Zakir Hussein and the Masters of Percussion - Town Hall, 02/07/2008simon gray - 2008-07-02, 14:30:37
Mention the words 'Indian Music' to the man or woman on the Northfield Omnibus, and the chances are the first person who will come into their heads will be Ravi Shankar. Which is understandable really, since it's fair to say he above anybody was chief in popularising Indian classical music to western audiences. However, if you were to find a member of the world music cognoscenti and say those words to them, there's a good chance the thought will come back as tabla player Zakir Hussein.
And rightly so - whereas Ravi Shankar is, as they say, a master, Zakir Hussein is the master. But more to the point, whereas Ravi Shankar in his high profile collaborations with western musicians has largely done his own thing bolted on to the side, Zakir Hussein has very much been much more devlopmental in the field of Indian / western musical fusion, going back as far as the 1970s with the band Shakti with John McLaughlin, through working with straighter jazz artists such as Airto Moreira and Pharoah Sanders, and through to the more techno sounds of Tabla Beat Science.
After a vocal beatbox introduction by percussionist Taufiq Qureshi the concert proper opened with a blast from the Dancing Drummers of Manipur; the programme described them as 'dazzling and athletic', which was no word of a lie as gymnastic backflips were in full evidence - simultaneously to the actual business of drumming! The Dancing Drummers then left the stage not to return again until the very end of the concert, which did seem somewhat of a shame, leaving me feeling they were participating as some kind of token gesture rather than being properly included.
After their stint Hussein and sarangi (a kind of Indian style violin) player Dilshad Khan took the stage for a traditional raga performance; Khan opened with the introductory alaap solo, then becoming the accompanying instrument for the rest of that half after first Hussein joined in for the jhor section, with then Bhavani Shankar (no relation) adding - often perfectly synchronised with the tabla - to the drumming mix with his sideways drum, the pakhawaj. There's the old cliché in the rock music world of 'boring us to death with a drum solo', but in the Indian music world, nothing could be further from the truth, especially with drums in the hands of greats such as these. And in an amusing twist to the bol, or 'tabla speech' (where the drummer speaks the rhythms as well as playing them - used as a teaching method rather than performance itself in its proper setting) feature which we are used to getting in concerts here, it was likened to a proper conversation: 'come in, sit down, enjoy the concert; dha ti-ki-taah tun ti-re-ki-ta dha ghe dha ghe KHAT!'. Well it amused us in the hall, anyway.
As the first half was quite firmly traditional classical Indian music, knowing the performers' pedigrees I assumed the second half would be much more fusion-based, especially since all the way through the first half there was set on the stage a western drum kit (minus kick drum) left unused. But instead when then musicians returned to the stage the sarangi was replaced by a sitar, which this time continued to take the lead as the solo instrument in a traditional raga performance.
Finally percussionist Qureshi joined the ensemble on stage, when I realised actually we were being treated to something more interesting than the straight fusion I was expecting. As Qureshi was clearly playing western (and African, as at one point he was playing a djembe simultaneously with the rest of the kit) drums but according to Indian tala principles it occured to me that for the second half we were getting neither traditional Indian music nor 'fusion', but something best described as Indian contemporary classical music - showing that the forms of Indian classical music can, and indeed have, developed over the years just the same way as western classical music forms have changed.
Building through we had a fitting grand finale as the performers from the first half returned to the stage to close what was a fine concert - a concert where I didn't get what I was expecting, but instead was treated to much, much more.