Zakir Hussain, a tabla trailblazer, still has ‘miles to go’

The last time tabla maestro Zakir Hussain took the stage in D.C., it was International Jazz Day 2016. He performed alongside longtime collaborators and contemporaries like John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, among others, in an ornate presentation in front of the White House. The lineup performed “Spanish Key,” from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which some of those onstage had a hand in shaping in the studio. Hussain was not among the originators, but he and his tabla fit in as if they had always belonged. In some ways, that is the story of Ustad (Hindi for “master”) Zakir Hussain as a musician: He is a musical diplomat finding new environs where his instrument can exist, across international realms and approaches.

As diplomat, Hussain has brought his tabla to places as diverse as the Fillmore East stage, alongside Ravi Shankar, recording studios with Pharaoh Sanders, and Hollywood, Calif., for the filming of Apocalypse Now. He’s jammed with Airto Moriera and Jack DeJohnette, and the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Working and playing alongside these musicians, Hussain was always adapting the vernaculars of the groups into his own playing. Now, in addition to the 2,000-plus-year tradition of the Indian tabla, his playing on the buoyant percussion instrument bears the inflections of Appalachian banjos, African djembes, New York City pianos and more.

But tied to this role of the diplomat is his life as a road warrior. He pushes down musical and cultural barriers with his percussive propulsion. As a member of the seminal group Shakti, Hussain not only had a hand in blazing new avenues within the burgeoning fusion movement, he also broke new ground in the millennia-old traditions of India. Hussain, from north India, and ghatam player Vikku Virayakram, who plays in South India’s Carnatic tradition, helped fold both traditions into the explosive, driving rhythms that propelled John McLaughlin and L. Shankar’s fiery improvisations.

These days, as Hussain tours the world in groups of all sizes and configurations, he likes to help bring younger musicians to the forefront. He performs in a duo with his protégé Niladri Kumar at a Washington Performing Arts concert at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue this Thursday. Kumar is a fierce sitar player, and the creator of the zitar—a kind of electric sitar with fewer strings.

I spoke with Hussain over the phone in anticipation of the event (and because he wanted to know, he said, if “the CapitalBop is still bopping”). We started out talking about Kumar, but the conversation expanded to cover everything from his work in film soundtracks to the role of the accompanist, and what his relationship to the tabla is today.

Capitalbop: You’re coming to D.C. to perform sitar player Niladri Kumar. You two first met on the ‘Masters of Percussion’ tour 10 years ago. What was the connection there, what attracted you to seeking out further collaboration with Niladri?

Zakir Hussain: Well I was on the look-out for musicians—young musicians—who were working their way up the ranks in India; playing small concert halls and the mini festivals and working their way up to playing major concert halls and festivals. Young musicians who are starting to perform and be recognized as the ‘young masters’ of today. So I could get to put them out on the stage and have them play all over the world and get some experience and be known and develop their fan following. Niladri is one of them, and he is the son of a great sitar in India played named Kartick Kumar. There’s a flute named Rakesh and a sarangi played named Dilshad and another named Sabir and a violinist named Ganesh and a veena played named Jayanthi and various other percussionists. So that’s how it began with Nil and then he played with me for a few years in small interactions onstage as part of “Masters of Percussion” until I felt that now it was time for him to feature in a full, solo performance in America and let people see what he is capable of. I mean, he is such an amazing musician and I am just very proud that I’ve been getting a chance to sit with him onstage and showcase him and his talent to the audiences.

CB: What you just said made me think of this: Musicians of your statute – whether they’re Western classical musicians, Indian classical musicians, or jazz musicians — have a drive to want to support the young musicians and showcase them. Do you see that as a responsibility?

ZH: It is a responsibility. It’s a big responsibility to make sure that the preserving and the nurturing of the art form continues. And so to do that you need to make sure that the young ones who are putting in the time and effort, and have the talent or genius to make that happen, are given the kind of support they need. This is very important. I’ve seen Herbie Hancock as a jazz pianist to help out so many young musicians or Micky Hart help so many young percussionists and so many like Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and various other rock musicians like Eric Clapton are all mentoring so many young musicians so that the art form continues; and that’s important…. For instance, Indian music: For a lot of people it kind of starts and stops with Ravi Shankar, the great sitar maestro. And then nobody knows number 2, 3, 4, 5, whatever. So, what happens is, with the marquee names, the media gets stuck with that and they don’t realize that there’s a zillion others and that kind of creates a ripples effect even with the audiences, who don’t make the effort to see what else is out there. And I have to tell you, when Ravi Shankar was alive, one of the greatest musicians India has ever produced, there were his contemporaries, sitar players and other instrumentalists, who were just as great and just as revered and loved and honored in India, but the world did not hear about them. So that happened. So this is one of the things that I feel that needs to change and the attitude amongst the listeners and the media needs to be, “In order to preserve and nurture a traditional art form, one must focus on what the bench strength is.” Who’s in the third and fifth row of musicians who are coming up the ranks.

CB: Speaking of that generation, I’ve written about international jazz before, but I’ve had trouble – and this may get to precisely your point – I’ve had trouble finding out about jazz in India. What are young, jazz musicians in India doing? Are there young jazz musicians in India and how are they making it there’s or performing out?

ZH: Well, jazz has been bubbling in India since the 1940s and 50s. It made its way there through Hollywood movies, Hollywood musicals: Gershwin and Cole Porter and all those. Scores of great musicals that came from Hollywood brought jazz to India! And there were musicians who were left over after the British and other Europeans left India and all that music that they had brought into India and all the instruments – piano, strings, horns and all that – were being played by young people who had nowhere else to go. So the Indian film industry kind of adopted them, brought them into a Bollywood kind of an orchestra, which was a total, new mutant orchestra of Indian musicians and non-Indian musicians in the same room, working together. I would say some of the first fusion, in modern times, took place right there! And it happened in China, it happened in Japan, it happened in India, wherever the Europeans or Brits had gone and made colonies: the culture came there. So jazz survived there and one of the great masters of jazz in India is the pianist Louis Banks, and he has created a hell of a lot of interest in jazz in India. Many, young musicians have come up who have followed his lead and learned from him: Sanjay Divecha, Gino Banks, Sheldon [D’Silva], and various, other, young musicians who are Indian musicians having learned Indian classical music have, at the same time, gone to Louis Banks to learn about jazz so they could incorporate both the systems in a copacetic manner. I mean they are cousins after all: Indian music and jazz. They both have some kind of a pipeline that connects them to Africa and they both improvise. These are two forms, in the world of music, that improvise a lot. So, therefore, spontaneity and creativity, right there on the stage is an important element of their conversation, and it helps to bring Indian and jazz music closer. It’s not by accident that jazz became so popular in India, because obviously it has similar expressive elements in jazz as in Indian music.

CB: Have you discovered what that pipeline to Africa is?

ZH: Well, when the Islamic kings in the eleven-hundreds came to India, they brought musicians from Turkey, from Egypt, from Libya, from Tunisia, all those places with them—artists, sufis, writers, and sculptors—all with them to India! There was also a trade route on the sea, on the Arabian Sea, established between Eastern Africa – like Kenya, Mombasa, Madagascar, all those areas – with India. So three-hundred, four-hundred years ago this was happening and so the music that developed in India at that time, which is now considered the premiere North Indian classical music, known as Khyal, has elements of all these interactions in it. And even now in India, you won’t believe this, but there are two areas in India—in the South, near Hyderabad, and in the North in Gujarat where the African-Negroids live and have their own music tradition, which we know of Africa in America with the djembes and the congas and whatnot, and the dancers and the chants and so on. So it still exists in India and that is, most certainly, a very deep African connection that India and America shares.

CB: You talked about another deep connection between India and America there, which is film. I know you’ve scored, or at least helped with the music for a couple of Bollywood films. Is that a different mindset for you or does growing up and absorbing Bollywood music make it an easier pivot for you?

ZH: It’s actually more difficult to do Bollywood music. I’ll tell you why: because Indian classical music, having its roots in improvising, allows a musician to take his time on stage to create that mood that he needs to create through his music. When you’re composing music for film, you’ve got a scene which is 28 seconds long or a song that’s three minutes long, and within that time frame you have to create and enhance the mood and the situation of the scene that is being played on the screen. And at the same time, you have to satisfy the director, you have to satisfy the producer, you have to make sure that the choreographer, if there is any dancing involved, has the kind of rhythm movement in the music that would help the choreographer to do something interesting and at the same time keep what will grab the audiences and, of course the most important thing is the emotional content of the piece within that two-three minute period. So it’s not just an Indian musician onstage, expressing himself. It’s an Indian musician expressing an emotional statement of many different people and kind of creating more of a [Pauses.] How would you say? [Pauses.] A concoction of all those emotions into a small piece of music that’s going to have to stand the test of time. A concert is played and it’s over, then you move on next, but music composed will stay forever. So you have to make sure that is has the ability to stand; it has legs, in others words. So therefore, doing Indian film music—or any film music—is much more difficult than being able to get onstage and perform. I found that even in the Western world when we were doing music for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—or me doing music for Merchant Ivory films and various other TV shows and stuff—it is a very different thing. I find it is much easier doing any other form of music than actually sitting in L.A. or wherever doing film music because, well, I mean it is a whole different process.

CB: When you’ve been playing with Niladri Kumar-ji, recently, it’s been the two of you in a duo setting. Do you see yourself more as an accompanist—is the table more of an accompanying instrument—or do yourself more as a partnership that is equal? 

ZH: I think I see myself [Pauses.] Well the traditional role of a tabla in a tabla-sitar concert would be that the table is a supportive, accompanying instrument. So it doesn’t matter that I may be the elder statesmen on the stage but I will have to, at least in the initial interaction with Niladri, play that role of being a supportive act. And somewhere along the line it may be that more leeway would be given to me and I would take it. In the case of Niladri, he being a younger musician, he goes out of his way to give me a little room to maneuver. If I was playing with a senior musician, I would have to adhere to what their plan of action is and whatever little time I’m allotted to be able to help support that plan of action to go forward. But with Niladri, it most certainly begins, initially, as a supportive roll, and then somewhere—about halfway through the concert—we start interacting a little bit more than I would if I was with a senior musician. I’m an elder guy, just taking some liberties.

‘My tabla is actually pointing out to me how much more there is to do.’ … My tabla is saying to me, ‘No you’re not done, there’s more to do: Miles to go before you sleep.'”

CB: I think in the West, or at least maybe just in the U.S., we’re so consumed with the idea of the small combo, but the duo setting is more common for Indian classical music. Do you find that your thought process as a musician is different when you play in a duo versus a four or five person group?

ZH: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean it’s like wearing a very small watch or wearing a big watch with not just a digital number going by but the hour needle and a seconds needle and a days needle and the date, all that. So you have four or five different elements onstage and you have to make sure that each is allowed to exist in a zone in that circle where all the creativity is occurring, and you try not to step on people’s toes. So, therefore it’s like having one plate of food available for one person or for four people and it has to be divided as balanced as possible. So it is a bigger ask to be able to play with many more people than it is to do a duet or a solo concert.

CB: Wayne Shorter likes to talk about how jazz musicians take solos to demonstrate equality. Seems like this is what you’re also getting at here.

ZH: Yeah. It’s very important, when a clock is going by, you have your position. You may be at 1 o’clock and somebody else may be at 4 o’clock and someone else may be at 6 or at 12 and they all have their spots. And as long as you don’t cloud over that spot, which is not yours, you allow someone else to shine without crowding the field. And so, yes, that’s something that most musicians who play in a band where improvising is the ask of the evening, this kind of understanding of each other’s’ space and being able to stay in that space and venture out only when required and requested by others, is something that one does follow very tenaciously and in a very focused discipline.

CB: I was recently watching a dialogue you did with Vijay Iyer at the BANFF Arts Center earlier this year. And you were talking about how, coming to the U.S. and being exposed to a lot of different percussion styles—Afro-Cuban, jazz, Tony Williams, Max Roach—did that change the way you think about the space of tabla itself and how to express different ideas through the tabla?

ZH: Absolutely. And, ultimately, tabla is a percussion instrument with a long, well-established tradition. It has its repertoire that you adhere to but at the same time, how to be able to speak the language of that repertoire, how you phrase it and how you compose your sentences and paragraphs has a lot to do with your own sense of musicality and that comes from, obviously, practicing, experiencing, knowing the language as well as you can, and also seeing many different ways of expressions. When you read a novel, for instance, whether it’s written by Ludlum or by Clavell or anybody, you will find that there are certain grammatical phrases which are common among the novelists. They use it, they express themselves in those ways, they build a scene—that you have possibly seen in other novels built—etc. etc. So those are experiences people have been inspired by, been impressed with and they take that forward into their own language and be able to speak it that way. And that’s what I meant when I said people like Max Roach or Armando Pereza or Airto Moreira or Jack DeJohnette, these are people you watch and admire for the way they are able to speak through their instrument and make it be it larger than just a rhythm tool. They create the illusion that that instrument they are playing with is an extension of themselves and therefore they are being somebody who is opening himself to the whole world in a detailed manner; so you know what this person is all about, through his music. And that kind of narrative quality is something that I look for and have been inspired by, blessed by, by watching these great masters play and take into my tabla.

So my tabla has elements of drums, congas, djembes, talking drums, piano, various other elements like bass or banjo, and I learn rhythmic phrasings from them, patterns from them, and try to transpose my rhythm, repertoire language onto this kind of thinking. And it allows me to be a little bit of a different tabla player in my tradition and be different than any other tabla player in the world.

CB: And talking more about that fusion aspect—I didn’t want to delve too much into your past here—but this year is the 40th Anniversary of the first recordings you made with John McLaughlin and L. Shankar in Shakti. What do you think about Shakti and those records 40 years later? How do you think of yourself as a musician then as you do to now?

ZH: Well I have to say that was one of the greatest experiences of my life, a greatest learning curve in my life, and to be with someone like John, whose generosity of spirit is amazing and who gave much much more than he actually got from me. I learned so much about jazz harmony and where the downbeat is and the body language and the eye contact among jazz musicians and stuff: so much of that from John. But as a band, Shakti, I have to say, it’s like that magical time when four people who happen to look at each other and we’re thinking the same thing, talking the same thing, expressing the same thing, at the same time without having seen each other before or lived with each other before or even having the same kind of musical trainings as they were growing up before. It was uncanny how comfortable it felt to be onstage John, playing with us Indian musicians, and how he just was not a jazz musician or a rock musician or anything: He was a musician, who appeared to be one of the most [Pauses]. How you say…Adaptable personalities for any kind of music in the world. And that made Shakti a great band because we never really rehearsed; we just got on the stage and played. And it was all us having that kind of confidence in our ability to be able to interpret each other’s’ body language and signals and facial expressions and musical thinking. So that is rare that that can happen with people from different backgrounds. And I have to say that I had more focus that I had to put into getting to know my South Indian rhythm mate in that band than I did with John because Vikku came from a very disciplined and strict rhythmic tradition of South India and South Indian and North Indian drummers never interacted. So this was the first time that that actually took place. And so we had to go through not only rhythmic barriers but also some kind of psychological barriers between ourselves to be able to get to a point where it was all fun and great experience and a fabulous ride. It happened but it took a little time, but no such issues with John or with Shankar; it was amazing.

CB: You’ve played with John McLaughlin, so many jazz musicians, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead—do you consider yourself a ‘jazz musician’ or do titles get in the way of the music?

ZH: I don’t think any musician considers himself tied to a certain label because music is a universal language. Look, you have ‘Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do’ here. We have, equally, the same notes in India, we just speak it differently; we say ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.’ When Duke Ellington came to India and he was playing with his band and he was taking a solo, there was an Indian musician who was sitting next to me who was telling my father “Oh look, his Ma is a little sharper than ours,” or, “His Pa is a little bit flatter than ours, but his Dha is just so perfect.” And those were the Indian names of the same notes that Ellington was playing, so it’s universal. It’s amazing to have that. So I do not consider myself as a jazz musician. I am probably getting to a point where I do not identify myself strictly as an Indian musician as well. So I feel that I am a musician who is among a new breed of new musicians which came about in the early 70s and have more of a global quality about us. There are many musicians like me, like Niladri, who would be one of those kind of musicians or Shankar. L. Shankar was one of those, Doctor Subrahmanyam is one of those; there are many Indian musicians who kind of fit into that category. I will say that Ravi Shankar was a global musician, not just an Indian musician. So that’s where I feel I am; I am a musician who is not going to confine myself to one box because that limits my vision, my ability to be able to communicate with other musicians from all over the world.

CB: In that same talk you did with Vijay, you talked about how the ethos of the Indian musician is that you have to find out what the instrument wants to do, and let the instrument speak through you. What is your tabla saying today? What is it trying to say in 2016?

ZH: Well, what’s interesting is, my tabla is actually pointing out to me how much more there is to do. The thing is, every time you play with a new musician, you see that musician looking at your music, your ability, yourself, through his or her eyes, and therefore discovering different shades that I myself may have overlooked or just kind of passed over because it just didn’t seem important. But just by playing with a new musician I’ve found, “Oh, this is an interesting look at what I can do or what I was doing,” let’s see if I can enhance that experience a little more. So that’s what my tabla is doing now. When I started playing with Bill Laswell and Mickey – we were doing our global drum projects and stuff – tabla suddenly became an entity which was a more modern entity. It was all this electronica, bass and drum, and I was putting my tabla through midi and having all these incredible tones and choral elements emerge. My instrument had become very gigantic and very large and suddenly there it was; it was actually showing me the depth of what is possible if I would only keep pursuing as opposed to just sitting down and saying “OK, maybe I’m done.” So my tabla is saying to me, “No you’re not, there’s more to do: Miles to go before you sleep.”

Zakir Hussain performs in a tabla-sitar duo with Niladri Kumar at Sixth & I Synagogue on Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased here.



Jackson Sinnenberg

About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson Sinnenberg is an Associate Producer for SiriusXM and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Downbeat, NPR Music,, the Washington City Paper, On Tap/District Fray Magazine and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He began covering the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture. Reach him at Follow him at @sinnenbergmusic.

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