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Exclusive interview with the tabla virtuoso.
By Raif Karerat
WASHINGTON, DC: Zakir Hussain is lauded across the globe as a classical tabla virtuoso of the highest order. His accomplishments have earned him a gamut of awards and recognitions, including a Grammy, the Padma Shri from the Indian government, and the National Endowment for the Art’s National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor awarded by the United States to traditional artists and musicians.
Hussain was born in Mumbai, India (he turns 64 years old on March 9) to the legendary tabla player Alla Rakha. He quickly revealed himself to be a musical prodigy and was touring by the age of 11. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1970, launching an international career that has seen him play with countless legends of the musical genre.
In a phone interview from California to The American Bazaar, Hussain talked about his new performance series Celtic Connections, the artists who have inspired him the most, and if Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass coming together was a seminal moment. Excerpts from the interview:
Your latest performance series, Celtic Connections, amalgamates South Asian and traditional Celtic instruments. I’m sure that’s not a combination many people might expect. What gave you the idea to pursue it?
When you combine the North Indian and South Indian folk music and the Celtics, who play music that is traditionally Irish or Scottish or from Brittany in Northern France, and you put them all together you get a concoction of music that not only is coming from various parts of the world but actually points to some sort of root or a connection which really makes the music much more similar to each other than you could possibly imagine.
I have to admit it wasn’t my idea; it was the Arts Council of Scotland who decided to commission me in 2011 to go to Glasgow, bring some Indian musicians, and sit all of them, with some in Glasgow and Ireland, to put together a piece of music that would represent these very different traditions. The repertoire that we’ve developed is the direct result of that commission, which actually ended up in a concert that we played at that time. The concert was a great success, so the U.K. Arts Council invited us to play at the Olympic concerts that were being held in various parts of London. So we played in Hyde Park for about 10,000 people. I felt, why should I just be limited to these three or four shows? Let’s try and take it on the road. So this is why we’re here: to bring this very unique repertoire onto the stage so people can hear a combo they’ve never heard before.
Is there any underlying message behind the music you’ve composed for Celtic Connections?
I have to tell you that musicians are a very innocent lot. They don’t necessarily look at any underlying message or anything unless you’re in a modern form of music such as rap or hip-hop where the poetry needs to express the pent up feelings that are inside the creator of the music.
Musicians, in general, like interacting and playing music together, so the message is something that’s the worry of the PR department at the record company and whatnot. For us, music in itself is the greatest positive message that you could ever give to people. Music’s energy is very positive — it’s a pristine and pure experience. If you could just for a moment close all the windows and doors and connections to the negative energy in this world and just concentrate on the music for a little bit — for those fleeting moments all the cares and worries of the world just sort of dissolve and leave you. You come out of a concert hall or even listening to a record in your living room rejuvenated and able to face the world again. In that sense, music is one of the greatest sources of positive energy and so I guess that message speaks for itself.
You’ve been called “a chief architect of the contemporary world music movement.” Would you say that is an apt description?
I would say, no. An automobile needs four wheels. It needs an engine, it needs a driver, it needs so many elements for it to come together for it to go from point A to point B. I’m not — in my opinion — the chief architect. If you look at world music or fusion a thousand years ago, for instance, a form of music was invented in India that was a combination of Hindu temple music and Muslim Sufi music. And that was a North Indian music form that anybody like Ravi Shankar or other great musicians of our time and past generations play.
Having said that, the work began a long time ago. So yes, I reap the rewards of what others have done before me — what others of greatness have done before me. I get to have the credit but I don’t think I wholly deserve it.
The next question is three-pronged in nature. Is the influence of Indian classical music waning in the west? Is it being overshadowed by Bollywood in India? If so, what needs to be done to encourage its worldwide proliferation?
Your question would be valid if the musicians involved in the various traditions we’ve mentioned expected each one of those traditions to have the same visibility. Indian classical music is not a pop form of music. It’s a chamber art form, meaning it requires an ambience that provides intimacy and eye contact with the audience, whose ears are totally tuned into the music being played, and they’re sitting down and focusing on it. You cannot expect a stadium full of people who have come to dance or scream their head off over a song to be able to plug into that. Having said that, if a musician of Indian classical origin says I should have the same coverage as artists from Bollywood, it’s wrong, because this music is not built for that. If you keep that in mind, you’ll realize Indian classical music is far from waning. It actually has about a thousand times more of an audience than it had 30 years ago, and that’s all over the world. Of course, when you compare it with pop music like rap, hip-hop, and electronica — whatever you want to compare it with — that music is built for a whole bunch of mass audiences and so they can go ahead and do that. But Indian music is not that.
When Ravi Shankar and my father played at Woodstock they had to be flown in by a helicopter to be dropped onto the stage because there were so many people and such great traffic that there was no way to get in. So they landed on the stage and they started to play, but the fact is that there were over half-a-million people there and the sound system was all over the place — it just was not possible for that music to penetrate to the levels where people in the back or to the sides could tune into them. It wasn’t possible. So therefore, on the Woodstock record, you’ll [hear] all the other great musicians performing but you won’t hear Ravi Shankar’s piece on it. It wasn’t making that kind of an impression. But, when he went to Monterrey Pop Festival with Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, you name it — everybody performed there — one of the highlights was when Ravi Shankar and my father performed as a duo and it’s in the movie; it’s simply because that place was small enough for the music to actually make that statement and connection with the audience.
Having said that, that’s what you have to rely on. So in my opinion, Indian music is really healthy, and alive, and well, and loving and it has gained some popularity that it didn’t have 30 to 35 years ago.
You’ve won a Grammy, been awarded the Padma Shri, and garnered a host of other formal awards, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you wouldn’t consider any of those your crowning achievement. If not, what is?
There was a great maestro who was playing a concert and once he finished his concert — it was an amazing show — he got off the stage and somebody went up to him and said, “Maestro, you were perfect today.” And he looked at that person and said, “Son, I haven’t played good enough quite yet.” It’s a profound statement. It means that if you think you’ve done the best you can and the crowning achievement has arrived then you might as well hang up your boots. That’s not what creative art is all about. It’s about looking. It’s about searching. It’s about finding out more. It’s about stretching your imagination further than you can visually see or think. It’s about touching the horizon and even though you cannot, you reach for it. It’s not about the goal, or being the best. It’s about enjoying the journey towards being as perfect as you can be. In that, you make the best of your journey, you have fun and you meet great people and get the best out of those interactions. Hopefully somewhere along the line you will find that it’s okay to be slightly imperfect, because we are humans. Even God is not perfect. He did create this world but there’s a lot of mess in it.
So there you have it, I don’t have a crowning achievement yet — I’ve had some great moments, some real fabulous times. Sitting on stage and playing with my father, who is my guru, was really a great experience and a blessing. Sitting with Ravi Shankar and playing was an amazing blessing, playing with Charles Lloyd, or sitting in a recording room with George Harrison, or recording with van Morrison or Yo-Yo Ma — I’ve had an amazing life, great interactions with fabulous musicians, some of the greatest in their fields that I’ve worked with. I have to say that all those moments are very special for me.
Would you say that your father and Ravi Shankar are your greatest artistic inspirations?
I would say so. My father was my teacher; he’s the man who put me on this path by whispering the first rhythms in my ear. He put this curiosity in my head that made it possible for me to walk this path. Ravi Shankar was a great role model — somebody I looked at and in some ways try to emulate, such as his way of performing and being able to connect with audiences and bring the music to them. He really turned the Indian classical form, which is very internal and personal, into a performance — an art form. In that sense, yes, I would say these two are very important people in my life as a student of the art form.
Did you consider Ravi Shankar teaming up with Philip Glass to be a seminal moment, and did it mean anything for you personally?
I think that would be something Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass would have to say, as to whether it was a seminal moment or not. For me, it was interesting to see Philip Glass, who represented music that was modal and minimalist, with Ravi Shankar, who was an incredible improviser, someone who could come up with a thousand melodies in 32 seconds and put them all on in front of you in a bouquet of music, which you could not only hear but also visually sense, feel, enjoy, and experience.
What has been your favorite or most memorable performance venue?
See, the thing is a lot of performance venues in the west have been made with Western instruments in mind, acoustically. Whomsoever is the designer for those concert halls and opera houses knew the frequencies of the violin, or viola, or cello, or oboe, bassoon, clarinet, and so on. They make sure those instruments can be heard in all corners of the hall equally and sound lush and beautiful and warm. When you bring Indian classical instruments in these venues, obviously they have different frequencies and different tones, and the halls were not made for those. So we end up using sound systems, and when we do that, they then make the instruments sound more synthetic.
I have to say that when you’re in New York and you play in this old concert hall called the Town Hall it is an amazing sound. It’s a concert hall that’s about 1600 seats. But it appears when you’re on stage as if you’re playing in your living room. It has that beautiful tone and everything and whether you’re playing amplified music or acoustic music it appears to balance both very well. It’s an interesting hall.
There’s a small concert hall in Mumbai called Prithvi Theatre and it has an acoustic sound where there’s no [electronic] amplification used and it’s one of the great rooms to play in. Davies Symphony here [in San Francisco] is very good. I wouldn’t include Carnegie Hall in my list of great concert halls for Indian music because, again, it’s made for Western classical music and Indian music is just not [decibel level]-wise to reach all corners of Carnegie Hall — it’s too big. So I’d have to go with Town Hall and possibly Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai.
What is next for you after the Celtic Connections tour?
After Celtic Connections? Oh my God, well, I’ve been commissioned to write the first ever tabla concerto symphony orchestra piece featuring tabla as a soloist. It’s interesting to be able to write a symphony orchestra piece which is basically a melodic sounding machine made up of the symphony with 80 to 90 musicians. The main soloist of that is going to be a rhythym player — a tabla player. So it’s really an interesting contradiction, or a challenge, and I’m right now finishing up that concerto. It will be premiered, believe it or not, in India in September, then it will be in Switzerland in January, then Wolf Trap with the National Symphony Orchestra, which is the Kennedy Center orchestra in the early summer.
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