To watch tabla player Zakir Hussain perform is an exercise in humility. Each of his 10 fingers operates with the strength of an entire hand, drawing rich tones from his dual-drum instrument. When it seems like he can’t play any faster, he nearly doubles his timing, before putting awestruck listeners back into their seats with an impeccably rhythmic groove.
Hussain’s father, Alla Rakha, was sitar master Ravi Shankar’s right-hand man and musical partner; they performed together at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival. But even before then, during the 1950s in his home city of Mumbai, Rakha planted the seeds of his craft with his young son.
“Between the ages of one and three, he would sit me down and sing rhythms to me,” recalls Hussain, speaking from his home in Marin County, Calif. “From the age of three-and-a-half onward, he let me go, to find my way on my own through my head and my hands.”
At age seven, Zakir told his father that he was ready to become a true tabla player. Rakha began training his son between 2 and 6 a.m. each morning, waking him up to practice until it was time to go to school.
Hussain learned both craft and discipline from his father, debuting as an international touring artist at age 12. He moved to the United States at 20, accepting a teaching position at the University of Washington in Seattle. During a weekend visit to his father’s house in Los Angeles, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart happened to stop by.
“Mickey walked in and we started chatting and playing rhythms on the kitchen table,” Hussain says of that first encounter. “We’ve been friends — brothers, basically — since. Our paths have run parallel and crossed every now and then, like a train track would.”
Soon after meeting, Hussain performed on Hart’s first solo album, 1972’s Rolling Thunder. The pair’s musical partnership continues today; they won the first ever Grammy award for Best World Music Album in 1992 and took the category again in 2009 for their album Global Drum Project.
“We have both committed ourselves to showcasing rhythm traditions from all parts of the world and bringing them to America,” says Hussain. “I’m grateful to Mickey that through him I was able to experience these incredible worlds of rhythm and learn so much more than I would have if I had just stayed in India.”
In addition to Hart, Hussain has performed and recorded with many of music’s most celebrated talents, including John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock and a 2009 collaboration with banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer, Melody of Rhythm.
When Hussain performs in Charleston this Saturday, however, the focus will be squarely on the music of his home country. Sponsored by the India Association of Greater Charleston, the concert is the first of a 30-day tour with the Masters of Percussion. His band includes lauded Indian musicians playing sitar, dhol and dholki (types of two-headed drums), kanjira (Indian tambourine), and sarangi (an ancient stringed instrument played with a bow), plus a full drum kit helmed by Steve Smith, the former drummer of Journey.
Throughout his concerts, Hussain offers explanations of the regional styles and techniques he employs, but leaves much of the performance up to improvisation.
“When we start a particular song or rhythm cycle, the first minute or two are spent counting and being aware of where the bars are,” he explains. “We’ve been taught to sing these rhythms — not sing this 100 or 200 times, but sing it for five or six or eight hours. Pretty soon you find in your subconscious that your body is moving to it.”
In Hussain’s case, his experience with the rhythms he performs began before his hands were large enough to play them. Even today, he vocalizes beats in a manner that’s just as stunning as his rapid-fire hand movement.
“You’re taught how to sing the rhythm, so it’s not just a straight robotic language rendition but more like a song,” says Hussain. “When your hands are big enough, the knowledge is already in your head, so what you now need to do is get the information into your hands. We believe in Indian music that unless your brain is able to command your hands, you’re not going to be able to improvise spontaneously.”
Once the brain and body are in lockstep, Hussain explains, percussion becomes like second nature, where the head, arms, and fingers navigate themselves through rhythmic cycles and the mind can “fly all over it.”
“What are the hit songs?” he asks. “They’re the ones you can tap your feet to, not as a conscious effort to keep in time, but naturally as a subconscious movement.”
Of course, the subconscious also relies on a well-trained vessel to convey it into sound. In Hussain’s case, force and intention manifest into a flurry of finger strikes on a taut drumhead, drawing tones from the tabla unlike those possible from any other percussion instrument.
“Tabla is a muscular tradition,” Hussain states. “It’s like piano, with the difference that we also use our palms and the heel of our wrist. The idea is to get your fingers so strong that they individually sound like a hand, but it’s also a dynamic tradition where you can play from whisper soft to banging loud with just one finger.”