At age seven India’s percussion legend Zakir Hussain began his 2:00 AM to sunrise practice routines and soon found “tabla prodigy” surgically implanted in every mention of his name. Every musical tradition boasts its share of virtuosos, but Indian classical music is unique in that, centuries before jazz, it nurtured and demanded improvisational genius in the heart of its highest forms. Performance was to beget fresh creation and though the vessel might be ancient and intricate, the music birthed within it was new upon the earth and never heard before. In this tradition, virtuosity is not just an exquisite range of skills requiring thousands of hours for mastery. Mastery is not claimed or recognized until all the learned technique is surrendered to the moment and rewarded with inexplicable cascades of sensual majesty. Zakir’s percussive gifts ignited quickly in his father’s religiously disciplined crucible and his hands wakened early to the joys of playing with fire.
Son, student and disciple of tabla master Arraka Khan, Zakir was being trained to dynastically succeed his papa as Ravi Shankar’s lead accompanist and brilliantly debuted in that capacity in San Francisco in 1967. Sadly for Ravi-ji, luckily for the world, at the end of the tour Zakir’s idle hands found an enthralling devil’s playground in San Fran’s Sixties music scene. Befriended and inspired by Grateful Dead iconoclast Mickey Hart, Zakir’s creative spontaneity broke free. From his hot jazz riffs and fabled Shakti work with John McLaughlin to unforgettably moving trysts with grand symphonies, brash taiko groups and pickup ghetto bands, Zakir embodies the Muse’s promiscuous willingness to share her favors with kindred spirits anytime anywhere. Besides his own continuing forays to new musical frontiers, he also leads a series of Masters of Percussion tours that globally showcase other paragons of improvisational élan. That MOP genius tour brought him to Tokyo recently and left behind a gasping, exhilarated crowd. We talked in a vast gleaming hotel atrium about the more shadowed regions of his art and his personal understanding of the powers that he wields.
How do you feel about collaborating with Japanese artists in Japan?
Well, here it is more like a symphony orchestra or a ballet company com-missions you to write a piece for them and play it with them. And then you have to play it exactly that way everyday, down to the click track as to how fast or slow it’s going to be everyday. If you play it just a little faster, you’ll end before they finish so you’ve got to be exactly on. And that’s something very difficult for someone like me coming from an Indian music background where we don’t think of what we’re going to do when we get on stage. We just do it.
It’s like when a master tabla player is going on stage, you say, “Good luck, maestro, have a good show.” And he will say, “Well, let’s see what the instrument wants to say today.” It’s a very interesting statement because a master believes an instrument has its own spirit — it’s not just you who is going to do the talking on the stage today, the instrument’s spirit will speak, too. So what comes out is not just your will, but the instrument’s will as well.
One question on your will — I’ve watched a lot of musicians in clubs when strange things happen, like when someone is playing genius piano, for example, or guitar, and meanwhile some beautiful girl comes into the club, and he starts talking to the guy next door about what’s happening with the girl. And his hands are still playing this beautiful stuff…
… we once went to this dhrupad festival in Benares and this guy who works at a gas station in Bhopal gets up on the stage to play and his eyes roll back into his head and he just blows everyone else off the stage. Now something is happening that is perhaps not in the instrument, but it’s obviously not in the mind because it can’t operate your appendages that fast. So there is some spirit that is alive, that is manual, is physical, is apart from everything we give the head credit for. Who is that in there? What is that?
Well you can’t give the head credit for anything, I mean, it’s the heart. OK? And one thing you have to be involved with — because the spirit is speaking from the instrument, what actually is going to finally emerge if you as the musician who the instrument is plugged into and is going to so allow — is a joint statement with the instrument.
Now when a singer is singing, for instance, like a dhrupad singer, there is a spirit that resides within the raga itself. Say a Raga Malkauns, there is a spirit of Raga Malkauns. So these are spirits which actually have their own say. So when a singer is singing and say Raga Darbari or Raga Malkauns or Raga Abhogi or Ragini Bhageshri — if it so decides to bless that person today, then that person will blow everybody’s mind, because the raga will itself manifest and will, in a joint statement, reveal all the nooks and crannies, valleys and mountains within its world. And that experience is going to be mind-blowing.
Similarly when a tabla is being played or a sitar is being played or a sarod is being played and the spirit so decides to allow you to be its voice, then the magic will happen. If not, then you will just do your basic package. When you follow a musician and if you see five concerts, you might see four of them where you’re almost able to predict what’s coming next. Then there will be a fifth, which will be just out of this world, because you will not be able to latch on and say what’s coming next.
But it gets contagious — I mean, it can spread though the whole group and suddenly things happen that never happened before.
It does, it has to, because all the chakras must come together. And that means the musician, the instrument, the listeners, everything, the whole environment must accept this meeting of the spirits. And when that happens, that’s something magical, unique.
What I believe may be totally contradictory to what you may be thinking. My job as a musician is to be an entertainer. When I’m paid x amount of dollars to come on the stage to play, I’m asked to come and entertain the audience. That is my interpretation.
So when I get on the stage I am going to do my best to make the audience feel good, feel happy, enjoy, whatever. My contact with the spirit of my instrument, the spirit of my gurus — Lord Shiva with his damaru, Lord Ganesha with his pakhawaj, or Lord Krishna with his flute or Narad muni with his tambura or Saraswati with her veena — those connections, those uplifting experiences, those out of the world journeys that I’ve gone through with my music are in my private life. Or when I sit in front of my altar and I play my music and I practice my music and I have those experiences.
Now I am not going to impose those experiences on the audience. I am not going to say, “OK, now you close your eyes, take a deep breath and try to breathe in rhythm with what I’m doing.” I’m not going to do that to them, but I am hoping that those experiences that I have felt when I was practicing in front of my altar and had those visitations, that some of that aura still exists and suddenly it would reveal itself and the audience would see it and may have that experience.
So you see there are these two con-flicting situations, and this is one thing that Indian music has been struggling with a lot. Someone like Pandit Ravi Shankar will sit on the stage and close his eyes and put his face down as if to project the idea to the audience that “…look, I am getting into something very serious here.” And the incense has to be burned, the whole process. And Pandit Jasraj, the singer, he will get on the stage and in front of the audience he will do his bows and prayers and mantras, to get them to know what’s going on.
Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. I don’t believe it is a good thing, myself. I believe that’s a personal ex-perience, something intimate. And you don’t go about imposing your will on people. You show them the world that you’re in and if, so be it, that world is an incredible magnet that attracts them, then it shall be. Or else it will just be an experience where for two hours they forgot the worries of the world outside the hall. They forgot the bills they had to pay. They forgot the stock market breaking down, whatever. They had a great time and then they went home.
In your chakra calculus though, you counted audience as one part of that…
Yes, I do.
…so audience energy plays or can play…
Provided that this thing reveals itself. As I said, everything has to come together. In other words, whatever my experiences have been that morning, if in the evening some remnants of that are still there and it reveals itself, then the situation is ripe for harvest. But it has to reveal itself.
I have gone to concerts with joy in my heart, saying “Oh today, it’s going to be great because I am playing with so and so and it’s just such a fantastic combination. And we’re playing in this place and the audience is just so beautiful and they really lock in…” and it’s just been the shittiest concert I’ve ever been to.
And then I arrive at a concert in Aurangabad and because the flight to Aurangabad out of Hyderabad was cancelled, I had to drive eleven hours to get there and I arrive just in time, pulling into the driveway of the concert hall and the audience is waiting. I run into the dressing room, pour some water on my face, don’t even change, get on stage — and it’s the best thing that ever happened!
How are you going to describe that? You can’t. It’s just something that has to be, because the spirit decided to support you.
OK, allow me here a sort of medieval technical question here. It’s on conspiracy. When conspiracies started the word came from groups like the Masons, the Rosicrucians, etc. — they were largely craftspeople, the Shudra in their societies. They would get together and have these chanting sessions and bring their breath together.
OK, so you’re talking about pagans.
Well, let’s just say power stuff. They would bring their breath together and that would bring their heartbeat together and then gradually bring their brainwaves together.
But that’s what war was all about. How do you think the soldiers psyched themselves up in unison to be able to go and attack somebody?
But when they fused these bodily rhythms together they felt this “we-ness” of the group, that felt like a divinity.
You are describing exactly Alexander the Great thinking he was the big divinity with a lot of divinities under him and they’re going to go conquer the world. In Mickey Hart’s book called Drumming at the Edge of Magic, there is a chapter on me and I talk about this. When we’ve been studying for a while and it comes time when we should go out and perform, when we’ve become good enough to do that, what we’re supposed to do in north Indian music, is something called chilla. Chilla is like a coming of age.
Chilla means to go away to the place of the elders, in the forest. You’re alone. You have to survive on whatever the forest has available for you. For forty days and nights you are there alone and you play music. Now if you are a drummer or a sarangi player, just imagine for 18, 19 hours a day you are playing music, the vibrations of it, the tonal attacks of it, the frequencies — you start to hallucinate, you get into a zone, and that takes you god knows where.
There have been very few people who have been able to finish their chillas. The reason for that being if you have had not-so-great experiences in your life, they will reveal themselves to you in that manner, as if you are having a bad LSD experience. And you could fry your brain. People have had some very bad experiences.
I happened to have done my first one when I was sixteen. I was still innocent and I was lucky so I had decent experiences and I saw visions and things that I shared just with my teacher, my guru and my father, and we talked about them and how authentic they were.
But what I am trying to say is when you get into drums beating at you for 18 hours, you get into a trance, you get into a zone. That’s why the war drums, the marches and doing things in unison like you just described has both values, the negative and the positive.
But if you take the positive, how far can you take it?
When you take the positive you can only take it as far as the spell allows you to. Even though there is some kind of help from divinity, it is still a human organism that is taking it forward, and because of that, it has its limit. It is not an infinite zone. It’s going to have its moments like fireworks and it will blossom and it will fade away like a Zikr.