Zakir Hussain Curated
World Renowned Tabla Artist
CURATED BY :
How long have you known Mickey? What is relationship like?
It’s been 47 years that we worked together. The first was in 1971 and our relationship and friendship has only strengthened over the years. I thank god for his presence in my life, and he, of course, is one of my mentors and I’m looking forward to getting this record done and for people to enjoy it
Would you like to say something about those recording sessions?
I have to tell you that so far the sonic experience of what has been put down is mind-blowing. Mickey is such a sonic junkie. He has to have the best possible tone and sounds coming out of the instrument and his quest has always been to find the most unique and up-to-date way of being able to capture those sounds that the instrument is making. It’s not only playing the music but also learning in his company the length and breadth and depth of what kind of soundscape that an instrument puts out and how to be able to best experience it. It’s really a very special time when that happens.
Have you seen your old friend and longtime collaborator Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Dead & Company lately? Do you have anything in the works with him?
Well, we started working on a record before he left for Dead & Company tour. Now that he’s back it’s time for us to get together and finish it. It has a lot to do with with a more refined, new, state-of-the-art version of The Beam, which is one of Mickey’s main joys and modes of expression on stage. The record is to feature The Beam and the drone and see how that collaborates with percussion and rhythms and how they can coexist in a very fluid and floaty environment. That’s the kind of record we are working on and it’s just basically been him and I so far. So today we will take stock of where we are and then start in the next week or two doing some more addition to where we left off and see where we go with that.
How do you feel about the concerts happening?
It’s great. Each one of us are very open to each other’s musical space and are really happy to accommodate any idea that comes forth. And at the same time, for musicians who are open to a new path to follow, it’s not a problem if we’ve rehearsed something and instead end up doing something else – that’s great.
How would you describe the music that you guys make to somebody that’s never heard the three or four of you play together?
OK. Well, what’s interesting for me is that my instrument, Bela’s instrument which is banjo and Edgar’s which is bass, they are all not only melodic instruments but also rhythmic instruments. There is this interesting tie in between the three of us and that, in a way, necessitated that Rakesh should be brought in to have some kind of an interesting high-end melody coming through our supportive environment. So that’s one thing. Secondly, since we all have an improvisational background it allows us to be able to pivot and twist into different lanes and byways of the musical town or city — for lack of a better description — and find our way to the same square at the same time and sit and enjoy our union together. I mean, this is more a visual analogy of what the music will bring. I mean, this is more a visual analogy of what the music will bring. One thing I’ve noticed, these great musicians, be it George Harrison or John McLaughlin or John Coltrane or Mickey Hart. Jerry Garcia. Carlos Santana. You name it. Charles Lloyd. Bela Fleck. Edgar Meyer. These are musicians who are established, top-shelf artists of their genres of music, much-touted, revered in their world. But it hasn’t stopped them there. Their thirst to be able to find more knowledge, to find another way to be able to express their music, to widen their horizon has always been a catalyst in their need to be able to find a source. George Harrison went to Ravi Shankar the Indian sitar player. So did John Coltrane. John McLaughlin went to a player in Wesleyan. Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer came to me. I went to John McLaughlin and Mickey Hart. And so these are sort of, how should I say — homages, you know? Trips that we make to a source to be able to advance our way of understanding of music and see if there’s a new way for us to be able to tell the same old story. And that thirst of knowledge brings musicians from all over the world together with each other to be able to explore further. That’s exactly why we are together, to be able to discover further that even though we all represent different traditions, at the core of it all, the notes are the same 12 notes and the rhythm is the same house — 4/4 or 6/8 or 7/4 — it’s just for us to understand in our mind that we are not so different from each other.
Will that come about through improvisation? Will there be room for spontaneous playing?
Well, I mean Bela being a musician who has worked quite a bit with jazz musicians like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke – people like that. He’s got a deep understanding of jazz improv. And so does Edgar Meyer having worked with musicians in the same genre – bluegrass – where they do solo and stuff. Me and Rakesh have been brought up in the Indian system, which is based primarily in improvising. So yes, 50 to 60% of the concert will have spontaneous input from all four of us coming in. And therefore each tune that we play every day will have a fresher look. And at the same time, while in our discussions about all our traditions, other ideas may emerge while we are riding the bus to the next venue and might spawn a riff or a tune or a pattern that will inspire another new song. So yes, all those are possibilities.
Will any of that new material be incorporated into the shows in October?
Absolutely. Because of Rakesh‘s arrival, it has required that we should have material that brings him into the band. We are writing new stuff. Rakesh is contributing too. I’ve written a tune or two and so has Bela and so has Edgar. So we’ll have all that, plus we’ll have material that we’ve already showcased on tour and in our previous record. So we’ll have a whole portfolio of material to showcase on this tour and hopefully while we are touring some new stuff will come up.
Nothing’s been recorded for the album yet?
No. Some ideas have been thrown back and forth. We’ve done some rough ideas. I’ve put some stuff down in my home studio, and Bela has his, and Edgar and Rakesh, and we’re all sort of assembling those to see what kind of musical statement we can make together and come up with a kind of music that presents a unified statement from the four of us.
What sparked this upcoming run of shows in October that you’re doing with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer?
Well Edgar Meyer, Bela and I have worked together for some years now. The first time was when we were commissioned as a trio to write a concerto for a symphony orchestra, which was the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to open their new concert hall. So that’s how we actually came together. About, I don’t know maybe seven or eight years ago, and after that, we’ve done about three maybe four tours off and on in different parts of the world. But we haven’t done any new tours in some time. And I think that’s probably because we hadn’t yet had time to work on a new project ourselves. We finally got some time together — from our various different projects that we’ve been doing — to sit together and make a new recording. The idea of recording kind of started this thought process that maybe we should tour and play together and get cohesive as a band once again before we finish the recording. So that’s what sparked this tour. And the other interesting thing for us was the opportunity to work with a bamboo flute player from India Rakesh [Chaurasia] — and he is such a fine musician and fits so well with this trio and with the quartet it was almost like this combo was inevitable. We are getting together mid-September in Nashville to sort of start preliminary work on our recording, as well as do some rehearsal, then go on the road and periodically come back to Nashville through the tour to work on a song or two songs and continue the tour and then finally finish the album.
How difficult was it for your father to make a mark and what did you learn?
As his my father said- For them it was easier. Their art was right here. It was at home. All they had to do was to ask for it. In my time it was different. I had to chase all over for it and live sometimes for days without food. And whatever I earned I had to share with my guru as dakshina."
What kind of bond you share with your father?
The father prefers not to speak about that period in his life when he was not keeping well. But Zakir intones: "I suppose that was when some strange and powerful bond developed between us. I was a very sickly child. I'd keep getting sick, and the sicker I got the better my father became until he blossomed again with good health and creativity." Zakir's mother did not devote as much attention to him at first because of her concern for her husband. But a sadhu who came to the household that month, told the mother to take special care of the boy because he would ultimately save the husband.
When did you hear your first recital of tabla?
When Zakir was barely a few minutes old he was taken to his father. For the first time, Alla Rakha moved his head, took his newborn into his arms, nuzzled him and whispered tabla syllables, ta tin tin ta,into his ears.
How was tabla infused into your life since you were in your mother's womb?
His father say- When he was a baby I tied little toy tablas to his crib and even at that age he would reach out eagerly for them. And often I would put his naked little body on my chest and whisper tabla syllables into h is ear and play a rhythm gently on his back."
What would your mannerisms depict when you play with your father?
Yes, it is mischief." says Zakir. "I'm really teasing my father. I'm deliberately falling into puddles. He propounds an idea and takes it along and passes it to me, like in a relay
What would be your message for artists who dream to become like you?
I don't think anybody should become like me. One day somebody asked my dad if I would be like him. He said, ‘I hope he is better than me. He should not be my carbon copy but something more'. Similarly, others should strive to be better than me. If you are accepting me as your role model and not your parents then something is wrong. Think about it.
Why does music stand apart from other aspects of a film?
Music has a strong part to play in films. To me the important part is the background score. Songs sell the movie; the background score enhances the act. It acts as a spine for the film.
You have scored music for films like “For Real” and “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”. Why not for more films?
It's entirely my fault. When you want to do a Bollywood film, you have to be there with the director to finalise the song, lyrics and recordings. In the time it takes to do one film, I do 50 concerts. I remember when Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Hari Prasad Chaurasia used to score for Yash Chopra's films, we would be on a tour in Amsterdam. They would get a call and cancel concerts to get back to Mumbai! I am hoping someone tells me: ‘I want you to record a song next year in September. Can you find time?' Then I can plan my move. I don't actively look for films scores; I do whatever comes my way. Rahul Bose asked me to do the music for “For Real”. I was coming to India for the winter; so it worked out. I am very lucky that only people who like my work have approached me.
What would be your online presence through Facebook and your website must help connect to you...
I am on Facebook? My office must be doing that. The Internet is an incredible tool. I can find out what my fans want to tell me and what they want me to fix in my presentation so that I will be dear to them for a longer period.
What about your teaching?
My father has a school in India run by my brother Fazal Qureshi. I interact with the students when I am in India. Every summer I do a camp in which students from across the world come together to study the gurukul way.
How many concerts do you play in a year; how many in India?
I play over 150 concerts a year and then there are recordings with some fabulous musicians like with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. Last season in the U.S. alone we did 62 shows. The Global Drum Project won a Grammy a couple of years ago and we are in the process of recording our second album. In India, shows happen only in winter. It's like India plays cricket in India only in winter but that doesn't mean that they are not playing.
Can you tell us about the new musicians you are discovering.
Earlier there were only a few well known singers who sang all the songs. Now you have got incredible singers who sing like there is no tomorrow. There is no dearth of high quality talent, whether from Bollywood, classical, folk or other traditional art forms. People like Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, music directors like A. R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy worked their way up the ladder. They had to prove themselves over and over again to be in the place they are today. Today's young talent have longevity.
Of the current lot of tabla players whom are you impressed by?
t won't be fair to point a few because the others will kill me. I think global understanding has changed. Earlier the idea was go to school, become a doctor, later it was a computer programmer... now parents are looking for kids to become artists. Globally speaking, there is a sudden understanding that art and culture are closer to your roots and give you an identity. There is a movement to preserve culture and traditions that make it very easy for us to interact as well as perform. Earlier one didn't know who Ustad Allahrakha Khan was but now one can Google him. Technology has helped change not only the artists' view but also of listeners.
What are the ideal qualities for a tabla player?
The same as for any musician or artist: the ability to be creative. The essential quality is to recognise the subject's nitty-gritty, be able to focus on it and find a way to express it in your medium. It is a universal requirement for all artists of any nature.
How difficult was it for the tabla players to find recognition in the music industry?
How was your experience when you first went to the US?
Being so deep rooted in Indian music, what made you go to the US?
How much was your passion for tabla and music, during your childhood, that people would lure you away?
What was your parents' desire from you as a professional?
How long does it take to get accustomed to, say, a new tabla?
In the world of music, and especially when it comes to traditional music, haste is not a good idea. You need time to build a relationship with your instrument. The instrument’s spirit has to react and then things happen. You don’t just buy a new sitar today, get on to the stage tomorrow and start playing it. The sitar must come into its own. You have to play it for some months before you feel comfortable – ok, now I can play it on stage.
What can be said about the Shehnayi?
The shehnai is a very difficult instrument to play and can sound terrible if it is played badly. There was an in-joke among us musicians about a line in the song ‘Aap ke nazron ne samjha’. The line goes like this: ‘Har taraf bajne lagin saikdon shehnaiyan.’ [A thousand shehnais started to play all around us.] And we musicians would laugh and say: ‘Saikdon shehnaiyan bajne lagengi toh sar phat jaayega!’
Why some people find sitar less melodic than the violin or the flute?
One of the reasons why the sitar may not feel as melodious to you is because the flute is an out-and-out melodic instrument, and the violin is similar whilst the sitar is both melodic and percussive. Because it has this rhythmic ability, the sitar can very easily feel overbearing. When Ravi Shankarji played, there was great emphasis on rhythm, but that’s not what I noticed in Vilayat Khansahib’s playing. He was more into exploring the sitar’s melodic element. The rhythmic element came into his playing, but did not appear to dominate. In the old days, there were no microphones and the instruments were not as finely made, so their resonance was very limited, therefore a more rhythmic style was played on the sitar. Listen to the old recordings, you’ll find the sitar playing was somewhat based on the way the Afghani rabab is played
Are tabla makers appreciated in the world, it being sucha complex instrument to make?
Zakir Khan say, " Ipersonally feel tabla makers in India don’t get their proper due, nor do they get the kind of monetary return they should. If somebody in America makes a guitar by hand for a famous guitar player, they charge between $12,000 and $20,000. Béla Fleck is a master of the banjo, and some of his banjos are worth $120,000. All musical instrument makers in India are not really compensated enough or given the kind of respect and status they deserve."
What does Zakir Khan bring to tabla?
Zakir Khan brings openness and clarity, and that is what musicians bring to the audience. What Zakir Khan present must make sense, whether that involves a heart-to-heart interaction between musical instrument and musician, or zero hesitancy in the thought process, or not worrying about the parameters – your musical statement must be created with as much clarity as possible.
You are associated with TATA Capital, your comments on what they are doing in the field of music?
Do you think Indian classical music is getting enough support from corporate sector?
Your thoughts on Gurukul that you have established?
Do you think technology can really be used to teach Indian classical music?
Do you think Indian youth is sticking to Indian classical music as per your expectation?
Audience getting mesmerized but how is your experience?
Favorite American film?
Favorite American actor?
Favorite Indian film?
Favorite Indian actor?
Favorite musician today?
You have collaborated with lots of people, but Do you have anyone from western or Indian with whom you want to collaborate?
According to you who is the greatest drummer of all time?
Is there any western musician who inspired you in growing up?
Composing, recording and performing, what is your favorite?
Now you are considered a maestro in art so what you want to achieve more?
Do you think anyone can play tabla or it is gifted talent?
Do you think when you play tabla or it comes spontaneously?
How important is it for you to make American aware about Indian artistry?