Zakir Hussain is the picture boy for the tabla. Literally, he's one of the images on the Wikipedia page for this Indian percussion instrument. As music has gone global, so has he, performing everywhere and with everybody: Yo-Yo Ma, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. His music has crossed genres and boundaries, from Bollywood movies to Indian folk music to jazz clubs to the Kennedy Center. He will perform with drummer Mickey Hart and another Indian legend, sitar player Niladri Kumar at Zellerbach Hall on Wednesday October 26th, hosted by Cal Performances. Niladri and Zakir also join forces on September 30th at the Green Music Center at Weill Hall in Sonoma. We chatted with Zakir while he was on tour in Saint Louis last week.
Can you describe to the uninitiated what your concert of Indian classical music will sound like?
Zakir: Actually, this has been a little bit misunderstood. One aspect of the performance will be focusing on the classical music of India, it's an important part of the evening. That's what Niladri Kumar and I do, we play traditional classical music. But we both have considerable experience and privilege to have worked with musicians of varyings genres of music across the globe. That information plus our upbringing as musicians playing in the film industry in India, has allowed us to be able to develop a contemporary and folk elements of Indian music, and embed them into our repertoire. That aspect of the music, dealing with folk element and the lighter element of contemporary music of India will also be showcased.
The icing on the cake is Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer, but also drummologist, musicologist and published author. He's going to be on stage with us for a part of the concert where we will explore based on the material that we just started to record. Mickey Hart is doing a new album, I'm co-producing it, and Niladri just did some music tracks for it a couple days ago. We'll try to recreate what we did in the studio onto the stage and have a live performance of that with Micky playing drums and his beam, an instrument that he has created, and electronic gear and everything.
The first part of the concert will be a traditional Indian classical rendition of melodic scales known as raga and rhythms known as taala. That section will represent the music as it has existed for 3,000 years. Niladri Kumar play the melody part of it, and I play the rhythm part of it, and we interact together. Like jazz, this music also depends a lot on improvising. The melody and the rhythm are set, and in that structure you take turns improvising.
Then we conclude with folk melodies of a certain region of India that we haven't picked yet. It could be the mountain region of the Himalayas, or the Eastern regions of Assam, Bengal, or the desert of India, Rajastan, melodies of these parts of Indian. There will be a folk as well as contemporary renditions of these melodies. That's how the whole concert will proceed.
You are a master of the tabla, could you explain a bit more what this instrument is?
Zakir: Tabla is a North Indian classical percussion instrument. It represents the classical repertoire of North Indian music, which goes back 3,000 years. The instrument tabla is one of the recent innovations in that field, it's only about 300 years old. It's still developing and finding its place, even though it has become the premier percussion of choice for this repertoire. That's what I represent.
Tabla is a very versatile instrument. It's a very unique percussion instrument. It has two drums, the bass and the high drum. The high drum has a pitch that is tuned to the tonic of the song that you are accompanying. If it's in E major or D minor, it will be tuned accordingly. That pitch is always present. It gives a tonal contact with the song. Aside from that, the bass drum can play all the seven notes, and you manipulate that by applying pressure to the skin of the drums. The scales are the same everywhere in the word. We still look at piano C as the middle C as a a C, and C-D-E-F-G is for us Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni, we have the same seven notes, we have the twelve notes scales that the Western world has, with the flats and sharps.
When the tabla is tuned to the tonic or whatever pitch the songs is in, that's the high drum. The bass drum can play the melodic notes of the song, harmonically acting as an upright bass, or just playing the dominant/subdominant notes of the scale to give harmonic support to the melody player. In that sense, this instrument is very unique, it can accompany by just keeping time, or by melodic input.
To give you a basic idea, Indian rhythm as a very refined science to it. Just as the Western world has 4/4, 6/8, a clave or things like that, in Indian music, we have 360 different rhythm cycles. The shortest is 4 beats long, and the longest is 108 beats long. We have 4, 5, 6, 7, onwards, so many different cycles all the way. In that sense, the development of rhythm repertoire is a very vast and very scientifically developed system. You find very complex rhythmic ideas even in the improvising that appear in Indian music constantly.
You have performed with everybody, with Yo-Yo Ma, symphony orchestras, jazz musicians, do they get these rhythmic subtleties?
Zakir: It's probably easier for the rhythms to interact with melodies from any parts of the world. Rhythm is universal, it's keeping the beat. Clave is everywhere. It's common to first connect with each other in the rhythm and tempo, with something you can tap your feet to.
Someone like Mickey Hart has actually studied Indian rhythms and drums. The reason I met him is that he came to study with my father [ed: the great tabla player Alla Rakha, who accompanied Ravi Shankar to Woodstock], who was my teacher, and that's how we met and we connected. He has studied that part of Indian music very well, and it's much easier for us to interact in that way.
When it comes to playing with Yo-Yo Ma or Van Morrison or Charles Lloyd or Chucho Valdez or various other people, India has been open to music from the world. Lots of the music from all over the world in the 30, 40s, 50s, from Hollywood, from Europe, came to India. We were aware of people like Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Tata Güines, Airto Moreira, Jobim, or Coltrane or Duke Ellington. we were already aware of their music in india. In fact, some of their music influenced a lot of the early Bollywood film music, and we all grew up playing as session players for this music, so we had an idea to interact with it.
When I arrived in this part of the world, and keeping in mind that rhythm is universal, it was much easier to communicate with Airto Moreiro or Giovanni Hidalgo or Jack DeJohnette.
You live now in the Bay Area, how did this happen?
Zakir: I came to the Bay Area in 1970, 46 years ago. I came here because I was asked to come and teach Indian music at a music college. Mickey Hart was living in the Bay Area, so was Armando Peraza, Carlos Santana, all of us were here. I ended up connecting with them, working with them, playing in jazz sessions and various other projects. That's how I started to interact and connect with non-Indian musicians. I've been with them ever since.
The SF Symphony recently celebrated Steve Reich's 80th birthday. Do you hear Indian rhythms in his music?
Zakir: Steve Reich has been influenced by Indian music. He interacted with our great sitar player, Ravi Shankar, and got some input from him. Therefore when he composes his music, he uses Indian music and rhythms regularly in his compositions. One of the great minimalist composers that he is, his contemporary, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, are all very familiar and influenced by Indian music. You will find that their symphonic music has some similarities to Indian scale and rhythms.
You also have composed for the symphonic orchestra...
Zakir: I have written three concertos. One for three soloists, with banjo player Bela Fleck, classical bassist Edgar Meyer, we wrote it together. Then I wrote another symphony, called Aas, which means hope in Indian music. It was a concerto for 4 soloists, with 3 vocalists and myself, it was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and now I've recently written a concerto for tabla and full orchestra which was premiered in Switzerland last January and will be premiered in the US by the National Symphony at the Kennedy center next April. We are in negotiation with the SF Symphony to maybe present this tabla concerto.
Are you trying to bridge American and Indian folk music when you compose for banjo?
Zakir: Yes, but at the same time, if you look closely at a banjo, it's a rhythm instrument. It plays rhythm and gives melody to these rhythmic ideas. The three fingers that pick, they come up with very complex rhythm patterns, and the left hand hold these notes in place, so you listen to these notes in very rhythmic patterns. It's very easy for me to take Indian rhythm patterns and add melody tones to it, it's not that far away. The reason why the concerto with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer worked well was simply because bass and banjo are both melodic and rhythmic instruments, like the tabla. It was easy for us to find common ground to write music together.
One thing I have to say is that the music is now becoming very global. It's not as simple as saying Indian music or jazz or blues or gospel or Latin percussion or Afrocuban music, there are many elements of all these music that are coming closer together. Therefore we have global music or world music ideas. What I would like to say to the audience is to come to the concert with an open mind, knowing there are musicians from India and from America playing together, the music has a universal feel to it, it has a global idea behind it. Come with an open mind and you'll have a great time. If you come hoping to listening to just Indian music or to Mickey Hart's music, then you won't have as great a time, as much fun as you should have if you come with an open mind. And even though I'm listed as Zakir Hussain the band leader, I'm not the band leader. A musician like Niladri Kumar, I don't have to lead him or tell him what to do, it's an equal concert. I'm one of the guys on the stage. Niladri and Mickey and myself are all contributing equally to the concert, and should be treated as musicians equally as we are.