He has jammed with George Harrison, laid down tracks with Van Morrison and collaborated with everyone from jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to the Kodo drummers of Japan.
Zakir Hussain, acclaimed tabla player and one of the most celebrated of India’s classical musicians, takes a holistic view of diverse musical genres and enjoys cross-cultural performances. Yet he acknowledges there are vast differences between the formalized structure of the Western classical tradition and the free-form spontaneity of Indian classical music.
“In a nutshell, the difference is that Indian classical musicians take a song composed on a melodic scale and then improvise on it, a la jazz,” Hussain, 57, says. “The rhythm players will set up a tempo, and then they trade solos.”
“It’s all improv, and there’s a lot of interaction with the whole concert becoming a dialogue between the musicians. No one walks off the stage when the drummer is taking a solo. All the musicians are equally involved in the creative process.”
Hussain’s roster changes with each tour, and his lineup of artists is diverse, drawing not just on different Indian styles but on other musical traditions as well.
His Masters of Percussion span the generations as well as all parts of India, encompassing classical and folk traditions.
“What is happening with young instrumentalists is that they have also been exposed to music that is much more universal in scope,” Hussain says. “They’ve studied Indian classical music, but they’ve also been exposed to Indian folk, Bollywood and so forth.
Among them is Dilshad Khan on the sarangi, a short-necked lute. “He’s young, but I would rate him as one of the masters of the future. He’s an amazing player, one of the best three players in India on this instrument,” Hussain says.
Hussain hails from a celebrated musical family. His father Alla Rakha Qureshi was a famous tabla player and toured for many years as Ravi Shankar’s percussionist. Young Zakir took a stage name to avoid comparisons. “I didn’t want to have to be living up to this great name of Alla Rakha, so I thought I would hide for awhile,” Hussain says, laughing.
“My father always said to me, `Try not to become a master. Just try to be a good student.’ I adhere to this because I want to learn more and play with more drummers. The more I play, the more I learn.”
Hussain’s collaborations have taken him around the world several times to perform with several famous names. He recalls being impressed with Van Morrison. “Van was there in the studio belting it out every time. It was interesting to see such a famous musician so open to working closely with studio musicians,” he says.
“George Harrison was the same way. When we were working on `Living in the Material World,’ we were really just playing together. You know, when he was with the Beatles, there was like a four-bar solo or a two-bar riff. But this guy actually could play. He’d improvise for a long period of time. He had the chops.”
Ultimately, Hussain’s musical philosophy is reflected in a comment by jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
“We did a show and came backstage, and one of his friends said `Charles, that was amazing, that was perfect!’ And Charles said, `Man, I haven’t played good enough to quit yet.’
“If I think I play well enough now, I might as well hang up my boots,” Hussain says. “It’s not about the goal; it’s about the journey. This is a learning experience all through your life.”