In the world of traditional music, one has to build a relationship with their instrument to let the magic happen on the stage. A classic example of this is Zakir Hussain, who has a mystical bond with his instrument – the tabla. The maestro does not hesitate to compromise on parameters to have a heart-to-heart interaction between the audience and him. Hussain is also known for his humour and improvisation on stage, including bringing audience members on stage. Born in the house of veteran tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain is one of the few lucky musicians who is trained by a liberal father and a guru at the same time, which, according to the musician, has helped him shape himself as a performer. “I consider myself very lucky to be born and raised in the house of a musician. My father as a guru has been very tolerant one,” says Hussain, who believes that it was because of his father that he was able to explore the new world of music. “He never stopped me from exploring something that he hadn’t explored. It
gave me the confidence to step out and venture into new things without hesitation,” he shares.
The percussionist was in India to attend a documentary film screening titled Sangeet – Saroop – Satguru — a film documenting the musical journey of his holiness Satguru Jagjit Singh, a celebrated patron of Indian classical music for over 100 years from Bhaini Sahib in Ludhiana — by documentary filmmaker Taranjiet Singh.
Hussain is also a chief architect of the contemporary music worldwide. He explored music through tabla to an extent that it became his language worldwide. “It was very important for me to let the tabla speak about me. The environment of freedom opened the space for ideas and that was amazing,” he says. With his impeccable ear for taal and rhythm through tabla, the virtuoso expanded his horizons and gave multifaceted performances across the globe. His historic collaborations include Shakti with guitarist John McLaughlin and violinists L Shankar in the UK, Planet Drum with Mickey Hart in the US – which led him to win Grammy Award in 2009 - and Tabla Beat Science, Sangam with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland, to name a few. From George Harrison, Joe Henderson, and Van Morrison to Rennie Harris and Kodo drummers, the table player has been feted for his prowess at the time when the purists dominated the classical music in the early 1970s. “I was lucky I would say because I was away from India at that time. My father was a purist who did watch over me, but he was kind enough to allow me to collaborate with other musicians in the world,” smiles Hussain, adding that veteran santoor player Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia also helped him shape his talent.
“They were like cricket coaches. They taught me how to catch the ball that was coming at me from different directions. They guided me in my formative years, and a lot of times they just overlooked my mistakes but helped mold me and to make me grow as a musician, away from the magnified person,” Hussain confesses.
When asked about his love for jazz and fusion, the composer reveals he is a firm advocate for it. “The world is becoming small, and the window is open. If we want the West to understand our music then we have to take the music to them, and if we want to understand their music then we need to bring that into our music. It is essential,” he opines. This begs the question about classical music and percussionists losing their original charm, but Hussain responds in the negative.
“Our ventilation is our culture and classical music. It is respected everywhere and it gets special compassion and respect by everyone in the world. Our music is the premium form of music in the world, and musicians these days have the confidence to call themselves The One,” he shares.
Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain
Hussain also recalls the time when he went for a performance and was asked to sit in a corner of the kitchen in the house and wait till the audience was ready for the mehfil. “I was playing tabla and the audience was busy in their stuff. No one paid attention. But now that’s the same place where I am invited for dinners. That’s a big change,” he says, adding that musicians have travelled across the world and made people aware of Indian classical music. “Gone are the days when people would say musicians are not socially compatible. Now musicians have a great platform to be able to survive and revive. And this new generation deserves it,” he gushes.
Now a resident of San Francisco, California, Zakir Hussain was awarded with the highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri in 1988 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002, by the Government of India. He is also among the few musicians who was invited by President Barack Obama to the White House to perform at the All-Star Global Concert on International Jazz day in 2016.
Celebrating his illustrious and ever-growing musical career in his second inning as well, the musician appears as energetic and committed as an aspiring artist would be. “I enjoy and love what I do. I am at utmost peace at the place where I am, and that’s what keeps me going,” Hussain concludes.