World-renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain has both revolutionized Indian percussion and extended its audience worldwide. Over the course of a career that has spanned more than four decades, Hussain has fused Indian classical music with Western jazz, rock and Latin styles, collaborating with Pharoah Sanders, Tito Puente, Joe Henderson and Van Morrison, among others. Spark checks in on the longtime Bay Area resident as he works with some of the region’s most respected performers.
The son of tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain was a child prodigy. He began his musical education at the age of 7 under the tutelage of his father. By the time he was 12, Hussain was performing professionally, touring with the royalty of Indian classical music, including Ali Akbar Kahn, and later, with his father’s longtime collaborator Ravi Shankar. At the age of 19, Hussain moved to the Bay Area and formed lasting musical relationships with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart.
In 1975, Hussain teamed up with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar to form Shakti, an ensemble dedicated to fusing jazz with Indian music. He has also been the leader of a number of bands, including the Tal Vadya Rhythm Band, which later became the Diga Rhythm Band, and The Rhythm Experience.
Hussain maintains a grueling touring schedule that has taken him around the globe. Spark catches Hussain’s performance at the San Jose Performing Arts Center, where he and sarode player Alam Khan are accompanied by Indian violinist Kala Ramnath. The event, which attracted an audience of nearly a thousand, reverses the usual instrumental roles as the violin forms a backdrop for Hussain’s percussion.
Ever the innovator, Hussain is relentless in his pursuit of artistic challenges. He has composed film scores, sung, and even acted in a number of films. Spark trails Hussain to the studio of choreographer Alonzo King, who has commissioned him to create and perform a piece for his upcoming tour with the LINES Ballet Company. This will be the first time that an Indian percussionist will perform with a dance ballet — a daunting prospect for Hussain, who will have to fuse Indian music’s improvisational mode with the precise choreography that King has designed for the performance. But Hussain is up to the task — it is an opportunity to explore yet more new territory after decades of experimentation.