Master of the Tabla

Planet Drum’s Zakir Hussain Waxes Poetic

by Charles Donelan

Zakir-Hassain-color.jpgZakir Hussain is the world’s most renowned player and composer on the tabla, the traditional drum of India. He has led a distinguished career on several continents, and is particularly well-known for collaborating with such Western bigwigs as the Beatles. He is a cofounder — with Grateful Dead veteran Mickey Hart — of Planet Drum, a quartet of percussionists that plays world music and won the first-ever Grammy for that genre in 1992. The latest edition of Planet Drum will be appearing at the Lobero Theatre on September 20. I recently spoke with Zakir Hussain.

What’s been going on? I’ve been touring with Sangam [the group is led by Charles Lloyd, and also includes Eric Harland]. We played New York for the JVC Festival, then Turkey, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Greece. The Sangam live album on ECM was released in April. [Incidentally, Charles Lloyd will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of his Forest Flower recording on September 15 at the Lobero with another group, this one featuring Geri Allen, Eric Harland, and Reuben Rogers.]

How about Planet Drum? We will be doing something new when we appear at the Lobero on September 20. We’ve grown a bit more as we have become more exposed to each other’s musical traditions, and as a result, the music has changed and evolved. Drumming generally is at a new level, mostly due to the incredible communication that is connecting drummers and drumming traditions from all over the world. Planet Drum was a forerunner of this and remains a kind of concoction based on all these changes. Mickey has been a leader and a catalyst for world music from the beginning, and now that the art of drumming has reached such an influential place because of hip-hop and dance music, his role just looks more and more impressive. He was chiefly responsible for this idea that there is a “Planet Drum,” and that rhythm is universal. He didn’t invent the concept, but he really was at the forefront of getting it out there.

What exactly is going to be new about this version of Planet Drum? We are actually embracing electronics and using computers now. Not in the sense of drum machines or programmed drum tracks, but as modifications and effects on top of our playing. We are keeping our acoustic instruments, but we are going to run them through some Mac G5s, which are going to be operated by another person. The traditional drums will act as triggers for electronic sounds. This is so that, for instance, a conga drum can be made to sound like a bell. It’s all done in real time — no click tracks. We will still be improvising spontaneously, and maintaining the integrity of our original instruments, but through the G5s we will be able to create a much broader palette. We will be using our drums to make orchestral sounds.

That’s amazing. Where did you get into this? Well, Bill Laswell and I have been doing things with electronics for years, and Mickey and I are always looking for new ways to make the sound of Planet Drum blossom. In the beginning, when I was first recording here in the States, we would run a line to a speaker that was sitting out in a field. Then there would be a tube that would take the sounds back to the studio. That was our reverb!

Can you expand on your comment that drumming has evolved recently? Sure. Sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s an instrument maker, and sometimes it’s both. A musician may interact in some new way with another musician, or an instrument maker may respond to an individual musician with an innovative design. The biggest new cultural influences that I have followed have come from Southeast Asia and Africa. The drumming from these parts of the world is just so much more available now, and it has produced a lot of “a-ha” moments for Western musicians, people saying, “I hadn’t seen this angle before.”

Tell me about your own trajectory and career. I learned a 2,000-year-old repertoire in the traditional way, at the feet of masters like my father in India. Then I came to the United States and I saw Carlos Santana’s band in San Francisco in 1973. Armando Peraza, Santana’s conga player, was doing these things with the congas that really opened my mind. He has a melodic quality to his playing, and he is constantly doing things with melody on top of the rhythms. It wasn’t just on-and-off beat hits. This started me experimenting with tones. I realized at that time that I had learned so much, yet I had never really asked my instrument, “What do you want to do?” That’s what I mean by the evolution of drumming — those moments when players open up to the possibilities of their instruments that transcend the traditions in which they have been trained.

You are a teacher as well as a performer. Could you say something about that? Yes. I taught at Princeton last year and I will be at Stanford this year. I have designed a course that introduces students to the tradition of Indian music, and where it has led to. The teaching of music in India is typically done as one-on-one tutorials, so when I started teaching here and dealing with classrooms full of students, it was quite a challenge. I was a young man when I started doing it — 18 years old — at the University of Washington. I remember that when I figured out what I would have to do, I was intimidated. I had to learn to teach in a hurry! Fortunately, I could call my master back in India and talk it over with him. In the end it all worked out, and I now teach undergrads and graduate students nearly every year.

What have you been recording lately? Planet Drum has a new record coming out in 2007. I also composed a triple concerto for the Nashville Symphony this year. It will premiere in their brand-new concert hall. I have four songs that I am doing with Tina Turner and I am excited about that. Plus, of course, there is Sangam with Charles Lloyd, which, as I said earlier, just came out.

Thanks so much Zakir, you have been great. Thank you. See you at the Lobero!

4•1•1 Planet Drum plays the Lobero on Wednesday, September 20, 8 p.m. Visit or call 963-0761.

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