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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the May 17, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Fascinating Rhythm a la India

‘This tour is like a family," says virtuoso Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain in a phone interview from a tour stop in Albuquerque. "Everyone loves each other, and we do everything together. Hang out together, eat together. . . well, we don’t sleep together." His Masters of Percussion tour, which has been coming to McCarter for the past several years and this year appears on Friday, May 19, features master percussionists of many different traditions, who showcase their individual styles as well as blend elements of their traditions into a coherent musical experience.

On this three-month tour, Hussain says, he is for the first time inviting musicians from throughout India’s many different regions. This tour will focus on the Hindustani tradition, which is Hussain’s tradition and comes from North India, as well as the Carnatic tradition of South India.

Two of the percussionists, Fazal Qureshi and Taufiq Qureshi, are Hussain’s younger brothers. Since he lives mainly in the Bay Area and travels to India, and his brothers are based in the family’s native country, he doesn’t get to see them that often. "I’m really happy to be able to travel with my brothers," says Hussain. "They are so busy, and I am so busy, this is an excuse for us to get together for a couple of months, hang out, shoot the breeze, and renew our brothorial ties. Hey, that’s a new word – brothorial!"

The tabla, which is actually a set of two metallic drums, played with the fingers and palms, is one of the most integral providers of rhythm in North Indian classical music. In the past couple of decades, though, the instrument has taken on a chameleonic role, surfacing in electronic, R&B, hip-hop, and TV and movie themes.

Hussain’s show at McCarter also underlines his enduring connection with the area and with Princeton University. During the fall semester of 2005, Hussain was a visiting professor of music at Princeton. He taught a survey course on Indian music, and also taught a few private students.

One of those students is the celebrated young Princeton mathematics professor, Manjul Bhargava. Hussain believes Bhargava’s approach to music benefits from his mathematical mind. "I will throw certain things at him, and maybe he will seem stunned for five minutes, and then in his mind he has it. You can tell. He slowly does it, with a technique that is not yet that efficient. Then a few days later he can do it in real time. He has been playing for six or seven years, and he is really getting it. He can put things together. His brain allows him to absorb this problem and that theorem and adjust to it quickly."

A bit of full disclosure: I shared the stage with Hussain almost two decades ago, playing percussion in a jazz big band and jamming with Hussain, who was guest artist. When I reviewed one of his shows in the early 1990s, I was always captivated by the mathematical precision with which he approached his music.

Now, almost two decades after I met Zakir, I have a chance to speak with him about the relationship between the tabla, Indian music, and mathematics. "Tabla and mathematics are closely related. You have to really calculate in order to deal with rhythmic patterns; there is a certain way of looking at improvisation in counting of fives, sevens, 16s, which is really four sets of four, and you have to be able to do that spontaneously, while on stage. Improvising, and inputting patterns is very much like having computer chips at your disposal, putting them in right to make the correct sounds, the correct music, and doing all of that at superspeed.

"Once you do things for more than 20 years, eight hours a day, these things become second nature. You can actually be playing something highly complex while talking to someone else. It’s like assembling a rifle blindfolded."

Hussain is so locked in rhythmically, he says, that he instinctively knows the most efficient way to play each passage. "I know that my body will react in a certain way – my elbow will rise this way at three, shoulder will lift at one; my body has become one with the rhythm. Once that happens, you can assemble anything on top of that."

Growing up near Bombay, Hussain began playing tabla at a very early age. His father, tabla master Ustad Alla Rakha, who toured in India and abroad with Ravi Shankar, started his oldest son playing and continued to supervise his education. But it fell upon Hussain to teach his younger siblings. "Since I am 11 and 13 years older than they are, I was more of a substitute uncle in many ways than a brother. My mom used to tell me they were more afraid of me than our dad, who was such a gentle soul."

By the time he was 12 years old, Hussain was playing for audiences and touring in India. He says he practiced tabla eight hours a day growing up. By 1970, he had arrived in America to study music at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Hussain began mastering other genres outside of Indian classical and pop music, and by 1975 was recording with Western musicians, especially jazz-fusion musicians such as John McLaughlin and the R&B supergroup Earth, Wind, and Fire. With McLaughlin, Hussain co-led Shakti, a group that featured several Indian musicians and explored Indian music forms as well as jazz. He later became part of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum ensemble, with whom he won a Grammy, and led several groups of his own. Hussain has also composed music for several films.

Hussain, now 56, says he is pleased that he no longer has to explain to people he encounters exactly what a tabla is. "It is a versatile instrument both in terms of rhythm and melody," he says. "It is possible to create rhythms for any type of music with tabla. People just love it. You never hear a TV or movie theme anymore without the boom or tick of the tabla. I feel great about it."

Zakir Hussain’s Percussion Masters of India, Friday, May 19, 7:30 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Virtuoso Indian drumming. $33 to $39. 609-258-2787.

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