Master of percussion mixing old and new


Tabla maestro and world music star Zakir Hussain, who performs in Ireland for the first time this week, is on a mission to bring Indian percussion to the wider world, he tells ARMINTA WALLACE

‘IT’S LIKE GOING on a train journey through different parts of India. The train goes from one state to the next without making a complete stop – but through the window you’re seeing the environment, and experiencing what’s going on.”

Zakir Hussain’s description of what happens during one of his acclaimed live performances with the band Masters of Percussion is as tantalising as the menu from a particularly good Indian restaurant; except that, in this case, you don’t have to choose between one spicy regional dish and another. You can have them all.

Hussain’s own life has been something of a global musical journey. Born in Mumbai in 1951, the son of legendary Indian tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, he’s now one of the most sought-after percussionists on the planet – based in California, but still travelling.

I catch up with him by telephone in New York. What, I ask, to get the conversation going, is he doing there? I’m expecting the answer “a concert”. I’m not expecting him to have taken the place by storm.

“I have had a close to six-week run at the Carnegie Hall,” he says, in precise English with just a hint of India in it. “I did a week-long project teaching young performing musicians from the classical tradition how to improvise, and how to create pieces of music that were performed live at the end of the workshop. And then I had my own Perspective, where Carnegie Hall presented four different nights of me with different artists of my own choosing.”

He’s far too modest to mention that among his predecessors in this illustrious concert series were the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma and Martha Argerich. But wait . . . there’s something else. “Then, after that, there was this global encounter project, which involved school students in New York interacting with school students in New Delhi via video link, and doing music and other cultural activities, which I was taking the anchor role in,” Hussain says. It was, he admits, somewhat exhausting. “And in between, of course, I had to run off to India for a day and a half; and Shanghai for two days; and California for a day and a half. And now I’m here for a day and a half. It’s my first day of chilling.”

THERE’S NOT MUCH rest, however, for the man who, more than anyone else, has brought the tabla to the world music table. Now his mission is to bring Indian percussion to the wider world. There are about 80 different drumming styles associated with Indian folk music, most of which – with the possible exception of bhangra – are entirely unknown outside the subcontinent.

“These drumming traditions have existed in India for over 1,000 years, and have not had a chance to be seen and heard anywhere else,” Hussain says. “So I conceived this idea of travelling every year in America and Canada with a selected bunch of percussion maestros. We started in 1996, and it was so successful that it became an every-other-year tour.”

Masters of Percussion came to England last year for a sell-out concert at the Barbican, and this week they make their first trip to Dublin. As various reviewers have observed, when you get to see Masters of Percussion, you almost always get a surprise, because no two of their shows are ever quite the same. “The thing about Indian art,” Hussain says, “is that it’s based in improvisation. You take an idea and then you expand it in a spontaneous manner. It’s difficult to tie it down to ‘Okay, so many things will happen’, because you never know what idea will emerge, and what that would lead to, and where it will go. But the fact is that the musicians who are on stage are the best in their genre. They are considered great masters where they come from. So one thing that is for sure is that the music will be of very high quality.”

There’s also an intriguing mix of past and future going on. “Many of the musicians are presenting classical and traditional folk styles in their part of India,” Hussain says. “But then when we get on the stage, it’s like we’re moving from the past to the present and then showing what the future will be like, with this music and this sound and these instruments. Even though they’re playing their traditional music, most of these musicians are still influenced by or inspired by the sounds around them.”

So you might hear a bit of jazz, or bluegrass, or even a western classical inflection – if you listen carefully. Such fusions of old and new are nothing new to Hussain. In 1991 he won a Grammy award for his work on the album Planet Drum, a collaboration with Mickey Hart, former drummer with The Grateful Dead. It was the first time a world music album had ever won a Grammy. Last year Hussain and Hart triumphed at the awards once again for their new album, Global Drum Project.

“What we did was,” Hussain explains, “we took all the old traditional instruments – Indian, African and western jazz instruments – and through modern technology, we created a way to use them to bring out more electronic elements of the sound. So that tabla could become a bass, or a piano, or even strings. Or I could suddenly be playing tabla, but making sounds like the guitar or the saranghi. It’s not that we were using electronic keyboards to make those sounds; the sounds were emerging from the instrument itself.”

Hussain has always been interested in expanding the sound world of the tabla, often through collaboration with musicians from a range of musical genres. In the 1970s, one of his neighbours in the Californian town of San Geronimo was none other than Van Morrison.

“He would come and hang out in the living room and just see what we were doing,” Hussain recalls. Inevitably they ended up working together. “He’s such an incredible musician. I mean, when we went into the recording studio to play, he wasn’t, like, ‘Okay, you guys please put down the bass and the drums and the piano and stuff, and then I’ll come in and sing my part over it later’. He actually sat in there in the studio with all of us and belted out song after song, exactly the way he would have done it on the stage. It really put that energy out there for us to be inspired from and work with.”

WORTHWHILE MUSICAL collaboration, Hussain insists, is always marked by this exchange of energy. “You know how it is when you play with a musician you’ve never played with before,” he says. “You adjust your playing to find a way to be able to interact with them – and in doing so, you find something different about your instrument that you had not done or seen before. So playing with Van or John McLaughlin or Mickey Hart or anybody like that, I learned that there were other shades in my instrument that I had not yet experienced and should look into.

“Even in Indian music, when you play with different musicians and instruments you learn how to react to each one. Because it’s not just the music alone. It’s also the temperament of the artist that you have to work with. So you learn how to exist on stage and help create something positive.”

This, essentially, is what Zakir Hussain’s music is all about. “Every time you step out on to the stage, you learn something which helps you to grow and be a better communicator,” he says. “It’s not like you’re the master. You’re always a student.”

Zakir Hussain and Masters of Percussion play at the National Concert Hall this Thursday, June 18, at 8pm. At 3.30pm on the same day, Hussain will give a percussion masterclass with three Irish percussionists: Brian Fleming, Robbie Harris and Colm Hassett. For details/tickets, see

Banging the drum: a Hussain A to Z

Ais for awesome virtuosity. How can anybody’s hands move that fast?

Cis for child prodigy: Hussain was touring with his famous father by the time he was 12.

Fis for films. Hussain has composed numerous soundtracks, including one for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, in which he also had an acting role.

Mis for Making Music, Hussain’s first solo album. Released in 1987, it took the nascent world music scene by storm. It still sounds pretty good on the iPod.

Sis for supergroups. Playing with these is something of a day job for Hussain, who has drummed with The Rhythm Experience, Shakti and Tabla Beat Science, as well as being part of the Silk Road Project. Also for superstars, with whom he works on a regular basis, among them Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Tito Puente and, before his death, George Harrison.

Zis, of course, for Zakir Hussain. His family name is Kureishi, which explains why his daughters, Anisa and Isabella – who are also professional musicians – are Kureishi rather than Hussain.