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Tuesday, January 31, 2006


This is a couple of weeks too late, though still in time to plug Ustad Zakir Hussain's upcoming concert in Singapore. It's just one show. It's happening at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sunday the 5th of Feb. The tickets as always are available through SISTIC. Rocking the show together with the King of Percussion will be Terry Bozzio, Giovanni Hidalgo, U Shrinivas, Fazal Qureshi, Salim Merchant, Kala Ramnath and Vijay Chauhan - all of whom got a mention during the presser. And for the benefit of those who are unwilling to scroll down to the earlier post and keep asking me – Does he still looking the same (as in the Taj days) – the picture speaks.

So here's more from my one on one with the living Indian legend:

Q : Zakir, tabla is no longer the fringe instrument it once was. It's all over the place right from hip hop, jazz, pop music, television commercials to films. What do you make of that?
A : If you look at all kinds of music that exist now whether it is trance or Asian underground, hip hop, folk music from India or even bhangra- they are all rhythm based music. Suddenly, there seems to be an awareness of or liking for rhythm based music. It's no more just a melody or a song by Madanmohan with a little rhythm behind it. I feel there is an interest in rhythm that is growing widely and globally. I feel that has something to do with the popularity of tabla because it is a very versatile instrument. It can play melodies as well as rhythm. The technique on this instrument allows you to play with any kind of music, be it folk, classical, light-classical, jazz, rock, pop - anything. So the tabla fits in with any kind of instrument in the world. Therefore, it has become an instrument of choice, when it comes to importing mysterious rhythm sounds into any music.

Q : You've been performing since the time you were 12. From then to now, what's been the kind of acceptance for Indian music?
A : I think Indian music has grown by leaps and bounds. I feel it has gone from being just a chamber kind of music where a 100 people would come and listen to something where 10,000 people come and listen to it. Now, that is a rarity because most other forms of music have stayed in the area. Take a look at rock music, you still play it in a stadium, just like you did 30 years ago or film music or Western classical music. But Indian classical music going from 100 to 10,000, that's a big leap in interest and popularity. I feel this is the type of music that has flourished and there is a great future for it. Now, it has even become the sound source for many genres of music right from rap to hip hop to world music and so on. All these forms of music are using Indian sounds and tones.

Q : Your father's generation was taking this type of music to audiences beyond India. Given the global acceptance that you just mentioned, you can now experiment with various styles, beats and rhythms. Do you think this has given you more freedom as a composer, as a musician?
A : That's interesting. You see during my father's time music was still a second level profession. I still remember people asking me when I was 20 years old - 'what do you do?' I'd say I play the tabla. The next question would be 'so what do you do for a living?' It wasn't like you like you play music for a living. I mean music was never considered something through which you could make a living. It was a second class thing to do.

In the last 25 years or so there has been an awareness about Indian art and culture and it's not just awareness, a sense of pride has also developed in being able to connect yourself to a certain culture source. This happened with the popularity of great artistes like Ravi Shankar, who popularised Indian music beyond Indian shores. Then the Beatles were influenced, Peter Gabriel started to do Indian music. Suddenly, India realised that there must be something special about this art form because everywhere in the world they love it, they want to study it, they want to come to India to hear and explore it. That made this shift and acceptance possible. It's almost like Indian cricketers when they win outside, they come back home as heroes. Similarly, Indian musicians had to become well known outside of India to be accepted as heroes and great masters in India. It's sad but it happened that way. But now the music is accepted by everybody as something very special, unique and culturally important. Everyone supports it, listens to it and it has become a very respectable art form and that's good.

Q : You grew up listening to a lot of Indian film or what's now better known as Bollywood music. How did that impact your work?
A : It allowed me to be a little bit more free in my experimentation of tabla. If I had not done Bollywood, I would have probably stayed strictly with what I had learnt about this instrument, not actually ventured to find out what this instrument is capable of. When I was working with people like R D Burman, I saw how they used the tabla to inject energy into a song, to make it more lilting, watching that helped me experiment a little but more. So, yes Bollywood helped me a lot, it enabled me to be more open-minded about my creativity.

Q : You have 145 albums, thousands of concerts to your credit. From movies to television commercials you have done it all. You are composing music, teaching it at Princeton, then travelling all the way from Manipur to Ukraine. Having achieved all of this, what's the next big challenge for you?
A : As you just mentioned, finding those musical voices is the big challenge. I want to find more voices from India. I take pride in being an Indian and in all things Indian. I brought Vinayak Ram to America, to Europe and introduced him to the world as a great percussionist from South India. I brought his son Selva Ganesh and many other drummers who I found in so many parts of India right from the South to the East. I am looking for more talents like them. I believe the drum culture hasn't been explored fully. We have been so tied up in sarods, sitars and violins that we haven't fully explored our drum culture. I feel that's what I want to do: discover it, explore it, find it and expose listeners across the world to it. I hope that will create a whole new way of looking at it.

Q : I know we are running out of time, but I'd like to quickly get an answer to this one....
You usually go to a concert without a script of sorts, there are no rehearsals

Zakir (interrupts and laughs) Sounds like a Bollywood movie, doesn't it?

Q : Absolutely. Now when you perform in say Tokyo or Singapore or Mumbai or Dubai, how do you gauge the audience reaction and give them what they want?
A : Indian music is a very interactive form of music, so within the first five minutes we know what the listeners want. Eye contact with the audience helps determine what the audience wants. In India, we don't have to worry about that. There we get connoisseurs and students of Indian music, whereas when we perform abroad, we establish a connection with the audience and then experiment with the style.

Q : I assure you this is the very last one - would you also say there is this universal sound of music that audiences everywhere respond to?
A : I think the universal sound is the throb of the rhythm, everything else just sits on top.