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ARTICLE: Drum legend Zakir Hussain a borders-leaping marvel

San Diego Union-Tribune

George Varga

March 14, 2023

The 2022 Kyoto Prize Kyoto Prize Laureate in Arts and Philosophy Laureate, will be honored here Wednesday, give a lecture Friday at UC San Diego and perform Saturday at the Balboa Theater

George Harrison of The Beatles was a fan and collaborator of Indian tabla drum marvel Zakir Hussain, who performs Saturday at San Diego’s Balboa Theater. So are guitar legend John McLaughlin, Grateful Dead mainstay Mickey Hart and banjo innovator Béla Fleck.

“Zakir was born to drum,” said Hart, who first teamed with Hussain on “Rolling Thunder,” drummer Hart’s 1972 debut solo album. “He has blazed a trail of rhythmic dexterity and innovation across the entire planet.”

“Zakir is a master musician and a man for all cultures,” said McLaughlin. The guitar great is re-teaming this year with Hussain for a 50th anniversary world tour with Shakti, their groundbreaking Indian classical-meets-jazz-and-beyond band.

Fleck, who will be a featured guest performer at some of Shakti’s U.S. concerts dates, toured with Hussain and bassist Edgar Meyer in India prior to the pandemic. Fleck still marvels at how the percussion giant was greeted by fans in his homeland.

Banjo innovator Bela Fleck, Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and cello great Edgar Meyer will perform together as part of La Jolla Music Society’s 51st season.

“It’s like Zakir has superstar status!” Fleck said. “You get off the plane, walk into the airport and people are on the ground, worshiping at his feet. That’s the Indian way of showing respect.”

“That response made sense to me,” Meyer said. “That’s how I feel about Zakir; I’m down there on the ground, too.”

Told of the praise of his fellow musicians, Hussain was almost at a loss for words.

“Oh, that’s, I mean…,” stammered the longtime San Francisco area resident, who on Wednesday evening receives the prestigious Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy in a ceremony at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. He will give a free lecture Friday at 10:30 a.m. at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall.

“I’m fortunate that people in India think of me as someone who represents the culture in the way it should be represented, I guess,” Hussain continued. “But I have a lot to learn.”

A native of Mumbai, he was only 3 years old when he began studying music with his father, famed tabla drum player Ustad Allah Rakha, and in grade school when he embarked on his first concert tour.

Hussain’s many recording partners over the years have included Harrison, Hart, the Kronos Quartet, Earth, Wind & Fire, Van Morrison, the National Symphony Orchestra, jazz sax greats Charles Lloyd and John Handy, the Mark Morris Dance Company and the late Indian music icon Ravi Shankar.

The fact that an array of music legends regard Hussain so highly is a matter of record. But this seemingly tireless percussionist quickly downplays any reference to him — and there have been many over the years — as a master.

“My father always said: ‘Son, just be a student. Don’t try to be a master’,” Hussain recalled, speaking from his San Francisco area home recently.

“I look to people like Béla, John McLaughlin and Charles Lloyd. They are at the height of their artistry, but they don’t stop and say: ‘That’s it — I’m going to sit down and cruise now.’ No. They want to find and do more.’ It was the same with my father and Ravi. That’s because each of us are students and we are learning, always. That’s what I am doing.”

Hussain turned 73 on March 9. He has no fewer than five concert tours coming up with different ensembles this year. Two of them will continue well into 2024.

“I know that, come next summer, I’ll probably need a little time to relax “ he said. “I hope that will happen, but you never know!”

Hussain’s Saturday concert here is being presented by La Jolla Music Society, under whose auspices his 2017 and 2019 performances were also held. This time around, he’ll be showcasing his Masters of Percussion group, which he launched in 1996 and has led different iterations of over the years.

The current edition teams him with two fellow natives of India — tabla player Navin Sharma, who also performs on the double-headed hand drum known as dholak, and Sabir Khan, who plays the violin-like sarangi. Completing the lineup are Burkina Faso-born djembe and conga player Melissa Hié, who also sings, and Colombian-born percussionist Tupac Mantilla.

“In a group like this, you have to give and not just receive,” Hussain stressed. “That’s why it only happens every other year — it takes me a year to get the musicians together and bring them together, socially. Then, we go to each other’s concerts and have jam sessions and see if we get along well enough to do this.

“Because music in the Indian way — or, now, in a more modern way — is a spontaneous affair. You have to be able to create as you go along and be able to ‘talk’ in so many different mindsets, but still project the final idea as one, be mindful of each other and move one another.”

Tabla drums have been synonymous with Hussain’s name in this country since the early 1970s. He was 12 when he went on his first tour as a professional musician in India.

“It was a vaudeville show,” he recalled with a chuckle.

“A child at the age I was wants to talk, but isn’t allowed to. Here I was, on stage — in front of hundreds of people — and allowed to do my thing. And they all paid attention to me and I was able to ham it up.

“I wasn’t even aware I was performing a repertoire that was several thousand years old and needed to have a reverence in its presentation.”

Tablas are tuned hand-drums that date back to at least the 1800s and are foundational in the Hindustani classical music of northern India.

They are played with both hands, using palms, wrists and multiple finger combinations. To play tablas as well as Hussain does requires both enormous talent and ceaseless dedication.

“The one thing about Indian music and jazz is that the practicing doesn’t stop when you disconnect yourself from the instrument. I used to watch my father, and — while he was sleeping — his hands were moving on his legs or on his chest. He was snoring, but he was playing rhythms as he slept. So, that process of practicing is 24/7.

“That’s why everything in music is taught orally in India. It has to go into your head and become second nature. You have to be able to construct sentences and paragraphs in that language of music, so that we can speak it and get it to the world. The speed or tempo, to me, is like two milliseconds ahead of how fast your hands are moving, because your brain has to send signals to your hands to conjure up that same image.

“If your brain cannot conjure up images, your hands are waiting for something to communicate and there is nothing there. So, the process of practicing goes on throughout the day. If I am at home, reading the newspaper and not talking to my wife or granddaughter, I’m thinking of music. And the newspaper is just in front of me and allows me to separate myself from what is around me and focus on my music.

“In that sense, the practicing never stops.”


Singing Zakir Hussain’s praises

“Zakir is a master of the extraordinary!” — Jazz bass great Dave Holland

“On all continents, the name Zakir Hussain is synonymous with perfection in rhythm. In addition, he is a master in building cultural bridges between East and West.” — Guitar legend John McLaughlin

“Zakir possesses the perfect persona for collaboration; he is ‘open to experience,’ you might say, which is contagious. Zakir does it all: he’s an ambassador of goodwill who uses the drum and extreme drumming techniques to dazzle any audience…come prepared for an experience like no other.” — Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart

” I don’t know another musician like Zakir. He is more than just a guy who can play the tablas extraordinarily well. To some degree, he is a cultural icon who represents to the people of India a fundamental way of making Indian music and taking it to new levels, all around the world. If I were from India, I’d be pretty darn proud of him.” — Contrabassist Edgar Meyer

La Jolla Music Society presents Zakir Hussain’s Masters of Percussion
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter

Tickets: $38-$89

Phone: (858) 459-3728