Zakir Hussain: 13.Mar.2010 – New York

A disgusting mid-March torrential downpour pushed me back to an 8:11 arrival for Zakir Hussain‘s 8 PM show at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I was greeted by a guarded door, a closed-circuit TV monitoring the performance inside, and the typical theater promise that we’d be escorted inside by ushers as soon as there was an acceptable break in the performance. The problem with this is that, given the North Indian classical program, when you add up the introductory alap of the raga and the long-form virtuoso freak-out solo that follows, you often end up with a 45-minute piece. This quite distressed an elderly Indian woman who ended up stranded outside the theater with me. My distraught friend’s laments convinced them to let us in earlier than planned, thankfully, at which point we were loudly scolded, mid-performance, by Zakir while rooting around for empty seats. It wasn’t the shout out one usually hopes for.

Thanks to a teenage history of fighting for embarrassing ’90s alt-rock bands on the car stereo, I don’t know my way around North Indian classical music as well as I might. Discipline is the name of the game among tabla players, and I guess that’s sort of a foreign concept to me. The best practitioners invariably commit to ridiculous practice regimens from a very young age and often train with extensive rhythmic exercises before so much as touching the instruments, but even among one-track minds like that, Hussain is still considered the instrument’s definitive genius. (As a child-prodigy of his virtuoso father, Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain’s lauded stature was practically inevitable). His fingers often moved too fast to be seen and at times even too fast to clearly delineate his strokes — which probably means more with this ultra-sensitive drum than it might with most other instruments — and he always seemed to retain the spotlight even when he turned the floor over to the numerous other virtuoso string and percussion players surrounding him, in tow for his “Masters of Percussion” show, or started trading eight-measure improvs with them like a jazz musician. It was probably like being in the same room as Hendrix. Maybe even Beethoven. I suppose I should have listened more closely when I was younger.

Photo by Susana Millman