World-famous tabla player Zakir Hussain was a child prodigy. His father, Alla Rakha, started teaching him to play the small, membranous hand drums when he was just three years old. Hussain was a touring drummer by the time he was twelve. In the 1970s, he toured in the United States with his mentor, Ravi Shankar, who was becoming well known around the world and introducing American audiences to Indian classical music. Hussain later drummed for Ali Akbar Khanthe, a virtuoso of the sarod, a stringed instrument. Hussain’s international career took off during this era. Over the last five decades, he has played with India’s greatest classical musicians as well as American rock and jazz legends, lending his artistic vision to numerous studio recordings and playing about 150 live shows each year.
Hussain brings his biennial touring concert, Masters of Percussion, to the Lensic Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9. Joining him onstage are jazz drummer Eric Harland, sitar player Niladri Kumar, and four drummers from a village near the coastal city of Kochi, in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.
The four drummers play the chenda: large drums beat with sticks that can be worn across the body or used while sitting. The chenda produces a piercing frequency when played on one of its sides, and a lower, bass-like tone when played on the other side. Even small taps to the drum spur an all-encompassing sound that resonates deep in the body. The village drummers play in a style that has been preserved for more than two thousand years, Hussain said.
“It’s still practiced in the same manner, in the same way. Every man, woman, and child in the village has learned this process, because that’s the way they pray together in the temple. I once went there and was honored by being asked to join in their morning prayer, when they wake up the rhythm deity.”
He said the whole village assembled at the temple at 5:30 a.m. and drummed together, producing a rhythm that became a form of chanting. He described it as an out-of-this-world, out-of-body experience. “I found myself floating in a whole different level of revelation.” He wanted to invite some of the drummers on his tour, but he hesitated at first, unsure whether it was a good idea to expose the performers to Western influences. He didn’t want to create a situation that could corrupt the purity of their music or faith. “But the need to share this incredible tradition kind of outweighed that risk,” he said. “It took a year to convince them to step out and come to this part of the world and share this information with audiences here.”
Their rhythms join with American jazz and north Indian classical traditions. Much of the concert is based on improvisation, but they will incorporate certain traditional, fixed compositions from north and south Indian repertoires and jazz, which Harland plays on a traditional jazz drum kit.
“It’s interesting that the basic world languages that exist around us are not enough for us to communicate with each other, but there is the language of rhythm, which is universal, that makes it easier for us to talk with each other,” Hussain said. He added that the Kochi musicians do not speak English or Hussain’s native tongue of Hindi, and Harland does not speak any Indian languages. “That conversation, I’m hoping, will blossom in such a way that it will bring to the audience a telling of the story that is unique in this combination.”
He called both Harland and Kumar, the sitar player, “top-shelf” musicians. Kumar provides a melodic element that acts as a bridge between the different kinds of drumming. “It’s nice to have a musician of this frightening ability to be amongst us and become the axis around which we will revolve throughout the evening.”
During his career, Hussain has enjoyed a lengthy collaboration with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. Hussain performed on and co-produced Hart’s Planet Drum in 1991, which received the first Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. They won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Contemporary World Music Album when they co-produced a follow-up, Global Drum Project. Hussain is also a member of a world-music supergroup called Tabla Beat Science, formed in 1999 with Bill Laswell, who has produced music for a wide variety of performers, including Fela Kuti, Fab 5 Freddy, Iggy Pop, Motörhead, and Yoko Ono.
Hussain came of age during a time of massive cross-cultural pollination in music. But in recent years, critics and fans have begun a conversation, largely taking place online, about the history of cultural appropriation in popular and world music. Some people claim that one culture using or adopting the musical styles and traditions of another culture can be problematic, especially if the originators are not getting proper credit. Hussain, who is versed in musical history and lineages from all over the world, doesn’t believe in such barriers.
“For me, cultural separations have been built by humans to satisfy themselves that what they have is the different, correct version. That kind of thinking creates situations whereby other thought processes are in some ways shunned,” he said. “For me, that is not correct. Rhythm is universal. If I approach a jazz drummer and insist on only playing what I have learned from my father, and not listen to what this other person has to offer, or not even attempt to translate what I do into language they can understand, I’m defeating the purpose of conversation. This should not happen. Masters of Percussion is a universal statement of rhythm — of time past, time present, and time future. I hope that it conveys the ideas of no obstacles, of having a language that speaks from the heart and projects oneness.” ◀
▼ The Lensic Performing Arts Center and Outpost Performance Space present Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion
▼ 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 9
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $35-$69, 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.org