In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

zakir-ji
(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Interview with Yours Truly

Rachel Cordasco of the website Speculative Fiction in Translation, interviewed me about my translation of Japanese author Yusaku Kitano’s science fiction masterpiece, Mr. Turtle. Click the cover below to read!

Turtle Cover

Matt Borghi & Michael Teager: Illuminating through Shadow

While feeding your eyes, why not feed your ears:

Guitarist Matt Borghi and saxophonist Michael Teager turn gasses into solids. Their process, however, goes beyond chemistry and physics, drawing as they do from a less definable well that some might call inspiration, others spirit, and still others ether. Separately, they have broadened their cartographies across continents. As a duo, they form their own by tender volcanism.

I spoke via e-mail with the musicians, both of whom were grateful in sharing their time and wisdom to illuminate the drift they have manifested. When I asked them to describe their relationship, Borghi likened it to a “combined meditation,” by which two become one through their non-traditional overlap. Teager, for his part, sees what they’re doing as a “contemplative improvised music,” forged not through a simple meeting of instruments but a more rhizomatic, orchestral sensibility.

While on paper their credits imply rock or jazz lineages, with respect to their instruments Borghi and Teager rest in a world apart. Despite a self-professed love/hate relationship with the guitar, Borghi manages to distill magic from its strings through an array of digital effects, but also, more importantly, an unrestricted approach. “That’s why I like improvisation so much,” he says. “It’s a constant exploration. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes you don’t, but each time you start there’s the possibility of hitting something that’s musically profound.” Teager, having more experience as an improviser, has overcome the challenge of owning his reeds, saying, “As a saxophonist in a stylistic continuum, I’m on my own island when it comes to our music. The name I get most often is Jan Garbarek, and while I do like Garbarek’s playing (particularly with Keith Jarrett), I don’t have a deep knowledge of his catalogue. (He’s my ECM blind spot, partially intentionally.) I try not to listen to other ‘ambient’ saxophonists too much. There are so few of us, and the last thing I want is to subconsciously encroach on another’s territory.”

If anything may be compared, it’s Teager’s likeminded patience for notecraft. To be sure, he has found a beautiful comfort in Borghi’s elastic netting, one in which he more often reacts than dictates in a real-time space that privileges atmospheric over egotistic expression. It’s a dynamic evinced in the 2013 album Convocation. Though an unscripted narrative, it develops from the title reverie to a slow-motion ballad (“Discern Descent”) with inchoate coherence. “Nebula Divide,” on the other hand, operates on a more cosmic scale, changing from monochrome to color and back again along an epic flight path. Such titles, among them also “Constant Apex,” help visualize the music’s ethos in all its asymptotic blush.

Convocation

For me, the most evocative drop takes shape in “Precipice.” Borghi wrenches an organic pulse from his guitar, like a light signaling a lone wayfarer from far off, while Teager echoes its promise of shelter in a darkening sky. I can’t help, if from the title alone, be reminded of a performance I once experienced of Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, who barely moved a few inches from a wall over the course of an hour, as if standing on a cliff in contemplation of suicide. Though not so morbid, here the feeling is one of suspension, embraced by the grandeur of creation.

If my association suggests anything, it’s that these sounds welcome any interpretations listeners might bring to the table. The same is reflected in the artists of influence lurking in the background. Just as Borghi cites Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, and Harold Budd as vital touchpoints in his growth, Teager’s range from Dave Liebman and Charles Lloyd to Richard Wagner and Smashing Pumpkins. And while you may not necessarily detect any of these on the surface, an emotional affinity lances them all.

So it is with 2014’s Shades of Bending Light, wherein mixtures born of experimentation yield integral new structures. “Joyce’s Fanfare” begins at dawn, flowing with the tide between binary chords, while Teager builds his wingspan one feather at a time. A similar approach—spreading the seeds and listening to them grow—blossoms through all that follows.

Shades of Bending Light

Whether in the desolation of “Daisy Chain” or the rhythmic fantasy of “Weird Minor,” or even the farewell energy of “Blue Sky Fades,” an environmental residue stays behind to remind us of what transpired. The album is, further, an enmeshment of contradictions. Teager lights up layers of gray and mist in “Watch Over” with virtuosic runs, even as Borghi tempers his searching with diffuse endpoints. And in “Nightdrive,” which feels like an orphaned folktale hitchhiking along a runway of solitude, one may feel a bodily connection taking place. Even the album’s title track, which despite being its longest feels like its most ephemeral, is as intimate as it is boundless.

The merging of these polar forces hints at their ultimate unity, as made even clearer in 2014’s Awaken the Electric Air. Played as a late-night (4-5am) radio broadcast for WXPN in Philadelphia, it references some Convocation material with lucidity and openness of heart. Ever the transient traveler, Teager’s saxophone pulls the very horizon like a blanket before slumber, his modal sopranism in “Bed of Ash / Coda” being especially moving.

Awaken the Electric Air

The album’s live setting gives the now-familiar motif of “Nebula Divide” (paired with “Somnolence”) and, like the title track, feels sacred by sheer virtue of audibility. Lit by heightened awareness, the paths before listeners remain visible even when the final torch is extinguished, as its smoke continues to guide us by the wrists into dimensions beyond.