Ustad Zakir Hussain doesn’t really need an introduction… One of the most progressive classical musicians of our times, Zakirbhai, as he is fondly called, has experimented with all genres ranging from classical, fusion, world music, jazz and even symphonies. At 60, he performs at over 150 concerts a year across the globe, and continues to enthrall listeners with his bustling energy – on stage and even off it. As a matter of fact, one thing that you can’t escape when you are with Zakir Hussain is his childlike enthusiasm and sharp wit. Chiraag Sutar in a tête-à-tête with India’s most loved musician during his recent India sojourn.
This is generally the time of the year when you come to India…
I come to India when it cools off a bit… but it’s not just me, there are a lot of Indian musicians who do this. There is a misconception that I am the only one. A lot of Indian musicians leave India when it starts to get hot (around early April) and travel between April and October all over Europe, America, Australia for concerts, and by November everybody is back. This migration of Indian artistes has been going on for the past 35-40 years, and it has grown over the years to over 300 artistes.
And it’s probably possible because of the opening that the earlier classical musicians have made for these 300-400 musicians…
Well, 300-400 musicians are a big number! If you consider one classical musician playing an average of 12 shows in the United States in a year, 300 musicians play 3600 odd shows in the United States alone…
What about the number of shows happening in India?
In India, the shows can only happen during winter. The summer is too hot, and the monsoon makes it difficult for musicians and the audience to move around. Around October, things start getting better. You’ll find a lot of concerts advertised from November to March… but it’s not that there isnothing happening otherwise… it’s just that there is a time – it’s like India plays cricket in India only in winter, but when they don’t play in India, doesn’t mean that they are not playing…
Are there any new collaborations that you are working on at the moment?
Well, it all happens from time to time. One thing that should be understood is that it’s not necessary that artistes will do a new collaboration every time he or she comes on the stage. They may actually be consolidating the old collaboration, and that the old collaboration has showed them something interesting that they are probably expanding on. In a way, media are pushing the art community to come up with different things, but in a way the media are also making it impossible for an artiste to come up with something and then live with it for a while so that it nurtures. Now the artiste feels that every time he or she meets the media, they better come up with something. Many times, many interesting things are left behind in the interest of saying something different to the media. But having said that, as far as collaborations go, I have run into musicians whom I have enjoyed working with or started working with people whom I feel is evolving into something interesting, but it needs a little time. I am currently writing an orchestral for the National Symphonic Orchestra of the United States. It will be performed at the Kennedy Centre… that’s one project that I am doing and Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan are also a part of it.
How many concerts do you do in a year?
Over 150 concerts every year… and recordings with some fabulous musicians… like the trio that I do with Bela Fleck, bass player Edgar Meyer… that’s something which is a very successful combination. In the last season, in America alone, we did about 62 shows and they have all been great. Now we have been asked to do more so we start again in March. The Global Drum Project won a Grammy a couple of years ago, and we are in the process of recording our second album…
Is this new record going to be with the same team that won the Grammy?
Yes… because we did one recording (The Global Drum Project), and it’s only now that we feel that we are better informed about each other. There is no point in not bringing that into effect. We have already started working on the second album.
Tell us about the new musicians/music that you are discovering…
Actually, I am discovering a lot of musicians in India… and it’s mainly the folk musicians. It’s a well known fact that folk music is an important element in Indian music. It has always been so, and that is why it allows instruments like flute and santoor to prosper as Indian classical instruments. Having said that, India is a big country, and there are still areas of India that are not truly explored… so every once in a while you run into something that you have not seen or heard before. Once I was in a place some four and half hours from Chennai, and I tuned into the local Doordarshan channel there. There was a bunch of musicians in colourful attire playing Manjira, and a drum that looked like a snare drum which was tied to their hip. One of them was playing the bass part, and the other was playing the high part of it, and along with those musicians were two men dressed as women. There was drumming, dancing and speaking… so obviously, it was some kind of a story telling. That was quite interesting.
Then I had gone to a remote village in Manipur, and I saw people who were playing drums tied to their hips and they were dancing while playing and somersaulting at the same time – I took them to America, Europe and Japan with me. So this is the process that I have been going through when it comes to discovering new music and artistes. I have now sent out feelers to find those folk musicians down south so that I can take them with me. There is so much in terms of Indian folk art that is still to be discovered, and it’s not just me who is looking towards India… there are many other musicians.
I have heard from many musicians that it’s a privilege to have you on the tabla… what is your approach when you are performing with a musician?
I believe in nurturing a musical relationship. Let’s say I play with Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia or Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma. I have been playing with them for the last 40 years. For me, that is a very important relationship because the music we make is spontaneous, and in order for that to occur without any pre planned preparations, you have to know each other inside out… you have to understand each other’s psyche, temperament, and each other’s creative abilities and likes and dislikes… so when you relate to them with that kind of understanding, a piece of music which makes sense is created. I find that in the last 15 years, we have reached a point where there is a very special relation… an intimacy of sorts that reflects in our music on stage… so, our music (at least in our opinion) is blossoming.
Speaking about teaching tabla… You also have a music school in the US?
I don’t, but my father has a school here in India which my brother Fazal Qureshi runs… and when I am in India, I interact with the students. Every summer, I do a camp where students from India, Europe, America, Japan, Australia come together and then we go to the countryside and live together… we do it ashram style. For many days, we practice together, learn and talk about music. But being a travelling musician, I cannot be at one place and teach, so there is no point in me having a school … which
is why I do these camps. I am available for my father’s school when I am here. Apart from that, if there are students in whichever city that I am going to, I meet them.
“I love what Karsh Kale and Talvin Singh do with the tabla, but having come from the generation before them, I find it difficult to tamper with the original organic tone of the instrument”
Tell us about your tabla set-up – over the years, you seem to have added a lot of things…
The tabla is a new instrument. It’s only 300 years old compared to the sitar (which is 800 years old) and the veena (which is 1800 years old) So, the instrument is new… and it’s only recently that we have discovered ways to be able to make it sound better and better. Over the last 30 years, I got to a point where I asked myself– now what do I do? I have done as much as I can do with the tabla… Then come guys like Talvin Singh, and they put an electronic gizmo into the tabla and connect it to their computers and create a remix variety of the sound of tabla which is very interesting…
I love what Karsh Kale and Talvin Singh do with the tabla, but having come from the generation before them, I find it difficult to tamper with the original organic tone of the instrument. I can’t put electronic gizmos, so I have found different ways where I use sound boxes, and a variety of ways with which I could just take the regular microphone onto the instrument, preserve the original sound, and go into the gizmo which allows me to go into the computer and then process the sound of my tabla – so I can add the delay, reverbs or choose the phasing of the instrument. I have been working on this for a long time – to preserve the tone of the instrument, but yet be able to take the instrument to a different realm…
Trilok [Gurtu], as you might have noticed, is also into organic sound, and that’s the difference between a DJ and musician. A DJ will play with his computer, but on stage, it doesn’t look like they are playing anything… it looks like they are checking their emails. So what happens is that the audience has a very difficult time relating to what’s coming into their ears.
Speaking about your film scores – are you very selective?
I mostly work on independent films because it allows me to take the time and also the freedom to do things my way. Not that I don’t want to do Hindi films, it’s just that Bollywood requires a longer focus and a different type… and for me as a travelling musician, it’s difficult. So unless a project comes to me, like they have before, I don’t go looking for it.
Recently, you and a few other classical musicians met prime minister Manmohan Singh to discuss the promotion of classical music and arts… what was the meeting about?
The PM wanted to know what we musicians think about the issues relating to classical music and the musicians.
The thing is – if a musician works, he makes money, if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t make money. Usually, a musician makes money, and then settles down, but when you settle down… there isn’t much money coming. There have been occasions when a musician has died in poverty… Right now, musicians do not have a social security fund or a retirement fund or insurance. So, some successful musicians have come together to see if we can find a way to make that happen for the performing classical musicians. The musicians who are faces in the media thought that if we talked about it, something could happen… At present, Doordarshan has stopped hiring musicians; they have stopped the orchestra that they had. The process of the audition board that takes decisions on who will perform on radio or Doordarshan is suspended. We are now involved in actually putting together the audition board so that musicians can be auditioned, their categories decided and they can be hired again. We have also asked for more money to be allotted to the traditional arts and have asked that the present budget of Rs 40 crore be increased by another Rs 20 crore.
By when can we expect the government to do something substantial about this?
This is a process and it will continue for a while… laws will be passed… now they are working on a process to standardize the music curriculum in schools. That doesn’t mean we will force students to study music, but there will be academic knowledge about music in the curriculum. Once that happens, there will be thousands of musicians who will be employed by the government and enjoy the benefits of medical expenses, pension funds etc…
Before we sign off – when is Shakti playing in India next?
Shakti gets together every year… sometimes we get together in the US or in Europe. We come together for 15 – 20 shows, but most of these are held in America alone. All musicians who are part of Shakti are travelling musicians, so after we come together we don’t see each other for two years… hopefully, we will come together in India in 2012.