SAN ANSELMO, Calif. — He is perhaps the best-known tabla player in the world.
But Indian American musician Zakir Hussain — the son of the late, much-acclaimed Ustad Alla Rakha — believes there are dozens of tabla players who are better than him. “I’m known as the marquee tabla player of this time, but I’m not the best tabla player around. I’m one of the good ones,” Hussain told India-West in a wide-ranging interview at his office here, home to his label Moment Records.
He named several of his contemporaries including Swapan Chaudhari, Anindo Chatterjee, his brother Faisal Qureshi, and the young female newcomer Anuradha Pal, among several others.
“They are all playing incredible tabla and on any given day they are much better than I am,” Hussain said, adding that he hoped the visibility of tabla would rise as more musicians enter the scene.
“Tabla players were considered second-class citizens, absolutely seldom did you see their name on the marquee. People like my father through their magnetic personalities and great performances created the need for the audiences to know about them.”
They brought the status of tabla and tabla players up and we as the next generation of tabla players are reaping the rewards.”
“Now tabla players the world over are also asked to lead their own ensembles. Someone like me has been asked to write music for tabla and full symphony orchestras,” he told India-West.
“And that's unheard of in the world of Western classical music, because you've got 90 instruments on the stage who are melodic instruments and you are a rhythmic instrument and suddenly, you are the soloist,” said the renowned musician jovially.
On Oct. 12, Hussain will kick off an extensive performance schedule, first performing for two nights at SF Jazz, with Bela Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on base, and special guest Rakesh Chaurasia on bansuri. They will perform at several venues throughout the U.S. Hussain will then travel to Europe where he will perform in several countries with Dave Holland on the base and renowned saxophonist Chris Potter. He then heads to India to perform at several venues during the nation’s annual music festival season.
Fleck and Meyer are both multi-Grammy winners; Hussain said he considers Meyer “the best classical base player in the world.” The three had worked together before when Nashville, Tennessee, was building a new concert hall for its symphony orchestra and commissioned the as-yet-unformed trio to write a new piece.
The trio wrote the Grammy-nominated “Melody of Rhythm.” Hussain later asked Fleck and Meyer to come to Mumbai to perform for his late father’s annual remembrance services and introduced them there to several musicians, including Chaurasia.
“He jammed with us and it seemed like the perfect fit. Meyer is a bass player, so therefore he's melodic but rhythmic. Bela is a banjo player and he’s melodic and rhythmic. I am a tabla player which has some melodic tones, but mostly it is with rhythm.”
“So we needed something that could fly all over us in a whole melodic experience which is a floaty experience as opposed to a rhythmic experience. And Rakesh fit the bill just perfectly so we invited him and we did this tour last fall and it was a big success,” Hussain told India-West.
Watch the full interview here:
During the tour, the quartet will premiere some music from their yet-unfinished CD. The Mumbai-born musician — who has hung on to his Indian citizenship despite living in the U.S. for almost half a century — said one of his favorite pieces is “B Tune.”
“It is an unusual tone because first of all, it's in the key of B, which is a highly unusual note for the flute and so it's a challenge for someone like Rakesh bhai to be able to find a way to fit into that kind of tonal mode.” “And for me my preferred tabla of choice is usually tuned to the key of either D or E, but I have to play B so that tone and the texture of the tone that it brings out is going to be different,” explained Hussain.
“So in that sense, it's a very interesting piece because it has incorporated not only the tonal challenges, but at the same time there are the piece has element of bluegrass, Western classical music, and of course Indian classical music and Indian folk music. All those four elements have come together in this piece.”
“It's really I would say the flag bearer piece of what the four of us are all about and represent,” he added.
Hussain will also perform with conductor Zane Dalal and the National Symphony Orchestra of India on Jan. 24, 2020 in Toronto, Canada, with a guest artist, the trailblazing base player John Patitucci.
The orchestra will perform “Peshkar,” a symphony written by Hussain.
In the interview with India-West, Hussain discussed the challenges of composing classical symphonies: he has now finished three and feels he will be pushed in that direction.
“When you're writing a piece of music, it's not just singing one line and saying ‘oh that's a melody.’ You have to take the melody and you have to find (what all the sections do) and find how they have to live together. That they are not in any way sounding like a cacophony, but they are living in harmony and peace together.”
“And so now you're not only thinking of melody, you're thinking of four layers to that melody. So that is a big challenge for someone like me who did not grow up learning Western classical music. It is something that I had to educate myself in the last 10 years or so.”
“I have to say that it's a humongous mountain to cross and in 10 years I’ve only scratched the surface,” said Hussain.