Indian classical music duo combats ‘Ravi Shankar syndrome'

by Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

31 March 2009


For well over three decades, Americans have viewed Zakir Hussain as one of the world’s most prominent ambassadors of Indian classical music.

When you have collaborated with such pioneering jazz and rock greats as guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Mickey Hart, saxophonist Charles Lloyd and, more recently, banjoist Bela Fleck, you can’t help but gain a reputation as something of a journeyman.

But on Hussain’s “Maestros in Concert” tour, the Grammy-winning tabla player is contining a long-standing alliance with deep, homeland roots that are only now reaching Kentucky.

He is performing duet concerts with lifelong friend and inspiration Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Viewed as an artistic visionary in India, Sharma is one of the leading voices of the santoor, a stringed Kashmiri instrument played with a mallet that has the look and sound of a hammered dulcimer. But in this country, where understanding of Indian classical music often begins and ends with the ragas of the vanguard sitarist Ravi Shankar, Sharma and the santoor are comparative unknowns.

That’s the situation Hussain, on his current tour with Sharma, is hoping to change.

“Most Indian classical music masters went through what I call the Ravi Shankar syndrome,” Hussain says, “meaning the marquee name for Indian classical music, the face of it, has been Ravi Shankar. People in this country went to see him perform but did not really bother to look into who else was around of the same quality and genius. And so, other musicians suffered.”

Hussain is hardly critical of Shankar’s achievements. In fact, Hussain’s celebrated father, tabla master Ustad Alla Rakha, performed extensively with Shankar. Their landmark concerts at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival helped introduce Indian classical music to young American pop audiences in the late ‘60s. Hussain played with Shankar, as well. One of their collaborative performances was beautifully chronicled on the 1995 recording “Concert for Peace: Royal Albert Hall.”

“Since the 1980s, other Indian classical musicians have been traveling the length and breadth of this planet, performing on a regular basis and building their own followings,” Hussain said. “They have helped cultivate listeners whose knowledge of Indian music was still growing.

“Shivkumar Sharma is one of those musicians who, over the past 25 years, traveled all over the world. Today, when he and I get together, it becomes a special collaboration that performs Indian classical music as opposed to just a concert with a main artist and his accompanist.”

Performances by the duo also highlight how complementary the santoor’s delicacy can be to the tabla’s rubbery, hand-drum resonance and wild variance of pitch. On a 1993 concert album, “Rageshiri,” Sharma and Hussain create harmony that is light, immensely melodic and ultimately contemplative.

“Shivkumar Sharma started his career as a tabla player. So he understands the repertoire of the tabla and therefore knows how to react to what a tabla player is doing,” Hussain said. “Also, the santoor is not only a melodic instrument, it’s a rhythmic instrument. So they both work very well together.”

But beyond the instruments’ compatibility is the friendship that has developed between Sharma and Hussain.

“We have been playing together, really, since we started our careers,” Hussain said. “I was 14, and he was 25. We sort of grew up together in this world of music.

“We come from the same region of India, which is Kashmir. So our basic way of life, even the language we speak, is very similar. There is a special kinship there.”

The projects Hussain has explored since performing and teaching in the United States have further developed the vocabulary and the visibility of Indian classical music

For example, when McLaughlin, the guitarist, unplugged from the fusion-savvy Mahavishnu Orchestra in the mid-‘70s, he turned to Indian music and enlisted Hussain in an acoustic ensemble called Shakti. One of Grateful Dead drummer Hart’s most beloved and ongoing projects, Planet Drum, has long counted Hussain as a member. The percussionists also earned a Grammy Award in February for the album “Global Drum Project,” a collaboration with Sikiru Adepoju and Giovanni Hidalgo. There was also the fascinating 2006 ECM album with Lloyd and drummer Eric Harland called “Sangram” that wonderfully blurred the lines between jazz and world music.

“The thing is, there is so much music out there in this world,” Hussain said. “It’s impossible to be able to partake in all of it, to be part of it, in one lifetime. But I’ve been lucky that I’m continually contacted and befriended by some great musicians of different traditions. Bela Fleck is one of them. Charles Lloyd is one of them. So this seems to be like another phase in my life where there are all these incredible musicians that are taking me under their wings.

“But even though all these new contacts and collaborations are happening, my old ones haven’t just dropped off the grid. I’m still working with John McLaughlin. I’m still working with Mickey Hart. I’m still working with Shivkumar Sharma. And I’m now getting a better chance of being able to interact with them in a way where I can actually offer more support and better conversation than I could when I was just a young punk wanting to impress everybody.”

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