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The Rhythmatist
Talking with Zakir Hussain, percussionist, bandleader and tireless innovator

If he can talk her into it, Zakir Hussain’s wife, interpretive kathak dancer Antonia Minnecola, will perform alongside him at the Savannah Music Festival April 5.

Toni, as Hussain calls her, is part of the Masters of Percussion tour — but only when she feels like it, or isn’t busy with some other project. So far, she hasn’t committed to the Savannah date. “I could twist her arm, but ...” Hussain laughs.

“I would like to bring her to Savannah. I asked her, and she was like ‘Well ... I’m not sure, blah blah blah.’ But let’s see what happens.”

Hussain is not only one of India’s finest tabla players, he is a chameleonic musician who’s been at the forefront of international collaboration and innovation for more than 30 years (see Shakti, Silk Road Project, Planet Drum, Tabla Beat Science ....)

His father was Alla Rakha, who famously played tabla with Indian music legend Ravi Shankar during the sitar master’s “global years” (the 1960s and ‘70s).

Masters of Percussion is an ongiong project for Hussain. The current lineup includes Fazal Qureshi, tabla & kanjira; Rakesh Chaurasia, bansuri (bamboo flute); T.H.V. Umashankar, ghatam; Sabir Khan, sarangi; Navin Sharma, dholak; Abbos Kosimov, doyra; and the Meitei Pung Cholom Performer (dancing drummers of Manipur).

Fazal Qureshi is Hussain’s younger brother; he runs their late father’s music school in Mumbai.

“My brother was looking through old books and papers, and found 62 compositions written for two tablas,” Hussain says. “Now, I’ve known that a hundred percent of the repertoire in tabla, and all tabla players know, has been written for one tabla player. But never for two! It’s almost like having a duet between a cello and a piano.”

Another exciting new challenge for this most restless musician.

“While I was in India, we sat and worked on it — it’s over 400 years old — and I’m really looking forward to presenting that with him on the stage.

“It’s kind of unusual for North Indian classical music, where 80 percent of the music is improvised. Here’s stuff that’s 70 percent laid out, with 30 percent room to be able to interpret.”

The last time I saw you, at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival, you were playing The Melody of Rhythm with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. You collaborate with so many musicians. What do you get out of switching it up?

Zakir Hussain: First of all, what I remember about that festival with Edgar and Bela is that the Indian cricket team was playing the finals of the World Cup. So my attention was, understandably, divided.

What do I get from switching? The same thing that all other musicians get — it’s just another avenue to explore, maybe look at my own music through someone else’s point of view, and see if there are any nooks and corners that I’ve missed. That I need to explore, and therefore grow as an artist and enhance my repertoire. I thought that I’d done whatever tabla needed to do at this point. Having gone electronically to do Tabla Beat Science and all that stuff, that was like OK, fine, that’s done. But I had no clue that the melodic and harmonic element of the rhythms of India still needed to be explored. And that was something that Bela and Edgar opened my ears to.

What was the genesis of the Masters of Percussion program?

Zakir Hussain: This was something that my father wanted me to do way back in the early ‘90s. He said to me, “Well, here we are, we have over 28 deeply–rooted traditions of rhythm in India, which are distributed over 200–odd percussion instruments. And why isn’t the world being told about it?” And so Masters of Percussion began.

The idea was to keep bringing these different artists and kind of open up the people’s vision, that there’s more than meets the eye. I was trying to avoid what was the “Ravi Shankar Syndrome” in the ‘60s, when people just connected Indian music to Ravi Shankar and no one else existed.

When in fact there was an incredible bench strength of great artists in India at that time, Usted Ali Akbar Khan was one ... These were great musicians who were honored and revered and loved. In India, they were basically worshipped.

But yet, in America the only person known was Ravi Shankar, and to some extent my father Allah Raka because of his association with Ravi Shankar. My father felt it was important to show listeners all over the world that the marquee names are not the only ones.

And I will be the first one to admit that I’m known as the best tabla player from India, but that’s far from the truth. I’m one of the good ones, but there are definitely 10 or 15 others who are just as good.

In the jazz world, when you talk about drumming, you can name at least eight or 10 drummers who are incredible.

Are you saying you’re not a marquee name? Come on.

Zakir Hussain: I may be the marquee name, but what that tells me is that every dog has his day, and I’m the dog today.

No, no, it’s true. There’s no reason people should not know that yes, Zakir is one of the good ones ... and here is a whole line of others who are just as good. Watch them and see how deep the music tradition exists in India. And just like the West, that there are practitioners of art forms in every section of the arts. You have a choice, you have a selection, you can listen and see how much variety there is. As opposed to just, come and see just this one guy every other year or something.

I think Ravi would say this as well: If the West is going to listen to you, you can use that as a platform to say “Hey, check the rest of this out.”

Zakir Hussain: That’s what I’m doing. I’m using my credit limit to get these guys out there and have them be listened to. It doesn’t mean that I’m saying “Don’t listen to me.” It means that I’m part of this whole tradition, and the reason why I am who I am is because I have so much available to me that makes me that much more interesting to listen to and watch.

And it’s due to my switching from one idea to another, or one combination to another, to keep myself interested and challenged. John McLaughlin did that, Mickey Hart did that, various great musicians have all gone out looking for something that could challenge them to take that other step they need to go to the next level. George Harrison did that with Ravi Shankar. John Coltrane was in touch with Ravi Shankar also.

So great musicians, all through history, have gone looking for the next mirror that they cold look into, which would show them a different look at themselves. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with Masters of Percussion, or with Bela and Edgar. And I’m sure they’re doing the same when they play with different people.

You’ve got dancers in Masters of Percussion. I understand dance is used, with music, in Indian storytelling.

Zakir Hussain: That’s an aspect of percussion in India that hasn’t really been seen here. Yes, you see a great solo, you see a great groove being hit and all kinds of fancy, flashy runs and patterns and stuff, but to actually sit down and do a piece of storytelling through drumming, and see it visually arrive in front of you onstage through the movement of a dancer, is something that we’re trying out. No words spoken. 

Savannah Music Festival

Zakir Hussain’s Masters of Percussion

At 7:30 p.m. April 5/Trustees Theater