Lawrence Toppman

A rare chance to see a world master

Tabla player Zakir Hussain (left) and sitarist Niladri Kumar have been collaborators for many years, though they’re a generation apart in age. This photo comes from a concert in India in 2006.
Tabla player Zakir Hussain (left) and sitarist Niladri Kumar have been collaborators for many years, though they’re a generation apart in age. This photo comes from a concert in India in 2006.

Zakir Hussain’s father was a percussionist. His younger brother is a percussionist. His younger younger brother is a percussionist. Even his wife is a percussionist: She trained in classical Indian dance, which involves finger cymbals and other struck instruments.

So being the best percussion player in his family would be an accomplishment. But many people will tell you he’s the best in the world at the six-drum set of tablas, which he uses to lull you into a trance state or jolt you into a rhythmic frenzy. You’ll find out Oct. 9, when Hussain and sitar player Niladri Kumar play a concert at CPCC’s Halton Theater.

How good is Hussain? Go to the “Indian heroes” section of iloveindia.com or the “20 Indian musicians you should hear once in your life” at thebetterindia.com – a list going back six centuries – and he’s there. You know how people say “Look up the word ‘X’ in the dictionary, and you’ll see his picture?’ Look up the word “tabla” on Wikipedia, and you really will see his picture.

Another generation might’ve seen a picture of Alla Rakha Qureshi, Hussain’s dad and sitarist Ravi Shankar’s left-hand man. They introduced the fundamental string-percussion sound of Indian music to Western audiences half a century ago.

Hussain has often told the story of his father’s blessing, traditionally given to a child two days after birth. Most dads whisper a benediction into an infant’s ear. Alla Rakha whispered rhythms. Almost as soon as Hussain had a heartbeat, he heard a drumbeat.

No wonder the boy was playing by the age of 3, touring India at 11 and made his first appearance in the United States at 19. Destiny prevails – however much your mother tries to derail it.

“I was sent to the right schools to get to the point where I could be a doctor,” he recalled, driving from his northern California home to the studio of fabled drummer-producer Mickey Hart. “I wasn’t bad in school, but I had to tell my mom, ‘I don’t want to be a doctor. My heart lies in rhythms.’

“She exiled me to her best friend’s house, so I would be away from my father and his students. That backfired, because the best friend’s daughter was learning Indian classical dance. We ended up practicing together, so my mother unwittingly focused me back on music.”

Hussain had no doubts himself: “The determination to do it was more and more, as my relationship with my father grew. This was what set my adrenalin flowing. There was no reason to put a cork in it.”

He cut his musical teeth on Bollywood movies in the 1960s, where “the tabla player established himself at the head of the table, and you had to work up to that. So I started to play tambourine, bongo drums, the Indian version of a conga. Sometimes I just did handclaps. Eventually ... tabla.”

He found his first footing in America in 1970 with the jazz-rock band Shanti. (It means “peace.”) “I never figured that out, really,” he says. “There were four American musicians playing electric guitars and bass and drums. I played tabla, and another Indian musician played sarod. We made a record for Atlantic – one of the first attempts at world music – and I even played congas and sang harmony.”

His career took off when he changed one letter, joining Shakti. (It means “spirit.”) That band, fronted by jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, formed to critical acclaim in 1974 and toured for three years. Twenty years later, it re-formed briefly as “Remember Shakti,” with those two at the helm. In between, Hussain appeared in films as an actor-musician (“Apocalypse Now,” “Heat and Dust”), wrote movie scores and worked with Hart on his Planet Drum project, which earned the first world music Grammy in 1991.

But he never took students.

“That’s a responsibility beyond my comprehension. I have retreats and get together with young musicians who already have gurus, and I guide them as a mentor. I have started bringing young musicians to this part of the world and explaining how to perform on the world’s stage.

“My father said, ‘The reason I don’t like to tell someone “That is my student” is that the responsibility is enormous.’ There’s an ego thing involved when that student gets onstage; if he messes up, it reflects on the teacher. And you must help them find their own way; you can’t make someone a carbon copy of you. Carbons get thrown in the waste bin.”

Over time, Hussain became an elder statesman of his instrument, so much so that Niladri Kumar can be referred to on his tour and website as “the young master of the sitar” – though he is 43.

“By the time you are 20 in the Indian music world, you have started on a journey. It takes 15 to 20 years to be reckoned with. At 37-38, you are a musician of repute. You become a master at perhaps 60. Sitar players in (the generation) after Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan, the ones in their 60s now, are acknowledged masters. Niladri is the bench strength, the one who will have genius and be accepted as a master in the future.”

At 65, Hussain has earned his status and awards by walking multiple musical paths. Take his latest DVD, “SF Jazz Sessions 2013:” He collaborates with Kumar and other Indian musicians, drummer Steve Smith of Journey, the banjo-bass team of Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, conga master Giovanni Hidalgo and dancer Antonia Minnecola (Hussain’s wife and producer).

You see rapt joy on his face as he plays. After 53 years, what puts it there? What makes a concert a success?

“All the stars align in the same place. The musicians are thinking what you’re thinking. The audience is reading the music the way you are. It’s like a large arrow goes through the room, piercing you and the musicians and the audience through the heart. A one-hour concert seems to be three minutes long.

“It doesn’t matter afterward if I played better than someone, or someone else played well and I played badly. When it creates that energy – that’s a success.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar

When: 4 p.m. Oct. 9.

Where: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.

Tickets: $30-$75.

Details: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu. Also Indian Performing Arts Association of Charlotte, the concert’s sponsor.

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