Zakir Hussein is the most famous tabla player in the world. He began playing drums at age 3 under the tutelage of his father, Alla Rakha, who was one of the top tabla players in India and performed with Ravi Shankar at Woodstock. Hussein takes the title of prodigy with a grain of salt. He says he has been playing tabla and touring since he was 12 literally following in his father’s footsteps. His latest tour reunites him with banjo player Bela Fleck and bass player Edgar Meyer at the Rialto Center for the Arts this Saturday, Nov. 3.
The trio have collaborated for over a decade, including composed the symphony that inaugurated the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. For the Atlanta performance, they will be joined by by Indian flute player Rakesh Chaurasia.
How music evolves is one of Hussein’s life themes. He talks about how music changed in the India of his father. After independence came in 1949, the princely states ruled by maharajahs and nawabs went into decline. These princes had been among the chief patrons of the arts. All India Radio emerged as the way in which both contemporary and classical music reached Indian audiences and just behind radio came cinema. Bollywood was the place where musicians could make a living and that is where Hussein’s father went for work and where Hussein was raised with his father singing rhythms into his ear from infancy.
Ravi Shankar, perhaps India’s most famous musician, broke tradition and pulled the tabla out of the background. He allowed Alla Rakha, and later Zakir Hussein, time to feature the tabla in concert. Hussein compared this to how the drum emerged as a major force in jazz with Gene Krupa and Chick Webb. Hussein used his exposure as Shankar’s tabla player to make connections with other musicians including John McLaughlin, George Harrison and Miles Davis.
Hussein believes as the world becomes smaller through technology he needs to transpose the tabla on the developing repertoire. He asks how did we move from Gregorian Chants to gospel music? From simple church music to the modern orchestra? What drew John Coltrane and Miles Davis to the music of the East? He talks about the tabla as being relatively new in the history of Indian music and that it is still finding its own voice. He talks about the impact of the sound system and amplification on music. All of these factors encourage experimentation and collaboration. Hussein says, “any genius will tell you that she or he is nothing but a student of the art form.” And students are always learning new things.
His work with Fleck and Meyer is an ongoing musical conversation. They have invited flutist Chaurasia to join them adding a strong melodic element to three instruments that are highly percussive. Hussein says that by adding the flute it brings out the melodic qualities of the tabla which can be played on a 7 note scale. He says that an essential element in his musical collaboration with Fleck and Meyer has been their friendship. Rapport is at the heart of their musical communication. He jokes that Meyer often consults him on recipes for curries.
Hussein is mentor to many young musicians. He understands that in the modern world it is hard to be an exceptional musician and pursue a career that might be more financially rewarding. He believes that this is possible if “the instrument accepts you.” He says, “every instrument has a spirit and you must feel it calling you.” If it does then you will find a way of balancing music with life where one gives and receives from the other.
Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta based psychotherapist, writer and musician.