Longtime Washington Performing Arts audience favorite Zakir Hussain is the “indisputable tabla maestro”: an artist who has not only taken his instrument to its limits within its original discipline, Indian classical music, but who has vastly expanded the presence of both his instrument and musical heritage within other genres—including jazz, rock, and Irish and American folk music.
Leading the newest edition of his long-running, biannual “Masters of Percussion” ensemble, Hussain is joined by fellow drum virtuosos representing multiple cultures, traditions, and instruments: Iranian-born percussionist Pezhham Akhavass, performing on tombak and daf; Multi-Grammy-winning American jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore; and Anantha Krishnan, a percussionist raised in America and residing in India, on mridangam. In a pre-recorded, offsite guest appearance, the percussionists are also joined by Indian musician Sabir Khan, a master of the sarangi, a traditional stringed instrument. You can watch this incredible performance from the comfort of your home for $25.
In an exclusive chat with India Currents magazine, the legend, Zakir Hussain tells us more:
How different is your experience as a percussion artist in a virtual Livestream show without the live audience?
ZH: I do miss plugging into the audience’s reaction as an inspiration source. It would be true for all musicians. However, not having the audience in person challenges me to focus more on detail and on the musical statement I want to make. The responsibility is squarely on my shoulders and the message is mine alone. This requires a different mindset which, of course, is the most challenging hurdle to get over.
Your performance was originally titled “The Story of the Tabla” and has now evolved to “Masters of Percussion”. Can you tell us more about the origin story of your production?
ZH: Originally, “The story of Tabla” was a much bigger production involving many more artists. What we are presenting here is only one aspect of Tabla’s story. Tabla is one of the youngest classical Indian instruments, but it has already made significant strides as a world instrument. This particular show focuses on how the Tabla repertoire influenced other drumming traditions and how certain drumming countries appear to have similar techniques on their drums. For example, the mridangam is adopting Tabla compositions and transposing the hand technique effortlessly. The Jazz drum and the Iranian Tombak or Daf do something similar as well. It is an interesting coincidence when the Indian bowed instrument sarangi enters the fray and how all the drums on stage easily lock in with the folk melodies of Rajsthan. Honestly, there are no borders.
Tabla is an instrument going through an evolution. What do you think is the most significant trend in the upcoming decade for Tabla?
ZH: As time marches on, Tabla still being a young entrant has the flexibility to expand its panorama. The technique applied on Tabla allows for it to be a part of any musical conversation: Jazz, Rap, Hip hop, Folk, Electronica, Classical, or any other form of music expression yet to be discovered. There are miles to go…
Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps.
Ragas Live Festival has grown to become a vital element in the cultural landscape of New York City. Since its inception in 2012 when 50 musicians volunteered to create an FM-Broadcast at WKCR 89.9 FM-NY with the theme of “Community, Unity, and Harmony,” the festival has expanded to become a popular live event at locations including The Rubin Museum of Art and for the last few years, Pioneer Works. As the initial broadcast blossomed into an annual event, it attracted global attention, expanded the audience of Indian music, and documented and catalyzed what the New York Times would declare a “A Raga Renaissance Flowering in Brooklyn.” Now, Ragas Live has transformed that renaissance into one of the live music industry’s rare COVID-era success stories, managing to bring together over 90 musicians, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the mountains of Kathmandu, to perform remotely from 13 global cities in a celebration of ‘Community, Unity, and Harmony’.
There’ll be cutting edge cross-cultural performances: Terry Rileywill be performing raga based improvisations from Japan preceded by Brooklyn Raga Massive who will be premiering a 24 person performance of In D their homage to Riley. Amir ElSaffar will be collaborating with the Brooklyn Raga Massive as well with Raga Maqam a 14 piece ensemble that explores the intersections between maqam, the tonal language of Arab, Turkish, and Persian traditional music, and raga, the classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Andy Statman, the legend of klezmer and bluegrass will be exploring both Jewish doinas and ragas from the 200-year-old synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. Zakir Hussain will perform a tabla solo from San Francisco, Toumani Diabate will perform kora from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo will perform in El Clavo, Venezuela.
Founder and Executive Producer of Ragas Live Festival, David Ellenbogen says, “This has always been a festival with a pan-global vision. This year that dream is fully being realized. We’ll have artists and listeners from every continent. We reached out to many of our heroes and to our astonishment, they all said yes. These are the people that have changed the history of music. The artists felt a kinship with our idealistic vision and we are all working together to make it happen. We’ll have both artists and audiences all around the world: it will be 24 hours of global resonance.” Says the festival’s Artistic Director Arun Ramamurthy, “These legendary musicians are the torchbearers of their traditions who have brought their music forward. To have them all participating is so inspiring.” “I love Indian music, I love Indian culture, I’m doing this because I think it’s a beautiful idea and I want to share life and music,” says Toumani Diabate, the legendary Kora player, who will perform a set from Côte d’Ivoire.
The entire event will be available free on November 21-22nd from 7pm-7pm to all as a video livestream at www.pioneerworks.org/broadcast and on broadcast as audio on WKCR-FM 89.9 FM.
The weather in Central Maharashtra, said Jim Nadel, Artistic Director and Founder of Stanford Jazz Workshop, was about the same as outside, in Palo Alto, California. This seemed a fitting setting for the Indian Jazz Journey on June 23rd, and attendees were welcomed with a cooling mango beverage and a hand-held fan.
Several fans were to be found in the human form as well. Deepa Nagpal of Los Altos said she had come to hear Mahesh Kale. (Hear the conversation below:)
I glanced at some of the handouts to find out more about the musicians. It was, as promised, “a special moment to witness the creation of incredible new music as jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and Indian classical music superstar Mahesh Kale collaborated in this special event with saxophonist George Brooks and tabla master Subhankar Banerjee.
Vocalist Mahesh Kale’s career accelerated exponentially in 2015 when he won the best playback singer award at the 63rd National Film Awards for his work in the epic musical Katyar Kaljat Ghusli. The film scored an unlikely honor for a regional art form far outside Bollywood’s mainstream Hindi-language fare, helping spark a revival. “Youngsters have taken a liking,” Kale says. “They have these songs on their play list next to Adele, and when youngsters connect to an art it gives a lifeline for 50 to 60 years.”
George Brooks has long served as a bridge between the American jazz scene and India’s greatest classical musicians, a role the Berkeley saxophonist has embraced in organizing a series of unprecedented East/West encounters for the Stanford Jazz Festival.
Kale and Brooks have been collaborating for several years, but making his first trip with this cross-cultural collaboration was storied jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, whose two-handed tapping technique radically expanded the instrument’s possibilities. He burst on the scene in 1985 with his debut for the Blue Note label, Magic Touch, which spent a year on top of the jazz charts.
Tabla maestro Subhankar Banerjee rounded out the ensemble, adding another virtuosic voice to the proceedings. Banerjee has toured with many of India’s greatest musicians, including Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and Shiv Kumar Sharma. He’s also collaborated with guitarist John McLaughlin, a founding father of the Indo-jazz movement as a co-founder of the 1970’s ensemble Shakti.”
On Sunday, Dinkelspiel Auditorium was full to capacity. The audience applauded the musicians in turn. Several jugal-bandi improvisations added to the playfulness of the concert, with Stanley Jordan climbing aloft a stool at one point to strike a pose with George Brooks. All hands were on deck for this riff on So What by Miles Davis.
But the audience was clearly the most enchanted when Mahesh Kale displayed the vocal range that is the legacy of his classical training. Hear Mahesh Kale’s beautiful voice as he sings Chadaria by Kabir at Stanford Jazz 2019:
As part of the workshop, and in keeping with the oral tradition of music, the audience was encouraged to repeat musical notes, but the result, Kale stated with radical candor, was “quite terrible.”
After meeting with the long queue of admirers and well-wishers, Mahesh Kale spoke to me about how diverse music forms might not be part of the repertoire, but somewhere reverberate with the inner self. Music is a great equalizer, he says, and while high tech brings wonderful things, music serves as a balancing force for Silicon Valley stress. (He is an engineer by training,)
George Brooks characterized the concert as a cross-pollination and wanted to distance himself from the notion of fusion music and said he considered this more of a conversation between artists and a way to develop relationships between artists.
The audience protested when the musicians announced that it was time to wind down. And as the concert ended, the third such collaboration, and the audience filed out, several members of the audience were humming the tunes they had heard.
Perhaps Mahesh Kale was on to something. Despite living in Silicon Valley, no one looked particularly stressed.
Cover image: Mahesh Kale, voice; Stanley Jordan, guitar; George Brooks, saxophone; Subhankar Banerjee, tabla.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents magazine. She feels fortunate to be able to attend ICMA (Indian Classical Music and Arts) and other classical music concerts close to home.
Be in on the creation of incredible new music as jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and Indian classical music superstar Mahesh Kale collaborate in this special event with saxophonist George Brooks and tabla master Subhankar Banerjee.
George Brooks has long served as a bridge between the American jazz scene and India’s greatest classical musicians, a role the Berkeley saxophonist has embraced in organizing a series of unprecedented East/West encounters for the Stanford Jazz Festival. Vocalist Mahesh Kale’s career accelerated exponentially in 2015 when he won the best playback singer award at the 63rd National Film Awards for his work in the epic musical Katyar Kaljat Ghusli. The film scored an unlikely honor for a regional art form far outside Bollywood’s mainstream Hindi-language fare, helping spark a revival. “Youngsters have taken a liking,” Kale says. “They have these songs on their play list next to Adele, and when youngsters connect to an art it gives a lifeline for 50 to 60 years.”
Kale and Brooks have been collaborating for several years, but making his first trip with this cross-cultural collaboration is storied jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, whose two-handed tapping technique radically expanded the instrument’s possibilities. He burst on the scene in 1985 with his debut for the Blue Note label, Magic Touch, spent a year on top of the jazz charts.
Tabla maestro Subhankar Banerjee rounds out the ensemble, adding another virtuosic voice to the proceedings. Banerjee has toured with many of India’s greatest musicians, including Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and Shiv Kumar Sharma. He’s also collaborated with guitarist John McLaughlin, a founding father of the Indo-jazz movement as a co-founder of the 1970’s ensemble Shakti.
You’ve read about the Festival of Tabla coming up, now let’s learn about the person who made the festival happen. A personal journey shared with India Current’s Heritage Arts Initiative.
Meet Rupesh Kotecha, a music enthusiast, student, teacher, compassionate listener and avid follower of the Pandits and Ustads who bear an enormous influence on his life. His love for Taal led to the Festival of Tablataking place in LA on 28th and 29th July 2018.
“My passion for Tabla started at a very young age when I was ten years old, living in Leicestershire England, with much impact of cultural activities around us. As a curious learner, I would take pots and pans to make interesting sounds. Well, interesting to my ears anyway, not sure about how it appealed to my families’ ears! I would pound away on them to make unknown rhythmic sounds, which made sense to me.
My parents recognized the tapping on the “dabbas and dubris,” (kitchenware) was more than mischief. They, in fact, saw the internalized pattern coming from my mind which soothed my curiosities. Just before we moved to the USA, my father purchased my first set of Tablas in 1980 when I was 14 years old. At the same time, I convinced my dad to buy me a record featuring Ustad Thirakwa Khan and Ustad Amir Hussain Khan (unaware of who they were).
Rhythms of India became a part of my daily routine, I would repeatedly listen to the record, absorb the intricacies and I then, I tried to reproduce the same sound on my tabla. It remains, to this day, one of my most favorite albums. The Gurus I found later in life were all from the same Farrukhabad tradition, and my Gurus taught me the compositions which I had heard on the very same album. I met my first Guru, Saleem Hai, in 1981 when I was 15, at the time he was learning with Pandit Taranath Rao.
I met Pt.Taranath Rao at Shreemati Anjani Ambegaokar’s kathak dance recital where Zakir ji was playing. Immediately after the concert, I asked Zakir ji if he would teach me tabla. When I said I lived in Southern California, he pointed to the harmonium player and told me ‘learn from Panditji, he is the best teacher you will ever find.’ I turned to his reference being none other than the great Pandit Taranath Rao. I immediately went to Panditji in the green room, bowed to him and asked to learn from him; he said ‘Shaabash…when can you come?’ My journey began and led to eight years of training under Taranthji . I experienced the true Guru Shishya Parampara with his care, kindness, acceptance and unconditional offering of knowledge.
When Taranathji departed this world in 1991, my heart was broken, but I needed to stay connected so, I reached out to his nephew, Pandit Ravi Bellare. I studied closely with Raviji until 2006. This second phase of my Talim was a journey into the depths of all instrumental, tabla, poetry, age-old compositions, visual art and creative thinking. He was a master of north and south traditions.
With Raviji’s passing I continued my lessons with his twin brother Shashi ji. This was another unique learning curve as Shashi ji’s playing was more spontaneous in nature. His style merged gharanas; Farukhabad, Dehli, Ajrada and Banaras, with a strong influence from Pandit Kishan Maharaj Ji. I learned new compositions and learned to relax and play with spontaneity to harness my own creative output.
Training under twin brothers was remarkable because they had different playing personalities and styles of teaching. Over the years, I’ve learned some fine compositions and I have collected a treasure trove of Shloka Parans which were taught to me by Ravi Ji. One will rarely ever hear tabla artists recite the poetry and then play the chalan that flows with the poetry/shloka. I was very fortunate for such a guide.
Currently, I am learning the intricacies of the Banaras Gharana with the wonderful Guru Pandit Shashanka Bakshi. The style is different from what I am used to, but it has helped me see differences in each Gharana and appreciate the nuances of accompaniment.
From the Joy of Learning to the Joy of Giving……
After years of learning and experiencing the growth processes involved in gaining Talim alongside variable life situations and with different Gurus, I felt inspired to champion a friendly platform as a sacred gathering place, the Festival of Tabla.
What Drives You?
Driven by love! Love for music, learning, knowledge and the future generation. I do this because nobody did it for me. In the many years of learning tabla, I can’t recall ever being invited to present a solo in front of hundreds of receptive people except at my Deeksha ceremony with my Guru. My wife and I feel we have a mission that was given to us by my Gurus. I suppose in some ways I am fulfilling a personal void and that’s why I feel precious about what we have established. It’s special, very special. When I see the young students play here, the festival’s purpose is reaffirmed.
All the ‘whys’ are answered when Gurus show their support and young people show their excitement for the discerning opportunity. My wife Mona, and I recognize the need to move forward without resisting the call to grow. We are proud to say our platform is hospitable, warm and encouraging in its truest sense aligned for our art forms.’
How does your family feel about your compelling passion?
My family is very supportive, and my sons have also taken leadership roles. Friends, community and sponsors see the value in this platform. They see my faith in our music and culture to launch the unique Festival of Tabla in the USA.’
What are your key aims and what is the impact of your activities?
The organization and festival platform aims to continue the tradition of imparting knowledge of the Indian classical arts, specifically Taal Vidya. We aspire to influence and play a significant role in the purists of the next generation. Our activities include informative Baithaks, archiving of educational material in the form of print, audio and video, providing a safe, non-judgmental space for young students who show promise of the Talim mindset for the upkeep of parampara. We interlace the relationship of visual, dance, sound and word. This illustrates the complete picture of how interconnected heritage art forms apply to our lives and support vital relationships, which act as catalysts and allow creative, critical, courageous and elevated thinking.’
What are the key takeaways you wish for the younger participants?
I want the youngsters to understand how important their contribution to learning is. I want to help young people feel valued, appreciated for their commitment, individuality and love of learning to learn. They need to be given a sense of belonging in the correct environment and be safeguarded from the diversions of precarious platforms which may interpret the philosophies of Talim as a form of entertainment. It is very rare for anyone, especially a young tabla player to be presented an opportunity to perform a tabla solo in front of a learned, knowledgeable, receptive and blessing audience. They should take full pride in this moment and practice diligently. I told all the participants to have a 40-day chilla!
How did this become a family project?
One day I came up with the idea to arrange a Festival of Tabla in memory of my Gurus! It was like the idea had possessed me! Mona and I started unveiling resources and before long, I was arranging logistics and musicians. Our son created a beautiful poster, which immediately brought the Festival alive. Passion speaks louder than any language, well, besides bol paranth!! The entire family just went along with the wave, not knowing if people would even show up. As nerves set in, prayers to Lord Ganesha and Sathya Sai Baba became higher in frequency! Well, our prayers are heard, and with the blessings of all our Gurus, the intention and need for such a platform has manifested with growing support.
Stay with the beat and follow the festival with us!