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Zakir Hussain: Making Music, Part 1-2

Zakir Hussain: Making Music, Part 1-2

Courtesy Jim McGuife


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For me, it has become more and more clear. I do not find that there is Indian music and then there is this little bridge to cross and there is jazz. I find that the connections are fenceless and seamless
—Zakir Hussain
"Everybody wants to play with Zakir. He's amazing..." The words were spoken by Herbie Hancock, one of many musicians who paid tribute to the great Indian tabla player and composer Zakir Hussain on the occasion of his Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Jazz Centre in 2017.

In a short film made for the occasion, directed by Hussain's daughter, Anisa Qureshi, jazz luminaries Vijay Iyer, Eric Harland, Charles Lloyd and John McLaughlin paid glowing tribute to Hussain, as did Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, classical conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Zane Dalal, bluegrass banjo maestro Bela Fleck and dancer/choreographer Alonzo King.

It's a glittering roll call that speaks volumes for the esteem in which Hussain is held by an extraordinarily diverse range of artists.

Born in Mumbai, India, in 1951, Hussain had accompanied the biggest names in Indian classical music before he was out of his teens, notably sitarists Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan and sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. But that is only half the story.

Within no time of arriving in America in 1970, Hussain was mixing with the leading pop, rock and jazz musicians of the day, establishing working relationships with The Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart and with guitarist John McLaughlin that have lasted fifty years.

With Hart, Hussain pushed the boundaries of global rhythms. In tandem with McLaughlin, Hussain helped bring together northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic traditions in the groundbreaking band Shakti. Hussain was there at some of the earliest experiments in Indo-rock, fused Indian classical music and jazz with former Charles Mingus saxophonist John Handy, and was one of the progenitors of what would be labelled, many moons later, World Music.

Over the years, as jazz has broadened its horizons, Hussain has collaborated with some of the genre's finest, from Tony William and Pharoah Sanders to Pat Martino, Jan Garbarek and George Brooks. He is part of two exceptional, globe-trotting trios—the first with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland, the most recent with Dave Holland and Chris Potter.

And even that isn't the whole story. There have been recordings with Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith, with George Harrison, with Béla Fleck, Edgar Myer and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with Van Morrison, Bill Laswell...

Mr Hancock was right. Everybody, it seems, wants to play with Zakir Hussain.

Having passed the milestone of 70 years on the planet, Hussain reflects on a life in music spent breaking down artificial boundaries and making organic, life-affirming musical connections between different traditions and cultures. For Hussain, whether playing classical Indian music, jazz, or a concerto for tabla, it's all just making music.

Roots and Branches

An Indian classical musician or a jazz musician at heart? A cursory glance at Hussain's discography might suggest parallel identities, a foot, or rather two hands in each camp. Hussain sees it very differently.

"It's all part of the same tree. To me, Indian music and jazz are cousins because of the sensibilities that they both demand from the musicians, with improv being at the center of it all. Working with John [McLaughlin], working with Charles Lloyd or Pharoah Sanders, and many others—there have been revelations in the world of jazz that have actually made me think more and more that it is closer to my world than what I thought possible or imagined it could be," Hussain explains.

"The branches all point upwards to a destination where we all arrive together and the different flowers and the fruit that the tree bears are basically the product of the roots."

It has been no coincidence during the COVID-19 pandemic that nature has flourished while people have died in droves and the global economy has stuttered and reeled. For Hussain, however, the flowers and fruits of his music making, after the inevitable cancellation of tours, have come forth bountifully.

"Calls started coming in to do a virtual recording, or a commission to write some music," says Hussain. "Things got going, and over the last six or seven months I've actually been very, very busy."

There was a commissioned piece for the New World Symphony orchestra headed by Michael Tilson Thomas. Hussain also delivered three commissioned pieces for San Francisco Symphony Currents Series. Nor has the pandemic stopped Hussain from delivering his annual tabla retreat, though the fifty or so students from around the world who participated this year had to congregate virtually.

Hussain has other irons in the fire, too. "Now I am writing a concerto for sitar and flute, to be premiered actually in England in 2022." Cultures and borders, indeed.

A Family Affair

The lack of live gigs due to the pandemic has afforded Hussain more time for composing, for family time and for reflection. California has been home to Hussain for over fifty years since he first taught tabla at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. Home, above all else for Hussain, means family and in these difficult times an upside is that his family have come even closer, with his daughter and granddaughter moving in.

"It's been a big blessing," says Hussain. "Being home with the family is really the best thing."

The proximity of generations of his family has no doubt played its part in inviting Hussain to reflect upon his father, the great tablaist Alla Rakha and his musical teachings.

"I've been sitting down and listening to recordings and reinterpreting my studies with my father when I was young and hadn't quite deciphered in detail what he was talking about," Hussain relates.

"I started to find these hidden meanings in all the sayings and all the teachings and all the compositions, and that has helped me look at my repertoire of the last fifty years in a new light. I am feeling that there is stuff that I have to share once we do get back on the stage and it makes me excited."

The thought of a rejuvenated Hussain, taking to the world's stages once again with renewed vigour and heightened musical perception is a mouth-watering prospect.

The seventy-year-old Hussain has come a long way since his childhood days of being woken at 3am every night by his father to practise rhythms by singing.

Have Tabla Will Travel

February 20, 1970. That was the day that Zakir Hussain first arrived in America, subbing for his father for a few gigs with Ravi Shankar. "I arrived in this cocoon of Indian classical music," recalls Hussain.

The eighteen-year-old Hussain had already had a taste of Europe, performing in both Munich and in London. It was a different world to the one Hussain had known growing up in Mumbai. "I had seen that the West was more liberal, more open— more sexually open than we were in India. All that was a revelation. I saw my first striptease show in London, Soho, and I was like, 'What? People do this?' We weren't even allowed kissing on Indian screens in films. There was no dating, no nothing. That wasn't possible."

In London, Hussain played the Queen Elizabeth Hall with sarod player Aashish Khan. Afterwards, they were invited to a party at classical guitarist Julien Bream's house. Hussain recalls jamming with Bream and meeting a young Englishman whose name was Mick Jagger. "That didn't mean anything to me at that point," laughs Hussain, "but Aashish pointed out to me that he was a big star."

When the call from Ravi Shankar came, Hussain was on a flight to New York in no time. There was a day of rest before the first concert, in Bill Graham's Fillmore East. Shankar came to meet Hussain in his hotel room and handed him a piece of paper with columns, times and numbers. "In each column were written things I couldn't figure out," Hussain recalls. "They said Mod Squad, I Love Lucy, Mission Impossible, Star Trek. Ravi Shankarji had brought me a page with the timing and channels of each show that he thought I should watch," laughs Hussain, who had never even seen a television until he arrived in Munich. "My Americanisation was to begin that way."

For a number of reasons Hussain remembers the concert in the Fillmore East on February 22nd well. "This was to be a landmark concert for me," recognizes Hussain. By coincidence, it was also the birthday of a young woman named Antonia Minnecola. A few years later she and Hussain would marry. "It was serendipity," says Hussain.

Thirty years later, Mickey Hart sent Hussain a book: Live at the Fillmore East: A Photographic Memoir. "There is a page and it says, 'Ravi Shankar and Zakir Qureshi, February 22nd'— Qureshi is my family name," Hussain explains. It remains a prized souvenir.

If You're Going To San Francisco...

After a brief stint teaching at a college in Seattle, another opportunity opened up for Hussain, in California. "Ali Akbar Khan the great sarod maestro needed a tabla teacher, and he rang me up," Hussain relates. "I had also played with him in India before. I ended up coming to the Bay Area and started to teach at the Ali Akbar college." It was there that Hussain met his future wife, who had come to the college to learn Indian dance. "And the rest is history," laughs Hussain.

The scene that greeted Hussain in San Francisco's Bay Area was wild, colorful and happening. "It was like, how should I say, The Land of Oz when it came to music, because most of the great rock bands were here and there were a lot of great musicians living in the Bay Area. Mickey Hart was there. Armando Peraza, the great Cuban conguero was there. Hamza El Din, the Nubian percussionist/oud player was there, Sheila E, Peter Escovedo, Carlos Santana, Steven Stills, Jefferson Starship, The Grateful Dead----I mean, you name it, they were all there."

Many of the rock musicians gravitated towards the Ali Akbar College. "They all wanted to know about Indian music and my father had become a household name."

Timing, as any rhythmic musician worth their salt knows, is everything. "I just happened to be there. Sometimes there is a bus that is about to leave but I didn't have to get on the bus," says Hussain. "I was already on the bus."

Hussain revelled in the new-found musical freedom. "You found all these musicians, on any given night, in small clubs, jamming with each other. You could see Jerry Garcia sitting in with The Sons of Champlin or playing with a band called It's A Beautiful Day, or with Country Joe and the Fish."

One jam session that sticks in Hussain's mind went on for three-and-a-half days. "The whole thing was that at least two or three musicians had to be playing at any given time. I found myself lying down and falling asleep and then waking up to see Jerry Garcia and David Crosby jamming, and just kind of rubbing my eyes and picking up a conga drum and joining in with the rhythms. These kinds of things were normal. There was a whole-hearted sharing of musical ideas, and with the love and open arms that happened in those days."

It was heady, refreshing and, in a way, challenging for the young tabla player, so wrapped up in the world of Indian classical music as he had been up to then.

"I had never seen give and take of creativity like this. I had only seen it on stage between two people—a sitar and a tabla player, a singer and a tabla player, or a dancer and a tabla player. But on this level, with this kind of independence and freedom, it was something just so unusual and unique," Hussain recounts.

Hussain admits that it took him a while to come to terms with the musical fluidity he experienced nightly. "It was a state of mind that I had to arrive at. It had to be fenceless where everything was one, and that it was possible to be a tabla player but at the same time be a drummer, or be a conga player, to play Indian rhythms but at the same time play jazz or Latin percussion and whatnot on your tabla. It was perfectly acceptable and allowed."

Being on the other side of the world, free from the tight strictures of the Indian classical music world, in the midst of a cultural melting pot was liberating for Hussain.

"I was far away from the eyes of the critics and the connoisseurs, and so it was open season. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have arrived in this kind of independent mind-sharing. It helped me get into that mode of forgetting that I was 'just' an Indian tabla player but realizing that it is my mode and I can bring it and walk into any country that I want to, and similarly, so can they, walk into India or anywhere else they want to.

"Being part of community sharing," expands Hussain, "I think it shaped the way I think and the way I interact—even the way I play with Indian musicians. I realized that there are no boundaries, there are no bridges. There is no East is East and West is West. It's all in our minds."

Common Language

Between Indian classical music and jazz, as Hussain explains, there is more in common structurally than perhaps first meets the eye.

"You know, Indian musicians play something called a garland of ragas when they go out to perform and they play the serious music they end with a lighter piece of music which also brings many different ragas into play. And they call it garland of ragas. To me, the garland is nothing but many different chords being played back-to-back. So, when you look at it that way it is like a Western song, like maybe "Giant Steps" but in a simpler manner—the changes taking longer to appear."

Hussain expands on the theory. "As an Indian musician used to playing garland of ragas, traversing through different modes, all interconnected, and the transition being very seamless, you should be able to play a jazz standard with many different chords, which can be akin to garland of ragas. That kind of thinking is now creeping in among young Indian classical musicians. They have grown up not only practising Indian music but also at the same time being aware of all the other forms of music, because now it's available."

The globalizing effect of the internet and the musical library that is YouTube have made the world a much smaller place compared to when Hussain was starting out.

"When I was growing there was no internet, no YouTube, so it was not possible for me to sit in India and plug into the Miles Davis Quintet and watch that while I'm practising raga whatever. Now while musicians are practising raga 'Bhoopali' they are listening to maybe Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" and they are able to find ways to make it fit raga 'Bhoopali.'"

Hussain points to musicians like flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, sitarist Niladri Kumar and Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya as prime examples of the current generation of Indian classical musicians who are able to make the connection between one musical language and another.

Chaurasia has played with Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Joshua Redman; Kumar has collaborated with Jonas Hellborg and Talvin Singh; Bhattacharya has performed with Jerry Douglas and Bob Brozman. Both Kumar and Bhattacharya appeared on John McLaughlin's album Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008).

"For me, it has become more and more clear. I do not find that there is Indian music and then there is this little bridge to cross and there is jazz. I find that the connections are fenceless and seamless," affirms Hussain. "One just has to have the state of mind to be able to see sameness in our creative process."

Perhaps Hussain's musical open-mindedness was in the blood all along, for his father, Alla Rakha, was a jazz fan. "When Duke Ellington came to India [probably 1963-ed], he took me to see the big band," recalls Hussain," and that was a mind-boggling experience. What a stunner that was!"

From his travels with Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha would also bring rock 'n' roll records back home.

"Believe it or not, he started bringing The Doors, Grateful Dead, Moody Blues, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane," Hussain recalls. "Apart from The Beatles my friends were not hearing this kind of music. I would be walking down the road in my neighbourhood with my boombox playing "Light My Fire" as loud as I could. People would look at me and say, 'What the heck is wrong with him? Why isn't he playing Bollywood? What is this shit?' So, I guess I was the first boombox man in India," Hussain laughs.

No boombox for Alla Rakha, however, who was more in tune with jazz.

"I have a photo of him sitting on a stage in a jazz club called Shelley's Manne-Hole in Los Angeles," says Hussain. "He's sitting in a chair with the tabla in his hand, wearing a suit— he had obviously gone to see a jazz concert—and sitting next to him playing the flute is the great Yusef Lateef. They were jamming. It's one of those treasured memories."

Significantly, Alla Rakha—globally renowned for his long partnership with Ravi Shankar—had chartered new musical territory in 1968 when he recorded the album Rich à la Rakha with Buddy Rich for the World Pacific label.

Hussain acknowledges the album's historical importance. "It was a landmark record in the sense that it was the first attempt by an Indian rhythmist to interact with a jazz rhythmist and it seems like it kind of got the ball rolling. They were trend setters, bar setters, and the ones who made it possible for people like me to come forward later and reap the rewards of all they work that they put in."


Just three years later in 1971, Hussain would dip his toes into fusion of a different kind—Indo-rock fusion. As Hussain explains, it was World Pacific label boss Richard Bock's idea to form a band of American rock/pop musicians and Indian classical musicians. It was a fresh concept.

"There was no World Music, no fusion music, none of those words were yet invented," says Hussain. "Richard Bock kind of took Aashish Khan and me under his wing and became our manager. He brought in three or four musicians, a drummer, a guitarist, a singer and a bass guitarist and he said, 'Ok, you guys try and make music together.' That's how the band Shanti came about."

Bock secured a record deal for Shanti with Atlantic and organized a tour, but the record was musically uneven and failed to set the charts alight.

"The record didn't really do much because I guess we hadn't really established an identity," admits Hussain. "We weren't sure if we were a pop-rock band with songs or if we were an instrumental band. We excelled when we played instrumentals, but when we played songs Aashish and I were not able to find a seamless way through the process. If felt a little disjointed."

Hussain feels that, given time, Shanti would have become a more cohesive band, but after eighteen months or so, Bock pulled the plug. Shanti remains a minor footnote in Hussain's career, though he looks back on the band with a certain sense of satisfaction. "It did do something that had not been done before."

Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder

Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead was one of the first people that Hussain met when he moved to the Bay Area of San Francisco. Hart was studying with Hussain's father and it was Alla Rakha who introduced the drummer to his son. "Mickey was one of those people who was looking for a new mode of expression, looking forwards," recalls Hussain.

"All the legends never rest on their laurels; they look for more languages that they can tell their story in. That's why George Harrison sought out Ravi Shankar, that's why John Coltrane looked towards Indian music, and other great musicians like John McLaughlin and Charles Lloyd. The always-striving student inside of them compels them to go out and find new ways to speak their language."

Hart, who was in temporary hiatus from The Grateful Dead, asked Alla Rakha to play on the album that would become Rolling Thunder (Warner Bros, 1972)—a blessing of sorts from his teacher. He does so, for less than a minute on "The Main Ten," which, better known as "Playing In The Band," would become a staple of Grateful Dead concerts thereafter.

Alla Rakha recommended his son to Hart to play on the rest of the album. "Maybe my father was trying to arrange an economic activity for me," says Hussain, "but he didn't realize that he was sending me to a den of drugs and how that would reflect on my life and how I live it. It was not in his vision."

The clean-living Hussain, however, steered clear of the drugs and concentrated on the music. "I would go every day and started putting on these rhythm tracks," explains Hussain. "That's how Mickey's album started; it was all rhythms first. On top of that songs were built. I spent weeks there just playing and Mickey would hand me different drums and say, 'Play this.'

"That's when I discovered that the technique that I have on my tabla is acceptable on all these other drums and that it works. It made me confident that I could branch out and touch other instruments and still be able to be a tabla player on them. It's thanks to Mickey, who I consider one of my mentors."

Hart also made a rather unusual request of Hussain. "I remember that Mickey told me, 'Go get Rolling Thunder.'"

Rolling Thunder (born John Pope) self-identified as a Native American and medicine man. Over the years there has been plenty of speculation as to his authenticity, but in the early 1970s he enjoyed a certain fame within counterculture circles for his ceremonial rituals.

Hussain picks up the story: "Rolling Thunder lived over the hill in Nevada. Mickey's friend Johnny had a small plane, a Cessna, one-engine. He sent me with Johnny to get Rolling Thunder. Of course, Johnny was deeply stoned out of his mind and we were flying in this plane at nine thousand feet. I think I took my life in my own hands," Hussain laughs. "I have no clue how he landed the plane. But we picked up Chief Rolling Thunder and brought him back. He did a fire ceremony and got the ball rolling on the record."

Rolling Thunder, which featured most of Hart's Grateful Dead colleagues on the majority of songs, plus the Tower of Power horn section, saw Hussain, Hart and Jerry Garcia play as a trio on a couple of tracks. The album marked the formal beginning of a long musical association between Hart and Hussain. Four years later, as the Diga Rhythm Band, Hart and Hussain created a stir with the album Diga (Round Records, 1976).

"It was really the first record that brought together percussionist representing different traditions form different parts of the world—Middle Eastern, African, Afro-Cuban, Indian, jazz," says Hussain.

"Of course, Baba Olatunji had made Drums of Passion [Columbia, 1960] but that was focusing on Nigerian and African music; Diga was all these elements coming together, and probably was the first attempt at a rhythm fusion or a world rhythms record. Diga was a landmark record."

In some ways Diga was a precursor to Planet Drum—Hart's hugely successful pan-global rhythms fest that brought the Grateful Dead drummer and Hussain together with some of the finest percussionists from around the world, including Olatunji. "It sold like hot cakes," says Hussain.

Nearly a million hot cakes, in fact. Planet Drum also won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best World Music Album of 1991.

"It was a record that really created waves," Hussain expands. "Bass and drum-oriented records had not yet come out, but Planet Drum's success in some way caused a chain reaction where many records started arriving with rhythm as the core element. Hip-hop, rap and house music are all built on something called beats. The idea of first getting a rhythm track in a particular BPM [beats per minute] beat and building a song on it—that is what we did with Rolling Thunder in 1972."

In a very short space of time after arriving in America, Hussain had made his mark as an open-minded and innovative musician. In the mid '70s, by the side of John McLaughlin in Shakti, Hussain's legend was to grow further still.

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