Zakir Hussain Interview: Indian classical music thriving, prospering all over the globe

Zakir Hussain in Cape Town, South Africa, December, 2016. He played with Rakesh Chaurasia then, in Cape Town, and is scheduled to go on a Spring tour with Chaurasia next month, in the US. Photo courtesy of Zakir Hussain.

NEW YORK – The effervescent tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, 56, one of the greatest classical musicians India has ever produced, and a chief architect of the contemporary world music movement, will be on a hectic Spring tour next month, covering 12 cities across the US in three weeks, with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia.

Hussain, son of the legendary tabla player Alla Rakha, has been feted for his prowess, in both India, and the US, including winning a Grammy Award. Now a resident of San Francisco, California, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988, and the Padma Bhushan in 2002, by the Government of India, as well as the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1990. In 1999, he was awarded the United States National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award given to traditional artists and musicians.

A child prodigy, Hussain started to learn the Pakhawaj at the age of three, and was touring by the age of 11. He emigrated to the United States in 1969 to do his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, receiving a doctorate in music. His glittering international career has seen him play at top venues of the world, including four widely-heralded and sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall’s Artist Perspective series, in 2009, with some of the most renowned musicians globally.

Hussain’s historic collaborations include ‘Shakti’, which he founded with John McLaughlin and L. Shankar, ‘Remember Shakti’, the Diga Rhythm Band, Making Music, Planet Drum with Mickey Hart, Tabla Beat Science, Sangam with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland and recordings and performances with artists as diverse as George Harrison, YoYo Ma, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison, Airto Moreira, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Cobham, Mark Morris, Rennie Harris, and the Kodo drummers.

In an exclusive e-mail interview to News India Times, Hussain gives insight to what keeps him going, and the artists who have inspired him. Excerpts from the interview:

You will perform next month with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, the nephew of flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. Rakesh Chaurasia is known to experiment with traditional style, and you have performed with him before. Is his style a huge departure from Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia’s style?

Rakesh Chaurasia is one of the new breed of traditional Indian artists who have had the good fortune to not only study Indian classical music in detail, but also simultaneously familiarize themselves with non-Indian forms of music and in real time assimilate, analyze, compare and develop a musical expression which incorporates all forms of music globally. This makes his style not different, but more accessible than his uncle’s. He is able to, with greatest of ease, translate the Indian music language to musicality of listeners anywhere in the world.

I had the pleasure of watching and hearing you perform, at Carnegie Hall, some years ago. It was an interactive session between some students in New York on stage with you and students in Delhi, through live video conference. You had the audience spellbound. Your energy, youthfulness and commitment is amazing, to say the least. What keeps you going? What inspires you?

I consider myself a student of the arts and I know that every time I get on stage with an artist I have not worked with before, I am able to see my music thoughts through their eyes and ears, thus discovering elements in my music which I might have overlooked; and seeing them through the eyes of the musician provides me with a new learning experience. This process keeps the encounters fresh and far from being monotonous and something to look forward to always.

Doing collaborative jazz music ensemble seems to be a favorite of yours, over the years. Last year, you took the stage with Dave Holland, in New Jersey. You were among those invited by President Obama to the International Jazz Day 2016 All-Star Global Concert at the White House. Today, there are a lot of fine, highly rated Indian American and South Asian-origin American jazz musicians, including Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Sunny Jain and Rez Abbasi. What do you reckon is the reason for this?

Today’s Indian musicians have access to music from all over the world and from a very early time in their studentship they are exposed to different musical expressions and thoughts. This allows them to, without fear of failure, chose any genre of music they feel defines them. In my view, this, plus a new found elevation of music as a profession which is socially acceptable, might be the reason.

Zakir Hussain’s studio. Photo courtesy of Zakir Hussain.

Your accolades are many, including the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, and a Grammy Award for Best World Music album, for ‘Planet Drum,’ produced by Mickey Hart. What was it like working with Hart, who is also best known for being a drummer for the rock band “Grateful Dead’, who many consider to be the godfather of the jam band world?

I consider Mickey Hart as one of my mentors. He brought me to a wondrous world of rhythm and self-expression, which I had no idea existed. He has had a big hand in shaping the way I look at rhythm, time signatures, grooves and helped me in developing a more universal style of drumming. It is always very exciting and at the same time very challenging to work with Mickey. He would never accept anything less then what the vision demands.

Over the years, you have toured extensively with Hart, and other members from ‘Planet Drum.’ Did your music and your vision for music change in any way after the success of ‘Planet Drum’ which was at #1 on the Billboard World Music chart for 26 weeks in 1991?

The success of Planet Drum planted the idea of rhythm and bass oriented music, apart from winning the first ever world music Grammy, Planet Drum brought forth the idea that it was possible to successfully create drum albums and also do economically viable tours of this music.

Zakir Hussain with his granddaughter, Zara, in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Zakir Hussain.

You live in San Francisco, but continue to tour around the world. What’s it’s like to live out of a suitcase, when on tour? Do you even think of maybe spending more time in India?

It is difficult to be away from home and not sleep in your own bed for long periods of time but the upside is that you meet new people, see different worlds and make music with many exciting artists. After doing this for a while, a routine is established and a relatively painless way to relate to the suitcase is found.

You called New Jersey home, as an Old Dominion Fellow, a professor of music, at Princeton University, more than 10 years ago. Of course, you have a doctorate in music too. Do you miss teaching? What did you take away from that experience?

Teaching is the first and the best from of learning. I think that I really discovered more about my tradition and my playing through the process of sharing the information with others. I am constantly mentoring fellow rhythm players all over the world, so just because I am not teaching on a campus does not mean that the transmission has stopped.

You must be tired of answering this question, but here we go again: Is Indian classical music dying in the din of Bollywood music?

Indian classical music is thriving and prospering all over the globe. No “din” has in any way smothered the sound of this art form.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I like to listen to folk music from all parts of the world. It gives me better insight into the culture of the land.




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