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Tabla superstar Zakir Hussain continues reinventing himself even after winning three more Grammy Awards

Zakir Hussain
Later this month, Zakir Hussain will perform with two younger musicians—Sabir Khan and Debopriya Chatterjee—at the University of British Columbia and Victoria's Royal Theatre. Photo by Susana Millman.

Tabla master Zakir Hussain wants everyone to know that he’s a lifelong learner. This is the case even after winning three Grammy Awards this year at the age of 72.

“We are all students from the day we live to the day we die,” the Mumbai-born Hussain tells Pancouver over Zoom.

Nowadays, the Indian classical-music legend is gaining new insights from two younger musical collaborators, sarangi player Sabir Khan and bansuri (bamboo flute) player Debopriya Chatterjee. Together, they will perform as Tisra (Three) at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on April 27 and Victoria’s Royal Theatre on April 28.

“When I grew up learning Indian music, it was more ‘blinkers on’—and [it was] not until I got to the Mumbai studios and then subsequently to America and Europe that I actually got to interact and open my panorama to learn more,” says Hussain. “But these young musicians grow up from the get-go, learning music as a more planetary thing—more global.”

As a result, Hussain maintains that their approach to analyzing ragas is different than older classical Indian musicians.

“To react to that forces me to look at myself a little differently,” Hussain acknowledges. “Maybe, I can reinvent myself. So, the learning process for me starts afresh.”

This fills the astonishingly energetic Hussain with excitement. When asked how he maintains his passion for music after so many years, he replies: “You should have seen Ravi Shankar at 80 or my father at 75.”

Hussain was raised in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Mahim and he has been living in the U.S. for decades.

Zakir Hussain
Bansuri player Debopriya Chatterjee (left) and sarangi player Sabir Khan (right) are part of Zakir Hussain’s Tisra trio.

Father mentored Hussain

His father and mentor, Ustad Allah Rakha Khan, was an Indian classical music giant. Hussain played concerts by the age of seven and toured at the age of 12.

“My father was the first in our generations of family who was a musician,” says Hussain. “There was nobody before that.”

This year’s Grammy Awards came for work on two different albums.

He recorded This Moment with his band Shakti. He formed the group with guitarist John McLaughlin, Indian violinist L. Shankar, and percussionist T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram back in the early 1970s.

The current lineup includes McLaughlin, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, classical Indian violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan, and Vinayakram’s son Selvanganesh on percussion. Shakti was honoured for Best Global Music Album.

This Moment has eight tracks. Remarkably, it’s the first album in 46 years released under the Shakti nameplate. Hussain points out that he worked with the 83-year-old McLaughlin for 50 years before they won a Grammy together.

“He’s, like, there’s more out there—and I want it,’ ” the tabla master says. “This kind of eagerness and willingness to go once more into the fray with glee is something that is just so infectious.”

Hussain also picked up a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album this year for As We Speak. Recorded with banjo player Béla Fleck, double bassist Edgar Meyer, and bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia, it integrates Indian, jazz, and bluegrass music. Fleck wrote the opening track, “Owl’s Misfortune”,  to “echo  the different worlds we all come from”.

The third Grammy Award this year came for Best Global Music Performance for “Pashto”. This track demonstrates how Hussain changes tempo so flawlessly on the tabla. He also won a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Contemporary World Music Album for Global Drum Project.

Listen to “Pashto”.

Crediting his collaborators

Hussain modestly says that he just got lucky winning three Grammy Awards this year. He adds that he was fortunate to be “locked in with some of the greatest practitioners of the arts at just the right time”.

“They carried me over the threshold,” he states.

His collaboration with Fleck and Meyer originated when they were asked to write a piece of music for an orchestra to play. Because it was only 28 minutes long, they thought of making more music to fill out a 60-minute CD.

“These little steps that went forward happened because the chemistry between us was so comfortable,” Hussain says.

He points out that this relationship didn’t actually begin with music. At first, they came to know one another over what they like to eat, drink, and read. Their families got together as well.

“That kind of grew into us arriving at such an in-depth comfort zone that it allows us to really—as a very natural process—play music together,” Hussain states. “With our relationship at that level, and all the layers that that entails, just made it possible for us to be so conversationalist with each other—without using human words but just melodies, rhythms, and so on and so forth.”

Their first album, The Melody of Rhythm, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2010.

Hussain has played with many groundbreaking musicians in his career, including Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and jazz legend Herbie Hancock. He has also scored music for several feature films.

Zakir Hussain performed a tabla solo after receiving an honorary degree from Berklee College in 2019.

Hussain promotes cross-cultural dialogue

Moreover, Hussain has developed dialogues between North and South Indian musicians. This came from his recording sessions for Indian films in Mumbai.

He recalls how he would be in a large room with 60 musicians simultaneously. At one end would be a string section with violins, violas, cellos, and bass. Indian instruments would be at the other end of the room. And in the centre would be the rhythm section. Meanwhile, singers would be in the booth with their own microphones.

“So, we were just playing music—a sitar player playing with a guitar player or a flute bansuri artist playing with a saxophone player,” Hussain says. “I grew up with that. So when we got together, there were North Indian and South Indian musicians as well… That led to a natural understanding.”

Moreover, he was young enough not to be tied into the strict disciplinary system of Indian classical music. This explains why he was sufficiently flexible enough to join Shakti in the early 1970s with McLaughlin and the South Indian percussionist Vinayakram.

“Music is music,” Hussain emphasizes. “We know that the seven notes are the same everywhere on the planet. [With] the flat and sharp included, all the 12 notes are the same, whether it’s on a western piano or an Indian harmonium.

“If that is the same and that’s the core of our understanding of notes or melody, why is it then a problem to be able to interact and work together?” he continues. “Rhythms, as you know, are universal. This is the kind of thinking that people like John McLaughlin or Edgar [Meyer] or Béla [Fleck] or George Harrison or John Coltrane—so many great musicians—have that made them step out of their comfort zone.”

Event details

Zakir Hussain’s trio, Tisra, will play UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on April 27 and Victoria’s Royal Theatre on April 28. For tickets, visit the Caravan World Rhythms website. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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