A FEW MINUTES WITH… Zakir Hussain
By Don Wilcock
It had all the makings of the most cataclysmic team-up in musical history. Indian traditionalist Zakir Hussain, generally regarded as the best tabla player in the world, joining forces with Mickey Hart, percussionist in the Grateful Dead, point man for the hedonistic psychedelic movement that changed the definition of popular music and pop culture forever. Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, his Grammy-winning 1991 CD, included the best percussionists from many different world cultures including Babatunde Olatunji, Airto Moreira, Giovanni Hidalgo… and Zakir Hussain.
Talk about culture clash! “I was able to execute ideas, and repertoires and stuff which were a thousand years old almost flawlessly and play them all out, but when I came here, and I ran into Mickey Hart, suddenly a whole different world opened up,” says Hussain, who performs in concert with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia on Thursday evening (March 22) at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
“I was suddenly faced with all these very different ways of looking at rhythm and being able to express it. Some were very rhythmic, very scientific just like mine. But some were very open, very lyrical, very fluent, and very spontaneous, laid back or driving forward, and suddenly to look at the best in a very rigid, box-like manner was not the way to go. I had to be open.”
Hussain’s work with Mickey Hart taught him how to advance the world’s view of the tabla from being an accompanying percussion instrument to being a primary instrument at concerts. So, the master who had a Ph. D in music and had spent his life studying the tabla from his father (also a world-renowned tabla player) became the student to a man much of “straight” society regards as one of the most famous hippies in the world.
“Coming from India to this world and thinking I was going to teach them about Indian music, it became a teaching and learning experience,” says Hussain. “It shaped me into a couple of areas like no other in India, and I was lucky to be able to have that color inside of me which appealed to the young audiences all over India and gave me somewhat of a higher shelf to live on than other young tabla players of my generation.”
To pull this off required an incredible adjustment in attitude. Here’s how Hussain did it. “You always need a modem to be able to connect one piece of equipment to another, and that modem has to be able to take both of those things and line them up in such a way that it’s a seamless bridge that helps the person traveling to be able to navigate with equal balance in the center aisle of the bridge that gives you modem information in a balanced way. For me, that modem was Mickey Hart.
“I had to understand the word “groove” or understand the word “in-the-pocket” and so on, and there’s the tempo. That’s where you need to be, and you don’t drive it. You let it just move in a leisurely manner. All those kinds of things were not the issue in Indian music. You just played the material.
“So, Mickey became that modem for me, and somebody I could plug into, who would sit with me for hours, and we’d talk about it, and we’d play. I consider him one of my mentors, and I was lucky that I walked right into his (world) and there were all these great musicians, and I was able to not only (learn) about different rhythmic
genres but actually see them on display, larger than life right there in front of me.
“So, what was spoken was being played and made sense. I had examples, and I was young enough to say, ‘Yeah, OK, I can put aside my Indian rhythmic self for a little while and just go in this area and learn all this and bring it home to my Indian rhythms and see how they can both co-exist together.’”
Hussain’s open-mindedness changed the way the world looks at Indian music. If George Harrison opened American pop culture to the acceptance of Indian music through Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain takes things to another dimension by making percussion a primary instrument in World Music, as he will prove on Thursday night in Troy.
Planet Drum won a Grammy for Best World Music Album, the first year for which the award was given, and it went to number 1 on the Billboard chart for Top World Music Albums. I asked Hussain if he thought the Grammys decided to have a Best World Music category because of Planet Drum. “My feeling is that that may have been one of the instigators. One of the final things that broke the camel’s back. They were not very much into non-western ideas and all the music that came from all over the word were included in the folk category and never given the individual places on the shelf. So, finally they could not say no. It had to be because it was one of the great sonic experiences and the bestselling albums in the world, and they just couldn’t ignore it anymore, and I think it’s possible that that may have just put them over the wall.”
Hussain is very humble and gives Mickey Hart a lion’s share of the credit for this quantum shift in the American attitude toward Indian music and world music in general. “Mickey Hart single-handedly has made (percussion) a relevant and equal part of the creative process called music. I mean, what was the percussion like in the old days when Elvis Presley was performing or Buddy Holly and all that? The extent of rhythm was to keep the two and four going, and have a tambourine in the back, and that was it. Then the music was first and then the rhythm (player) just played rhythm on it. Now, it’s different. There’s bass and rhythm as a source for music.
“Planet Drum or global drums rhythms have become the high point of music content in stadiums and whatnot. It is something that did not exist in the mid-’80s, late ’80s, when we were struggling to put the Planet Drum albums out there, and then finally it won the Grammy and all hell broke loose. So, he was very important, very humble, and he sought the help of these great masters himself initially, and that’s why they were with him, and when I arrived, they were there, and through him I was able to receive this information in its most organic and honest form.”