The Mercury News
Hussain's Masters of Percussion back in Bay Area
Acclaimed tabla player has added new players, sounds, to the touring show
Across at least a dozen interviews spanning more than two decades, Zakir Hussain is nothing if not consistent.
In just about every conversation he's preparing to fly off to India or has just returned from India, or Europe or New York City. It seems that the era's preeminent tabla master spends an inordinate amount of time in the air, which has always led me to wonder about his ability to establish connections with so many other singular artists.
Last month, the day before he jetted off to Hyderabad, India, for a concert with bansuri maestro Rakesh Chaurasia, I caught up with Hussain to talk about the latest Masters of Percussion tour and finally realized how he seems to be in two places at once.
“It's Toni's fault,” he said, referring to his wife, Kathak dancer and creative catalyst Antonia Minnecola. “She's brought me so many great interactions, Alonzo King, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer.”
It was Minnecola who turned Hussain on to Melissa Hié, the first woman featured on his biennial Masters of Percussion production. Kicking off Friday at Tracy's Grand Theatre Center for the Arts, the 13date tour includes Saturday's sold-out Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall and Sunday's Kuumbwa Jazz Center presentation at Santa Cruz's Rio Theatre.
Following the trajectory that's distinguished Masters of Percussion since Hussain launched the project in 1996, this year's iteration expands the rhythmic conversation well beyond North and South Indian classical music. Hié hails from the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso, and when Minnecola came across a video clip of her performing with her sister, Ophelia Hié, “she immediately called me over to show me on her phone and my jaw dropped,” he said.
Hussain and Mickey Hart were in the midst of recording the first new Planet Drum project in years, and they quickly brought Melissa Hié into the fold. A master of the djembe, she's also an accomplished conga player, vocalist, dancer and tech-savvy producer who ended up contributing to last year's Planet Drum album “In the Groove.” She also joined the ensemble for several concerts, which turned out to be an audition for Masters of Percussion.
“She knows about rhythms and how to interact with the audience,” Hussain said. “She's a great singer and can play other instruments. She brings all these elements together that make rhythm sing.”
In many ways Masters of Percussion expands on a cross-cultural dialogue started by Hussain's legendary father, Ustad Allarakha, the tabla pioneer who introduced Hindustani classical music to Western audiences in the 1950s with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.
Representing India's multifarious folk traditions for Masters of Percussion, Navin Sharma is a rising force on dholak, a double-headed hand drum best known as a foundational instrument in both party music like bhangra and sacred settings like qawwali and kirtan. And holding down the melodic chair is Sabir Sultan Khan, a master of the sarangi who is the 10th generation in his family to play the bowed, short-neck Rajasthani instrument.
While Sharma and Khan fit neatly into the rubric established by past Masters of Percussion tours, Hussain is breaking new ground by enlisting Colombian percussionist Tupac Mantilla, the first South American musician to join the battery.
“Having Melissa and Tupac allow us to go in directions we haven't gone,” said Hussain, who can take credit for discovering Mantilla. They got to know each other when Hussain selected him for a two-week program at Carnegie Hall, which Mantilla went on to join as faculty.
“Over the years we kept in touch and I kept seeing him doing interesting things,” Hussain said. “He's someone I'm very familiar with, and he's very familiar with what I do. It's great to have a non-Indian percussionist who has a view of the room I live in. He becomes a bridge between me and Melissa, and it's up to me to bring Navin and Sabir along.”
Mantilla is probably best known to Bay Area audiences for his work with guitar star Julian Lage, with whom he's collaborated since the early 2000s. He's also participated in several International Body Music Festival events, which are produced by body music patriarch Keith Terry and his Oakland nonprofit Crosspulse.
Though he spends much of his time on the road, Mantilla is based in Hamburg, Germany. The Masters of Percussion tour marks his first U.S. appearances in three years. With Hussain's international commitments, no one is quite sure yet how the performances will unfold.
“We're having a party with all the percussion and I could go many different routes,” Mantilla said. “I do body percussion, but I'm thinking of going back to Julian and the guys when I played this hybrid percussion kit. I'm hoping it will blend with the djembe and dholak.”