Maestro and Percussionist Humbled by Greats, Believes He Is Not In Their Company
Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain has been entertaining audiences across North America for the past month, serenading Indian and non-Indian audiences alike with a burst of emotional tapestry representing the best the South Asian subcontinent has to offer in a centuries-old art form. The son of one of Indian classical music’s greatest artists and, along with his brothers, maintaining the rich tradition of Indian percussions alive in the subcontinent and abroad has vaulted Ustad Zakirji to the upper echelon’s of the world’s greatest artists.
Just be sure not to tell Ustad Zakirji in person of the vast reach of his artistic influence, for he will, with the utmost of genuine humility, reply that he cannot be mentioned amongst the all-time greats. Imagine a baseball fan believing Albert Pujols does not belong in the same discussion as Babe Ruth, that the just recently passed Thomas Kinkade falls short of superior art criticism that only Pablo Picasso, Monet, or Rembrandt are worthy of, or Tupac Shakur’s artistic mastery of hip hop whilst challenging social norms is somehow lesser than Beethoven’s contributions and experiences.
As Ustad Zakirji, who has been using his hands to entertain the world since 1963, speaks of his rank to this writer with great humility, he also shares his perspectives on family legacy and the growth of Indian classical music in the West whilst sharing anecdotes about memorable concerts and performing with broken instruments (and, once, none at all).
Below is a transcript of the interview Buzzine’s Parimal M. Rohit had with Ustad Zakirji shortly after he arrived in Savannah, Georgia, for a show there.
Parimal M. Rohit: You have been on tour for two weeks now. How has your North American travels played out so far?
Zakir Hussain: The tour is going very well. It has been so much more successful than I imagined it was going to be halfway through the tour. The audiences have been really loving it. We’ve pretty much had full houses just about everywhere we’ve played. It’s really been an amazing time so far. There are more surprises everyday coming in, it keeps the excitement level high and all of us on our toes.
PMR: At the show here in Los Angeles, you had a strong family element on stage. Your brother shared the stage with you and the other artists had phenomenal legacies, be it uncles, brothers, fathers, and such. Was this by design? Talk about the family affair that was on stage.
ZH: I don’t know if it was by design or by chance that we got together in this combination, where there are very strong lineages represented in this group. You are looking at musicians who have a history of music in their blood, in their family for generations. Having said that, I would have to say that it brings great responsibility on their shoulders. These musicians now stand out on their own, on their own merit, on their own performance. They have distinguished themselves in an incredible way through their artistry. They stand alone now. When we were in L.A., that was our third concert. I was just introducing everybody from the lineage that they belong to. But I have since dispensed of introducing them as sons of so-and-so because it’s very clear that they stand on their own talent. So that’s gone out the window.
PMR: You come from an amazing lineage. Your father, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, is not only a legendary tabla player but has performed frequently with another legend in Ravi Shankar. What about you and your legacy?
ZH: It was difficult for me to break out of the shadow of my father. I was growing up under his teaching and watchful eye in India. The tradition was very strong. I had to prove myself. My own identity as a performer in my own right, my own statement to make as musician, did not really come to core until I started traveling outside of India and started to make connections with musicians from different genres and music and see my music through their eyes, and therefore finding multiple ways to be able to express myself on my instrument.
PMR: What about your brother, Fazal Quereshi, who is 11 years your junior and also performed with you on this tour? How is the family shadow casting upon him?
ZH: My younger brother had it even doubly difficult because he not only had to live up to our dad but he also had to live up to me. He had to come up through the ranks with something even more difficult to conquer in the fame of his father and his brother, and then finding his own identity in that and coming out as a person who had something more to offer than just a copy of Zakir Hussain or Ustad Alla Rakha.
PMR: Switching gears, through all of your performances here in the United States and in the West in general, have you seen a growth in the art form of Indian classical music beyond the motherland?
ZH: You know, Indian classical music is a form that allows a certain amount of leeway … (and allows you to) improvise, meaning take what is there (rooted in tradition) and create something spontaneously. Over the centuries, Indian music has had … influences (and) inspirations that has helped it to find itself growing in a way where it is imbibing not only the culture of our country but also the influences of the musicians that are practicing this art form. I think that change has come into play and, therefore, you see even now, that Indian music is still growing, because the way I play tabla and the way I interact using my instruments all over the world is different than how my father did it or different than his contemporaries and now different than my brother does it. We all have different people to interact with. Indian music is evolving and has just as many colors as there are people playing this music.
PMR: How have you grown as an artist?
ZH: Well, the growing process continues on a daily basis, of course. But, I have definitely grown, I would say, miles and miles and miles from where I was 16 or 17 or 18 years old. I look at tabla more as an instrument that has expression, emotion, feeling, and has the ability to be able to speak not only the language of the rhythm but the language of humanity. That element is something that I feel that has come in to play … with my interactions and percussionists of non-Indian music.
PMR: On a lighter note, if you could have a dream concert, what would that be? Or, have you already had a dream concert?
ZH: Oh, wow! Being on stage with me dad. Playing with Ravi Shankar has been a dream. Playing with my dad and Ravi Shankar has been a dream. Playing concerts with Yo-Yo Ma or writing a symphony and having that played as I play along with it at Carnegie Center has been a dream. Being showcased in a retrospective of “Five Nights of Zakir Hussain” at Carnegie Hall in New York is a dream. It’s hard to tell. You know, you do that, and then you wake up the next day, and you find that, okay, I still have miles to go before I sleep. And so you realize that dream concert was just that - a dream. And now you got to go out and do something else. It’s basically a pat on the back by your peers. It’s “okay, you are on the right direction, so far so good. Great. Congratulations. Now let’s see what more you can do.” So that’s what it’s all about. And the dream is to be able to go touch the horizon, which will not happen but the journey will bring to you many dreams that you will live through and enjoy.
PMR: What dreams have you experienced as you reached out to the horizon that have made your journey enjoyable?
ZH: I remember when I was, what, 22 or something, and Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and my father were playing at Carnegie Hall, and suddenly they called me up and said, “You join us.” Imagine, three of the greatest living legends of Indian music are (performing) at Carnegie Hall, and little ‘ole me on the stage with them. I mean, I know tabla players who would give their right leg for that, and I get to do it, and I am still not 25 yet.
PMR: Now, I have read that you have played with a broken instrument before. Is that true?
ZH: I’ve done that. I have situations where playing the tabla the string starts to break, and the concert is on and I would keep turning it wherever it’s broken and where it’s not broken and I’m trying to play it, and finally the string just breaks. So what to do? You just turn it over and play the body of it. I’ve had a situation where the tabla had not arrived. I was playing … in Georgia (near Russia) and the instruments went to the Caribbean. I had to go into the town there … looking for instruments to play. No tabla. No nothing. I just had to find whatever I could.
PMR: Any last words before you get back onto your tour?
ZH: I have to say I don’t consider myself one of the great performers. When your name is on the marquee you are the mark of the day. Every day I am having mine, but I have to tell you I am not the best tabla player around. I am one of the good ones and there are at least 15 to 20 out there who are really good tabla players, play as good as I do or some even better maybe.