India’s got rhythm
Santa Feans have the opportunity to be immersed in the music of India as Zakir Hussain brings his Masters of Percussion troupe to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, March 9. Hussain is arguably the best-known and most accomplished player of tabla, the common hand-drum of India. Like his late father, Ustad Allarakha (who was renowned for his work with Ravi Shankar), Hussain is an ambassador of his country’s traditional music but also blends in music from other traditions— he has collaborated with Western musicians including Mickey Hart, John McLaughlin, Yo-Yo Ma, Charles Lloyd, and Bela Fleck.
Hussain assembles the Masters of Percussion for a United States tour every two years. With him on the current tour are his usual tour partners, percussionist (and Hussain’s brother) Taufiq Qureshi; violinists Ganesh and Kumaresh (who are also brothers); and, from Rajasthan in the north of India, Sabir Khan, who plays the sarangi, a lutelike instrument that is played with a bow. The company also tours with a group of guest performers.
Pasatiempo: Where are you now? I’m calling on Skype, so I have
Zakir Hussain: I’m at home in Mumbai. Between November to February it’s usually the music season in India, so most musicians traveling all over the world return home for the winter, and there are 30 or 40 concerts in each city every week.
We don’t really have a spring; we go right into summer and it’s very hot, then it’s the monsoons and it rains too much and there’s kneedeep water everywhere, so for six months or so no one goes out much. Pasa: Tell us about your new guest percussionists this time. Hussain: We have Sridhar Parthasarathy, who’s a south Indian
mridangam [a two-headed drum] player, and he also plays kanjira [tambourine] and morsing, which is the Indian version of the jew’s harp. Then we have Navin Sharma, who plays dholak [another type of two-headed drum]. Then we have the Dhakis from the villages in the very farthest east of Bengal, and these are drummers who basically wear their drums, huge drums with feathers and all kinds of ornamental things. Pasa: The Motilal Dhakis dance as they play, right?
Hussain: Yeah, but these are different than the Manikur drummers who were on the last tour. These are much more raw, village drummers who have these things they play for weddings and processions and festival activities. This is their first trip out of India.
Pasa: The Masters of Percussion includes players from the Carnatic tradition from the south of India and also players such as Sabir Khan from the northern, Hindustani tradition. What does this collaboration mean, in terms of rhythm?
Hussain: We have a south Indian drummer and a central Indian folk drummer in the group. The thing is, when the south Indian melody players are playing, the drummer has a chance to play the repertoire that they use to accompany these musicians, so we are able to utilize that. And then the folk melodic structures are brought forth by the violinists from south India, for example the snake melody, which is very commonly played in the villages to honor the Lord Shiva, who is shown in the statues with the king cobra as one of his ornaments. Pasa: What does the cobra symbolize?
Hussain: Lord Shiva is shown in different incarnations, different garbs. One of his reincarnations is that he wears ashes and he’s very dirty, with snakes all around him. This is supposed to represent one of the nine moods. That mood is called bibhatsa, which means repulsive. What happened was that Lord Shiva was a very angry god and one time he chopped off one of three heads of Lord Brahma and the gods got together and sentenced him to a life on Earth. But they made him very repulsive-looking, and they were hoping he would live a life of isolation and be shunned by mankind. A god who’s not worshipped
and loved by mankind is one of the loneliest. That was his punishment, but Lord Shiva, even in that form, through his meditation and prajna [wisdom] and yoga, rose above all that and appeared to mankind in his actual true form, and he was worshipped.
So anyway, if the snake melody is played by Ganesh and Kumaresh, Sridhar Parthasarathy will bring out his kanjira or his jew’s harp and accompany him, or at least highlight that kind of folk drumming. Similarly, Sabir Khan will play Rajasthani folk melodies, which are based in the Sufi system and performed by Langhas and Manganiars [desert Muslim peoples from Rajasthan]. Navin Sharma, who plays the folk drums from that region, will be able to highlight that kind of drumming.
When Sridhar Parthasarathy plays the mridangam, which is the south Indian classical-tradition drum, that will allow Kumaresh and Ganesh to play the raga system of south India. And when I play north Indian classical rhythmic repertoire, Sabir will be able to accompany me with melodic structures. Pasa: Do you take turns, or do you all play together?
Hussain: We are taking turns, but there is also ensemble work, and everything flows seamlessly together. It’s like a bird’s-eye view of the different regions of India and the way of life and the kind of music the people of that land enjoy and use for worship.
Pasa: Is this sort of collaboration just for your U.S. tour, or is it also done in India?
Hussain: It’s starting to happen in India. For instance, it took me a year and a half to get the Dhakis to leave their village and come to Bombay. They were a little bit worried about leaving their place and going to a strange city, but now after two years they’ve played along with me in Delhi and Hyderabad and various other cities.
Pasa: And how important is improvisation, incorporating spontaneous ideas, in the music we will hear?
Hussain: Most of Indian drumming— there are over 200 different drumming traditions, and I’ve only been able to scratch the surface, showcasing maybe 12 traditions in four or five Masters of Percussion tours — but one of the basic requirements of Indian drumming tradition is to set a pattern and then develop it spontaneously. So improvising is very important. That’s one thing that we all have in common, improvising, so we can then explore rhythmic ideas and patterns, and, based on the folk or classical melodies that are laid out, we have a base on which we can improvise.
Knights of the round tabla: Zakir Hussain; opposite, percussionist (and Hussain’s brother) Taufiq Quereshi