LIVE: Zakir Hussain & Rakesh Chaurasia @ the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 3/22/18
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Simple and sublime, it was a musical dance of freedom informed by the discipline of years in instruction and an Indian heritage that traces back more than a thousand years. Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia, two of India’s most storied musicians, took a full house at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall that was more than 90% Indian on an hour and 40-minute mind-bending journey into their heritage, culminating in a standing ovation punctuated by hoots and whistles. For this music journalist, it was a once-in-a-life-time excursion into a culture far removed from my experience of attending hundreds of thousands of American music concerts. And frankly, it blew my mind.
Rakesh Chaurasia, cousin to his guru Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, played the bansuri, an Indian bamboo flute, basically a hollow stick with holes in it. Zakir Hussain, a chief architect of the contemporary world music movement and son of legendary Indian teacher Ustad Allarakha, played tablas, two Indian drums. A recorded drone set the tone for their flight to nirvana.
Hussain, known best in America for his Grammy Award-winning work with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart in the global percussion ensemble Planet Drum, is introducing Chaurasia to an American audience. And while Hussain’s name goes up first on the marque because he’s better known, in India the flute is considered the lead instrument.
That said, Hussain is doing for the tabla what Bela Fleck does for the banjo. He’s expanding an instrument once thought to be solely for accompaniment into a lead role. He makes the two tablas sound like four instruments at once. Each hand plays a different tabla. He gets a variety of textures depending on how far into the center of the tabla he hits it, how hard he hits it and whether he uses his palms or the fingers to thump, glide or pop the stretched skin.
Zakir tunes the tabla with a blunt hammer that makes miniscule adjustments to the ropes that hold the skins of the tabla tight. At one point, he offered the hammer to Rakeen, and the audience laughed, imagining what he might do with it. Rakeen’s mastery of the flute was pristine, organic and orgasmic.
The extensive tonal qualities of the tabla and Hussain’s ability to “dance” with Chaurasia’s flute are pushing an ancient instrument into the 21st century. While the music was totally new to me, the audience was obviously familiar with the sound and ecstatic to be hearing two of the world’s best practitioners breaking the sound barriers of a style that otherwise might be relegated to history books and occasional concerts.
The energy of a full concert hall is an important element in what makes a live concert special. The energy of this crowd was almost as intoxicating as the music. Whole families attended, some in ceremonial dress. As the start of the show approached, there was a palpable buzz that abruptly stopped as the two musicians took the stage, bowed to their fans and began to play. The incredible acoustics of this storied hall gave an intense focus to a sound that began as a pure clarion call of the flute and built into a give-and-take of the flute and tabla that circled around and around in ever more energized flights. The audience of all ages was completely quiet until after repeated epiphanies, at which point they exploded into applause.