Politics should not be involved in music, which represents connections across cultures, said tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, who is currently on tour across the U.S. with sitarist Niladri Kumar and will perform Oct. 26 at Zellerbach Hall, in Berkeley, Calif., and Oct. 27 at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.
“Our music lives in India and in Pakistan,” Hussain told India-West Oct. 7, by telephone from Louisville, Kentucky, explaining that words and compositions are similar in both cultures. “Why are we involving a creative genre in religion and politics?” he queried.
“Music has no boundaries or frontiers,” stated Hussain, who lives in Northern California. “That’s why I can play with musicians from any country,” he said, noting that Indian music has influences from African, Arabic and Sufi cultures.
“Music is a universal language which shapes the globe into one big community,” he said.
The musical legend’s comments come amidst a controversy in India, in which – post the Sept. 19 attack by militants on an army base on Kashmir’s Line of Control – artists from Pakistan have been banned in India. Several prominent Indian actors – including Salman Khan and Nana Patekar – and director Karan Johar have condemned the ban, while others, including actors Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn, and Farah Khan, have supported the move.
Born in Mumbai in 1951, Hussain emigrated to the U.S. in 1969, but continues to hang on to his Indian citizenship. The musician revealed to India-West that earlier this year, he received a call from the White House: he had been tapped to receive an Arts and Humanities medal.
The medal is given only to U.S. citizens. The White House encouraged Hussain to apply for his citizenship so that he could receive the honor this fall. Hussain declined.
“I honestly believe that I am solely an Indian. My music ties me to a culture that is 3,000 years old and that tie cannot easily be broken,” said Hussain, who has received both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, India’s highest civilian honors.
On April 30, Hussain played for President Barack Obama during the fifth International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert, held on the south lawn of the White House. Joining Hussain were musical luminaries Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy, Sting, Al Jarreau and Diana Krall, among the list of legends.
“I was so honored to perform at the White House,” Hussain told India-West, adding that the occasion was especially memorable because it was also his father’s birthday. Hussain is the son of the legendary tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha.
After the performance, all the musicians got together to sing “Happy Birthday” to the late Rakha. Hussain said he shook hands with Obama, and told him that his father had performed there 30 years earlier. The president also wished Hussain’s father a happy birthday.
In recent years, Hussain has taken to touring with emerging artists from India. “It gives me a little spark,” he said. “I’m growing as a musician and realizing, ‘wow, there’s still so much more to do.’”
“Music has changed so rapidly,” said the musician, noting that he did not grow up with rap and hip hop. “Young musicians look at a raga pattern with a global understanding and can produce new ways of transforming melodic patterns. They are the bridge between what was and what is.”
Niladri Kumar, who has been playing with Hussain for 10 years, told India-West he is still in awe of playing with the legend. “It’s still sometimes difficult to believe I’m actually there. There is an aura about him and his music, and I grew up seeing that,” said Kumar. “It is such a blessing in my stars to be performing with him.”
“Every concert is a learning experience. The soul and essence of our music is improvisation and he is the supreme improviser,” said the Kolkata-born Kumar.
“Ragas and talas have been played for centuries, but each time, there must be something different for the musician and the listener,” he added.
Hussain and Kumar have been performing to sold-out audiences throughout the U.S. Before the Berkeley concert, presented by Cal Performances – at which they will perform with the legendary percussionist Mickey Hart who has collaborated with Hussain for several years – they will perform in New York; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C. and Seattle, Washington.
The duo’s concert in Costa Mesa at 8 p.m. is being presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which has presented the world’s most acclaimed international artists since its founding in 1954. For more information about the Berkeley performance, visit calperformances.org or call 510-642-9988, and for the Costa Mesa performance, visit PhilharmonicSociety.org or call 949-553-2422. The full tour schedule is available online at zakirhussain.com.