After decades of spreading the rhythmic tremble of the Indian drum, tabla master Zakir Hussain has yet to tire from his global travels.
“India is one of the most ancient cultures in the world and it’s only in recent times that the world has taken notice of what India has to offer,” Hussain says. “It is important that people don’t just get a view of whatever is the marquee element of Indian culture. Bollywood they will see, but then it will stop at that if we don’t take the initiative to educate the rest of the world.”
It may be a cliché to say that Hussain needs no introduction, but the man with the unruly mop of hair and infectious smile has been been wowing audiences and critics alike since he burst upon the music scene at the impossibly young age of 12.
The eldest son of renowned musician Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain created his own identity as a master percussionist with his innovative compositions and international collaborations. He is the youngest percussionist to be awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan by the Indian goverment, in recognition of his talent and his remarkable achievemnts in bringing Indian classical music to the world. His success in popularizing an ancient Indian instrument and his rock star appeal is evident in the Grammy he won in 2009 for the album Global Drum Project, a collaboration with international artists Mickey Hart, Sikiru Adepoju, and Giovanni Hidalgo. Hussain’s oeuvre includes recordings with George Harrison, Yo Yo Ma, Billy Cobham, and many other artists as well as founding Moment! Records, which features collaborations in world music and live performances of Indian music.
In order to keep his connections to his roots in India, the international star spends a few months in India every year, touring extensively and identifying talent from the remote corners of the country.
These talented unknowns form a constantly evolving Masters of Percussion ensemble, which tours internationally, bringing fresh sounds and amazing creativity to multicultural audiences.
The first tour was in 1996, and it has been so successful that it has become a biennial event. “We have more than 200 traditions in India and most of that is not heard outside of India,” says Hussain. “I decided to put together a tour that would showcase these rarely heard drum masters from remote parts of India.
“I travel the length and breadth of India looking for rarely heard drumming traditions,” he adds. “When I find them I go to their villages and try to make contact and see if they’ll come to the city of Mumbai where I can work with them for a few months.”
This year the tour will stop at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and will feature Sabir Khan, from north India, Sridhar Parthasarathy, a south Indian drummer, Navin Sharma, from central India, and the Motilal Dhakis from the extreme eastern part of Bengal. The tour will also feature the superb violin duo of Ganesh and Kumaresh.
“These drummers are maintaining a tradition that as been there for hundreds of years,” says Hussain. “Drumming for festivals, drumming for weddings. They have a special repertoire that is passed on from generation to generation.”
Finding the musicians is not enough to warrant a tour, though. The sound of the music must come together too.
“I had a chance to go to Bengal about eight months ago. I ran across these amazing drummers and invited them to Mumbai. It turned out that they were just the kind of musicians that we were looking for. These guys seemed to fit into the ensemble the best,” he says.
Social interaction among the musicians helps create a healthy work environment and a great combination of sounds.
“If you don’t get along with each other then you’re not gonna make good music together,” says Hussain. “It’s important that there’s a connection on a heart-to-heart level.”
The chemistry between these skilled musicians creates an unforgettable tour reverberating with South Asian sounds. “It’s sort of a bird’s eye view journey through India by the drumming traditions that represent various regions of this country.”
Concert-goers might point to Hussain as the star of the tour, but he insists he’s only part of the picture.“Everybody knows me, but I think that people should understand that I’m just one little part of this group,” he says. “Every musician that’s coming on this tour and on any other tour that I’ve done is a master in his own right and is capable of holding a full concert on his own, but they’ve been kind enough to share the stage with other drummers and help me to bring this show to America.”