Virtuosity, Sheer Joy Characterize Evening of Indian Percussion

United StatesUnited States Zakir Hussain & Masters of Percussion: Zakir Hussain (tabla), Fazal Qureshi (tablia and kanjira), Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri), T.H.V. Umashankar (ghatam), Sabir Khan (sarangi), Navin Sharma (dholak), Abbos Kosimov (doyra), Ningombam Joy Singh (dancing drummer of Manipur), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 24.3.2012 (HS)

Tablas are amazing instruments. The Indian drums, which range in size from something resembling a bongo drum to roughly the dimensions of a basketball, can produce a mind-boggling range of sounds. They hit discernible pitches. A single drum can cover an octave, producing anything from a high pings to low thuds. Its rhythms range from the simple to the astoundingly complex, at least they do in the hands of a master.

And Zakir Hussain is indubitably a master, considered by most as the world’s preeminent practitioner of these instruments. Recently Edgar Meyer, an astonishing virtuoso in his own right, the bassist and a frequent collaborator with Hussain had this to say: “He’s not only the best percussionist I’ve every heard, he’s the greatest musician I have ever worked with.”

When Hussain’s concert with Cal Performances came up on the same evening as a recital just down the street by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, I didn’t debate long. Partly because I do get to hear Finckel and Han more regularly, I opted for Indian music over Schumann and Brahms. The rewards kept piling up as the evening progressed, even if the only rewarding melodies came only from occasional solo turns by Rakesh Chaurasia on the bansuri, a North Indian flute. Mostly, the music was all drumming, but what a range of drums it was, from the kanjira (a coffee-saucer-size jingle-free tambourine) to the ghatam (which looks like a rotund pottery urn with a wide mouth) and the doyra (flat drums from Uzbekistan that look like crosses between Celtic bodhrans and wheels of cheese). Each instrument, played only with the hands, could produce a wide range of pitches and textures.

I have heard Hussain play with western hemisphere artists such as Meyer, the banjo master Béla Fleck and conductor Leonard Slatkin, but not in the context of his own musical culture. Hussain’s father, Allarakha, created the Masters of Percussion concerts in the 1980s, in part because he retired from his partnership in recital with the sitar master Ravi Shankar. With Shankar, Allarakha often played extended solos but seldom could extend the music with other drummers. The Masters of Percussion concerts brought together percussionist from various traditions within India.

In this milieu, it’s easy to hear just how good Hussain really is. The other drummers proved themselves to be wonderful soloists and exuberant collaborators, but Hussain simply rose above them. Partly it was his uncanny precision. His sound was clean and sharp, perfectly in tune and remarkably melodic, the pitches and resonances produced by strokes that differ in what part of the hands or fingers strike the drum. Sometimes Hussain would draw out a perfect scale on the larger of the two drums, a sound reminiscent of a walking bass in jazz. In one exchange, he dropped in the galloping phrase from the William Tell Overture for comedic effect. Often the repeated high-pitched ping of the smaller drum could seem like a pedal tone as produced by a guitarist or pianist. His two drums produced sounds reminiscent of an entire percussion section, sometimes settling into a ambling rhythmic groove, then spinning into flurries of complex patterns in quadruple time. The options could seem endless.

Particularly striking were several duets with his younger brother, Fazal Qureshi, who has his own world music band (Mynta) in Sweden. Although his articulation on the tablas was not as clean and precise as Hussain’s, he held his own, and excelled on the kanjira, the tambourine-like instrument, producing sounds of clarity and drive.

Each musician had moments in the spotlight, the most impressive of them to my ears Chaurasia’s rich, soulful flute-like sound and magnificent articulation on both a smaller and larger bansuri. At times he would treat the instrument as a member of the percussion section, not by repeated notes but by precise rhythmic inflections. He could create sequences of serenity, then segue imperceptibly into powerfully complex runs and flourishes. The other melodic instrument, the sarangi, a bowed vertical violin-like instrument played by Sabir Khan, was chiefly used to provide repetitive melodic riffs for the percussionists to play against.

T.H.V. Umashankar managed to coax a surprising array of pitches and sounds striking the outer bulges of the clay pot ghatam, supplementing the expected plinks and tings with sharp whacks that a sounded like a snare drum and rounder low tones from the open top. Navin Sharma achieved a high level of complexity from playing both ends of the long, narrow dholak. Uzbek native Abbos Kosimov upped the ante on showmanship by juggling as many as three doyra (the bodhran-like drums) to make impressively complex sounds and precise rhythms. And most showy of all, Ningombam Joy Singh, a member of a leading Indian performance troupe, combined drumming and martial arts in several sequences in which he maintained precise rhythms while tumbling around his instrument.

The one mildly disappointing segment was a dance that told a story from the Ramayana about the kidnapping of the goddess Sita and her rescue by her consort, the god Rama. It demonstrated how percussion groups not only accompanied the classical North Indian dance style Kathak, but actually represented the individual characters in the story. It featured Antonia Minnecola, Hussain’s wife and one of the few American born artists known for her classical Indian dancing. Though a fascinating idea, it seemed small-scale and earnest when the rest of the evening was so freewheeling and full of magnificent complexity.

Harvey Steiman