In my thirty-odd years as a lover of all kinds of music, I have seen Zakir Hussain perform live four times: twice with Remember Shakti, and twice with Masters of Percussion. On every occasion, the California-based tabla titan has astounded me with the depth and breadth of his musical intelligence: not only his fine attention to detail and his willingness to be a supportive accompanist, nor his wide-ranging curiosity and generosity with international collaborators such as John McLaughlin and fancy-pants Steve Smith, nor his exuberance and pedagogical approach to performance (sometimes giving mini-lessons mid-concert).
What really stayed with me was that Hussain, one of the world’s most renowned musicians, was always trying something new, whether it was some advanced technique or a unique instrument. And of course the global collaborations and conversations continue, most recently with a bunch of my own kin.
At this Sunday’s concert at First Congregational Church in downtown Portland, Hussain performs Hindustani classical music with bansuri master Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew of the world-famous bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia, with whom Hussain has been playing for decades. Like Hussain, Rakesh has augmented his pursuit of classical excellence with a modern musician’s taste for cross-cultural collaboration. He has recorded with Greek composer Alexandros Hahalis (have a listen to “Firebird”) and a ton of Indian musicians, and even has his own fusion group, Rakesh and Friends (have a listen to their 2013 debut, with its Yes-like closer in seven). His classical playing is, of course, impeccable.
In a phone interview with Hussain and email exchange with Chaurasia, we discussed how they plan a performance, how newcomers might best approach listening to Indian music, and how a concert is really a conversation.
Spontaneity and Planning
Although performances of Indian classical music are largely improvised, they are supported, constrained, and focused by rules and traditions governing things like the character of an individual raga, the narrative drive of a rhythmic variation, or the immediacy of a bit of folk song.
Rakesh Chaurasia: “We actually try to gauge the audience we’re playing for and then shortlist on a few ragas we could possibly play depending on the time of the performance as well. Each slot of the day has famous ragas which suit that timing. We definitely discuss a bit with our tabla player or other artists that will collaborate, as the scales should match, so it’s a bit of a warm up before we go on stage.”
Zakir Hussain: “If you are ever to arrive in a dressing room before an Indian classical concert you’ll see them sitting around, tuning instruments, mostly talking about normal things, did you see that movie, how about that traffic. It becomes a natural conversation and a relaxed interaction to gauge what sort of mood the other one is in.
“When you walk on stage you haven’t talked about the music but you’ve gauged the mood of the musicians who will be on stage. But then instead of words being exchanged it becomes notes and rhythms exchanged, and it goes onto a different level and the conversation continues.”
Concert as Conversation
ZH: “Playing with someone like Rakesh, even though he is younger I am the drummer so he will lead and I will follow; he’ll start with a raga and indicate the rhythmic cycle he’s interested in. Having already learned what mood the other is in, the music reflects that. We’ll have a happy conversation, a serious conversation, a moody or edgy conversation based on what has transpired in the dressing room. Those conversations are already right there in front of him for him to open up a line of thought.
“For me on the other hand, having played with his uncle for a long time, when he opens up a conversation with me, it’s the same. But I am the elder musician on stage, and I have the right to move the conversation ever so slightly in the direction I think it should go. That sort of freedom is something I am being given out of respect for me as the elder on the stage.
“In the opening portion of conversation, he’s just setting up the mood. When someone like Rakesh initiates an alap [a long, slow exposition of the raga, an unmetered melodic exploration that opens many Indian classical performances], it may be that something may trigger a new possibility, a sequence of notes, a different direction from the dressing room. And I can then judge and anticipate, when I come into the scheme of things, where I might be in this conversation.
“Many times with great masters, they start their alap and something happens and they go to a different raga. They arrived at a point which was a crossroads and heard something that compelled them to go to the right instead of the left and went into a different mood. Maybe they just wanted the conversation to be more relaxed and went another way. And that has happened with me many times.
“It’s very important when a tabla player is listening to the alap to listen to how the raga is being put together: that is the key or the cue to what the music will blossom into. You take a rose, which is a single bud, and you put it into a glass and it blossoms and a universe appears. A painting begins with a dot on a canvas. A line is a continuation of a point. You open a faucet, a flow becomes a stream becomes a river becomes a sea. Indian classical music allows us the freedom to take the music in a spontaneous manner into the different worlds which are right there in front of us, and pick and choose what the experience will be. There is something different in every presentation. Like the Mona Lisa, you will see different contours at every viewing.”
Contemporary Fusion Music
Chaurasia’s fusion group, which he described as “a project very close to my heart,” consists of professional Indian musicians, all established on their instruments and active in the classical and film worlds.
RC: “The whole idea was to reach the masses with a contemporary sound but keep the Indian classical music alive—with classical music you have to follow certain traditional ways, but with fusion you can play around with the sound, keeping the base as classical ragas.”
ZH: “I might actually do that in Portland! Thanks for reminding me! When I’m with classical musicians I would not introduce any of these contemporary sounds, I just bring my tabla and play my tabla set, out of reverence and respect to the tradition and their standing in the world of music. I’m there to do their bidding.
“But with Rakesh or other younger players, I would call them and say, ‘Hey, you want to try something different, should I bring different tones and sounds?’ Not in the traditional ragas but in the lighter side of things in the evening. Once you introduce a sound, it takes you into a particular mood, thought, idea, emotion, and the melodic and rhythmic ideas take on that character.
“I carry tonal sounds with me to a gathering of musicians which I am pretty certain no one else has. I will bring instruments I can put into play which are a sonic experience that identifies what I’m doing and gives the audience different experiences when they can see what I am doing.
“It’s the same in jazz. When I first played with Herbie Hancock, I only played my tabla, and on one of the plane rides Herbie said ‘I heard you’ve got these other things, why didn’t you bring them?’—‘I didn’t think I could, you’re the master, I do your bidding.’—‘Nah, bring em!’ So on the next tour I brought them, a sound world of a whole different variety, a totally different conversation. I don’t want to push, I just want to have it in case I need it. But I would never want to double up.
Artistic Growth and Collaboration
RC: “I have had the privilege and honour to learn from my guru Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, who is a perfectionist. He has devoted his whole life to practice and music. He says the key to any success is riyaaz, so how many hours you do is never enough. So every morning when I wake up I sit for my riyaaz and as time permits between our travels I try as much as I can do, even sitting in a hotel room. He has inspired us so much but no one can beat his hours of riyaaz even today.
“God has been kind and I’ve done and experienced the intricacies of each genre. Now my focus is how I can better myself in each of them and keep coming up with something unique and different so that our music spreads more and more.”
ZH: “One thing I’ve come to understand during my long association with so many different musicians, great masters, is if you have a good relationship with each other as friends and colleagues and it goes through many shades—your families know each other, you know each other’s kids—you have to become good friends, connected in many ways to make music that can be comfortably created on the stage. It’s very important that you know each other inside and out to be able to do that. That’s one reason I’ve worked with some musicians for 40 years, John McLaughlin, Mickey Hart, Shivkumar [Sharma], Hariprasad, and so on. And the conversation keeps getting more relaxed and wondrous in the way that having known each other so much we know what we want to talk about and where we want to go and how to express what each of us is feeling.
“When I’m learning with someone new, they’re hearing me play from their point of view. So my patterns and riffs are in places where I look at them differently. When someone new is reacting to my music in a certain way, it shows new corners I haven’t heard before. So that brings me closer to my music and helps me look at it in a different light, which helps me grow a little more, expand my portfolio. Giovanni [Hidalgo] was a revelation, the great conguero … was playing congas as if it were a set of tabla. There was a whole different way of playing congas which I never thought possible. So it’s all been a great learning experience.”
Advice for Indian Music Newbies
ZH: “Listening is one aspect, but watching the musicians is very important. When you see the body language of an artist it gives you an insight into what might transpire, if you watch closely. Like in a conversation, people are talking to each other, someone will look up into the sky, those ‘what is this guy saying’ gestures tell you what’s going on.
“That’s why it’s very important for an apprentice to go to as many concerts as possible, or sit in the wings and watch, especially with improvised music. You watch the eye contact, the nods, leaning in and stressing a certain chord or beat, calling attention to what needs to happen. Those are body language scenarios that one must focus on. If you just close your eyes and listen to the music you’ll have one experience, but if you watch the musicians and see how they play, it becomes an audio-visual experience that draws your attention to the source where the music is made, a shape and a form which the audience is finally looking at.”
RC: “There’s no manual that teaches you this music. I think the main thing for such audiences is to keep coming to live performances to get a feel of it. The music has to connect to your mind, body, and soul. There are a lot of people who come to classical concerts for the first time but get hooked onto it. That’s because the music has connected with your soul. A lot of people meditate or do yoga listening to instrumental music; that’s because it gives you peace, you feel relaxed, the sound is soothing and appealing. So the basic point is: music is interlinked with our chakras so somewhere it will appeal to you.”
Ustad Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia perform at 6 p.m. this Sunday, March 11, at downtown Portland’s First Congregational Church on SW Park and Eleventh. Tickets and information are available at https://www.kalakendra.org/events/zakir-hussain-and-rakesh-chaurasia/.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.