end, were sitars, sarods, and bamboo flutes, and in the center of everything was a group of tabla players and folk drummers huddled together in a circle. We were all in one room, and we all played together."
"So, the experience of playing with other types of musicians who were performing non-Indian stuff was already there," Hussain added. "Having listened to all this music, I was ready when I arrived at Mickey’s ranch. I was actually meeting people to whom I had been listening in India. Grace Slick would come in, and Jerry Garcia would be there most of the day, just twiddling around on his guitar. It was definitely an eye-opener, among other things."
Hussain laughed and stated, "Those weekend gatherings at Mickey’s ranch where you had Airto Moreira, Giovanni Hidalgo, Hamza El Din, and Babatundi Olatunji all in the same room were fabulous. David Crosby was up to mischief, and everybody was there. There would be jam sessions going on for 20 hours at a stretch. When you are under the influence, you go for a while. For me, with my training, playing all night was no big deal. We Indians are used to it. So, in that sense, it was all normal for me!"
From the beginning of his residency at Hart’s ranch in Novato, California, Hussain had the ability to see beyond the nonstop revelry. He understood that what was developing was something that was musically important. "This experience with Mickey has been very special for me because it opened up this incredible world of drumming that I did not have a clue existed," said Hussain. "To be able to relax, find the groove, and understand the back beat — these were things that were revealed to me while I was hanging out with Mickey. To understand that less is more is a whole different thing. He taught me how to loosen up. Here I was playing with a 2,000-year-old rhythm repertoire on my tabla and doing my best to play the best way I could, but I was not stepping back and letting it relax. I was ‘chop chop,’ and I always felt that I had to be right on the beat. That’s the tradition. You had to be as complicated as you could and make as many notes as you could, but Mickey once told me, ‘Zakir, you’re playing too many notes! Just relax a little. All we need is poom poom, and that’s it for the next eight bars.’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m overqualified for this gig!’"
"Then, Mickey and I began exploring the world of rhythm even more, and we started bringing in these great drummers," Hussain continued. "That’s how we created Diga and Dafos and the Rhythm Devils. The explorations you can hear on Drumming at the Edge and Planet Drum started with the first album called Rolling Thunder in 1972. Our whole rhythm idea started forming there. Diga was like the great symphonic experience in that it opened us up to a more open and loose ensemble of drumming with Airto and those great players."
"When performing an Indian repertoire, by all means, I play what I’ve been taught," Hussain explained.
"In Indian music, when you start a piece and say ‘let’s see where it goes,’ there is still a methodology to it. There are things you can and can’t do, and you stick to the disciplined approach. It’s a strict blinders-on approach. There are laws in place, and if you mess with those, the Gods of music are going to descend on you and castrate you," he joked.
"These laws are internalized. It’s just like jazz," he added. "You play jazz, and you’re given two courses to follow. You play within that prescribed zone, and free-form was something that Cecil Taylor and Pharoah Sanders got into. It took a while for the jazz aficionados to finally accept it. Even though jazz was a new form of music that should have been easy for people to accept, there’s a level of rigidity in playing it. If you meet some old jazz musicians and listen to them talk, it’s like ‘Yeah, man, your music is cool, but it’s not jazz.’"
For someone as open as Zakir Hussain, the act of defining music in terms of what it isn’t completely misses the point. Throughout his career, he has managed to honor his traditions, while also breaking down boundaries. Perhaps the most challenging works in his non-classical repertoire came to light during his on-again, off-again collaborations with the great, British, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. Shakti — the group that they formed in 1975 with an assortment of Indian master-musicians, such as violin prodigy L. Shankar — made a series of albums that explored common ground between classical Indian fare and improvisational jazz. In addition to blending Western and Indian music, Shakti also represented a melding of North and South Indian styles. All of the other Indian musicians who participated in the project were trained in the Southern Carnatic tradition, while Hussain’s schooling was defined by the Northern Hindustani lineage.
Regardless of how one defines the blistering music that Shakti and its offshoot Remember Shakti have made, there is no doubt that the nonstop intensity of their sonic attack created sounds that exist a universe away from the looseness of Hussain’s collaborations with Hart. "The approaches are different," said Hussain. "Playing with John McLaughlin is like a carpet bomb. It’s right into the thick of it immediately. Boom! We’re right in for the kill."
"With Mickey, you can relax into it," he continued. "When we’re playing a piece, we say ‘this is it. Now, let’s see where it goes.’"
"Shakti was trendsetting at one time," Hussain elaborated. "It opened up the idea of jazz musicians working with non-jazz musicians. Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar played together before that, but Ravi wrote out the music for Yehudi to play, note-for-note. Now, if a North Indian classical violinist had played that same music, he would have done better justice to it. Yehudi had no idea how to play the Indian nuances. When you go to Shakti that wasn’t the case. Everybody opened up, and we went from there. L. Shankar would never play what John wrote for him, and John would never play what L. Shankar wrote for him. We would all play together. We never rehearsed. We had an idea of songs we’d sing to each other. We’d work out the little break and how to drop into solos, and then we would talk about how to come out of what we’d created. With Shakti, it all happened on stage."
"To have that kind of interaction was very unusual at that time. We used to play jazz festivals with Weather Report and Billy Cobham, and they would be watching us play," Hussain continued. "Afterwards, they’d say ‘How do you guys know what’s coming next?’ How could we answer? We took it for granted. We were musicians who were all on the same wavelength. John had respect for Indian music. He’d studied it. We had respect for where he came from and had some idea about his background. So, the signals could be understood. The clues could be looked at. So, whatever was coming next was somewhat anticipated. Therefore, the openings would be there, and we just went. That’s why it was revolutionary. Indian and non-Indian musicians could come together in a free-form way, and yet have an idea of where they were going and how to get there. It was unique at that time, and it opened up this whole can of worms that has become world music."
No matter how many musical worms have wriggled out of that can and wherever they’ve ended up, Zakir Hussain is quick to remind people that he is first and foremost a practitioner of his country’s classical music. "Still, about 65 percent of my shows are strictly Indian music," he said. "It’s important to me. It’s my tradition. These are my roots. I must keep in shape with that. It is what keeps me tuned into who I am and what I offer. It’s what I bring to the table. If I came to Mickey’s studio and started to play a drum set, it’s like bringing coals to Newcastle. I mean, I have played a kit on stage, but tabla is what I do best. Whatever I have learned from everybody, you’ll hear it on my tabla. I can do justice to it, honor it, and give that reverent look to it by playing it on my tabla. By playing it on drums, I’m going to cheapen it because I am not as good. It’s as simple as that."
Of Further Interest...
Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin's Remember Shakti:
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