Zakir Hussain.. and "Tabla Tale"
He is considered the greatest tabla player of all time. Zakir Hussain, son of famed tabla master Ustad Allarakha, has played with a wide variety of artists. Among them are classical Indian masters - Ravi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma, Lakshminarayana Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and others.
Then there are jazz pioneers John McLaughlin, Pat Martino, Billy Cobham, Jan Garbarek, Peter Erskine and Pharoah Sanders. Even pop musicians Mickey Hart, Earth, Wind and Fire (Earth, Wind & Fire), Van Morrison (Van Morrison), Carlos Santana (Carlos Santana) and George Harrison (George Harrison) left in their music a place for magical sounds of Zakir.
Hussein's innovative ideas have also been embodied in recordings with outstanding percussionists of our time. These are Airto Moreira, Glen Velez, Trilok Gurtu, Giovanni Hidalgo, Diga Rhythm Band and his own drum ensemble The Rhythm Experience. And in addition to all of the above, Zakir actively records music for films, and even appeared as an actor in some of them.
Most know him as a tabla master, but I was intrigued by his "percussive" activities. I tried to find out how collaboration with Indian and jazz musicians, as well as with the drum community, could affect his ideas about playing the tabla and percussion. And here's what Zakir had to say about this and more.
In which part of India did you grow up?
Zakir - I grew up on the west coast of India in the state of Maharashtra in the city of Bombay, although I was born in the north.
What non-Indian cultures existed in Bombay? Was there Western music?
Yes, there was definitely a non-Indian culture. India was "under" England for a long time, which caused a strong Western influence. Indian popular music is the result of the fusion of Western and Eastern cultures. Our film music has always been a combination of violins, cellos, basses, piano and brass with Indian folk instruments. So I grew up playing in these orchestras and listening to this kind of music.
We watched Hollywood movies from the forties and fifties. There was all this Latin American newfangled stuff, musicals like West Side Story and jazz. We used to watch movies with Elvis as kids. In general, a lot of things were mixed in India.
When did you start studying tabla seriously?
I started at two and a half years old. Since I can remember myself, I have been playing, practicing, studying the instrument all the time. By the age of twelve I was already playing professionally in film orchestras and participated in concerts with a variety of musicians.
Have you studied other Indian drums?
It's absolutely essential to know the traditions of playing other drums in India. The accompanist must know the entire repertoire - vocal, instrumental, dance. I had to learn all the elements of Indian musical culture.
Does this include folklore percussion instruments?
Yes, it does. This includes everything. The tabla is both a folklore and a classical instrument.
Along with the traditional methods of sound extraction on tabla and bayan, you have completely unconventional methods.
It all depends on what you classify as "traditional" because the way tabla was played a hundred and fifty years ago is very different from the style of fifty years ago. Everything is changing. You find ways to improve the quality of the instrument, you make it sound better, and that dictates how you play it.
I know that my teacher played differently than his teacher, and the teacher's teacher played differently than his teacher. So, everything develops - both the instrument and the performance. Then sound amplification appeared, which made it possible to highlight other frequencies and tonal features of the instrument. So the tabla game is changing.
I was referring to the technique when you distort the standard open sound of the tabla - tan - with a hammer, or when you flick your index fingernail on the skin of the button accordion. What led you to this kind of technique? What is this borrowing from other drum traditions?
Actually this is the result of my experiments with sound production. When I started listening to percussionists from other countries, I realized that the approach to music-making includes not only knowing the repertoire, but also working on the sound that was originally embedded in the instrument itself. You work with the surface of the instrument, find different playing points, work on subtle changes in tone. This is what percussionists all over the world do, and I realized that I had to treat my instrument with the same level of concentration. That's how I started looking for new ways to use the bayan almost like a bass instrument, experimenting with distorting the open sound of the tabla.
What brought you to America and how did you start playing non-Indian music, fusion music with John Handy or Shakti?
When I first came to the US in 1970, I played nothing but Indian classical music. I came on tour with Ravi Shankar. My father usually played with him, but at that moment he was not feeling very well, and I had to replace him. I ended up staying in America and for four or five years playing Indian classical music concerts with Ali Akbar Khan, his son Ashish, Ravi Shankar and others. Then I started collaborating with Mickey Hart, John McLaughlin. I also taught Indian classical music at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Do you adapt your playing style when you play with John Handy, Pat Martino, Farouk Sanders, Shakti, etc.?
Tabla is a very versatile tool. Tabla can easily fit into almost any style of music. I grew up in India playing music for films and had an idea of how I could play along with western instruments because we had drums and guitars and piano and brass. We played Indian popular music with all these instruments.
At the same time, rhythm is a universal language. It is much easier for a rhythmic instrument to blend into any music than for a melodic one. So, with my experience of playing music in India and being young enough not to be bound by the rigid discipline of classical heritage, I was able to fit into any kind of music.
With Farouk Sanders you sometimes play the mbira, and with Shakti you played the kanjira and the conga. Did you study the technique of playing these instruments separately or did you use the techniques of playing the tabla?
I ended up learning different kinds of techniques. We have analogues of conga and bongo in India. When we recorded music for films, we tried to play them, but we never seriously studied this particular technique. I have to say that mastery of tabla playing technique gives a musician a lot in terms of hand development. It also gives tremendous technical freedom to your fingers, enough freedom to play any hand-held percussion instrument in the world. And of course I use the tabla technique when playing other instruments.
Tell us more about your first meeting with T.H. "Vikku" Vinayakram (Vinayakram) in the Shakti group. How did it happen?
When I met him, I already had an idea of South Indian drumming. And I already had experience of playing with musicians of this direction. At one time, I had to master this manner. Besides, before that I happened to play with the violinist L. Shankar, and I knew what to play.
Vinayakram had never heard me before. He was somewhat unprepared for my style of play. But, as I said, the rhythm is universal, and the repertoire of South Indian and North Indian drummers is very similar in many ways. So we had the opportunity to find common ground. But it was easier for me to play South Indian rhythms than it was for him to play North Indian rhythms. So for the first few years we played within the framework of southern India, and gradually Wicca began to experiment with the rhythms of northern India.
Does the system of your studies change depending on the music you have to come into contact with?
Indian drumming is very physiological. You need to learn to understand what each of your muscles is doing, how to control movements, the flow of energy. So my approach is that of a curious person, you understand? I can use my performance apparatus in a certain way, I play the piano a little, I'm ambidexter. That is, my left and right hands are completely interchangeable. So, I try to be curious and try to figure out what my tool can do. What sounds can be extracted from it, what will happen if you hit the edge of the skin, what if in the center, what if you play with your fingertips. Approaching the performance in this way, I can subsequently isolate for myself what I need.
Have you ever learned how to play the drum kit?
When I was young, I had to indulge. I can play the rhythm. But to play freely a la Jack DeJohnette (Jack DeJohnette), Elvin Jones (Elvin Jones) or Max Roach (Max Roach) is unlikely.
In general, your playing sounds like you have achieved the same independence between the hands that the best performers achieve on a setup between all limbs.
Hands - yes, but not feet!
What is your approach to composition and improvisation?
It is very difficult to describe the concept of improvisation. People have been doing this for five hundred years. But no one has yet fully explained this. Without a doubt, it is a question of what you feel comfortable in. Do you feel comfortable jumping into unfamiliar territory without a parachute? Improvisation is something like that. I mean you go there with some idea and see what happens.
You need to have a very serious base of playing the instrument in order to effectively improvise. Let's take walking as an example. Walking is what you do without thinking. When you walk, you sometimes go around a puddle, you stop, you turn, you go faster or slower. As you walk, you look at signs, at shop windows, you greet passers-by, you dodge cars. This is improvisation. You know how to walk so well that you don't have to think about what to do when something comes your way.
Another aspect of improvisation lies in the importance of what you play. There must be some aesthetic value in it. Imagine that you need to color a picture. It should acquire a finished look as a result of your work. You can't just add a few dots of this, fifteen strokes of that, and so on.
Some of your compositions for The Rhythm Experience are heavily arranged. How does what you talked about fit in with your composing method?
When you have fifteen people in an ensemble, you should have an idea of what they will play. So you start composing. But inside the composition, you leave room for improvisation. This is the essence of jazz. You write a piece with a specific harmonic progression, and then you say to the saxophonist, "Improvise on those chords!"
You play with Trilok Gurtu, Glen Velez, Airto Moreira, Giovanni Hidalgo. Is there an exchange of experience, do you influence each other?
I'm sure that without even thinking about it, we influence each other. I was greatly influenced by Airto, Giovanni Hidalgo and others. Working with Glen Velez was a revelation for me. Mickey Hart has been a big influence on me in terms of getting to know the world of drumming.
You can't work with musicians while standing in the pose of a bearer of a five thousand-year tradition of Indian musical culture. That doesn't happen. I approach it like Giovanni, Wicca or Airto - we play together. It doesn't matter who started it. We work together. I am sure that when we play together, what I do can be a suggestion for action for Airto and vice versa. These suggestions are influences in and of themselves and help to better understand each of us' approach to the game. The more we play, the better we know each other. Thus, healthy respect is born.
When we get together, we talk about traditions, about music, about its spirit and power. It is amazing! I remember in a small restaurant on the border of Switzerland and Germany, Glenn and I talked for two hours about music, traditions, drumming. That's how great we get along with each other. It's something special when musicians meet.
What led you to start your own record label, Moment Records?
I wanted to have a solid platform for Indian musicians. I felt that the best way to present Indian classical music in its entirety is to let people hear it on stage. Because it is improvisational art, spontaneous music-making. Her best moments happen in front of the public. And the audience gets to the heart of it. This is what I wanted to capture on the record and give Indian musicians a chance to express themselves.
All classical Indian recordings are made live. We always publish them in full. Whether it's one sixty-four minute piece or two seventy-four minute pieces, it doesn't matter. Everything sounds exactly as it was played - no mixing, no reverb, no added high and low frequencies - absolutely straight recording.
Now about your film "Zakir and his friends". It was attended by musicians from Indonesia, children from Venezuela, drummers from the Caribbean. Are these all the musicians you have collaborated with before?
Yes, these were the musicians I made friends with while traveling the world. When the film was being planned, I talked to everyone and they did what they usually do. I mean, Venezuelan kids played with their hands on their faces, which sounded like congas.
It is very important to direct the energy of children in a positive direction, protecting them from trouble.
Unfortunately, we were not able to cover all the traditions of world drums in the film. Hopefully we will continue to work on this in the future.
You were talking about children. You yourself grew up on centuries-old traditions. But today the Western economy, politics, new technologies are pushing traditions into the background. What do you think about this?
I think tradition is stronger today. People today are much more interested in culture. They understand traditions better, they perceive music, theater and other arts better. I believe that today culture is in a better position than ever before.
Previously, the profession of a musician was second-rate. People said, "You're a drummer, okay. How do you make money?" Today people understand the meaning of art. There is something in culture that we all relate to. Traditions, roots - all this is very important. How we feel about it speaks volumes about who we are.
More and more people attend classical concerts, opera. I see the same faces at the concerts of Mick Jagger, Miriam Makeba, Ravi Shankar! It is amazing how highly erudite modern young people are!
Do you experience any non-musical influences?
Not musical? Um... I think critics who criticize my music influence me. Their suggestions and comments make me think differently about what I do.
For us, music is life. This is what we grew up with, what we eat and drink, what we sleep with. Musicians are not bound by religious, spiritual boundaries. Any boundaries. They live their lives the way the music dictates. And my life is 99.9% influenced by music
Interview prepared by Scott Robinson
translated by Evgeniy Ryaboy