Zakir Hussain is one of the world’s most in demand percussionists. From his collaborations with jazz greats Charles Lloyd and Herbie Hancock to his explorations with the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart, Bela Fleck and Earth Wind and Fire, Hussain has been blending eastern rhythms with western music for decades.
Hussain’s father, Alla Rakha, was an Indian tabla master who specialized in Hindustani classical music. As a child in Mumbai, Hussain was put through vigorous musical training. He first came to the U.S. in 1970 to play a concert in New York City with the legendary Ravi Shankar.
Zakir briefly considered a career as a rock drummer but after recording with George Harrison on “Living in the Material World,” it was Harrison who suggested he continue flavoring music of the west with eastern influences via tabla.
Hussain and John McLaughlin are long time friends. Their pioneering Indo-Jazz supergroup Shakti is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a world tour including a stop at the Mondavi Center in Davis and a brand new album.
CapRadio’s Gary Vercelli spoke with Hussain about his career of collaborations, Shakti’s anniversary tour and the essence of Indian music.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On the evolution of Shakti’s genre-blending music
It is interesting to be a part of a band and tradition that maintains the same feeling and experience through so many different incarnations. The feeling that we experience on stage now, the joy that permeates, and the fun we have together is the same as what it was in 1973.
When we got together again after being away for some years and experiencing other musical situations, it felt like we were just starting from where we left off. Shakti brings the past into the present and creates an environment with the past and the present so that both become valid into all future shapes and forms that it takes.
On first meeting John McLaughlin over 50 years ago
What happened was John was getting interested in Indian music and Indian culture, and he was meditating and also starting to learn a South Indian instrument of ancient origin. But he had really had no connection or contact with North Indian musicians. He just asked, “Do you know anything about Indian ragas or melodic structures?”
And of course, we all grew up learning the process. I said, “Yes, I do.” And the process required that I sing the modes — or melodic structures — out to him. I did that, and it turned out that I was only slightly better at singing than John was. We exchanged phone numbers. I had no clue who John McLaughlin was.
That led to us eventually playing together in the living room of a great Indian musician, Ali Akbar Khan. And that was an experience that definitely suggested that we are spirits that pass through many incarnations because it felt right. It felt like we had been playing together for many, many generations and many incarnations. It was almost like finding a long-lost cousin.
On defining Shakti and the emotions projected in Indian music
Shakti has, for us, a very special meaning, because it has that positive, happy, contented, peaceful energy that is the balance between chaos and order. And therefore, it represents all that is good. And that definitely appears in the music in India.
When we play, there are nine moods that music represents like sadness, happiness, courage, love, disgust, and so on and so forth. But out of the nine emotions, the negative ones like disgust and horror are something that Indian music does not represent. All that is positive when it comes to the creative process and inside of a human being, when it comes to all these nine emotions are projected through art and culture and music in India.