Zakir Hussain - making the human connection


Zakir Hussain has just scrapped his plans for his Celtic Connections opening spectacular, The Pulse of the World.


The demon tabla player, who first came to prominence through providing the rhythmical drive for guitarist John McLaughlin’s heart-stoppingly brilliant Indo-jazz group Shakti during the 1970s, arrived in Glasgow having done his homework.


He’d listened to the Scottish and Irish musicians who have convened to work on this project, a version of which will go on to feature at the London Olympics next year. He’d carefully chosen players of the violin and bansura, the Indian bamboo, flute who would be able to blend with the fiddle, whistles and pipes of the local contingent. He’s even been learning to play the bodhran, the Irish frame drum, which he describes as a lot of fun. So what happened?


“I had all these preconceived ideas of what we would do and how we would make it work,” he says. “But the more I think about this, the more I’ve come to feel that, we’re musicians, we’re the same the world over, if you put us in a room together, we’ll make music. The world has shrunk and with the internet, there’s no such thing as strange any more – everybody all over the world knows something about music from everywhere. There’s no metre that hasn’t been played, no rhythm that hasn’t already been composed. It’s the musicians’ own qualities that allow them to make music different, and that’s what’s exciting about this project for me – it’s going to be fresh music sparked by the humanity of those involved.”


The world wasn’t quite as small as Hussain describes it now when he was growing up in Bombay in the 1960s. Even back then, though, he was aware of music beyond the Indian tradition in which he was schooled. His early experiences as a professional musician were in Bollywood film studios, where string and horn sections would sit alongside sitar and Indian percussion, and with his father, Alla Rakha, touring the world as sitar master Ravi Shankar’s tabla player and bringing home vinyl from his travels, the young Hussain was plugged right into the Californian scene.


“I was the first person in Bombay to have a boom box,” he says. “My father used to turn up with all sorts of LPs – Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service – so I’d be walking down the street with this big speaker on my shoulder, regaling Bombay with [sings] ‘Come on, baby, light my fire’ or some Jefferson Airplane. So when I moved over to the west it was quite natural for me. I’d been to a Catholic school in Bombay, so I spoke English, and because I’d grown up around western classical instruments I felt quite at home playing in the situations I found myself working in.”


To hear Hussain tell it, his involvement on sessions with a list of notables that includes George Harrison, Van Morrison, jazz saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Jan Garbarek and cellist Yo Yo Ma, came as a result solely of being in the right place at the right time. This “luck”, however, overlooks the training given to him by his father, who instead of intoning holy words into the infant Zakir’s ears, as is traditional, whispered the notes of the tabla instead. Later, Alla Rakha would come in from concerts in the early hours, wake up his son and take him through his tabla exercises.


Father and son’s dedication paid off spectacularly in Shakta, where Hussain describes himself as a ‘young brat dying to impress the pants off everyone’ with his technique. He impressed most, although he credits John McLaughlin with one of three valuable pieces of advice that he has lived by and continues to observe throughout his career.


“John took me aside one day after about a year with Shakti and said, You know, I don’t play the vina in this band because I’m not good enough. John actually studied the vina, the Indian stringed instrument, but he felt he could honour the music we were playing better on his own instrument, the guitar, so he told me to forget about playing congas and bongos because what I had on tablas was unique and if I concentrated on being myself I would bring something special to the music. That was a great lesson.”


Another cherished lesson came when Hussain was working with Charles Lloyd, the saxophonist whose 1960s group including pianist Keith Jarrett had taken jazz to huge rock audiences. A fan came up to Lloyd after a gig and told him that what he’d just played was perfect. Lloyd thanked the fan but told him that he hadn’t played well enough to quit yet and if he’d already played his best, he might as well give up.


“That’s so true,” says Hussain. “You never stop learning as a musician. My father told me once, Don’t try to be a master, just try to be a good student and you’ll get by just fine – and I’ve never forgotten that lesson either.”


As he follows in his father’s footsteps, travelling the world, playing between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and forty concerts a year, Hussain describes most of his work as going back to the well of the Indian tradition.


“Eighty or ninety of these concerts will be strictly Indian music,” he says, “and doing these keeps me who I am, an Indian percussionist. So when I come to play in crossover projects like this one, that’s what I have to offer and when everyone plays to their strengths in situations like this, that’s when you get the spark.”


And with that, and the observation that the Gaelic songs he’s been listening to in preparation for The Pulse of the World sound like something he might have heard in the Indian mountains and makes him feel quite at home, he’s off to rehearse. With a seven-strong Scots-Irish troupe, three Indian musicians, a pipe band and no preconceived ideas – just a belief that they’ll produce that spark.


From The Herald, January 12, 2014


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