An Interview with Zakir Hussain
Photo by Susana Millman
By Samir Shukla
This is the second time I have interviewed the master of the tabla, Ustad Zakir Hussain. It's always a quandary to interview someone who has such a vast history in music. You want to ask him questions that he has likely answered a thousand times. But Zakir Hussain is a down-to-earth musician. I posed questions that I wanted to ask and he answered them in detail, just like the first time I interviewed him a few years ago when he was touring with his Masters of Percussion.
His musical history is legendary. He has connected with musical traditions around the globe and performed with musicians as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck, Mickey Hart, John McLaughlin, Ravi Shankar, Bill Laswell and Charles Lloyd. It is an exhausting list of musical masters who have also benefited from performing with Ustad Hussain.
Hussain is slated to perform in the Carolinas in early October with Niladri Kumar, a brilliant and accomplished sitar master. This pairing is a gift to lovers of Hindustani music. It will be a top-notch performance exploring India's North Indian classical music that harks back centuries.
According to the program notes I received, “This concert will present an exploration of Indian music, both ancient and cutting-edge, combining a traditional classical offering with a collaborative exploration of the raga and tala systems. The concert will begin with a rendition of a classical raga performed on sitar by Niladri Kumar and accompanied on tabla by Zakir Hussain. This piece will commence with a full alaap by Niladri Kumar in the Hindustani classical tradition, presenting and expounding on the raga. The concert will also include a tabla solo piece by Hussain, and will conclude with a contemporary performance based on the folk melodies of India."
These performances are the classic duet interactions where the musicians are so in tune with each other that they practically read each other's minds. Hussain's tabla will open a world of sound while Kumar's sinewy sitar resonates sounds both meditative and jubilant, depending on the moment.
Here's a portion of my recent chat with Zakir Hussain.
I asked him to talk a bit about this performance. He said “this will not be a Masters of Percussion or anything like a fusion performance. This will be a detailed classical performance. I don't get to do many performances like this so it's nice to be able to have this opportunity. Let's see if I can still keep up with these young punks (laughs while referring to Niladri Kumar)."
Kumar is lightning fast on the sitar. “Yeah, to put it mildly, he is 2 point something gigawatts of power. There's power there but also great attention to the traditional requirements. He's a very special combination of traditional values and their validity in the modern world of music. He can play in both worlds comfortably and with the same amount of confidence."
When I asked him if his and Kumar's work with fusion as well as varied musicians and genres brings more fans into the traditional Indian music fold, Hussain explained, “You know music must move forward. If it doesn't it'll stagnate. Therefore, you must found new avenues and language to express this traditional form. You have to speak in various tongues to be able to get the music's point across. You must deal with what's out there. And whether that helps you, I would say yes because for myself I would have to say my association with a lot of Western musicians and like jazz musicians or percussionists or drummers has really enhanced my ability to be able to play my tabla in a more I would say global manner. And so I'm able to take compositions and interpret them in a way where a drummer could understand it and easily document it to be able to execute the same information on his drum or a conga drummer could do it…and adapt those compositions to be able to work in the world of jazz, rock, pop or hip hop or whatever. All these interactions have allowed me to understand languages of expressions and that allows me to expand my traditional expression into those forms. I'm sure Niladri is having similar experiences, having invented a new instrument (zitar), playing funk music or playing in films and Bollywood, doing all that stuff. It develops you as a more complete performer and representative of the art form to be able to discover ways in which the sitar (or tabla) has never been played. And therefore discover what your instrument is really fully capable of."
Of all the genres of music you have played with, which one has personally challenged you most, I asked.
“Strangely enough, Western classical music. The reason why I say that because jazz and Indian music are somewhat distant cousins and also Celtic music. They all have elements of improvisation and therefore spontaneity plays an important role in the musical expression. In that way you are somewhat on familiar ground. If you understand the language of the music you are interacting with then you can speak the language and are able to fit in more easily than you would with music that is totally opposite. So when you think about Indian classical music as an improv form of music and western classical music which is a fixed form of music and has an element that Indian music does not have which is harmony and counter point where four notes are played at the same time, and then you suddenly end up with a 95-piece orchestra and you have to figure out that you are not just interacting with one or two musicians who are just as ready to be spontaneous and improvise in the musical form you are connecting with. But more like this (an orchestra) has to be fixed. It has to be written and different parts have to be handed out to all these many musicians and now you are thinking of all these things and in that sense it's much more challenging. I used to think it was easy but recently I had to write a tabla concerto in a full orchestra and it was a big challenge to make that happen."
When asked what he thought his legacy will be or what he wants to leave behind, he talked about his ongoing work of standardizing the “gharanas" (the regional schools) of Hindustani music. He said he wants to “Gather all the elements of all the gharanas and combine them into one system of study." The gurus of different gharanas have different styles and modes of teaching, and Hussain wants to simplify that. He is working with other musicians and gurus to create a codified manner of studying classical music much in the manner that Indian classical dance was codified in “Natya Shastra" or loosely interpreted as Study of Dance.
When I spoke with him, Hussain had just returned from Japan. They both performed in Kyoto, Japan in early September in front of Indian religious leader Morari Bapu. “It was a gathering of Buddhist and katha oriented priests of India, and what I was supposed to do was go there and say a few words about music and its association with spirituality and then a performance. I asked Niladriji (to join me) and he said yes and so we went there and did that. And now I go back to Japan to Tokyo next week (mid-Sept). I have a concert. I'm opening a new concert hall that they have built and they wanted to start it with my tabla solo. It will be a traditional solo recital.
This fall he is touring with Niladri Kumar. He returns to India in January and will perform in Rajkot and then in Amdavad at the famous Saptak Music Festival, where he has performed numerous times in the past.
This is the running legacy of Ustad Zakir Hussain, a troubadour of Indian music, an all-around performer.
Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar Concerts:
**Sat, October 8 (8pm) at Page Auditorium – Durham, NC
**Sun, October 9 (4pm) at Halton Theater – Charlotte, NC
**Mon, October 10 (7:30pm) Peace Center for Performing Arts Gunter Theatre – Greenville, SC
A Chat with sitarist Niladri Kumar
By Samir Shukla
Niladri Kumar is an amazing young sitar player. He hails from a lineage of five generations of sitar players and trained under his father and guru Pandit Kartick Kumar. Niladri Kumar will perform in two North Carolina cities in October with the legendary tabla master Zakir Hussain. Kumar is a total master of the sitar and invented his own electric version of the sitar called Zitar. He has lent his sitar and Zitar prowess to numerous films over the years including Baahubali, Aashique 2, Dedh Ishqiya, Dhoom 2, and Paheli. He has also worked with guitarist John McLaughlin and Talvin Singh, among many others. And of course he is currently touring with Zakir Hussain. Kumar says the performances in North Carolina are strictly North Indian traditional classical music with the classic sitar and tabla duo. The shows are essentially “don't miss" affairs for anyone who loves Hindustani music. Here is a short chat with Niladri Kumar.
Can you give a brief bio of your background and musical journey?
I learnt sitar and the music to be played on it from my father Pandit Kartick Kumar. My fore fathers were all sitar players from Dhaka erstwhile east Bengal and I am the fifth in the generational line of sitar players. The rest of me is available on www.niladrikumar.com. Please do have a look and read and I hope it would be worth your time.
You are performing with Zakir Hussain in North Carolina on Oct 8 and 9. Who are the other accompanying musicians, if any?
Yes. It's a big honor and blessing to be performing alongside the legendary Ustad Zakir Hussain ji. This concert is just a duo of tabla and sitar. A traditional North Indian classical concert.
Talk a little about this current tour with Zakirji. What can we expect?
For any musician of my generation and others it's an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to perform with Ustad Zakir Hussain ji. For me especially, I feel humbled and special at the same time. As you are all aware of the genius of Zakir ji, you sure can expect that in abundance and I hope to play the sitar to try and keep time with him.
What is your assessment of the current state of Indian classical music in India as well as the rest of the world?
It's a question which has different answers at different levels. But to keep it precise Indian classical music is the music of this land and as long as we cherish being who we are this music will always be there and also prosper and spread its fragrance to different corners of the globe. This music has this very special introvertish quality of happiness within, it almost makes you dance not necessarily outwardly and physically but more importantly within your being. So as long as any form of music survives in this universe, Indian classical music will be with it.
How do you see yourself, or what role do you play in bringing Indian classical music to the young digital generation? In essence, how do you create new fans of traditional music?
That's a good question. How do you create new fans? A big part in a musicians life goes in firstly carving a niche among the already fans of this traditional art form. And then try and create interest among the non initiated is almost a job for another life but has to be done at the same time. I feel that somehow the young new generation is extremely smart and they get it very quick but it's important to be able to speak and relate to them in a language that keeps their interest alive in it. We are at a time which is somewhat like a crossroad where although we are in this digital age with this wide huge reach but the numbers of Indian music being consumed is dwindling instead of growing. So somewhere I feel a huge gap is being created and before its get too far and wide it's imperative that we have to keep the tradition alive through innovation.
Who are your veteran music heroes as well as younger musicians that you admire?
There are far too many to give in a few names. It's not fair to leave some for the need of word space. I have had numerous Heroes who I have not just admired but even followed and try to emulate.
Will you be playing the Zitar at this concert? Give a brief description of the Zitar.
No. I am not playing the Zitar. I am going to play only the Sitar. The Zitar is an electric sitar and is a result of following a passion and dreaming of a world which only existed in my dreams. Someday it might be reality.
What are your current projects or recordings?
I am working on a couple of albums simultaneously and have been going to and fro on it for various reasons. Hopefully will have something to release by this year end.
Anything else you would like to tell the audience in North Carolina?
Firstly thank you for asking me these questions and hope my answers will create an interest for you to come and witness the greatest magic in music of our times the one and only Ustad Zakir Hussain.
Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Niladri Kumar will perform on Sat, October 8 (8pm) in Durham. The concert is organized through Duke Performances. Tickets are now on sale via tickets.duke.edu. They will both also perform on Sun, October 9 (4pm) in Charlotte. The concert is organized through IPAAC (www.ipaac.org). Tickets are now on sale via tix.cpcc.edu.