The name Zakir Hussain does not stir instant recognition in many Americans. But in his native India, Hussain is a musical celebrity on the order of Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton.
Hussain will bring his extraordinary supergroup, Masters of Percussion, to Purdue Fort Wayne’s Auer Performance Hall on April 14.
Hussain plays tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, and his Masters of Percussion group consists of percussionists from around the world who gather nightly to find complementary ways to combine their disparate styles.
IN his Father’s Footsteps
Hussain is the son of renowned tabla player Ustad Allah Rakha (Hussain’s name was given to him by an Indian holy man). Hussain and his father both suffered serious health problems when the former was a baby. His father had a unique strategy for comforting his son.
“He would hold me in his arms and he would put his lips to my ear and sing rhythms into my ear,” Hussain said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “That was a routine that he followed religiously. I guess he felt desperate that maybe he was going (to die) and the knowledge had to be passed on. He felt that it didn’t matter if I was one week old or ten days old or one year old — that the information he was putting into my ears would anchor itself in my brain and reappear in time.”
Both father and son recovered and Hussain was soon learning his father’s instrument in earnest. His father would wake him up at 3 every morning to practice and hear stories about the music.
Hussain was performing professionally by the age of 12. Fearlessly performing, it must be said.
“When you are a musician, you need to have a little bit of an ego,” he said. “You have to be a little bit of a ham. I had larger than normal portions of that when I was young. I wanted to show off.”
Hussain said he didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of some of the situations he found himself in at that age, which was probably a good thing.
His first trip to the United States happened after his father had to pull out of a tour with sitar maestro Ravi Shankar because of health problems. Shankar called Hussain and asked him if he’d fill in for his dad.
Migration to America
When that tour was over, Hussain accepted an offer to teach at the University of Washington. He eventually migrated to San Francisco and has lived there ever since.
In the Bay Area in the early 1970s, Hussain’s unique talents were in high demand. He worked with Mickey Hart and George Harrison on their solo albums and participated in giant jam sessions that attracted every well-known figure in popular music at the time, including Grace Slick, Carlos Santana, and David Crosby.
So lengthy were these jam sessions, Hussain said, that people would just go to sleep on the floor of the studio.
“One time I woke up and David Crosby and Jerry Garcia were standing above me jamming on a song,” he said, “So I picked up my drum and started playing along.”
Hussain said he floated the idea with Harrison of taking up a more western style of drumming as a strategy for achieving flashier success. The ex-Beatle had two pieces of advice for him: Rock stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be and don’t abandon what’s unique about you.
“He said, ‘There are 5,000 drummers outside this studio who are waiting for me to call them,’” Hussain recalled. “‘And you are here.’”
One thing that helped Hussain at this stage of his career was an earlier experience of playing with an orchestra that created soundtracks for Indian films.
That gig forced him to go beyond some of the rigid formalism of traditional tabla playing. It made him think more expansively about his instrument.
Finding fame in Tea Commercials
Interestingly, Hussain owes much of his legendary status in his home country and in Europe to an unlikely catalyst: a series of commercials for Taj Mahal Tea, a product widely distributed by the Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House of West Mumbai.
The TV commercials are well-worth seeking out on YouTube. They usually feature the exuberant and charismatic Hussain playing his tabla in natural settings while people enjoy cups of tea nearby.
“You need visibility and visibility doesn’t mean somebody sees you at a concert,” he said. “Someone approached me to do this tea commercial and I said, ‘OK. One time around. Maybe it will help a little bit,’ and I ended up doing it for 20 years. I became their brand ambassador and I am still their brand ambassador. It just took off. It became one of the biggest commercials. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it.”
Having his face on billboards and his music in radio and TV commercials transformed Hussain’s career almost overnight.
“Suddenly, instead of 500 people in the audience, it was 5,000 people in the audience,” he said. “Once they were there, it was up to me to convert them and convince them with the relevancy of what I do. That was up to me. I was looking for that chance and it was provided. They came along for the ride and they’re still there.”
Hussain said his father suggested that he form Masters of Percussion in the late 1990s. “He said, ‘You should find a way to bring together masters from all parts of India who play rhythm and bring them to the world stage.’”
Over time, Hussain added Uzbek, African, Middle Eastern, and American Jazz drummers to the ensemble.
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