Zakir Hussain Q & A

The renowned tabla virtuoso discusses his earliest influences, his career in the U.S., and the limitations of genre labels

I imagine you must have had a tabla in your hands almost from birth. What are your earliest memories of the playing it?

My earliest memory is playing not the tabla, but the pots and pans of my mother. I guess my mother felt she wanted me to be a doctor and she didn't want me to be wasting my time with drums, so I was left to find other things to play—the table, or the pots and pans, and so on—since I was three years old. Those are the earliest memories. The rest, I remember going out to play with friends, coming back home and going straight to the drum for a little while, going out again, coming back and going straight to the drum. So going to the tabla throughout the day on a regular basis was a something that was much more of a routine to me—it was more like, "Okay, that's how I want to play" as opposed to going out with friends. That was my young days until I was like 5, 6, 7 years old, and then when I was 7 years old my father started teaching me on a regular basis. That's when regular practice began, more disciplined; there were hours set aside in the day to practice. But my studies with him were at a very weird time, like 2 o r 3 o'clock in the morning, when he'd wake me up and everyone else was sleeping, then he would teach. We'd talk about drumming and sing rhythms—we wouldn't actually play them, we'd just recite them so I'd get to know them n my head. Then in the daytime, when I got back from school, that's when I practiced. So that was the routine I went on for four or five years.

And what did your mother think about that?

She was not very keen on this because she didn't like it that I had to be up at 2 in the morning and be up till 6 o'clock in the morning and then go straight to school. For a 7-year-old, it's a rather taxing timetable, but my father was adamant that was the time he wanted to teach me. It was interesting because I guess I was so into learning with him and I was so excited about being with him, I had no problem staying up and I guess I was very sharp at that time in the morning. Pretty much all he taught me stayed in my head. My mother finally, when I was like 11 or 12, decided to take drastic steps about it and she sent me off to her best friend's home, which was a little ways away from my home, so that I would be away from my father's influence and would be just concentrating on my studies. Between the age of 12 till I was 15 or so, I stayed at that house and was just more concentrated on my studies; but the strange thing was that the daughter of my mother's best friend was studying classical dance, so we ended up practicing together anyway—so it didn't change that by much, but I did have to then concentrate on finishing my studies first.

By that age, did you realize the drum was what you wanted to devote yourself to?

I realized very early in my life when I was 6 or 7 that this is what I wanted to do, because for me, my father was a legend, a hero, a man I wanted to emulate and impress. The one thing that I thought would do that was if I was a very good tabla player, and in doing so, somewhere along the line, I developed a special relationship with the instrument—it just became something I wanted to always be with and around and use as a mode of communication. So at a very young age, I felt that this was the instrument. Even later on when I arrived in America and there were all these venues available to try and do different things—I could play congas, bongos, timbale, drums, everything—I still stayed attached to my tabla. That's what I wanted to play, as the instrument of choice, always.

As you started your own career, did your father's fame intimidate you or inspire you?

It inspired me; it did not intimidate me. I was too young to be intimidated. I think I had no clue of the enormity of what it was I was trying to get involved in. So it did not in any way intimidate me; I was just like, "Hey, let's do this—this is fun." It was, and it is, and I hope it will always be fun.

You arrived in the US at age 18, when the tabla was perhaps not as familiar to American audiences. What was your reception like when you started playing here?

It wasn't familiar, but due to the efforts of Ravi Shankar and my father—traveling and performing for many years, doing the Monterey Pop movie, playing at Woodstock and so on—generally speaking the two Indian instruments which were recognized by musicians here and lovers of music were sitar and tabla. So there was some kind of a built-in audience that had developed at that time, and there was an interest being able to learn this form of music, and that's why I came here anyway—because I was offered a job at the university to teach the tabla in Seattle. So there was some kind of an interest there already; it wasn't at as large of a scale as it is now, but the hippy days were in, the Monterey Pop movie had happened, Woodstock had happened, there was sort of like a tail-end of that incredible time so there were hundreds of thousands of people who were still really into Indian way of life, peace and harmony, and so on. In that sense, there was an interest in our art form; it wasn't as serious as it is now, it wasn't as well-informed as it is now, but it was there so we had a platform to start with. I started teaching and I started playing with various musicians who were interested in playing with Indian musicians, and gradually developed an audience who was much more conscious of what we do and has been very supportive and more informed.

When did you start thinking of taking the tabla into more experimental directions?

The thing is, up till my time, most tabla players who left India to come to this part of the world were musicians who were older, maybe 45 or 50 years old and set in their ways. I was 18 and I had already spent a few years in the Bollywood industry. Music recorded for Indian films was kind of based on what music was in Hollywood in those days, so in the studio you found a variety of artists—there was a string section at one end of the room, there would be sitar in one corner, there would be sarangi at another corner, Indian flute, a horn section, Indian drums, piano—all sitting in one room and playing together under a baton of the composer. So there was already this attempt being done in Bollywood at the time in the early '60s, and I was there paying my dues as a session drummer. So there was already this interaction, and the experience of it was there even before I arrived here. Again, I was young, so I was open to ideas, open to trying different things.

So those ideas were already there; my father had brought to India so many different records that I had listened to and been influenced by: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Duke Ellington, Yusef Lateef. I mean, you name it, he had brought all these beautiful albums over at home and I was listening to them. The idea was when I arrived here that I would be able to utilize that experience of having worked with non-Indian artists already in India, and try to interact with musicians here. But when I arrived at the University of Washington in Seattle, there wasn't much happening there except classes. But then I moved to the Bay Area and suddenly the whole world opened up—this was the place where all the musicians were hanging out, and I got to know Mickey Hart, John McLaughlin, and got to play with so many great percussionists of that time who were around in the Bay Area. It just opened up a whole new world for me.

How did your playing change with these collaborations?

In a nutshell, I would say that tabla is an instrument that has been built to play a 2,000-year-old repertoire on, a special repertoire composed for Indian drums and principally for tabla, so we've learned to play this incredible repertoire of composition after composition after composition. But these are very scientifically done, very well composed and written, and we play them. What we've never done is really step back and think of what the instrument itself can do. That approach is something that I learned after leaving India—allowing the instrument to speak, seeing what tonal possibility it was, what harmonic possibility it has, as opposed to playing compositions. It's like watching a western classical pianist playing Brahms, or Schubert or whomever, and then seeing a jazz pianist really getting into the instrument and trying out different things and combinations and using the pedal in a certain way. I mean, having the freedom to do that, to see what the instrument does; and that approach was something that was missing in Indian drumming. When I arrived here and saw great percussionists really experimenting with their instruments—playing the rim of the tom-tom or the bass, or trying melodic combinations with their drums—I noticed all that and thought, "This is another approach that I must look into." It's in that that my tabla playing has changed and is different from other tabla players who live and play in India.

Has the electronica style of Tabla Beat Science afforded you new opportunities to experiment?

Yeah, playing with Tabla Beat Science is one example of where tabla is going now, but I must say that it's not just me alone, it's people like Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale—the other tabla players of modern time who have experimented with putting microphones inside the tablas and making it work through electronica and processing the tones and so on. This is a new approach and I'm glad that I got to try this out with Bill Laswell in Tabla Beat Science. The whole point was that since samples are being used by drum-and-bass oriented bands of Asian origin, why not just take the real musicians and have them go into the studio and create what the samples are doing in a live atmosphere? Then with Mickey Hart doing Global Drum Project, we're doing the same thing—we're taking the instrument and putting it through incredible processes, so now the tabla sounds like a bass or it sounds string section or it sounds like voices. Tabla actually is an instrument that lends itself well to experiments, it fits no matter what kind of music you play. I myself have played with jazz musicians, rock musicians, African artists, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Latin musicians, and even Western classical musicians, and it somehow seems to work. Last year I played with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, they built a new concert hall and for the opening of that, they commissioned me along with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer to write a piece of music for symphony orchestra to play, so we did. And we performed it live on the opening day in Nashville. Various things have been happening and I've been glad that tabla is an instrument you can hear in a television show or in Mission Impossible or in a horror movie or anywhere. It has this tone that attracts your ear to it, it's an interesting instrument to put in places to attract attention and create this incredible mysteriousness.

Your music is usually described as "world music." Do you feel that's an accurate description of it?

These labels are something created by the record companies because they need to create a bin to put a CD in or to advertise or to create a category which they could ask the Grammies to give awards on. We never thought about our music as world or new age or whatever. We just play music. In 1973 or '74, I was playing with John McLaughlin the jazz guitarist and we made this album called Shakti; the record company PR people actually asked us, "How should we advertise this? What do you want to call it?" They wanted to have a name, a label, so they could approach the PR people and say, "This is what this music is." So the need for labels or titles for certain styles is something that the record companies need; as far as I am concerned, or Mickey or John McLaughlin or John Handy or various musicians I've worked with are concerned, we never really walk into a studio and say, "Okay, we're going to make a new age/electronica/jazz album." No. We just go out there, sit down, and play music. It comes out and when it's printed then the record company asks us, "What do you want to call it?" I say, "Call it what you want."

World music, I don't know. I'm still learning a lot about it. When you take Masters of Percussion, for instance, this tour was designed as a biannual tour for America, and the tour focused on showcasing percussion traditions in India that don't get a chance to be heard in this part of the world. And by doing so, what I was trying to achieve was to not only open up people's minds to these incredible, obscure rhythmic traditions that exist in India, but to also learn more about it myself and develop as a drummer. I'm finding that every time I bring these musician over, there's something new I'm learning and adding to my repertoire as a musician.

So world music is a vast, vast category and to say that my music is world music is actually belittling the idea of world as the fountainhead of a certain style of music. There is so much out there. There's a lot of the world's music that missing in my music—there's still a lot yet to be found and learned.

What artists are you listening to recently?

Oh my god, I listen to all sorts of artists, all sorts of music. I was listening recently to some jazz artists, Jack De Johnette, a jazz drummer, Antonio Sanchez, who is also another great percussionist; I've been working with Charles Lloyd the jazz saxophone player so I've been listening to him a lot. I've been listening to classical music, because I've been involved in certain commissions that I have to write which have some influence of Western classical. Mainly, my source for inspiration is folk music, whether it's bluegrass or it's folk music from the state of Rajasthan or from Japan or China. Music that is actually from the earth, organic forms of music from any country that actually influences the forms that emerge in the mainstream. That's what I listen to a lot.