Indian Percussion Brilliance from Zakir Hussain in Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Masters of Percussion: Zakir Hussain (tabla), Ganesh Rajagopalan (violin), V. Selvaganesh (kanjira), Eric Harland (drums), Mattanur Sankarankutty Marar and the Drummers of Kerala, presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 31.3.2019. (HS)

It has been 10 years since Zakir Hussain joined up with bassist-composer Edgar Meyer, banjo maestro Bela Fleck, and conductor Leonard Slatkin for the superb CD ‘The Melody of Rhythm’. To give an idea of its impact, I still use one of the tracks as the ringtone on my mobile phone.

The title aptly describes what was going on in Hussain’s latest installment of his Masters of Percussion, tours with ad hoc groups of percussionists that often straddle more than one drumming tradition. This two-hour concert was presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus.

Hussain is generally recognized as the world’s foremost tabla player, and one aspect of these small drums is their ability to play clearly discernible pitches. At times on Sunday, Hussain drew out contrapuntal lines from his drums that spanned an octave. Without, of course, missing a beat.

Pitch was so ingrained in all the Indian percussionists on the stage that it took contrast with one western musician to put this aspect of drumming into clear perspective. At one point Eric Harland, a jazz drummer who has appeared with a who’s-who of great contemporary jazz musicians, embarked on a long solo — a phenomenal rhythmic stretch that had the Indian musicians’ rapt attention.

But try as he did to match the variety of pitch and tone that was so prevalent among the others, Harland’s drums could not compare. He had more than a dozen of them, from snares to tom-toms to bass drums, and cymbals ranging in size from platters to tiny tea saucers. He used them brilliantly, playing with and against the rhythm, ebbing and flowing with dynamics and subtle gradations in attack. Like the other percussionists he could emulate the details and general shape of each short improvisation by a solo violinist, but not quite the same pitches. That wasn’t his fault. It was the drums.

Harlan has performed with Hussain often, and he wove himself into the evening’s fabric, even as it was rooted in two different but related forms of Indian music — Hindustani (northern) and Carnatic (southern). Hussain comes from Hindustani musical milieu, the one that gave us the sitarist Ravi Shankar and Hussain’s father, the tabla player Alla Rakha, among the first to introduce Indian classical music to western audiences.

Originally Niladri Kumar was to complement Zakir’s tablas with his sitar and a zitar, his invention that fuses a sitar with an electric guitar. Like Hussain, in addition to Northern India, he’s crossed over into musical forms. But for this tour, visa problems kept Kumar from entering the U.S., so Hussain recruited two musicians out of the Southern Indian tradition — the violinist and vocalist Ganesh Rajagopalan and kanjira virtuoso V. Selvaganesh, who played the tambourine-like drum with the guitarist John McLaughlin on the 2000-2001 recordings ‘Remember Shakti’.

Their presence shifted the balance southward, together with Mattanur Sankarankutty Marar and the Drummers of Kerala, who were already on the program to provide southern Indian flavor. Marar opened with a short introductory call to arms on his southern Indian chenda, a drum that looks like a taller, narrower version of the field drum found in western marching bands. Unlike the other instruments on stage, this one is even played with a stick, albeit a slightly curved one, held in one hand to complement the other as it hits the drum. Marar could also drag the stick across the drumhead to create a single-stick drum roll.

The pieces were not announced, and sometimes it seemed as if a player would begin a different piece, and the others would join in after recognizing it either by the rhythm or the tune. In the beginning Hussain picked up the rhythm from Marar’s introduction on his tablas and settled into what western ears might hear as a bouncing, almost Latin-tinged 6/8 metre. When Rajagopalan’s violin entered, its rhythmic foundation felt as important as its ability to spin a melodic line. Playing it nearly vertically, Rajagopalan expanded his solos with a sort of percussive fioratura as intricate as Hussain’s.

When a tune needed to be established Rajagopalan carried it on the violin or with his voice. Known worldwide for his innovative approach, he melds in various forms ranging from Hindustani to jazz, folk and blues.

Selvaganesh drew so much rhythmic flow, variety and depth of tone out of his kajira — an instrument about the size of a salad plate — that he nearly matched Hussain’s range on the tablas. His solos were astonishing in their precision and embroidery.

Marar and his Drummers of Kerola (two of them playing chendas and a third playing small cymbals) arrived for the finale. Their hypnotic rhythmic journey was rooted in a simple sequence from the accompanying drummers — four pulses, played only on the first three beats. As it subdivided into four (and then more) sub-beats (sometimes extending the sequence by an extra one), rhythmic complexity ensued, and Marar used the chenda’s own range of pitches to extend the melodic element.

One by one, the other musicians joined in, gradually increasing in speed and intensity to reach a climactic finish. The exultant roar from the audience was well deserved.

Harvey Steiman

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