Zakir Hussain gets symphony musicians into a North Indian mood

United StatesUnited States CURRENTS – Rhythm Spirits: Zakir Hussain (curator, tabla), Kala Ramnath (Indian classical violin), members of San Francisco Symphony. Recorded at Davies Hall, San Francisco, and first streamed 18.2.2021. (HS)

Violinist In Sun Jang and tabla master Zakir Hussain playing Sands of Time

Ustad Allarakha Qureshi (arr. Chris Votek and Neelamjit Dhillon) – ‘Bichhua’ (Barbara Bogatin, cello; Scott Pingel, bass; Douglas Rioth, harp)

Zakir Hussain (arr. Zakir Hussain and Neelamjit Dhillon) – ‘Laya-Jam’ (Jacob Nissly, Bryce Leafman, James Lee Wyatt III, Stan Muncy, percussion)

Traditional (arr. Neelamjit Dhillon and Chris Votek) – ‘Sands of Time’ (In Sun Jang, Raushan Akhmedyarova, violins; Katie Kadarauch, Christina King, violas; Amos Yang, cello; Daniel G. Smith, bass)

CURRENTS was among the San Francisco Symphony’s first forays into the online video world last fall, pairing its musicians with Chinese, jazz, hip hop and Mexican artists. The latest concert, Rhythm Spirits, focuses on Zakir Hussain, the jaw-dropping master of the tabla, as he connects with members of San Francisco Symphony’s string, harp and percussion sections.

Hussain is no stranger to seeking common ground with musicians from traditions other than his own in North India. I have marveled as he melds his distinct sense of rhythm and virtuosity with classical, jazz and bluegrass standouts. As an original member of the Silk Road Project, he can be heard blending seamlessly with masters of the Chinese sheng, Persian kemancheh and Galician bagpipes.

Hussain introduces this 34-minute concert with a tale he often tells of his father, Allarakha. Himself a great tabla player, he whispered Indian rhythms instead of a traditional prayer into his infant son’s ear, insisting that the child would also grow up to be a great percussionist. Allarakha toured regularly in the west with sitarist Ravi Shankar in the 1960s, and they pioneered something new by performing with a wide range of Western musicians. Among them were Yehudi Menuhin and the Beatles.

Los Angeles-based Neelamjit Dhillon and Chris Votek, both of whom straddle Indian music, jazz and other genres as players and composers, made the arrangements for the three meetings of the musical mind on this program. The most ambitious and successful of these efforts, ‘Sands of Time’, fashions Rajastani folk ragas into a medley for tabla, Indian violin and a sextet of two western violins, two violas, cello and bass. A joyful romp, it manages to capture the feel of a triple-beat flow of Indian rhythm with the major-scale tinge of the melodies and harmonies.

Similar in some ways to jazz, the raga form uses improvised departures by each individual musician to develops the music between crescendoing climaxes by the full ensemble. This was especially effective in ‘Sands of Time’, even if the western instruments’ solos seem to have been written out, because all of the instruments sound right together with the Indian classical violin played by Kala Ramnath, a master of the classical Indian violin and a composer in her own right. Part of Hussain’s genius is how he can fit his tablas into almost any musical setting.

That seamlessness doesn’t always happen in the two other works on the program. Notably, as deftly played as it was, Douglas Rioth’s harp sounds a bit strange if you are expecting sitar in the opening work; and, in a percussion-only piece, the timbre of Stan Muncy’s marimba doesn’t fit the rest of the sound, even if it adds a different and tasteful layer of pitch.

The concert begins with Hussain’s father’s ‘Bichhua’, a sinuous raga laid out hauntingly by Ramnath, who shapes the melody with all the slides and improvisational spirit familiar to listeners of Indian music. Cellist Barbara Bogatin gets the right feeling when it comes to her turn, and Scott Pingel, the orchestra’s principal bass, fits his pizzicato rhythms easily with Hussain’s tabla.

Introducing his own ‘Laya-Jam’, Zakir notes that without worrying about melody or harmony percussionists can find themselves speaking the same language. In their solos, separated as expected by reprises of the main theme, Jacob Nissly, the orchestra’s principal percussionist, treats his array of four semi-tuned drums very much like Hussain’s lineup of tablas, and James Lee Wyatt III’s snare drum adds a perfect sibilant overtone to the tablas.

Still, when the spotlight falls on Hussain there’s no doubt who is the big deal. Fingers flying over the drum heads, occasionally picking up a tuning hammer to coax an actual melody out of one tabla, Hussain shows just what an unprepossessing array of small drums can do.

Visually, director Frank Zamacona focuses on individual musicians to give us a clear picture of who is doing what at any moment, and director of lighting Luke Kritzeck uses colorful hues to designate changes as the musical forms play out. It’s not obtrusive, and pinpoint editing makes it all work smoothly.

Clips from India and a few archival photos add visual depth to the opening sequence and to Hussain’s brief but heartfelt introductions to each piece, shot in his Bay Area living room. At the end, he urges anyone interested in learning to play tabla not to worry about the centuries of tradition but to ‘just start banging on it’ and ‘the spirit in the instrument will start revealing to you how to connect with it’.

And he adds, ‘When you’re listening to the music, any music, listen with open ears, open minds, open heart, and it will eventually talk to you’.

Harvey Steiman

To link to the concert, click here.

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