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Pure Music: Zakir Hussain & Shivkumar Sharma in Paris

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Zakir Hussain & Shivkumar Sharma
Salle Pleyel
Paris, France
December 12, 2009

Indian classical music is all about moods and feelings. It would be possible to describe an otherworldly interplay between Zakir Hussain and Shivkumar Sharma bordering on telepathy. Or to call attention to the sheer virtuosity with which these two extraordinary musicians played, and the way their technical mastery made everything seem so simple. Or to portray their great humility in confronting the sound problems that plagued them all evening.

But none of that would provide any insight into the music, and this is the great achievement of the raga when played well. Forgotten are the who and the what and the where and the why of the music, leaving only its existence and its effect on the listener. It is a pure musical experience shared by musician and listener. Several times during the performance in Paris, I had to blink in order to remind myself that I was not alone in the audience.

The evening commenced with a meditation played by Sharma, a show of the hypnotic powers of the santoor, a 70-stringed Indian instrument played with 2 mallets and similar to a hammered dulcimer. If John Coltrane created sheets of sound, Sharma created waves of sound. Crashing waves these were not, but rather they engulfed the listener in a stream of notes, which would then recede as another wave came softly cascading down. Starting out at low tide, the music was tranquil and sleep-inducing without ever evoking sadness. As the tide slowly rose, a happiness pervaded the hall and the crowd began to stir from its deep concentration.

Careful not to bring the crowd to too high a level of ecstasy yet, Sharma abruptly terminated the piece. He and Hussain then embarked on a long, winding composition that seemed to border at times on free improvisation. The utmost concentration from the audience increased with the mounting musical tension in the room, which was subsequently released with the final composition, the first singable melody of the night. This theme was returned to at various points of the piece as the speed picked up, the mood quickly reaching euphoria and remaining there through several false endings.

Disappointingly, no encore was played, but the musicians must have been spent after having focused so intently on their playing for such a long time. They gingerly left the stage and the audience went on with the rest of their lives having been transported, even if for a short time, to an alternate universe where materiality is renounced in favor of the pleasures and pains of music.

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