Zakir Hussain talks tradition and technology

The tabla maestro opens new doors of musical possibilities

Zakir Hussain is one of the most prominent composers, percussionists, and tabla maestros of Indian classical music. He's spent more than half a century mastering the musical traditions of his North Indian homeland, and performing for audiences around the world. On his current tour, Hussain, 65, joins a team of young musicians, dubbed the Masters of Percussion, delivering a performance that explores what happens when hundreds of years of isolated musical traditions collide with influences from around the world.

You're returning to Atlanta.

I had one of the best moments of my life in Atlanta. It was the '96 Olympics. Mickey Hart and I did music for part of the opening. On the first day, I was allowed to walk through the center of the stadium: To have that many people looking at you, the whole world watching, what an electrifying moment. Then I was taken to a room with Mr. Bill Clinton. Then I found out that Mr. Muhammad Ali was lighting the flame. I got to stand next to him. It was what they call a going-to-heaven-and-seeing-God moment. I couldn't have envisioned being in India as a wee lad of 14 years old, starting my professional career, and to think I would end up there. The whole world was speculating about who would light the flame, and I was party to it.

Atlanta has also been a great place to perform. The intimacy of the Rialto and the passion of the audience has been intoxicating. I look forward to returning, but I'm going to be bushed. We have something like five concerts in a row, and Atlanta is the last of them. My old bones will be creaking, but hopefully the audience will carry me through.

You'll be a well-oiled machine by the time you get here.

That or my hands will be swollen from pounding away. You're probably right, though. I'm going to be warmed up enough to pull off a good one.

You're touring with percussionists you've personally selected?

Yes. This is the "Masters of Percussion Tour," although none of us consider ourselves masters. We're all students, learning every day. Just like George Harrison or John Coltrane in the prime of their career seeking out Ravi Shankar to learn more. Or like the Grateful Dead and Mickey Hart coming to my father Ustad Allarakha. Masters want to expand their vision of creativity.

Since 1996, I have taken it upon myself, because of my father's wishes, to bring rarely heard drumming traditions of India to America, Canada, Europe, or anywhere. These masters, who rarely get a chance to go out and show how great they are, get a platform to show who they are. Slowly, they're making way for younger students. So the Masters of Percussion are younger musicians representing different traditions of drumming from different regions of India. I've spent the last five to six months in India touring with them, individually and collectively, trying to get them on the same wavelength. ... It's somewhat like a bird's-eye view of India through its rhythm and melodies.

Do you learn from the students as much as they learn from you?

Absolutely. Younger musicians of today have a different outlook in terms of expression, melody, and rhythm. They've grown up influenced by music from around the world. When I was growing up there was no computer, no Internet, no Facebook, no YouTube. It took me a long time to work my way through so many different genres of music and musical thinking. These young punks have all of this available to them. So they are learning their tradition and a global way of looking at rhythms or music as side-by-side. Their outlook is more spontaneous and comfortable. Their relaxed interactions show me a different way of looking at rhythm and finding nooks and corners in my playing which can be polished and made better.

Do you ever feel envious of younger musicians who have so much at their fingertips?

Yes, I want to kill them. I'm envious, but I'm happy that they are here in my lifetime, so that I have a chance to improve. Suddenly you see someone playing a tabla in a whole new way and a spark hits you. Or playing with musicians that you've never played with before, and seeing your style in their eyes, shows you there are more ways of doing things.

Indian classical music is often perceived as being in its own lane.

Just like Western classical music. But that never stopped people like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or Terry Riley from seeing it in different ways. They all have drawn upon classical traditions. So have the young musicians of India. It stayed in its own lane for so long because it was isolated for so many hundreds of years. Now that it's opened up, who knows what will happen.

You mention Glass, Reich, and Riley. What is their relation to Indian music?

The father of minimalism is Terry Riley. His piece “In C” is one of the groundbreaking pieces of minimalist music. He's the one who got Philip Glass and La Monte Young interested in this art form. His idea was to work one sound and one tone and show so many different shades of it. LaMonte Young and Terry Riley both studied with the same Indian vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath. So they plugged into the same source. Therefore their thinking is very similar. They all interacted with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, and invited some of those musical sensibilities into their writing. It was an interesting move on their part to show this harmonic connection between Western classical music and Indian music, which we don't often regard as music with harmony and counterpoint. They all showed that each note has so many shades that it could qualify that those microtones are harmonically inclined.

Now, musicians playing Indian classical music do state a sympathetic note that is heard or suggested by one note to its harmonic overtones into the raga progression. That kind of thinking has come in due to people like Terry and Steve and La Monte and Philip.