May 2008

Zakir Hussain & The Masters of Percussion
Presented by Small World Music Society
May 9, 2008 Roy Thomson Hall Toronto
Masters of Tabla Beat Science
by Laila Boulos
Ustad Zakir Hussain is revered as one of the pioneers for fusing divergent musical styles. Never restricting himself to one category of music for very long, Hussain has been involved with Shakti and Remember Shakti (with John McLaughlin), the Diga Rhythm Band (with Lakshminarayanan Shankar), Tabla Beat Science (with Bill Laswell), Planet Drum and Global Drum Project (with Mickey Hart) in addition to working with artists George Harrison and Pharoah Saunders, among others.

But, tonight, Zakir Hussain & The Masters of Percussion would concentrate solely on the traditional drumming of Northern India showcasing the melodic (or raga) and rhythmic (or tala) qualities. The setting of the stage's lush violet backdrop, the intricately woven carpets draped over the platforms, combined with the traditional garb worn by the musicians showcased this master's attention to every aspect of the performance and provided a dream of a foundation for the delights to come.

This virtuoso-filled evening was composed of two long sets; each beginning with a dramatic bathing of the theatre in darkness. In the first set, this darkness disintegrated with the eruption of the tribal rhythms of the Dancing Drummers of Manipur who captured the stage in a sandblast of colour stolen from the tropics. Hussain's exquisitely intricate tabla mastery then took over, continuing the head spinning exhilaration. The following set opened just as dramatically, as the lengthy battle cry expertise of Taufiq Qureshi on a medley of percussion instruments pierced the silence. He was later overtaken by the snake charmer drone of the sitar as Niladri Kumar slowly seduced the audience back down to earth.

Throughout the evening, the theme of the battles of power — and those between the sexes — permeated the performance as Hussain related stories of every musician's love of freedom contrasted with a (usually female) partner's desire for respect for rules (read 'curfews'). Adding to this was Taufig's humourously mimed impression of his recent experience with a female U.S. Security employee at an airport.

This tension between the sexes throughout the evening was also evident with the insistent call-and-response between Hussain's tabla and many of the other instruments. Hussain's talents in Solkattu, or Konnakol (the vocalizing of drumming effects inherent in Indian music), provided another layer of percussive call-and-response along with his vocal simulation of a train.

This talented group of musicians worked intensively, loved to dazzle — as evidenced by each of their extended solos — yet remained refreshingly childlike in their amusement and unwrapped up in their hyperventilation-inducing virtuosity.

Zakir Hussain
Their Cuisinart-like displays perpetually spun the audience into aural frenzies from which they would come down momentarily to gain force for yet another ambitious propulsion into the stratosphere. During these brief respites, the roar and applause of the audience was deafening.

The diamond-cut sound system of Roy Thomson Hall did not allow a single nuanced twist of palm-to-tabla or any tone squeezed out along the sitar's register to go unnoticed by the captive audience.

Although the programme was dedicated to the music of India, the sense of humour of the musicians was shown as the "The William Tell Overture" of Gioachino Rossini and the "the Pink Panther Theme" of Henry Mancini intermittently crept their way into the selections to the delight of the audience. Another moment of delight occurred when Taufiq demonstrated his talents with 'the cycle of life breath' as he used his palms-to-cheek combined with breath to emit a creative cacophony of sound.

The firecracker spectacle of colour and sound as the Meitei Pung Cholom Performing Troupe opened and assisted in the closing of the evening with their Barnum & Bailey antics immersed the crowd in childlike glee with their appearances. Similarly bewitching, Doyra master Kosimov practically juggled three of his instruments at once while simultaneously playing them.

Although the acoustics of Roy Thomson Hall would make a cat in heat sound heavenly, the exquisite tones of Zakir Hussain (son of revered tabla master Ustad Allarakha) along with his brothers Fazal, Taufiq and the rest of the Masters of Percussion, thankfully, provided tantalizing treats for every level of the performance.

Zakir Hussain and his Masters of Percussion are currently on a vigorous tour, evidenced by Hussain's comment of "Please come sit. If you like it, applaud. And then you can go home" stressing "go home" as he demonstrated the Yellow Pages finger walk, while the audience laughed. He later recounted how their nagada player, Ram Kishan, had passed away on stage in New York, recently. The rigorous schedule and the stress of this loss were also evident in their spent looks as they came out for two bows, declining to perform encores to a hopeful, yet deflated audience.

An article devoted to the itemization of all the awards and accolades that Zakir Hussain has received would be extremely lengthy, but here are some highlights:

Hussain has been bestowed the titles of Padma Shri (1988) for contributions to Indian culture, and later, Padma Bhushan (2002) for extremely high level of service to India. He was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship Award (1999) which is the U.S.A.'s highest award for accomplishments in the traditional arts.

Along with Belá Fleck and Edgar Meyer, Hussain created the Triple Concerto for Banjo, Bass and Tabla for the gala opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall in Nashville (2006). Jai Hind, a work by Hussain commissioned by the Government of India in 2007, to commemorate 60 years of independence has already been recorded by many artists.

Hussain has composed music and acted as advisor for a variety of films including, In Custody, The Mystic Masseur and Little Buddha. He also created music for the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta (1996).

In 2007, the readers of Modern Drummer nominated him in the category of Best World Music, while Drum! Readers chose him for Best World Beat Drummer.

Planet Drum, won the premier Grammy® (1991) for Best World Music Album, the NARM (National Association of Recording Merchandisers) Indie Best Seller Award for World Music Recording and the Downbeat Critics' Poll for Best World Beat Album. "Golden Strings of the Sarode" with Aashish Khan, released under Zakir Hussain's own Moment! Records was nominated for a Grammy® (2006) in the category of Best Traditional World Music.

The performers
Zakir Hussain – Tabla
Vijay Chauhan – Folk Drums
Dilshad Khan – Sarangi
Abbos Kosimov – Doyra
Niladri Kumar – Sitar
Fazal Qureshi – Tabla and Kanjira
Taufiq Qureshi – Percussion
Meitei Pung Cholom Performing Troupe – Dancing Drummers of Manipur


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Laila Boulos
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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