A legend, an innovator, a prodigy—these are words used repeatedly to describe tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. But when he greets me at his office in Marin County on a recent afternoon, he is warm, hospitable (he has an assortment of juices and cookies ready for our interview), and unpredictably humble. He begins with a tour of the second-floor office housed in a San Anselmo park—“I practice in this room;” “Those are pictures of my father and my sister;” “Look at the amazing view from this balcony”—and talks to me with the ease and familiarity of a social meeting.
Though Hussain quickly rebuffs the sentiment, many in the music world consider him the most exceptional percussionist worldwide. His credits are long: co-composing the music for the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony; composing soundtracks for the movies In Custody, The Mystic Masseur, Little Buddha, and Saaz, along with others; and being named the best world music percussionist by readers’ polls in Modern Drummer and Drum! magazines. But what has probably been most influential about Hussain’s work is his openness to experimental projects that create sounds never before heard. His 1991 Planet Drum recording won the first-ever Grammy for “Best World Music Album,” (he won the Grammy for “Best Contemporary World Music Album” for Global Drum Project this year), though Hussain’s roots in groundbreaking compositions go back decades. In the mid-1970s, he began the fusion percussion ensemble the Diga Rhythm Band along with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead (who also co-produced Planet Drum), and the acclaimed Indian-jazz fusion band Shakti with John McLaughlin and L. Shankar.
“At that time,” Hussain says, “there was no fusion music, no new age. The record company said, ‘What should we call this?’ They needed to know which bin to put it under.” And so were born new terms to describe music: “fusion” and “world.”
In addition, Hussain has collaborated with Yo Yo Ma, George Harrison, the Kodo drummer of Japan, Van Morrison, Giovanni Hidalgo, and countless others, and he has been the recipient of many awards, including the Padma Bhushan(2002) and Padma Shri (1988) given by the Indian government.
Though he’s been playing virtually his whole life, Hussain says the initial enthusiasm has not died and that he still has the need to run to the tabla every so often. “Like this morning, I was sitting in my kitchen having a cup of coffee and I suddenly had this urge to put the coffee down, go up into the room and play. And I only played for five minutes, but it was like just going to make sure it’s there.”
As a musician, do you wish only to entertain or is there also another focus to your work?
The entertainment value is one of the aspects to my work, but it wasn’t the original goal. The joy of playing and sharing music has always been paramount. I love what I do and I think what I do loves me. It’s the most incredible toy anyone could have.
This way of life, for lack of a better word, also allows you to be a good student. You learn a lot every day—you travel, you see people, you play with different musicians, and you find out new things. It’s very exciting. By playing with so many different people, you learn not just about their music, but you learn about your music.
But still, I never got into it with any of these reasons. I got into it because I wanted to connect with my god, who was my father, Ustad Allarakha. I always cherished him, and he was the whole panorama—he just filled my whole vision. So in order to get his attention and his smile, I learned tabla.
How old were you when your father started teaching you tabla?
Four or five, something like that. I was already playing when I was seven.
In any case, that’s how it initially started. But somehow I found myself running to it. Anytime I was free, I would run to the tabla, and so I found myself in love and have never fallen out of love since.
It’s an amazing thing—I used to watch my father playing a concert at 75 years old and suddenly the years would drop off him and he’d become young again. His smile would appear and he would be beaming and looking like a little kid on the ride of his life. And I used to think to myself, I hope I still love it that much when I get to be 50. And I find that it’s, touch wood (knocks on the desk), true. It’s something that inspires me, teaches me, helps me grow, keeps me in shape, heals me, and has brought me great joy and a certain amount of luxury, which I guess is the silver lining of it all. But if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t matter.
There have been several different aspects to your career—composing your music, film scores, recording, playing live, teaching, creating a new type of music later called “world music.” What has been the most rewarding for you?
Well, the learning is the most rewarding. I arrived into the world of music on the cusp of a change. Suddenly the world was shrinking. At that time, I left India and arrived in the part of the world that was turning and looking at other things in the world. The West had been focusing on its own—and gloating on its own. And it suddenly realized that there’s other stuff out there that was quite exciting. So that allowed me the opportunity to be a part of a global learning process. I was no more just in India learning just about Indian music—I was everywhere else in the world, together with other artists in the world, learning, being part of these great experiments.
People say that I am one of the architects of this global look at music. I just feel that I am one of the accidentally willing participants. I just happened to be here. I didn’t initiate it. The idea was already in place. People like George Harrison, Peter Gabriel, and Yehudi Menuhin were already looking at India, and I just happened to be in their sight line, and therefore asked to help put things in perspective. So I find that I was a part of a couple projects that set the tone of what world music would be like.
One project was Diga, which was the world’s first fusion percussion orchestra. I composed and wrote the music along with Mickey Hart in 1974. And within a year of that, I also co-composed and wrote music for an Indian-jazz combination called Shakti. So these two groups kind of laid the foundation of interaction between musicians of different traditions.
That’s what I see as the difference. You mentioned George Harrison and some others, but that was just them mimicking …
… That was just using the sounds that came from India, but what Shakti and Diga did was actually create opportunities for the musicians to spontaneously interact, which is different than just sampling a sound or telling a sitar player what you want played just for the sound of it. Our projects weren’t like that. We said, “Okay, let’s play together and see what we come up with.” So Shakti and Diga were two bands which installed the idea of free-form interaction between different traditions, and that set the tone.
So tell me about this new tour—what are you doing?
Well, it’s hard to say that I’m doing this for a cause, or I’m doing this just to bring music to the people. But what’s interesting to me in this day and age, where we are primarily becoming world music oriented—most people whether they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan, Iran, Australia, you name it, are looking at world music—it’s nice to be able to play a tour that promotes traditional music. That also has to be kept alive; that’s the source. So every other year I like to do what you’d call a traditional Indian music tour, which involves just two or three musicians who play classical music.
And so that’s what this tour is. It features Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who happens to be one of the greatest living instrumentalists of our time, and that’s no exaggeration.
We tend to only look at marquee names and think that’s it. We think Indian music: Ravi Shankar, and that’s it. Or Zakir Hussain’s tabla and that’s it. But that’s not true. I would say there are at least 15 very good if not better tabla players than me around right now. People have to understand that there’s more than one fish in the pond. Everyone should take a look at what else is around instead of just going to see the famous name.
Pandit Shivkumar Sharma is one of the great musicians, but he’s not as famous as Ravi Shankar because Ravi Shankar got the marquee, he got George Harrison, so everybody knows about him. My idea has always been to bring a musician who is really good and well-respected in India by the music fraternity and present him or her to the rest of the world, to make sure people understand there is more to Indian music than just one or two names.
Are you working on any future projects?
Yes, I do the classical tours every other year. In between is a percussion tour called the Masters of Percussion, which features rarely heard masters of drumming from remote corners of India. So I bring them here and give them the stage, and they have a great time. They play for audiences they’ve never seen nor heard of; they go to places which are wondrous to them. In return, I get to learn from them. There are around 200 percussive traditions in India, and I’ve only been able to showcase about eight or nine so far.
I’m busy. I’m doing music for ballets, I may do music for films, I’m doing music for symphonic orchestras that I’m being commissioned to do. There’s a lot on the plate. Now that I won the 2009 Grammy, there are more people calling, more projects. Once you’re in the news, everyone wants you. (laughs) And that’ll go on for about 10 minutes and then it’ll die away.
Anything else you would like to add?
Part of the reason I talk to the press is to try to install an idea in their mind that there is more to music than meets the eye. In other words, I’m not the be-it-all of music; there are others. So please, focus on bringing forward the younger generation of musicians. Give them visibility. Because that is the one way you can help us preserve our culture and make it prosperous. That’s the one plea I have.