Hussain & Sharma return for an evening of energized Indian tabla and santoor
Mention Zakir Hussain and rhythmic magic comes to mind. He’s played percussion with Yo Yo Ma, Van Morrison and Pharoah Sanders, bringing an innovative approach to Indian tabla drumming. After growing up in Southern India with his father, legendary tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain came to the US in 1970, and George Harrison invited him to play on Living In The Material World. Friday, the renowned cofounder of Shakti fusion band and music composer returns to The Rio.
Good Times: How it is performing with Shivkumarji Sharma?
Zakir Hussain: I must’ve been 15 when I first played with him, and he comes from the same part of India as my family. There’s this very instinctive reaction that we have that makes the music a lot of fun and a lot of joy.
GT: What’s the relationship between rhythm and melody for you?
Zakir: Before I got here (US) I was more interested in playing the repertoire that was taught to me. Rarely did I wonder what the instrument itself can do to enhance that repertoire. That realization came to me when I listened to the masters of Latin percussion and Jazz drumming. I tried allowing the tabla to say what needs to be said.
GT: I enjoy hearing you explore melody with the tabla—it surprises people.
Zakir: It surprised my father when I started doing it. Later he started seeing the fun in it and allowed me to continue. Nobody thought of allowing the instrument to say something. The advent of better sound systems allowed the frequencies of the instrument to be magnified.
GT: What was your first experience with music?
Zakir: I was three years old. I remember sitting behind my father on the stage, in the lap of one of his students and he was playing a concert. I remember trying to reach for the spare tabla that was sitting on my father’s right, a little bit behind him, so that I could also play the drums. The student was trying to restrain me and my father said, “Let him have the tabla. If he wants to bang on it, let him bang on it!”
I think he quietly instructed his students who would come over to the house, “If my son asks a question about the instrument, show him how it’s done. But don’t force it on him.” That’s how my training began. It was more like a casual information booth was set up in the house.
GT: Encouragement needs to be balanced with a sense of play in music lessons.
Zakir: With me the sort of reverse psychology worked really well; don’t push it on me, but have it around. When I was seven, my father said, “Do you really want to study this instrument?” I said, “Yes.” At that point he said, “Tomorrow we’ll start at three o’clock in the morning.” He did not show me then how to play the instrument, but to sing the rhythms. He’d talk to me about the tradition and stories of musicians and compositions. We would talk until six in the morning when I had to get ready to go to school. In the afternoon I would take all of that and put it onto the tabla.
GT: Tell me about the spiritual aspect of music.
Zakir: It is believed in India that music is born from the gods and goddesses and therefore it’s sacred. Each instrument has a spirit and it’s important that you become so close in a positive interaction with that spirit that the spirit speaks through you. I remember a great tabla player going on stage and one of the musicians said to him, “Good luck maestro.” The maestro said, “Let’s see what the tabla wants to say today.”
GT: You’ve been called, “A chief architect of the world music movement.”
Zakir: Music is music. I don’t believe in labels. When people say I’m one of the architects of world music, it’s not really true. John McLaughlin found me. George Harrison and Mickey Hart found me. Because of the great musicians that took me along for the ride, I happen to be part of some landmark projects like Shakti or Planet Drum. I consider myself very lucky. People all over the world are looking at each other with more respect because of the discovery of art and culture of each other’s lands. Music transcends any political boundaries.
Hussain and Sharma perform at 8 p.m. Friday, May 6, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $25-$35. 427-2227. kuumbwajazz.org. John Malkin is a local musician, journalist and host of the weekly interview program The Great Leap Forward on Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM.