Zakir Hussain On the Music Beat

Zakir Hussain On the Music Beat
Not only is Zakir Hussain one of the greatest tabla players in the world, he's someone who really makes you want to believe in the possibility of "world music." He rose to prominence in John McLaughlin's Shakti in the '70s and has famously collaborated with the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart and producer Bill Laswell`s Tabla Beat Science project among many others since. He is a relentless explorer of tabla but has a wide appreciation for seemingly all forms of musical expression. Seeing him communicate with jazz-trained players like the legendary Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland (get a taste of their group Sangam in the clip below), Hussain makes it look easy to create musical communication that's identifiably jazz-influenced but very freeform and totally soulful. Exclaim! caught up with him at the Montreal Jazz Festival the day after Sangam's performance.

Great show last night. How often do you get a chance to do this?
We've been playing together for four or five years, but a small tour every year-and-a-half or so.

Sangam was just a one-off when it started, right?
We played one concert and it was recorded with no idea that it was going to be a record, then Master Lloyd heard it and felt that it was good enough to be released. So it was, and I thought, "OK fine, it's been released, whatever." Then a few months later I get a call saying we should go on tour and play, so that's how it all happened. I'm grateful to Master Lloyd that I got to meet Eric Harland.

What an amazing communion you guys have!
I don't mind being totally exposed to him, in his mind. You know how sometimes you look someone in the eye and they know exactly what you're thinking? You're totally open and vulnerable and inside their head they know what you are and what you're going to do. I feel that Eric just knows me inside and out and so whatever I do and whatever he does we are able to interact and communicate together. Sangam never rehearses.

I kind of got that impression, not in a bad way. Just that the communication is so fluid.
It's Master Lloyd putting in that kind of confidence on stage. We are young compared to him, he's been around for so many decades and he takes two young bucks and says "run" and I'll be there to move things around if needed, but find your way. When I first played with Lloyd, it was a duet for the San Francisco jazz festival called Sacred Space. I called him and asked if he wanted me to bring drums of specific pitches. He just said "tune them to the key of the universe," so he was totally open to let see what happens. That has been totally installed in Eric and my heart. We can just open up and go. There's no issue to who takes the lead, whoever comes up with something, it's like "let's explore it," so every night is a different way of looking at our story. Over the last few years of playing we do arrive at certain things that we know work so we rotate towards that, maybe a song or a familiar thing we have done. So that's there, but 70 percent of what we do on stage is improv.

Do you change up your drums from gig to gig or tour to tour?
From tour to tour yes. Because they're pitched drums, C or E or F; these are tones I have available on stage, and these are tones I've thought about: "Last time we played we explored scales in this zone so I will prepare my tablas for that." Also, my tablas can be tuned a step up or a step down so I have that available in case. If you noticed yesterday, I tuned at one point because we arrived somewhere where I wasn't prepared with the pitch.

Ah, but does Eric do that? Most Western percussion devotees don't consider the drum kit in the same way as the tabla, even though it's just as tuneable.
It is absolutely tuneable, and every drummer will do that. Eric will do that. But the tabla is such a resonant instrument that it states the pitch more noticeably than a floor tom or a high tom. You could hit it and go "which pitch is it?" but with tabla you can tell — [it will be] clashing with the saxophone. So therefore, more than the drums, the tabla has to be in tune. Have the note at least harmonically sympathetic.

What do you tune to?
What Master Lloyd does is he sits down on the piano during soundcheck and he plays the piano for a while and certain tones emerge. While he's doing that both Eric and I tune at that time according to what he's playing at that time, whatever dominant notes are emerging. But B or B flat is a good pitch for a saxophone. Flute is good at a certain pitch. So you go with tabla to have something available for those. I also have a drum which is kind of dead, it doesn't have a resonant pitch, so if nothing is matching I'll go to it.

What do you think of the term fusion at this point; you've been trying to bring together many types of music over many decades.
I doubt anybody ever got up one morning and said "I'm going to play a new kind of music and I'm going to call it fusion." Every term, whether it's world music, new age, fusion — these are terms record companies need to have to create the bins to put the records in, and to be able to market them. When John McLaughlin and L Shankar and I made Shakti, Clive Davis of CBS said to John "Where do we put this? Where do we market this? It's not jazz." He said "I have no clue, it's just music — you decide what you want to do with it." At that time you didn't have fusion, you didn't have new age — this was 1974. So they came up with the word to create a new bin, a new index because lots of that music was starting to emerge. The same thing with world music, musicians from all over the world play together so it's world music. But for a musician it's just music. I saw Wayne Shorter's set yesterday and it was so amazing to watch the way he was playing. The way the whole band was interacting with each other you'd say: "Wayne Shorter, ok it was jazz but it was also something else, but what?" I don't know.

The band that Shorter has these days is essentially free jazz even though he didn't play free jazz in the '60swhen he made his name. It seems like certain elder statesmen are getting to that point where they want to express themselves freely without structures.
And they're interacting a lot more with musicians of different parts of the world. I'll be going on tour in South America with Herbie Hancock this summer; it'll be a straight-ahead jazz group. How will I fit into it? We'll see. That's what Herbie wants to do, and that's fine. Even in jazz, there are so many different layers. Cecil Taylor. Dave Brubeck. Even in drumming, Tony Williams laid time down a certain way, Elvin Jones laid time down a different way. But it all qualifies as jazz. I mean jazz and Indian music are cousins anyways; they come from the same DNA and have similar kinds of thinking when it comes to improvising, we've just set different rules as far as the language we speak is concerned. But apart from that, the thought process is the same.