Writings About Music

Interviews with Indian Masters

Zakir Hussain Interview: The Instrument Is Alive

Interviewer: Michael Robinson

1 March 1999 at Midnight

Intercontinental Hotel, Westwood, California

UCLA Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology Volume 10 (2002)

Michael Robinson and Zakir Hussain backstage at Royce Hall an hour before the interview.

Photo by Mark Farjeon

Music possessing complexity and clarity at once has always grabbed my attention and stimulated my imagination. First it was primarily Bach, and then primarily Charlie Parker, and in recent years, the classical music of India, which for myself, surpasses everything which came before.

Within the tradition of Hindustani music looms the art of tabla drumming, exhibiting a degree of labyrinthal rhythmic sophistication and textural refinement as to seem from another planet.

Alla Rakha, Swapan Chaudhuri, Anindo Chatterjee, Chatur Lal, Shankar Ghosh, Kanai Dutta, Shufaat Ahmed Khan, Kumar Bose, Sukhvinder Singh and Kedar Pandit are some of the great tabla artists who have thrilled me as a listener, and inspired me as a composer. There are many other great performers on this miraculous instrument who I look forward to appreciating in the future, either through live performances or recordings. However, when I am composing the percussion parts for my own music, it feels like Zakir Hussain's rhythmic language and vocabulary is very close by, awakening my own drumming instincts more so than any other percussionist.

Ustad Zakir Hussain is widely regarded as having inherited the throne of this fantastically demanding discipline from his father, Ustad Alla Rakha. Indeed, his musical life-force or prana is so potent that he transcends the medium, and has branched out into new musical forms, which includes the creation of pure percussion ensembles filled with the drums of different lands.

There is a three-dimensional quality to Hussain's solo tabla concerts that belies the previous limitations of non-pitched percussion. His limitless facility does not include the ability to produce an unnecessary stroke or an unmusical bol, for he exists in the musical realm of Nirvana, where perfection is natural.

Hussain flew from India to his home near San Francisco on Saturday evening, and then from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon for a sold-out concert at UCLA's Royce Hall with Ali Akbar Khan on Sunday evening. Following the concert, there were nearly a hundred friends, colleagues and fans who came to greet him in the Green Room, basking in the glow of his warm and unpretentious disposition.

Despite this flurry of activity, and two scheduled classes the next morning, Zakir was kind enough to keep our scheduled interview, inviting me to meet him at his hotel room on the Wilshire corridor at midnight.

When I arrived, Zakir was resting on the bed with his head propped up with pillows against the headboard, so I pulled a chair up, the only difference being I felt more like the patient, with Zakir being the doctor!

I have italicized the words which Zakir gave dramatic spoken emphasis to, both in volume and intensity, in much the same way he places accents in his tabla playing.

Original audio recording of "The Instrument Is Alive" interview of Zakir Hussain by Michael Robinson.

There have been major changes in Indian classical music in the 20th century, and its my understanding that Ravi Shankar was an important part of these changes, a critical aspect of which was the greater role given to the tabla player.

Well, I have to say that Ravi Shankarji, or Raviji, or Uncle, as we call him, has been a boon to the tabla fraternity per se. Also, I have to add that it requires a special kind of tabla player to be able to interact in the way that they were doing, and it cannot happen with everybody. It just so happens that Raviji hooked-up with my father, and somehow the way they reacted to each other on the stage, and also offstage, more importantly offstage, it sort of worked its way into their musical repertoire as well. And that kind of an interaction just became a natural extension from their regular everyday social interaction.

I wasn't aware that they were also close personal friends.

Yes. And that's the main reason they worked together for 30 years. My father did not play for any other musician except for Ravi Shankar. For almost 22 odd years he did not play with anyone else.

That's amazing!

Yes. So that kind of a commitment was there, and it was simply because they vibed well together, and therefore the interaction showed that comradeship, that love, that affection that they held for each other. And so it doesn't happen with every tabla player, or every instrumentalist. They're only a few examples of this thing happening in those days. Kishan Miharaj was another one who reacted very well with Raviji, or Ali Akbar Khansaheb, or Vilayat Khan, and similarly, Shanta Prasad. So these three tabla players, my father, Kishan Miharaj and Shanta Prasad, they had the kind of personality, and the kind of magnetism that when they were on the stage with the instrumentalist, they had that confidence that they could interact, they could take chances, they could connect with the instrumentalist on the same level that the instrumentalist was himself or herself at that point, and therefore their strength or their magnetism also found a lot on the instrumentalist or the tabla player. So it was in effect Raviji's involvement with the South Indian music, where the mridangam player, in other words, the rhythm player is almost a parallel part of the performance. I mean both the rhythm player and the melodic player, they work hand in hand.

Mridangam more than the ghatam?

Mridangam more than the ghatam. They actually work hand in hand together. They're almost playing simultaneously.

So this is something he heard in Karnatic music.

Yes. He has had an interest in Karnatic music. He has been in some ways influenced in his younger days with that.

Is it also true that the earlier dhrupad style had a more active involvement of the pakawaj?

Exactly. The dhrupad style after the alap was over and the pakawaj player began, it was pretty much similar to what the mridangam player did with the vina player or something. So it was exactly together. I mean they played together, they improvised together, and it was simultaneous.

So one might almost say at the same time he [Ravi Shankar] was innovative, he was also bringing back something.

Yes. Except for it wasn't as cluttered as that was. I have to say when a pakawaj player and the dhrupad singer or the vina player are improvising simultaneously there's bound to be places where you will not connect, and it will sound a little funny, and the same thing with the mridangam player and a vina player.

But how is that different with the North Indian music and Raviji and your father?

Well, what has happened with people like Raviji, they found out a good middle ground. It wasn't like, OK, the tabla player should play like a pakawaj player does with the dhrupad singer, or like a mridangam player does with the vina player, but they will interact in such a way that there will be much more of an input by the tabla player enhancing what the instrumentalist was doing, and filling in the areas which the instrumentalist was leaving open as breathing space for himself. And so it almost felt like that there was a chain being created, and it just continuously was being tied. The clips were being put on continuously. If the sitar was not doing it, the tabla player was, and if the tabla player was not doing it, the sitar player was. So there was an interaction which was not simultaneous but almost instantaneous. Its like one followed the other.

I find it an interesting parallel that in a entirely different culture, in another part of the world, the most influential Western improviser, Charlie Parker, was born the same year of 1920 as Ravi Shankar. And perhaps this emergence of rhythm, of which you are now the leader, or a leader if not the leader...

I'm not the leader. Definitely.

... a leader, is in the air, and these two giants of different cultures are born the same year, and they bring about great rhythmic innovations, along with melodic, timbral and expressive innovations.

Well, when you're talking about be-bop, all that stuff, I mean, [shifting to Swing jazz] they're horn players playing three or four different parts at the same time. I mean when you're hearing someone like Benny Goodman, and he's playing his clarinet, there's a trumpet section, there's a saxophone section, there's a trombone section, and they're all playing together, and its one tune. But they're playing separately. They're playing separate parts, and none of these parts sort of run into each other and mess each other up, they complement each other, and that's exactly what Ravi Shankar accomplished with his tabla player, namely my father, and it was incredibly generous of him to think that the tabla player should have a spot.

It took a lot of security I imagine, because many musicians would just be overwhelmed by someone like Alla Rakha. [Alla Rakha is the only musician I have ever heard who can match the rhythmic fluidity of Charlie Parker, and vice-versa.]

Well, he's a musician who has an incredible amount of confidence, and an incredible amount of stage savvy, and he's probably the first Indian musician who's worked out what you may call a presentation package for Indian music. Nobody thought of that. [No doubt, Shankar was influenced by his brother, Uday.] You have to realize that Indian classical music on stage is a fairly young entity. I mean, what happened before Independence, the music was in the courts, in the palaces, and very rarely was it there for regular people to hear. Its only after Independence, when there were no more courts, the musicians had to look to common people as audiences. And so they had to learn to be entertainers. They had to learn to be on stage. They had to learn to perform for someone other than just his highness or her highness, and so on. So they were all still groping with the idea of being performers on stage and having to deal with an audience which really had no idea of what this music was all about, and then the musicians having no idea of how to go about making them understand, and so Ravi Shankar was probably the first person who actually figured out the whole stage-craft bag. This whole packaging of our presentation of a performance, and how to put it all together, and how to keep the audience interested, and one of those things was to be able to create the interactive performance along with the musicians on the stage.

I'd like to focus on your tabla playing now. One thing I find exceptionally unique about your playing is the tonal quality, the sound itself. I haven't heard another tabla player who has such a full, rich sound.

You're very kind.

And at the same time, you're able to play with unlimited articulation, whether its a slow tempo or a fast tempo. So sometimes you might think with such a full, large sound, it might be difficult to play swiftly, but that isn't the case because you can adjust for different passages the sound of the tabla, the timbre of the tabla. I've heard that South Indians regard the mridangam sounds as something that was given to mankind by divinities.

Well, [Zakir's voice takes on a hushed tone] it is believed that Shiva's damaru [a hour-glass shaped drum] was the origin of rhythm sounds, and whatever sound Shiva made on the damaru, he passed them onto his son, the elephant god, god Ganeshka. Ganeshka, Lord Ganeshka, was a famous pakawaj player. He played pakawaj as his main instrument, and so naturally, he then elaborated on it, he refined it further, and created a language based on those notes, and those few syllables that were given by Lord Shiva, and therefore we feel that, yes, this does have connection in divinity, and its been handed down as blessing. Yes, we definitely feel that.

And the Punjab gharana [school] of your father is the gharana closest to the pakawaj.

Punjab gharana and Benares gharana. These are two gharanas which are closest to the pakawaj. And Farukhabad, Delhi, Lucknow, they are more focusing on the tabla as an instrument.

I see. Is the sound quality that you get from the tabla - obviously you take great care and attention to the sounds you produce, the quality of the sound, the perfection of the timbre of each bol - is that something you're conscious of, or is it just so natural now that you don't really think of it?

No. I've been specially conscious of this. This is something that I learned. See, the whole concept of rhythms in India is that, OK, you've got this instrument, and you've got this incredible repertoire, and then you're going to play this repertoire on this instrument. Fair enough. Except for one has not stopped to think what can this instrument do. So we've learned to play this fabulous repertoire onto the instrument, but we never really stopped to think what the instrument itself can do. The places the instrument has on its head, and how many different places there are, and OK, if you got to play a particular stroke this way, is there another way of doing it. Is there another possible combination. Is there a tonal change that you can effect. Is there, you know, all those things. And that only happened because I was watching the percussionists in the West.

Really! [This is the first time I have ever heard a major Hindustani musician acknowledge receiving inspiration from outside India.]

Yes. When you're listening to percussionists in the West, they're actually trying to understand the instrument. They take a conga drum, for instance, and they play at various points, they play the edges, they play the center, they play because they don't have as refined an instrument as tabla.

Yes. I see what you mean.

So they have to think about it. And they have to see what more they can do with it, and what the instrument can itself do. Can the instrument speak. We firmly believe in India that the instrument is alive. That instrument is an entity. So why shouldn't the instrument be allowed to speak. And that is the basis of any focus when it comes to tabla.

The instrument is alive. There is a word the Africans use called "numinosity" when they refer to an inanimate object, like a drum, having a spirit that resides in it.

Oh yes. That's what I mean when I say "alive." Its a spirit. So, the spirit should be allowed to say its piece, to insert its own past into what's coming out of the instrument. And so that was the approach when I went for it, and that allowed me to look deeply into the instrument and find what it had to offer. And maybe that's what made me more conscious of the sounds, because I was thinking of something other than just the repertoire. I wasn't saying, "Oh, I have to play eleven beats, or nineteen beats, or fifteen beats, or eighteen beats, and all these patterns," but I was thinking more of what else.

That leads to a question that I've asked of some other great improvisers: What are you thinking when you're playing? Is it purely an intuitive feeling type sensation? Are you thinking of the particular raga? I imagine you play Jog differently than you would play Jaijaivanti, or if you're playing with Shivkumar Sharma, its a different feeling than playing with Hariprasad Chaurasia.

It mainly who you are playing with when the difference will occur. If I am playing with Shivji, it will be different, or if I'm playing with Hariji, its different, and I'm playing with Khansaheb, its different. If I'm playing with Birju Maharaj [a dancer], its different. And if I'm playing with Birju Maharaj, kathac [a particular style of dance], its different. If I'm playing with Birju Maharaj and his dance troupe, that will be different. And if I'm playing with Amjad Ali Khan, for instance, Oh, totally different. So playing with musicians is what makes this instrument do different things. And within that sphere, within that performance, there are certain things that a performer would do which will change the way you play with that person. A performer will play a serious raga, you play according to that raga requirement with the performer, and with each performer the requirements are different, and then, like you said, Jog and Jaijaivanti. Now Jaijaivanti is a much more romantic, a more lighter mode raga, so it will require that kind of thinking, and that kind of playing. A tabla player must learn music. He must learn melody, and he must learn all compositions. So what happens is if I'm listening to Jog by an artist, and I have to accompany him, I'm thinking of certain compositions, and the words of those compositions, and therefore, the words of those compositions that inspire that kind of feeling and emotion. Similarly, with a light raga, like Jaijaivanti, I think of some nice romantic light thing, and then how am I going to play that, and how can I express those feelings.

I was house-sitting for Nazir Jairazbhoy and Amy Caitlin when they went to India last year for three months, and while poring through their library of books on Indian music I found a passage in a book from the 1800's written by an Englishman [Captain Day], where he says that when the raga is begun, the musician is actually attempting to conjure the deity of the raga...


... to bring the deity down from heaven, to be in the company of the musician, even in a physical form. This type of spirituality is almost unheard of here in the West, and perhaps is something that's taken for granted in India.

No. For instance, Mozart. When he composed that piece about death [Requiem] did he actually feel it? Did he actually experience it? Isn't that what we've heard? That he actually got physically sick. He actually got very close to death?

I don't wish to suggest that there's no spirituality in Western music. I was specifically talking about the raga. You mentioned you think of songs in that raga, with words, and to me this implies the unique individual personality of each raga, which certainly exists.


And you may have a long relationship with a raga. You may have heard it when you were five years old.

Yes. And these songs, some are romantic songs, some are serious songs, some are sad songs, some are up tempo songs, some are ballads.

I was struck during your post-concert interview with Alonzo King [Zakir composed, and performed by himself, a large-scale work for Alonzo King's "Lines" dance company that was premiered at UCLA on January 22, 1999] by the humorous remarks you made. You could take the attitude of being very ponderous and extremely serious, you could do that with your stature. However, there is this delightful, humorous aspect, and when we look at the rasas that are given for Indian classical music, usually the erotic/creative [sringara] is listed first, and the second one is humor [hasya]. I witnessed this in your personality, and I started listening for it more in your tabla playing because it must be an element in your tabla playing if it is in your personality: a playfulness. Everything in balance, of course. Could you comment on that rasa?

Well, I myself, I enjoy what I do. I like to have fun when I'm on-stage and performing. I like to be able to dance. Sitting down doesn't mean you cannot dance. I like to be able to dance to what I'm playing, and enjoy that as much as possible. And with certain musicians you can take it a step further, and get them involved. OK, let's have fun. And sometimes its funny, sometimes its not, but most of the time its gratifying. I mean, for someone like Ali Akbar Khan, its less so. I mean, one must tread carefully because you know of his stature, and I'm a young musician, so I wouldn't want in someway to dictate what happens on-stage. So I do what he wants, and then we still have a little fun. There's humour there, there's game, there is enjoyment, there's everything, and serious stuff as well.

It was very fortunate that early in my studies with Harihar Rao [senior disciple of Ravi Shankar and Artistic Director of the Music Circle], he mentioned a recording on Moment Records, which is the record label you formed to capture live performances of Indian music. At the time I was interested in hearing a very strong tanpura sound, and he recommended a recording by Bhimsen Joshi on Moment Records, and then I started purchasing the other CDs, and a recording you made of Rag Jog with the violinist, V.G. Jog, was very important to me in the early stages of my studies. V.G. Jog took a phrase from Rag Jog, and must have played this one phrase a thousand times - each time differently - in the course of the raga, and you were interacting with him very actively. It is an incredible lesson in the development of a raga. I find that one of the most amazing things about Indian classical music is the fact that a raga can go on for two hours, three hours, and still be cohesive, and still be growing organically. Or a solo tabla concert, what you do, where there are two drums, which seems fairly simple, and yet this entire universe of sound can be brought out and developed over time. Is there anything you can say about how you achieve continuity in a solo tabla concert, or if you're performing a raga with Shivkumar Sharma?

Well, first, to take the tabla solo concert, there's definitely a repertoire that has been written for solo performance, and over the years, added onto, and therefore there's a large, large selection.

What percentage is improvised, and what is memorized?

To improvise you still need a certain outline to work with. You have to have that outline, and then you improvise with that outline, so all those simple themes, or those simple patterns, which you take and then develop into something big are already there, and have been given, and have been composed. So you have this huge repertoire available to you, so without actually even changing anything, traditionally, you could do a continuous solo of a couple of hours, no problem. I mean you have to be able to do it good enough, so that you know people enjoy it. The connoisseurs would enjoy it, however, if you're playing well, and so continuity is not the problem there. What I like to do when I'm doing a performance is to feel like I'm going through a whole day. When I begin early in the morning, I get up, and I take a shower, I do my prayers, I have breakfast. Its a whole different feeling, and then I work my way to leaving to go to work or something, and that's a different feeling. The interaction with whatever is happening around me is a different feeling. The afternoon is a different feeling. The evening coming home is a different feeling. At home at night is a different feeling. So all that is something that I think about, and I like to make a story. Turn it into a story.

A musical story?

A musical story, or a story that tells itself with the aid of drums.

Would you specifically think about a story that a particular raga has? For instance, Lalit has a story to it, or some other raga.

Well, see, you're focusing only on raga. I'm also focusing on rhythm. To me, rhythm also tells a story, and so when I'm with the rhythm, I'm constantly thinking about how its gonna go, and I am a character, I'm making a journey. I'm making a journey with my friend the tabla. I don't consider it to be some stranger. I consider it to be almost a twin. So when I'm playing the solo, I'm trying to think of what me and my friend the tabla are going to do today. And some days we are in serious discussions, and we are thinking about various things in life, and how we are going to proceed with our separate lives. We are in some ways intertwined together, and some days we just are friends, we're having fun, we're having a good time. Somedays we are serious about our discussions, and also having a good time somewhere along the line, and going with the tabla is almost like going for a hair-raising ride through the mountains. And you fall down steep grades, or you jump across little schisms, little holes in the ground, or you go from one mountain to the next to the next, and ski or whatever. So all these things are there, and I feel that when I'm playing tabla I'm actually visualizing the ride. I'm seeing it. Its like a roller coaster. Any tabla player you watch, any drummer you watch, you'll see that they're either looking straight down or looking up when they're playing. So its almost like they can visually see the patterns. The patterns become like a railway track. And the tracks are taking you up and down and sideways, and upside down, and whatever, and you're riding these rides, and so it becomes a visual experience, as well as an audio experience.

How is it that Indian music has this amazing resiliency to last over a thousand years, and still be growing, and still finding all these endlessly new paths?

Because we have a loophole in our music. We are at one time told that we have to be very traditional, we have to maintain the old, and play that, and do it justice, and do it right, and do not water it down, and whatnot, and everything. And once we are told that we are also, in the same breath, told and you must improvise. So if you are going to improvise, you are going to run into areas which are alien, which are new, which are fresh, and therefore, are they not traditional, or are they traditional? So, the thought is there, and that's one of the reasons why this music has survived. It's because of the loophole. Because we are allowed to create. We are not allowed to stagnate with just this one thing there, and exactly that way for the last five hundred years.

Is it possible that the forms of the music mirror the forms of nature, the elements in nature - fire, water, air, space, earth - more than other musical forms in different cultures? [This is a fascinating concept that Shivkumar Sharma introduced to me during a previous interview.]

I don't think so. I think its people. I think its musicians who make it interesting. I mean, somewhere along the line the music is stagnating, and along comes Amir Khan, the singer, and suddenly, "Wow, what is this? " Its something new, something fresh, and he just takes this road, and then just kind of diverts it a little. OK, this is the way. Or along comes Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, or along comes Ravi Shankar, or along comes Ali Akbar Khan, and yes, sarod, but listen to it this way. See what I do with the sarod, see what its capable of. And same thing with tabla. Along comes Alla Rakha, and something interesting happens to it. So that's what's making the music still grow, still be fresh. Ali Akbar Khansaheb does not play anything like his teacher. Neither does Ravi Shankar play anything like his own guru. Vilayat Khan does not play anything like his teacher, or his father.

And your connection to Alla Rakha?

And my connection with my father is the same way. I started off learning from him, and doing what he does, and playing to the best of my ability, and now with my confidence growing, I have reached an area where I feel, OK, this is something that I can add to it, and I'm doing it. So I am, and that's why it is fresh, that's why its unique, that's why it is always growing and changing yet remains the same.

[Describing the overall difference between father and son is like comparing two equally perfect, yet distinct jewels. The best I can do is say that Zakir plays like he loves life, and Alla Rakha plays like his life depends on it!]

Have you ever performed with the shahnai artist, Ali Ahmad Hussain Khan?

From Calcutta?


Yes, I have.

Because I heard him perform, and it seems to me that here in the West, he is one of the most underrated and least appreciated of the Indian musicians. I just feel he is a magnificent...

Well, apart from Ravi Shankarji, there are very few Indian musicians who are appreciated. I mean, at one time, in the West, Indian music meant Ravi Shankar. It didn't even include Ali Akbar Khan. So, and now that has changed a lot, and people have become much more informed, and as...

In India, is Ali Ahmad... his stature...

Oh yes, he's known, definitely, yes.

That would be a wonderful recording on Moment Records. I'd love to hear a recording of you and Ali Ahmad on shahnai because you don't have that [any shahnai recordings] in your catalog.

No, we don't.

I would be very interested to hear the two of you perform together. I think that would be a magnificent recording, so I hope it happens eventually.

I hope so too. We are not getting any younger. He's a very fine musician.

I never heard anyone play so softly as he played when he gave a concert here.

Bismillah Khan used to.

Oh, he used to?

Oh! The kind of shahnai that you hear from shahnai players today, I must say, even Ali Ahmad, is definitely inspired by Bismillah Khan. He's another one who took, who showed the other road, and climbed the steps, and there's this other level. Bismillah Khan did that. Bismillah Khan for shahnai, Hariprasad Chaurasia for flute, Shivkumar Sharma for santoor, Ali Akbar Khan for sarod, Ravi Shankarji and Vilayat Khan for sitar. They've shown the way with these instruments, and what to do, and where to take it, and therefore, in doing that, they have also shown where the music can go.

One sitarist I discovered for myself this year who I'm very excited about is Rais Khan, and it would be wonderful if you did a tour with Rais Khan.

Oh, I've done tours with him.

In the US?

I did one tour with him in the US many years ago. Rais Khan is one of the great sitar players of our time, and its unfortunate that he lives in Pakistan, so he doesn't get to play in India. But he's really a fabulous sitar player. Definitely one of the best.

We've covered a lot of material here. Is there something you would like to mention or discuss?

No, I just think that my views are, after all, my views, and someone else's views might be different, but it is a fact that our music, even though it has grown and has changed over the centuries, and the same time it is true that because of the changes certain innovations have been made. The instruments sound better than they ever did before, the musicians interact better than they ever did before. The class system in Indian music is pretty much gone. In those days the vocalists were tops, then came instrumentalists, then came dancers, and then came the tabla players. But now everyone is pretty much on par.

I had the fortunate experience of attending a concert of Pandit Jasraj in San Jose last November in a private home attended by less than two dozen people. He performed Bhimpalasi and Puriya Dhanashri. It was overwhelming. I guess this is the way Indian music was performed a long time ago. One of my favorite recordings is Jasraj and yourself performing Adana.


Could you comment on the unique feeling of performing with Pandit Jasraj?

Well, Pandit Jasraj is another one who enjoys his music thoroughly. He is a very serious musician, but at the same time he would not stop himself if he was enjoying a concert. And he himself started off as a tabla player.

Wow! [Shivkumar Sharma also began as a tabla player.]

He was first a tabla player who used to accompany his elder brother, and then he became a singer later. So, therefore, he has that sympathy towards the tabla player.

He has incredible articulation and rhythmic power when he goes into the fast...

He has an incredible... and its because of his command of the rhythm that he is able to articulate as well as he does. And his voice, of course, is amazing, and he's also mastered the art of singing through a sound system, and that also helps tremendously, how to use the microphone, how to project your voice, and he really became very good at that. So all things considered, playing with Pandit Jasraj is a time of pure joy. Its a lot of fun. And he has such special spiritual feelings towards the music. He's very spiritually oriented.

I noticed before he sang, he had a number of photographs and silk shawls kept in his svaramandala case which for a half-hour before he started singing, he would look at and hold to his face with eyes closed, and breath in the scent of the silk shawls, which perhaps belonged to his guru.

Belonged to one of his teachers or a swamiji.

So, he goes through this ritual before he performs.

Oh yes. He does. He's very spiritual minded. So what comes out is very pure. Its very reverent, and, at the same time, it has a special rasa, and special romance to it.

Each raga begins with a prayer in whatever raga he's...

And then he also goes on later to have fun and enjoy.

I believe Krishna is the god he worships.

Krishna is just one.

You're Muslim yourself.

Yes, but that doesn't matter. Musicians have a religion of their... they're a religion onto themselves.

You mentioned you do prayers in the morning.

Yes. But Muslims or Hindus, it doesn't matter. They're all musicians, and they have their own way of life.

One last question. Have you ever performed without a rhythmic cycle? Without a tala of eleven beats, or nine beats, or sixteen? Have you ever performed with just... OK, I'm gonna play a pulse, and maybe move into a different tala, and out freely at will, say one of fourteen beats, and then maybe no tala, but just the feeling of...

Oh yes. We do that sometimes. I mean, not necessarily with Indian music. I do that when I'm performing with the contemporary musicians.

Would it be possible to perform a raga doing that?

I doubt it. I mean, because even though we have a lot of scope for improvising, we still are within a tradition. Its like when you have a certain chord to use in a jazz song, you're gonna have to play it.

Would you say that the tala, the rhythmic cycle, originally stems back to the syllables of the Vedic Hymns, that each line had a certain amount of syllables. Is it possible?

I don't know what you are saying.

I've noticed in some of the surviving Vedas, that there will be a certain amount of syllables in a particular hymn, say eleven syllables in each line. It occurred to me, given that its believed the Sama Veda is the source of classical music, that perhaps the practice of having a certain amount of syllables per line could be where the concept of the rhythmic cycle, the tala, came from.

I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. Nowadays, people think of rhythmic cycles without having to worry of Sama Veda, shloka [chant] or anything. They just come up with a rhythm cycle or pattern that is a new kind of rhythmic cycle. And so maybe in the olden days they did it the same way. I have no idea, or maybe they did it with these shlokas.

When you play a rhythmic cycle, you think of the subdivision of the cycle. Like a cycle of ten beats could be 2-3-2-3, but it could also be 4-4-2. Would you say you're conscious of this?

When you're talking about a rhythmic cycle, you're talking about a particular division that a rhythmic cycle has, and then you improvise, and when you improvise you come up with other patterns of the same rhythmic cycle. You might come up with fifty-eight odd patterns of the same rhythmic cycle.

When you're doing something very complex, I imagine it seems simple to you, that there's a certain involvement, but also a certain serenity because you have to be relaxed when you're playing it.

What the thing is, what I'm doing, I'm not thinking about whether it is simple or complex. The audience is thinking about that. For them it may be complex. I'm doing it because I know it, and because I know it the question of it being complex or simple does not even arise. I'm doing it because I know it, and the audience, or the people who are watching me do it, if they understand it at all, they may then judge how complex it is, or how simple it is, but for me its just a pattern that I know, and I'm gonna do it.

"The Instrument Is Alive" interview of Zakir Hussain by Michael Robinson was featured on the cover of Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

The following morning, I attended Zakir's master class held in the Gamelan Room of Schoenberg Hall at UCLA by the Ethnomusicology Department. This was a first-time experience for me, and I had to scan back to master classes in conducting taught by Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood to recall a teacher who matched Zakir's enthusiasm and clarity. There was also an abundance of disarming humor that was entirely unique and refreshing, resulting in a loss of inhibitions by the many observers who became unwitting participants in the singing of Hindustani tabla rhythms!

My compositional mentor, the eminent musicologist and arts administrator, Leonard Altman, shortly before he passed away, had confided to me in a hushed, conspiratorial voice:"Music is magic."

The Indian phrase, "Swar is Ishwar - Sound is God," made such an impression on me that I make it the final words on the back cover of all my CDs.

Ustad Zakir Hussain embodies both these truths, and we are blessed to have his music... and his teaching.

 © 2002 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.