Rhythms of a maestro
A chat with tabla wizard Zakir Hussain about music and more.
His face glowed as he walked into the balcony and said, “Hi, I am Zakir...” A simple greeting but the man in question is the legendary Ustad Zakir Hussain. When I caught up with him in Mumbai during a recent visit, I was floored by his simplicity as he chatted about music and more over Lindt chocolates. Excerpts:
What are the ideal qualities for a tabla player?
The same as for any musician or artist: the ability to be creative. The essential quality is to recognise the subject's nitty-gritty, be able to focus on it and find a way to express it in your medium. It is a universal requirement for all artists of any nature.
Of the current lot of tabla players whom are you impressed by?
It won't be fair to point a few because the others will kill me. I think global understanding has changed. Earlier the idea was go to school, become a doctor, later it was a computer programmer... now parents are looking for kids to become artists. Globally speaking, there is a sudden understanding that art and culture are closer to your roots and give you an identity. There is a movement to preserve culture and traditions that make it very easy for us to interact as well as perform. Earlier one didn't know who Ustad Allahrakha Khan was but now one can Google him. Technology has helped change not only the artists' view but also of listeners.
Tell us about the new musicians you are discovering.
Earlier there were only a few well known singers who sang all the songs. Now you have got incredible singers who sing like there is no tomorrow. There is no dearth of high quality talent, whether from Bollywood, classical, folk or other traditional art forms. People like Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, music directors like A. R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy worked their way up the ladder. They had to prove themselves over and over again to be in the place they are today. Today's young talent have longevity.
How many concerts do you play in a year; how many in India?
I play over 150 concerts a year and then there are recordings with some fabulous musicians like with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. Last season in the U.S. alone we did 62 shows. The Global Drum Project won a Grammy a couple of years ago and we are in the process of recording our second album. In India, shows happen only in winter. It's like India plays cricket in India only in winter but that doesn't mean that they are not playing.
What about your teaching?
My father has a school in India run by my brother Fazal Qureshi. I interact with the students when I am in India. Every summer I do a camp in which students from across the world come together to study the gurukul way.
Your online presence through Facebook and your website must help connect to you...
I am on Facebook? My office must be doing that. The Internet is an incredible tool. I can find out what my fans want to tell me and what they want me to fix in my presentation so that I will be dear to them for a longer period.
You have scored music for films like “For Real” and “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”. Why not for more films?
It's entirely my fault. When you want to do a Bollywood film, you have to be there with the director to finalise the song, lyrics and recordings. In the time it takes to do one film, I do 50 concerts. I remember when Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Hari Prasad Chaurasia used to score for Yash Chopra's films, we would be on a tour in Amsterdam. They would get a call and cancel concerts to get back to Mumbai! I am hoping someone tells me: ‘I want you to record a song next year in September. Can you find time?' Then I can plan my move. I don't actively look for films scores; I do whatever comes my way. Rahul Bose asked me to do the music for “For Real”. I was coming to India for the winter; so it worked out. I am very lucky that only people who like my work have approached me.
Why does music stand apart from other aspects of a film?
Music has a strong part to play in films. To me the important part is the background score. Songs sell the movie; the background score enhances the act. It acts as a spine for the film.
Your message for artists who dream to become like you?
I don't think anybody should become like me. One day somebody asked my dad if I would be like him. He said, ‘I hope he is better than me. He should not be my carbon copy but something more'. Similarly, others should strive to be better than me. If you are accepting me as your role model and not your parents then something is wrong. Think about it.