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Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004

ZAKIR HUSSAIN

Keeping up to speed with a tabla master


Special to The Japan Times

New York-based bassist and producer Bill Laswell has always been a man with his ear to the ground, quick to sense any coming seismic shifts in the musical landscape. In the late 1990s, he had been noting the proliferation of Indian tabla-infused drum 'n' bass music from people such as Talvin Singh, Joi and Nitin Sawnhey. Laswell, whose own 1993 track "Mantra" with Material had kickstarted much of this music, decided it was time to put together a supersession. The result was Tabla Beat Science's "Tala Matrix" (Palm Pictures, 2001), which featured the percussive talents of Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale and India's undisputed maestro of the tabla, Zakir Hussain (most commonly known as Zakir).

News photo
Zakir Hussein

The son of Ravi Shankar's famed tabla accompanist, the late Ustad Allarakha, Zakir rose to prominence in the 1970s, playing with guitarist John McLaughlin in the pioneering Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti, sitting in with The Grateful Dead and playing on the "Apocalypse Now" soundtrack with Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Band. Zakir quickly became the hottest musician on the Indian classical scene -- playing over 150 concerts a year -- but his greater impact may be in how he has expanded the whole concept of what the tabla can do. While his father's generation concentrated on breaking Indian classical music overseas, Zakir has attempted to cross-breed India's rhythms with, well, whoever can keep up with him.

Tabla Beat Science may be Hussain's most ambitious project yet. After garnering acclaim from just a few one-off live shows, TBS became a touring band, despite the difficulties of getting all its musicians together in one place at the same time.

The band will make its long-awaited Japan debut as the closing act at the True People's Celebration, an eclectic, improv and jam-band oriented festival held Sept. 4-5 in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.

This version of TBS features core members Bill Laswell on bass, Zakir Hussain on tabla and Sultan Khan on sarangi (a classical Indian stringed instrument), along with Ethiopian vocalist Gigi, turntable-wizard DJ Disk and drummer Karsh Kale. Their live sets center around the explosive, inventive, unbelievably tricky solos of Zakir, propelled at a furious pace by heavy dub, funk and hip-hop grooves.

Zakir spoke with The Japan Times by telephone in France where he was touring with Shakti -- in the middle of a tour that had already seen 17 shows in 22 days. Look for this band to hit Japan in January 2005.

Both Shakti and Tabla Beat Science are very improv-based groups. What's different, for you, in how you approach them?

Well, the way the sound develops on stage changes the way you're going to play. When you're playing in something like TBS, you have the drums and bass going full blast, and the DJ scratching, so it changes the way you approach the instrument. You approach it with the idea of strength, of projection, as the important elements of your performance.

But at the same time keeping in mind that it's Tabla Beat Science, so there are areas in the concert where I can open up and do my thing with Sultan Khan. We bring in the subtle, intimate Indian element as a duo, but it's more like an oasis in the middle of this scorching desert of sound. It develops into this up-and-down graph of sound and tempos and rhythms flowing, with the tabla setting the ideas in motion.

TBS seems very free-form -- in some ways that must be more challenging than music you're more familiar with, rehearsing more, like with Shakti.

Well, even with Shakti, the first show of the tour, we'd only had about three hours of rehearsal. The pieces develop as we perform, ideas blossom while we're going. It's an Indian classical kind of performance, whereby you improvise through a piece. That's true of both TBS and Shakti. The idea is to arrive with a bare-bones idea of what kind of music we'd try to do, and then get on the stage and move with that idea, or see if we want to do something different. It keeps it very exciting, this journey of rediscovery, we never get bored.

But with Shakti, everyone -- even John -- has a background in Indian classical music. With TBS, everyone's styles are quite disparate.

In the end, it all boils down to what kind of people you're working with. If it's people who are willing to listen, you'll find some common element. When it comes to Gigi, doing her Ethopian singing, it's uncanny how similar it is to the Rajasthani folk music Sultan Khan sings. And Karsh on drums, he acts as a bridge. If I'm going crazy, and Bill has no idea at that point what I'm doing, Karsh most certainly does, because he's also a tabla player, and can bring Bill along to where I am. In some ways, we're all holding hands and guiding each other through this process of creative exploration.

You've played with The Dead, the Kodo drummers, on movie soundtracks, jazz sessions -- have you ever tried a fusion that didn't work?

Well . . . I once was on a Japanese television show in Kyoto and they wanted me to play with this band doing "Waltzing Matilda." I mean, I can play along with it, but I can't do anything with it! But I've played with flamenco, Latin jazz, symphonic arrangements. . . . I just wrote a piece for cello and tabla that I performed with Yo-Yo Ma. I guess, having been brought up with Bollywood film music where we have all varieties of instruments performing in the same room, whether it's a guitar with a sitar, or drums with tabla, or piano with harmonium, or violin with sarangi. . . . You get used to the idea of being able to fit into any melodic or rhythmic structure.

I hear Shakti has a bit of a new sound.

We have the quartet as always, and we've added a singer, Shankar Mahadevan. He's classically trained, but also very successful as a Bollywood singer and composer. We're also using some sound-processing live; John runs his guitar through his laptop, and he's got his sound bank arranged in there, so he just changes to a different thing at the push of a button. It's fun to have that orchestral possibility. We have a very nice collage of sound support behind any solos or duos we have happening.

Many musicians and listeners see your playing as being as close to perfection as one can get. What do you still find challenging at this point?

Oh God . . . I mean, just last night Selvaganesh [Shakti's other percussionist] came up with a solo that knocked the socks off me! This is a young man, almost half my age, and he came out with this masterful demonstration, it was amazing. And I looked at him and thought, "What am I gonna do now?" (Laughs) It's like that.

I find myself thinking there's no such thing as perfection. What's perfect today is not tomorrow. But I also find myself constantly rediscovering stuff. Sometimes I play with someone and that person points in me, through his playing, what I had missed or forgotten, or not even known existed within me.

Playing with John [MacLaughlin], for instance, I still feel there's more lurking in there, stuff we haven't really touched on in our musical interaction. And at times we suddenly do that, for like five seconds, and our eyebrows rise, and we think "What was that?" So playing with someone for 30 years, and there's still more to do. So I find my hands pretty much full.

I feel lucky that I was born in a time where there is a great sense of musical discovery, of a journey to culturally and artistically explore each other's worlds. I'm just one of the people who's along for the ride.

True People's Celebration: Sept. 4-5, Chichibu Muse Park, Saitama Prefecture. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tickets are 11,000 yen (one day) 20,000 yen (two days). Tabla Beat Science will be the last band to perform on Sept. 5. Also on the TPC bill are Jamaican legend Jimmy Cliff, NYC's Medeski, Martin & Wood, DJ Spooky vs. Twilight Circus, Cyro Baptista, Sim Redmond Band and The Polyphonic Spree. For more information, call (03) 3445-1103 (2-10 p.m.) or see the TPC Web site: www.truepeoples.com Shakti will tour in Japan in January 2005.


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