Master tabla player Zakir Hussain on the death of U. Srinivas

Zakir Hussain

Master tabla player Zakir Hussain was born with a destiny in music. His father Alla Rakha was a great tabla master and musical foil to Ravi Shankar for many years. Rakha raised Hussain to follow his musical path, but Hussain has blazed his own trail, proving himself a master of classical traditions while engaging in musical experimentation. In addition to his profound achievements in the world of Indian classical music, Hussain has co-founded landmark projects blending Indian classical traditions with jazz (Shakti) and electronic music (Tabla Beat Science) while stacking up collaborations with an impressive range of musicians from Pharaoh Sanders to the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart.

Hussain will be making a rare Indiana appearance at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts this Sunday, September 28. 

NUVO: I hate to start off on a sad note, but last week your friend, bandmate and fellow icon of Indian music U. Srinivas tragically passed away at 45 years of age. Any thoughts on this you'd like to share with our readers?

Zakir Hussain: It's something I'm struggling to come to grips with. It's a loss that's irreplaceable in the world of music. Especially for me. Along with my friends John McLaughlin and Shankar Mahadevan we all played together in the group Shakti. Only last fall we'd played a long European tour and had such a great time together. We were looking forward to playing more.

It's just a stunning thing. [Long pause and sigh] It's amazing God could make plans like this which don't make sense. Somebody in his prime, a man with a pristine soul, humble, shy, honest and with a clear musical vision. Why would this young man be taken away just when we were getting the best out of him? This is something so unacceptable. We didn't have a say in it, and that bothers me.

NUVO: I clearly remember the first moment I heard U. Srinivas' music. I was just stunned by the magical tone he produced with the electric mandolin. I'd never heard anything like it. I know you had the opportunity to see him perform extremely early in his career, when Srinivas was 12.

Hussain: Yes, and the visuals did not match the sound he produced. He was this little baby sitting on what looked like a toy guitar. This was in Berlin, he was invited at that age to play a main show at the Berlin Jazz Festival. My dear friend Vikku Vinayakram who was a founding member of Shakti was playing with Srinivas and he contacted me and said "Zakir you should come listen to this child." We went to listen and it was a jaw-dropping performance. He was doing something impossible so casually. With such great ease he was performing these incredible ragas which have existed for 2000 years, bringing out the nuances of the music at this tender young age and understanding the depth of the music and putting it forward as if the language was easy for him to speak. He took our breath away. I was with John McLaughlin at the time and he could not stop talking about the performance. There was an older Indian musician named Shiv Kumar Sharma who plays santoor. He was there with us and we were all asking, "How is this possible?" We were witnessing a miracle, witnessing a confirmation of the existence of divinity.

He was a very dear younger brother. It's a loss that... [long pause] is not going to be easy to accept for awhile.

NUVO: You just mentioned your work with Shakti and throughout your life you've sought out opportunities to explore music whether it's with Tabla Beat Science, Bela Fleck, or your long history of collaborations with the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart. Certainly you could make a handsome living off playing classical tabla alone. What drives you to experiment and constantly seek out new musical projects?

Hussain: My father once told me "Don't try to be a master, just be a good student and you will get by just fine." What I've noticed is that most great musicians are students of their art form. They're always looking to find more words to add to their dictionary. To learn to speak language in as many dialects as possible. To be able to enhance their repertoire and just understand how it is possible that the creative process exists, which is something you can never totally master. Yet there is no problem with that, there's no reason to ask how or why. The journey is satisfying. There is no problem not reaching the horizon. Being an eternal student is something that drives and helps me look at my music and whatever little I have learned from another's point of view. If I'm living in this music I'm just seeing it from the inside. I don't know what it looks like to other people unless they tell me what they see in it. That enhances my ability to understand my music more and see it from so many different lights. That drives me to seek out great musicians from all over the world and learn from them.

NUVO: Speaking as an electronic music DJ I've always been fascinated with the Tabla Beat Science project you created with Bill Laswell. What drew you to electronic music?

Hussain: The idea evolved out of the use of sitar and tabla samples in remixes and electronic music productions. These samples were being used and processed in the mixes in a certain way. Bill Laswell and I met and discussed this, and he said to me "these are samples, but you could do much more with the instrument itself. So why not bring the real organic tones and import that into the process to see how the two fit?" That's how it began. People like Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale were using electronic tablas with pick-ups and digital delays and reverbs.

What is interesting to me is that even though Tabla Beat Science has a heavy drum and bass sound and is highly electronically produced, my contribution to it is very organic and acoustic. I played the tabla as I always have without putting a tremendous amount of processing on it. What I ended up doing was to create basic tracks with the natural tones of the instrument but positioning it in a nice way with the drums and bass.

NUVO: The last Tabla Beat Science album was released in 2002. Do you have any desire to revisit the project?

Hussain: I'd love to but one of the important parts of the project was the sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan who passed away in 2011. We haven't figured out what to do about that. But we've been talking about going somewhere else with it.

NUVO: Do think the relationship between Indian classical music and electronic music will continue to grow, or will they remain two separate and distinct musical worlds that occasionally intersect?

Hussain: There are people like me who are bridging things together. When you look at my father, who was my teacher, and his colleagues, these are musicians who were totally involved in their traditions. It was hard for them to cross over. That's one of the reasons my father told people like Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, "Take my son. He is a young man and understands the contemporary elements of tabla and it's relationship to music happening now. It's too late for me to change." I'm sort of like a bridge between the older tradition and moving things to now.

People like Talvin and Karsh Kale have a much better understanding of the electronic world. They grew up doing this and were involved at the inception point. There's a younger generation of Indian musicians who are equally comfortable in the electronic world and traditional Indian world. I find that this combo will make for an interesting relationship between the organic and electronic. I think there is more to come from this relationship. I'm really excited to see where it will go.

NUVO: I've read interviews where you reflect on practice sessions with your father that would literally last all day. Many people regard you as a master of your instrument, do you still maintain such disciplined practice habits?

Hussain: This is something that will never finish. The great jazz musician Charles Lloyd once said "I haven't played good enough to quit yet." That's a very profound statement. If you think you've done the best you can you might as well hang your boots up and retire. There's no place left to go.

This is a journey that will never end. But on the way you'll learn incredible things, see fabulous sunsets and make amazing friends along the way and share wondrous moments with great revelations in this music.

I'm still learning and trying to figure out new ways to speak. You understand the tabla is one of the younger classical instruments of India. The music we play on it has existed for over two thousand years, but the instrument is only about three hundred years old. So it's still finding its way in this tradition. So as we move forward tabla makers are making changes to improve the instrument.

NUVO: This is a bit off-topic, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on this subject. We had an incident here in Indianapolis a couple months ago where an individual shot several people outside of a popular local nightlife destination. Many people felt this individual's violent actions were influenced by the music being played inside the nightclub. In our community that incident recharged the old debate about what role music plays in influencing human behavior. As someone who has spent their entire life dedicated to the study of music, I'm curious what your views are on this subject. How do you think music influences our attitudes, values and actions?

Hussain: Music has throughout time been used as expression. It's been used to communicate sadness, anger, and your beliefs and get them out into the open. That process is something that should cleanse you. It should make you feel at peace with the world as you have expressed yourself and vented. That's what music helps you to do.

I can not possibly imagine that music will inject in you feelings of such negativity that it would make you want to do something so horrible and unimaginably bad. It doesn't matter what type of music it is, whether it's Indian classical, jazz, soul, gospel, rap or hip-hop. I feel that music allows you to vent your feelings in such a way that it relaxes you and puts you at peace with yourself. Music can not be something that creates such incredible anger in you that you'd do something so horrendous.

NUVO: Finally would you like to say anything about the musicians you'll be playing with here this Sunday?

Hussain: I have two lovely musicians who are from the younger generation. They are a husband and wife team and they'll be coming from India to perform. Jayanti Kumaresh will play the veena, which is an instrument that we believe has existed in India for over three thousand years. This is an instrument as ancient as they come, and we have this young lady who is a projected master of the veena. It's rare to be able to hear this instrument in this part of the world. India is such a male-dominated society it's great to see a woman playing this ancient instrument.

On the other side of the coin K. Rajagopalan is playing a Western instrument the violin, but in an Indian way. So to see an ancient instrument like the veena - which is considered the instrument of the gods, and the violin meeting each other and interacting as if they belong together is such an amazing thing. We are different, yet we are same. This music no matter where we are, or who plays it - it says the same thing.

We'll be playing North and South Indian music. I belong to the Northern tradition and they belong to the Southern tradition. We'll explore with each other's musical languages and find our way through.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.