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Before Egg concert Sunday, Zakir Hussain explains the supreme happiness of his search for the ultimate rhythm

Zakir Hussain.
Krupasindhu Muduli
Zakir Hussain.

On Sunday, legendary tabla player, percussionist, and composer Zakir Hussain performs at The Egg in Albany. WAMC caught up with him before the show.

Hussain, 71, was born into drumming. His father, Alla Rakha, was a master tabla player. He often accompanied sitar legend Ravi Shankar and helped popularize Indian music around the world with appearances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock in 1969. Late at night, Alla Rakha would wake a young Hussain and teach him not only the complex, interwoven rhythms of the tabla, but the narratives behind the music.

HUSSAIN: As it is true with all forms of music that rely on improv – so, that means creativity on the spot, spontaneity – that has a lot to do with an expressive element, and that comes from visualization of the repertoire that you are representing. So, if I'm playing a particular passage- I think Leonard Bernstein also demonstrated this once, when, in one of his lectures with his orchestra, he pointed out how a certain passage actually was a visualization of a herd of deer running. We visualize in our mind when we are playing a particular rhythmic phrase or a pattern or a complete passage of what it's showing, what it’s telling, whether it's a conversation between husband and wife, a battle between two warriors, you know, anything like that, it’s in our head and we visualize it. So that plays a very important part in our performances, and the technical ability has to be at an optimum level to be able to express spontaneously, or tell the story spontaneously, because every time you tell a story, there's going to be a little deviation here and there that would bring out certain other aspects of the story that it didn't the last time you told that same story.

Hussain took quickly to the tabla, and played his first concert at 7. By 11, he was on the road, and at 19 Shankar chose him to be his accompanist for a U.S. tour in 1970. He chose to stay in the states to work with sarod master Ali Akbar Khan in the Bay Area. Over his long and prolific career, Hussain follows a holistic approach to how he improvises with his musical partners.

HUSSAIN: We don't rehearse. Not even in the dressing room or even in a sound check. But there's banter between us. We are talking about our cell phones or news or about family or about the food we just ate for lunch, etc., etc. It's basically getting used to each other's mood of the day- How we are feeling today, whether we are happy or we are a little anxious or nervous or sad or any of that. And when all that is happening, you are going to take all that information onto the stage with you. And then in that musical conversation, that's going to start- All that happened through the day is going to be traversed through. But instead of speaking words, you will be speaking melody and rhythm. So all that bantering and everything is actually part of our preparation for the concert. It's not just shooting the breeze, it's getting to know each other better. I mean, people ask me, what do you look for when you're performing with an artist? For me, I look for continuity. I look for a relationship that has been built over a period of time and has many layers. Like, okay, if I'm playing with John McLaughlin, or with, say, Béla Fleck, or Edgar Meyer or whoever, or Charles Lloyd or anybody, and Indian musicians, the relationship has been built up over decades. And we know each other, inside and out, our families know each other, we've helped each other through various points, we've exchanged recipes, we've exchanged ideas of where I should go from their wives, to get a wedding gown for my daughter- You know, stuff like that. I mean, so we know each other in and out, we know each other's political beliefs, we know each other's likes and dislikes, what we read, what we watch, anything, and when you get on stage, all that plays a very important part in the musical conversation we're going to have.

One of Hussain’s closest musical compatriots is Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Friends and co-conspirators for five decades, the pair released their “Sound Consciousness: Drones for Sonic Bathing” project last year. Hussain says they’re preparing to bring their Planet Drum project – first launched in 1991 – back to the stage for a May 1st concert in Stanford, California with Bobby Weir, followed by a new album and possibly a tour later this year or early next.

HUSSAIN: Mickey and I, our prime reason for this is, of course, to let the world know that way back, centuries back, drumming was an important part of the culture of the land, wherever that was, and drumming actually was the guide and a process of transmission, a process of telegraphing, a process of meditation, and learning, and centering yourself. And it was a very important part of the day-to-day life of the world. And then it changed when the church decided to go in the other direction, and rhythm went away and melody took over and the choirs emerged and a very heavenly sound came from that part of the world and took over the world for centuries. We feel that whole idea of bringing the spotlight back onto the rhythm is where we are in our heads. That's our focus. Our focus is rhythm. It's the rhythm, stupid. That's basically what we say to each other: It's the rhythm, stupid. And rhythm governs our lives and it runs our planet. There is a rotation tempo that the planet revolves around its axis, and therefore, that sets the tempos of all our rhythms that we all function in the pulse at. And Mickey and I firmly believe in that, and we’ve always followed that doctrine. And that's what kept us together, is this, to seek out the core rhythm of our beings, of our earth, of our planet, and our universe. And we still strive forward trying to do that and hope that the search will never end, because that's what it is- It's always about the journey, it's not about the goal.

While dedicating one’s life to discovering the ultimate beat at the heart of existence sounds like a daunting task, Hussain says the pleasure is all his.

HUSSAIN: You see, we are all students. We are learning. And so because we are learning, I don't see it as a responsibility, I see it as a privilege, as something that is a happy happenstance, because we love doing this. It's like being in the greatest playpen ever and finding these incredible rhythmic traditions, akin to rhythmic toys that we just enjoy experiencing and enjoying and interacting with and finding a voice, a language that does not rely on what you may call grammar of the kind that is forced upon us by introduction of languages. But it's a universal grammar, it's a universal statement, it's a universal thought process that is in place, has always been in place, and now over the past three decades or four decades has been rediscovered. And the happiness is supreme.

Zakir Hussain appears with Kala Ramnath and Jayanthi Kumaresh at The Egg in Albany on Sunday.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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