With the release of Rubber Soul in December of 1965, the Beatles started a chain reaction primed by George Harrison’s sitar work on “Norwegian Wood.” It sparked both raga rock and Ravi Shankar’s unlikely reign as an Anglosphere pop star.
An unsurpassed sitar virtuoso who tutored Harrison on the instrument, Shankar came to personify Hindustani music in the U.S. But it was Shankar’s accompanist, the equally revered tabla maestro Ustad Alla Rakha who built a lasting bridge with American music.
He laid out the conceptual framework on the landmark 1968 album Rich à la Rakha, a percussion project that brought Rakha together with legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, “the first crossover rhythm album that set the tone and opened the possibilities,” says Alla Rakha’s son, tabla master, composer and rhythmic explorer Zakir Hussain.
“The fortunate thing was both Rich and my father believed in improvising,” Hussain continues. “That set the tone, and years later made it possible for Mickey Hart and me to get together. It led to Rolling Thunder, the Diga Rhythm Band and eventually Planet Drum,” which won the first Best World Music Album Grammy Award in 1991.
In many ways, Hussain has dedicated his life to expanding his father’s cross-cultural legacy, and the latest incarnation of his biennial Masters of Percussion tour is dedicated to celebrating the centennial of Alla Rakha, who died in 2000 at the age of 80. Presented by Kuumbwa Jazz Center at the Rio Theatre on Friday, MOP directly echoes Rich à la Rakha with the magisterial contributions of Eric Harland, an era-defining jazz drummer with whom Hussain has collaborated extensively (including the celebrated trio Sangam with tenor sax star Charles Lloyd).
Alla Rakha was equally passionate about bridging divides within the subcontinent, collaborating with masters of South Indian Carnatic classical music. Hussain has continued and expanded that work by reaching out to various far-flung folkloric traditions. Most spectacularly, the MOP tour features the Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar Group from the southwestern state of Kerala.
Until approached by Hussain, the drummers usually performed their millennia-old rhythmic rituals on the chenda drums as part of prayer services in temples, or at religious gatherings. Blown away by the experience of seeing the Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar Group perform, he eventually convinced them to perform in secular settings.
“To see the sonic frequencies that come at you from the dome in the temple, with the incense and the candles and the sandalwood, the smells and sounds and vibrations, it’s almost an out-of-body LSD experience,” says Hussain. “You can almost see the deity dancing to the rhythms. I’m going to let Eric Harland and them alone on stage and see what they cook up. It seems like there are connections in these traditions, and I want to have them explore it, watch them and learn from it. There’s no better way to celebrate my father’s centenary.”
While the tour is naturally a showcase for rhythmic prowess, melody is not forsaken. For one thing, Hussain explores the full sonic range of the tablas, tuned drums that in capable hands can play hundreds of different phrases or ragas. He’s joined by a MOP veteran Niladri Kumar, “the next great sitar maestro after Ravi Shankar,” Hussain says. “He is touted by all musicians and connoisseurs as the maestro of the future.”
A disciple of Shankar, Kumar has explored many of the paths opened by Hussain and Alla Rakha. He’s collaborated with Carnatic master percussionist V. Selvaganesh and jazz artists like British guitarist John McLaughlin (Hussain’s partner in the pioneering 1970s Indo-jazz group Shakti). As a player and composer, he’s also worked widely in Bollywood. Working with younger musicians who have grown up in a multivalent musical world keeps Hussain on his toes (well, fingertips).
“I started from scratch over here at 18 or 19, and by the time I reached 30, I was starting to get familiar with Western music,” Hussain says. “These guys grow up in both worlds simultaneously, and it’s frightening how much information they have and how easily they can project all these musical ideas. It’s great to have that fresh outlook and to lock horns with that.”
Zakir Hussain will perform with the Masters of Percussion at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 29, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $42-$70. 427-2227.