Ustad Zakir Hussain
A master percussionist of near-superhuman capabilities, Zakir Hussain has over the course of his illustrious career distinguished himself as one of the world’s greatest tabla players. A working professional from the age of 12, when he began performing concerts of North Indian classical music in his native country, Zakir is perhaps best known for his ongoing collaborations with guitar great John McLaughlin in the ’70s group Shakti and its more recent incarnation, Remember Shakti. He is also well known to Deadheads for various collaborations over the past several years with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, including the Diga Rhythm Band and the all-star Planet Drum project (featuring percussion maestros Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto Moreira and the late Babatunde Olatunji). More recently, Hussain has collaborated with bassist/producer Bill Laswell on the electronica flavored Tabla Beat Science project and with guitarist Henry Kaiser in his electric Miles Davis tribute band, Yo Miles! He has also appeared on recordings with artists as diverse as George Harrison, Earth, Wind & Fire, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison, Jack Bruce, Tito Puente, Billy Cobham and Pharoah Sanders. The tabla maestro, who formed his own Moment! Records label in 1991, is currently touring with his Masters of Percussion, which demonstrates both the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) musical traditions in concert and features Zakir’s younger brothers Taufiq Quereshi and Fazal Quereshi along with his former Shakti partner V.H. (Vikku) Vinayakram). Writer Bill Milkowski, a regular contributor to Jazz Times, Jazziz, Modern Drummer and Drum! magazines as well as the Jazz Journalists Association’s Writer of the Year for 2004, spoke to Zakir Hussain in New York City following a performance at Town Hall by the Masters of Percussion.
BM: Tell us about the formation of Shakti.
ZH: The whole idea of doing Shakti happened in California in 1973 when John came over there to meet me. I was living in the Bay Area at the time and we met in my little cottage that I was staying in. He wanted to meet this great Indian musician Ali Akbar Khan, who I was playing with at the time and also teaching at his music college. So I took John to his home in this small town of Fairfax they met, and at some point Ali Akbar Khan said, Well, play something for me.John had his guitar with him and he asked if I would play with him. That’s when we first played together.
BM: This is some years before Shakti officially formed?
ZH: Actually, it’s about two years before. So when we started playing it was like..(snap!)… like we’d been playing together since we were little kids. Everything was like just perfect — anticipating each other’s moves, we were tight, we’d stop together, start together, do the same thing together. It was just one of those magical things. And I think that’s when John said we should be playing together.
BM: So the seed was planted there. And when did you meet (Shakti violinist) Shankar?
ZH: John is the one who put me in touch with Shankar because he was learning the veena from Shankar’s uncle in Wesleyan University at that time. So he said to me, There’s this young violinist who’s a killer and we should get together with >him and play. So a year later (July 5, 1975) John arranged a little show at South Hampton College for his guru at that time, Sri Chinmoy. And that’s when we played together for the first time. And I guess he recorded it just to have it, then six or seven months later he called me and said, You know what? CBS wants to release this. So I said OK. And that’s how Shakti was born.
BM: And you’ve maintained that incredible chemistry with John all through the years.
ZH: Oh yeah. I’ve been lucky because it’s hard to be able to have relationships that last that long. With John I guess it’s been a brother-like relationship and it’s stayed the test of time. We’ve worked off and on for many years now. And we haven’t like constantly worked together but every once in a blue moon he’d call and say he’ll have this or that project or I’d call him and say I have this or that, and it would happen. So we’ve kept in touch. And I have the same relationship with Shankar, who I’m still working with — we have a tour coming up in October — and also with Vikku, who’s the clay pot player in Shakti who is now on tour with me (Master of Percussion). And so the different relationships with these people have been of a very, very special nature, and I’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to maintain it. And musically it has grown by leaps and bounds because we’ve taken the trouble…or, the pleasure; actually…to study each other’s musical expression and see if there’s a way to be able to enhance it in any way possible.
BM: How has your own approach to your instrument changed over the last 30 years?
ZH: I find that in the early days of Shakti I was a very brash young man of 21 wanting to impress everybody with my technique…playing fast and strong and all that. And I didn’t have to pay much attention to anyone else’s music because everyone else was together already so much that what was happening already was incredible, and we just took a ride and went with it. But over the years, having done various things with each of these musicians, I’ve learned so much more about them that I feel that in the recent times that we’ve been working together I’m much more aware of what they’re trying to say musically and I’m able to contribute to that thought. And I think I’m now able to do more justice to what John is doing musically than I was then, I think. At that time it was a very fast ride. Now it’s a ride that’s at a good clip but we’re still taking the time to be able to enjoy the scenery a little bit.
BM: And there’s a certain depth and widsom that has come into the music as well.
ZH: Absolutely, yes.
BM: From seeing your last Town Hall show with Remember Shakti, I noticed that you are doing things on the tablas now — incorporating walking basslines in the left hand, for instance — that you weren’t doing in the beginning of Shakti.
ZH: I wasn’t doing that then. There’s a lot more that I have learned about my instrument. You see, up until recent times we were playing this incredible repertoire that has come to us over the past thousand years but we never really thought about what the instrument itself can do. The tabla is very young. It’s only maybe 250 years old, so it is still finding its place in the music world and it’s still being refined as an instrument. And the fact that they are developing new ways to make the tabla sound better and better allows you that much more ability on it and more leeway to be able to do things. And so the more I work with different musicians like John or Mickey Hart or Giovani Hidalgo or Airto Moreira or anybody else, the more I discover what the instrument is able to do. The more you play with a new musician, they point out something different that you had not seen before by just interacting with them. So that’s how the instrument has continued developed. We believe in India that each instrument has a spirit and has feelings, and so if allowed to express they can actually guide you into allowing them to say what they want to say. So that’s what we are discovering with tabla.
BM: And while the instrument may have its own rich history and repertoire, you also seem to be pushing at the boundaries of that tradition by doing things that are somewhat unconventional on the tabla.
ZH: Well, maybe so but I’m sure you’ve seen that music in our world has changed from generation to generation. Every generation adds a new little twist to the music, whether it’s western classical music or Indian classical music or African or anything. That’s what we have seen. And we’ve noticed in the last 20-odd years there seems to be like a renaissance of art, music, culture on a global scale. And because of that, the interaction between many traditions, the give-and-take, the influences, the inspirations have happened on a more global scale than just within the system itself. In the olden days I was playing tabla and my teacher was my father (Ustad Allarakha) and the most that I was doing then was seeing some other great tabla player and stealing some of the moves. Now it’s just not that alone, it’s looking at Elvin Jones or looking at Dennis Chambers or going to Giovanni Hidalgo’s concert and seeing that or seeing a kora player or anything…looking at all those little things and saying, Wow, yes, I can do some of that on my instrument! The world has sort of come into your living room and that has allowed you to let the instrument find its way. And tabla is an instrument technically which once you’ve studied the technique of the instrument it can produce any kind of rhythmic pattern, any kind of combination of any traditional drum. It has that ability to do that as well as the ability to be able to find its way in any kind of music. And therefore, I’m sure you must’ve noticed, the tabla appears in many combinations today. And that is because of the instrument’s ability to fit into any musical situation. And so because of that, it is possible for me to have interactions which allow me to push the limits of what the instrument is doing. If I’m playing with Tabla Beat Science and it’s an electronica remix and whatnot kind of thing, I’m being pushed to find ways on my tablas to interact with the music. And hopefully, a new idea to make the instrument appear different emerges, and so on. All these interactions are helping me to push these limits and push these boundaries to see what the tabla is capable of.
BM: And your youngest brother Taufiq is doing that as well with his hybrid drumkit and his creative use of programming in a hip-hop and electronica settings.
ZH: Yes, and he was on the Saturday Night In Bombay album with Remember Shakti. He’s trying different things and he’s working, although it’s very difficult for him to go on concert tours because he’s such a busy recording studio man. I mean, he’s producing, he’s sequencing and doing remixes, he’s doing background scores for Indian Bollywood films, and so it keeps him very busy in the studio to where I have to like pull his ear and say, Come on, let’s get on tour and do some playing together. And he studied so much with my father. What happened was that me and my brother Fazal, being older, actually started traveling and performing much before he did. And so for the last 15 years of my father being at home and teaching, Taufiq happened to be there more and studied a lot with him at that time. And therefore, he’s got a lot of information of the tabla repertoire in him, and so it’s very easy to sit with him and have him play all these different instruments but still work the repertoire. We can work the repertoire together and he can do it on all these little things he carries with him. And so this kind of connection is already there. So him doing all this other stuff just kind of enhances that. It takes the repertoire to a different place altogether.
BM: Sony Music is now preparing to release a compilation of music from the three original Shakti recordings (1976’s Shakti, 1977’s Natural Elements and 1978’s Handful of Beauty)
ZH: Well, it’s about time. You do know that I put out a Shakti compilation on my label maybe six years ago?
BM: That’s on Moment! Records?
ZH: Yes, we compiled some songs from all the three albums and we put it out. And up to then, for about 15-18 years, the master tapes were just sitting on the shelf in CBS’s and then Sony’s care. And when I contacted them they basically said, Eh, take it. OK. But then they noticed that it’s done very well and it seems to be growing for some reason. And now they want to put it out and reap the rewards a little more, so I’m glad that that’s happening.
BM: You have had Moment! Records for 13 years now. Have you accumulated a big catalog in that time?
ZH: Not really because I only specialize. I do like one or two things a year. I don’t do very much because my label depends on the musicians and the artists to decide what they want to do. It’s an artists label, all the directors are the artists. So they are in control of their product from music to cover art to liner notes. I just have the financing to be able to have them do their projects. So we just concentrate on a maximum of two recordings every year and we just push those, so it’s a small thing. But it’s controlled by the musician from the very inception of the idea to the completion of the product. So the Best of Shakti reissue that we did some years back, before John and I ever started Remember Shakti, did very well for us. We sold many thousands of that CD. Actually, us coming back together came about from the Best of Shakti release because after it was released and started selling well, promoters started asking us, Why don’t you guys come and play together? So that’s how we kind of started. And four albums later it’s still going. And now CBS feels that they want to get in on it, so great…I?m happy.
BM: It’s phenomenal that there’s two incarnations of this very powerful band. And while there have been personnel changes, the same spirit is still there.
ZH: Absolutely. Basically, just one member is different, I would think. Because there’s John and myself and then Selvaganesh is the son of Vikku so that family connection is there. He grew up on Shakti’s music. Vikku was asked to play on the tour but he said that he?s getting too old and it’s very difficult for him to get up everyday on a grueling tour. So he asked would we consider taking his son, and of course we said yes. Selvaganesh is a fabulous player, a mean player. He’s a hard act to follow, just like his father. So I’m glad that spirit is there. And we’re sad that Shankar couldn’t do it but his mindset is that he wants to do something else. And we’ve been trying to get him to at least guest with the band. So we’re hoping this coming July when we are touring in Europe that he would at least guest with us. He’s trying to find a way to fit the double-neck violin into this group, which is what he’s been playing for the past 15-20 years. But the double violin makes it a little difficult for him to do the kind of repertoire that Shakti has. And so, he’s trying to find a way but he thinks that maybe he’ll have to get a regular violin to be able to go on the tour. So we’ll see.
BM: I remember that record that Shankar did for ECM with his wife Caroline and with guitarist Steve Vai and bassist Percy Jones. It was an interesting departure from Shakti, definitely in a more pop-rock vocal-oriented direction.
ZH: Yeah, yeah, sure. Did you hear the record he did with Frank Zappa? It was called Touch Me There. That was many, many years ago. That was a very different thing kind of thing also. Van Morrison sang on it. So Shankar has done some varied things over the years. Of course, there’s his work with Peter Gabriel, which he’s been doing for years now. That’s allowed him to try many, many different things musically. He’s probably done the most varied kind of arrangement of music than any of us. I’ve done some varied things too with music scores for films and the Tabla Beat Science project with Bill Laswell, which is a major departure for me. And then also doing the Masters of Percussion is a little different, as is Mickey’s Planet Drum.
BM: And then there’s the Yo Miles project that you just did with Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith (Sky Garden on Cuneiform Records).
ZH: Yes, that’s a very interesting project. John wanted to hear it because, you know, he is a big Miles fan.
BM: And you’re also involved in that George Brooks project with Fareed Haque, Kai Eckhardt and Steve Smith (Summit on Earth Brother Music).
ZH: Yes, that was fun. Steve Smith is such a fine drummer. He’s such a student of the music — always hungry for knowledge about all kinds of music, particularly North and South Indian music. I love working with Steve. He’s a hand drummer’s drummer because he’s so sensitive to the tones and the texture the instrument has and what kind of ability it has in terms of projection. And so he works with you in that way. Maybe 10 or 12 years ago it was Billy Cobham who impressed me like that. I was doing a trio show with me and Billy and Tito Puente. That was very nice and the way Billy was playing was almost like a hand drummer. And you know, Billy Cobham is a powerful, slamming drummer but he was playing sensitive like I’d never seen before. And it was amazing to listen to that and be able to be communicating where they could hear you and you could hear them and you didn’t have to bang on the drums to cut through. It was just so much fun, it was great. And I felt his reverence for Tito and his deference to him as a senior artist was a big learning experience for a young guy like me. But working with Steve, he’s a drummer who is not only sensitive to your instrument and knows it?s ability in terms of its sound projection and works with you in that way, but also he takes the time and makes an effort to learn what your repertoire is all about so he can communicate with you. I don’t know when the guy sleeps because he’s constantly working on music. When he’s not playing a gig he’s charting out what you’ve done the night before and analyzing everybody’s part so he can better figure out how to phrase and expand on his own instrument. He’s making an effort all the time to create possibilities for you to interact with him, and I’ve rarely seen that happen with any musician, let alone a drummer.
BM: Plus, he has really incorporated his understanding of Indian music into his own band, Vital Information.
ZH: Very much so. Yeah, he’s really great. I heard the new Vital Information record and on a few tracks he plays the Udu drum, which is similar to the clay pot that Vikku plays. He calls them transition pieces, and it’s so nice to hear him play that instrument. He’s just a gem of a person, a lovable man. I’m so happy that George Brooks put me in touch with Steve Smith. Yeah, that’s one of the great things that has happened to me lately, meeting another great musician who I’ll be interacting with 20 years down the road.
BM: Going back to the Shakti experience, you were explaining how you met John and then later met Shankar. When did Vikku come into the picture? Had you known him before you met John?
ZH: I had known him before because Vikku was teaching at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Berkeley before I met John. We had not played together but I had known him and I had seen him do his work with South Indian musicians. Vikku was coming to Berkeley for like two months every summer to teach and play a few concerts and then he would go back to India..that was it. So that’s how I knew him. But the first time we played together as Shakti at South Hampton College, it was not with Vikku, it was with Shankar’s other uncle Raghavan, who was a percussionist teaching at Wesleyan University. So, on the first album, which is Shakti live, you see Vikku’s photo on the back cover but it’s not Vikku playing, it’s Raghavan. And when CBS decided to release this live recording and wanted us to go on the road, there was a problem because Raghavan was one of those traditional South Indian drummers who believed in the security of a job. He had a tenured job at Wesleyan University and he didn’t want to give it up to go on the road with Shakti, so then Shankar suggested, Why don’t we get Vikku? And I thought that was a marvelous suggestion because Vikku was so unique. I mean, who ever heard of a clay pot player? And people would just look at it and wonder what this is, but then the way he played it was like…a monster! So we all went to India in the wintertime before the summer (’75) tour was to begin. We talked to Vikku and played with him in Shankar’s home…just a little bit of a jam session. And it was the same way with Vikku as it was with me and Shankar and John…it was right in there from the start and the sound was unique too. That kind of sound did not come out here before. This is before Udu drums were invented. In fact, we all believed that Vikku is the one who started this idea of Udu drums being made. And so that’s how Vikku came on the tour and for the next three years it was like whirlwind. One tour led to another and another and another…we were touring all the time and none of us felt that we wanted to stop. But CBS was putting pressure on John to go back to the electric stuff and do some Mahavishnu type thing again. So John had to have a meeting with us and tell us as much. And he had tears in his eyes when he told us because he just didn’t want to have to do this. But it was fine because we had played together for three years and done over 290 shows, three albums…and it was good to take a little time off and do other things. So that’s what we did. I began teaching at the Ali Akbar Khan College and Shankar got the idea that he wanted to do other kinds of projects and Vikku wanted to build on his father’s school back in India, so we all took time off to pursue other things. But we also kept doing projects together. Shankar and I did things for ECM and I always had Vikku on my tours. And John did many projects that he wanted us to be a part of — sometimes Vikku, sometimes me, sometimes both of us playing together. And John helped me to do my CD Making Music (ECM, 1987). And that project revealed a different side to John. That was amazing to see how he was changing himself to fit into any kind of musical idea…a revelation. So we’ve never stopped collaborating. Shakti never stopped. And what I’m surprised by is the following that it still has 30 years down the road. It’s just amazing the way people come out to see us now. And half the audience is the same people who saw us in the ’70s. I was just in a concert in Philadelphia and three ladies in the late 50s came up to me and said, We saw you in Paris with Shakti and ever since then we come to every concert you play. It’s amazing to have that connection and that following that stayed through the years. But the young people today too, it seems, have latched onto the idea of Shakti and the band.
BM: And the whole reunion thing really was intended for just four shows in the U.K. (in September of 1997) as part of an Arts Council of England-sponsored tour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Independence of India and Pakistan.
ZH: Exactly. We got together in England to play these four shows and that was it. We were just going to do these shows with no idea of wanting to return as a band. nd John said, again, Let’s record it. So we hired an eight-track A-DAT machine and we set it up we recorded it the four nights. Three months later John called me and said, Universal wants to release that concert, what do you think’? And I said, OK, what do you want to call it? And he said, Well, you know, the energy reminded me of Shakti, it was just so much like that. Why don’t we call it…Remembering Shakti. And that’s how it happened. Then when the CD was released we wanted to go on tour but Hariprasad (Chaurasia), the flautist who played on that record, was also one of those guys who had a steady job teaching at the Conservatory in Rotterdam, and he couldn’t get any time off. He had a five-year contract with them so he couldn’t go on tour. So the next thing was to try and get Shankar for the tour but he was in South Africa and was not reachable and very difficult to find at that point. We finally decided that we needed to get someone else. And John, having worked with the three guitar combination (with Al DiMeola and Paco de Lucia), it seemed like natural to try and have him play with another guitar-like instrument from India. And that’s where Shrinivas came in. The chemistry was just like him and Shankar. The way they play together is amazing.
BM: This band is so dynamic! There is so much energy jumping off the stage when you guys are exchanging phrases.
ZH: Oh yeah, and let me tell you, it’s difficult for musicians to be sitting cross-legged on a stage and projecting this kind of energy. Usually you stand up and you’re jumping around..you’re playing guitar and people are going nuts. That’s a different thing. But here you’ve got people just sitting and just playing to you. And the music generating that kind of high energy is what’s getting people. There’s no idea how this is possible. And to see people interact like that, as opposed to seeing a DJ sitting behind a console doing something and you’re just wondering if he’s actually doing something or just sitting there…knowing where the music is actually generating from or what’s happening there on stage is really exciting for people to watch. It’s always nice to see musicians interacting together…people actually creating the music in front of you spontaneously. And you see that process and you see it emerge and feel that energy slam into you.
BM: It’s a question of passion. A dj on spinning records on stage is passionless — no sweat involved, no blood in the music.
ZH: No nothing! And I guess that’s what people like about a band like Shakti, that it’s doing that old thing and keeping it somehow fresh.
BM: How did you find Shrinivas? I remember Henry Kaiser telling me about him in the 1980s.
ZH: Well, John and I saw him years ago when we were at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Vikku told us, There’s this young mandolin player, he’s really fantastic. And Shrivinas was then 12 years old then playing at the festival and Vikku said we should go listen to him. So Vikku brought him to Shankar’s hotel room and Shrinivas played or us and our jaws just dropped on the floor. I mean, he was a monster musician and he’s only 12 years old! It just seemed like the hand of god appeared and spread this blessing on this special little kid. At that time John had said to him, Maybe someday we will be playing together. Then all these years later when we were looking for Shankar and we couldn’t find him because he was somewhere in Africa and we had to announce the tour and the press conference was there in a few hours, we were wondering what to do. And at that point John said, What about Shrinivas? So we called and Shrinivas said immediately, Yes, I will do it. Just tell me when to arrive and I will drop everything else. And so then there we are. We thought we would be doing this one tour to promote the album and that would be it, but it’s now been four albums and about five different tours that we’ve done together. And we have another one coming in July, starting in Europe…32-odd shows. It’s amazing how it just doesn’t stop. (Editor’s Note: This wildly successful tour just ended at press time).
BM: I’ve watched this band develop from some of the early gigs in 1998 in New York and Montreal to more recent gigs in Symphony Space, Central Park Summer Stage and Town Hall, and it just seems to be getting deeper and deeper.
ZH: Yes, and now we’ve also been asking guests to join us. Hariprasad played with us and a couple of other great Indian musicians played with us. And then we had the singer Shankar Mahadevan from South Indian…he’s actually a Bollywood superstar and a classically trained singer as well, and he has played with us on tour (and also appeared on Saturday Night in Bombay), and it’s just added so many different elements to the music. And now we’re thinking that we’re going to get some other people to join us for our upcoming tour in July. We were hoping that Jan Garbarek would come in and sit in with us…and Shankar. So that’s the focus for July, to get these two guys to come in and do a few gigs with us. I know that we are already doing gigs with Jeff Beck, so it’s going to be Jeff Beck’s band and Remember Shakti touring together and there is a plan to do two pieces together, both bands. So I’m gearing myself to that combination. So there’s a lot happening with Shakti. It’s definitely changing musically and growing.
BM: Speaking of double bills, I remember seeing Shakti in 1976 on a bill with Weather Report, which was Jaco’s first tour with the group.
ZH: Yeah, we did a lot of touring with Weather Report. They were fabulous to play with. And in Europe we did two tours where there were the three bands playing together — Weather Report, Shakti and the Billy Cobham/George Duke band with young John Scofield on guitar, and it was amazing. And in the end there would be like a jam session and it would turn into a drum jam with me and Billy, Alex Acuna, Manolo and Vikku. And the other instrumentalists would suddenly throw their hands up and say, OK, you guys play. And we also did a tour in America where it was Shakti and Santana. That was a lot of fun to have Carlos join us and we’d play together. Those days were so nice…for a young man like me to see all this happening, it was a fabulous learning experience to have people like Armando Peraza the conga player from Carlos’ band sit and chat and tell me stories about Shango, the god from the Afro-Cuban mythologies and explain the whole system of the music and how it’s related to the shaman tradition. And it’s so similar to what it is in India, it’s just mindboggling. So much information. I’m glad and I’m lucky that I got to be in that place at that time when everything was opening up slowly…just like windows were opening and you were in the thick of it in the Bay Area, where everyone kind of came together and everywhere you looked there was a musician from some other country who was there for you to share and interact with and learn from. It was a fabulous time.
BM: When did you first come to the United States?
ZH: I came here when I was 18. It’s funny…John and I both came to America at the same time, same year (1969).
BM: What brought you here?
ZH: Ravi Shankar asked me to come on tour with him so I flew in. My father always toured with Ravi Shankar…they played together for many years. But my father was not feeling well at this particular time…he had flu or something so he couldn’t come and there were like four concerts that needed to be done so my father said to Ravi Shankar, We have to find a replacement. And Ravi Shankar said, Why not your son Zakir? So they called me up. I was in Munich, Germany finishing up a concert when I got the call saying, Go to the American embassy, get a visa and we’ll arrange a flight for you and you’ll fly into New York and do the concert. And I said, OK. And that’s what happened. I flew in and played the shows with Ravi Shankar and then I thought I was going to go back to India. But at that time Ravi Shankar got a call and he told me, Look, there’s this offer to have a teacher at the University of Washington in Seattle to teach theory of Indian music. And he said he thought that I should take that job because it would help me maybe even finish my studies and learn some more. And I’ve been thanking him ever since.
BM: Was being at the university a valuable experience?
ZH: Oh yes. The first thing that I noticed when I arrived at the ethnomusicology department at the University was that one guy was teaching African music, another guy was teaching gamelan music and someone else was teaching Middle Eastern music…and I thought, Wow, there are all these different kinds of music. I had not heard of them in India because Indian society was so closed at that time. So to right away experience all these different kinds of music were just was an eye opener and I thought, There is a lot here that I can learn from. I enrolled also as a student while I was teaching there, so it was great experience.
BM: And shortly after that you got with Ali Akbar Khan?
ZH: AAli Akbar Khan had his school in the Bay Area and he asked me to come and teach at his college. He’s one of the greatest musicians in India and I know that all the great tabla players would give their right thumb to be able to play with him, so I resigned from the job at the University of Washington and went down to the Bay Area and took up that assignment. And that’s also right around when I started collaborating with Mickey Hart and came in touch with all these great musicians there like Olatunji, Airto, Giovanni Hidalgo, Armando Peraza, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia…so many musicians. I was working with them constantly, doing things in the studio and I even made a little tour with Grateful Dead. So it was all these very rich experiences in the Bay Area.
BM: And this was all before you met John?
ZH: Yeah, just before I met John. When I was here in New York there used to be a placed called The House of Musical Tradition downtown and I was doing a workshop there and that’s where I first met John. He came to the workshop because he wanted to know something about North Indian rhythms and music because he was studying South Indian (vina) but he wanted that other info. So he came and we met and I guess we kind of liked each other. I did a little rhythm demonstration for him of the North Indian system and then after that workshop I went back to California to my job with Ali Akbar Khan. Then in 1972 John came with the original Mahavishnu Orchestra to play at the Berkeley Community Theater and while he was in town he called me and came over to my cottage and that’s when we went over to Ali Akbar Khan’s home and played together for him in his living room…and our life began.
BM: Can you describe, for a layman, the difference between North and South Indian systems?
ZH: North Indian music is first of all a confluence of two major ways of life in India…that is, Hinduism and Islam. They both emerged from the religious elements. Indian classical music at that time, which is a thousand years ago, was coming from the temples and therefore was always sung in praise of the gods and goddesses and so on. Islamic music was also sung in praise of Allah and was the sufi music called kawalli. So those two musical forms were kind of fused together into this new emerging classical style which is what now is the premier Indian classical music in the last thousand years. And so North Indian classical music is a confluence of these two while South Indian classical music still adheres to the Hindu system or temple worship, and so the music is still connected directly to that. And so any kind of composers or great masters who have written music in praise of the great being or beings…there are many gods and goddesses in South India…have used that system. Now the system-wise, the raga scales or rhythm scales are similar but because of having different types of instruments the treatments are different, the tonal experience is different. For example, the sitar (North Indian instrument) doesn’t sound like a vina (South Indian instrument). They are two different instruments altogether and therefore you play them differently. Tabla (North) and ghatam (South) are two different instruments, so the language that is used on each is dictated by the technique that it allows you to project through it. So the basic core is similar but the packaging is different — the tones are different, the instruments are different and one is a combination of Hindu and Islam culture, the other one is just mainly a Hindu culture. To further illustrate the point, Vikku comes from the South Indian system and I’m from the North Indian system. Until the 1970s it was considered taboo for North Indian and South Indian musicians to get together and play. So Vikku and Shankar and I were some of the first musicians from both systems to actually interact together and play together. And at the time that Shakti began it was considered really like, How can you do this? by senior musicians. Even my father said, Hmmm…how is this going to work? Nobody’s going to like this, and what he meant was the musical fraternity or connoisseurs. But it caught on. And now it’s a common thing. It has become normal to do mix systems, so I guess a hundred years from now there will be maybe a different way of looking at music in India where there’ll be a third line, which will be a combination of all these three elements.
BM: It was good to see you and Vikku interacting together once again on this Masters of Percussion tour.
ZH: Yes, he’s such a great musician…his electricity on the stage, his charisma. Over the years he had been devoting himself to building up his father’s school in Madras. Of course, Shakti brought him a lot of fame and following in India and that allowed his school there to prosper. It’s a big building now with many, many students. And of course, he taught his sons how to play and they are now successful musicians. He’s done very well for himself. But I’m glad I was able to get him out for this tour. Vikku is 62 now and it’s great that he’s still playing, but what’s incredible to watch is his love for it has not diminished in any way. I mean, it’s not like a job…it’s like fun and games for Vikku. It’s like, Wow, here’s this beautiful toy and I found it and it’s just fabulous and look people, it’s amazing. And it’s just that excitement of sharing what you know is so incredible, so positive, so pristine and so amazingly fun…you can see that in him. He’s really into it. There are people, musicians, who take the attitude of, Oh, another set. I gotta do it. And it’s like a chore just to get up on the stage and hard work just to play through it. It’s rare to see this kind of love for your music and total giving in to it and letting it take you wherever it wants to, as Vikku does when he plays.
BM: You made a comment at the concert the other night, something to the effect of, Now matter how much I play, all he (Vikku) has to do is unbutton his shirt and he’s erased everything I’ve done before him. Could you explain about Vikku’s ceremonial unbuttoning of his shirt at the peak of a ghatam solo?
ZH: Yes. You see, most clay pot players play topless and it’s because they need to bounce the instrument off their belly to make that tonal change. Vikku used to play topless but then it was too cold in some of the concert halls so he started wearing a shirt, and then he would just open the buttons when he needed to. And I like to make a big funny thing about it.
BM: Speaking of the original Shakti, do you feel that the direction of the band changed at all from the first album to the third one?
ZH: Oh yes, it did. The first album was a pure live free-for-all. The second one was a studio production, Handful of Beauty, which we recorded at The Trident in SoHo, London. And at that time it was a revelation where we could actually have composed pieces with a form and that we could do this and have ins and outs with little breaks within each piece. It was something different for us, and especially for Vikku. Because he was South Indian and they believed in improvising. You started the line and then you went with it, and 45 minutes later you thought, OK, maybe we should go somewhere else. So improvising was the thing for South Indian musicians. But to actually have form and say, OK, we’re going to go this far and then we have to do this and then we’re going to go here, that was something new for Vikku. So that’s what Handful of Beauty was all about. And then came Natural Elements, where we decided that we wanted to try and expanding it further into…oh, I don’t know…the moderness of what tunes we had to work with. And I expanded for the first time from tabla to congas and timbales and other folk drums and stuff. And Vikku played two or three other instruments which he hadn’t played before. At the same time, there was some use of echoplex and phasing and what not that we tried. So we also tried to get into the world of electronics and see what else was happening with that, which was obviously a far cry from the very traditional approach of the first album. So it was a gradual process of experimentation and pushing things further and further while getting into something which was a more arranged approach and coming into writing kind of music which was unlike Indian music. So I guess it was moving, growing slowly. And given the time, at that time, maybe it would’ve expanded into…I don’t know what. Maybe something different altogether. But unfortunately, we only have those three albums. Maybe it was good in a way because it gave us time to grow and really learn about each other’s music and ability and now that we’re together again it’s that much more gratifying, that much more satisfying to be able to be together and play together. And I feel like I can do more justice to their playing because I know them better now. I’m connecting more with them on many levels as opposed to me just playing rhythm and you just playing melody. I find myself more and more connected to musicians I’ve been working with over the past 30 years, whether that’s Mickey or John or Vikku. I like lasting relationships because it’s just a great learning experience to grow together and see where it’s gonna go as opposed to coming together, making one record and I’ll see you later. So it’s nice that this can happen with me. I’m happy.
Many thanks to the Ustad Zakir Hussain and everyone at Moment Records.