Zakir Hussain and Dave Holland were joined by internationally renowned New York jazz saxophonist Chris Potter and award-winning Bollywood film composer and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, alongside Louiz Banks (piano), Sanjay Divecha (guitar), and Gino Banks (drums).
As a part of the Crosscurrents program, Rungh asked Sal Ferreras to interview Zakir Hussain. Below is their interview which took place on November 7, 2017.
Sal -- Greetings Zakir. I have been a fan of you for many years and have followed the distinctive and inspiring collaborations that you have forged with so many musicians around the globe. You just concluded a performance at Vancouver’s Chan Centre concert hall with Dave Holland and the Cross Currents ensemble. How did you feel about the performance at the Chan?
Zakir -- The show went very well, we had a lovely concert. The interaction and connection between the musicians was fabulous. Luckily one of the musicians who had still not received his Canadian visa until, like almost the morning of the show, made it. That relief was such that the concert was like whew, it was great.
Sal -- I have watched with great interest the transformation of the world music scene since the early 1970s and the many deep roots that individuals and often quite different traditions have established roots in and around the world.
I have also observed your role as one of the leaders of that transformation, I want to thank you and urge you to continue this important work.
Zakir-- You’re very kind, thank you.
Sal -- Rungh Magazine, for whom I am conducting this interview, has a sophisticated audience of some very discerning music listeners with a rather eclectic world view. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your improvisation or how your artistic journey is informed by improvisation. Given that the improvisational experience is one of exploration, is this what guides you in exploring new territory such as you’re doing with Dave Holland?
Zakir – When you are growing up in a family of musicians or like when your father is your teacher and day in day out there are many students around and you’re all listening to music, you somehow start to relate your way of life vis-à-vis through the protocols of music, if I may say so, I’m trying to find the best way to explain it.
There is a way musicians live, there is a way the musicians interact, there is a way they are respectful to each other or their conversations and interactions are governed through this particular way of living, of existing and of course a mutual respect and reverence for the art form that they represent.
So there’s that and when I start working with musicians that whole thing comes into play, its not just only about “what song are we going to play” or “what riff are we going to do, which time cycle”, its not just that, its about our interaction together as human beings. And when that comes into play my understanding is from an Indian point of view is that that translates into how the music blossoms.
I’ll give you and example. When you are an Indian musician and you’re going to play with another musician and you’re in the dressing room, the last thing you talk about is music. Most of the time the conversation is about politics, or film or the new gadget, daughters and sons and all that stuff and like, three minutes to go before the concert, its like, “oh OK, lets play this rag (meaning a melody) and this rhythm cycle” and they walk on stage and play. The reason that works as far as my understanding of it is it’s that the composition is in a subconscious way gauging where you are at that moment, emotionally, musically, where you are at the moment.
Once you become comfortable with that, conversing like friends, in a deeper sense, then when you go onstage, it just translates, the same conversation translates into the composition of music.
So that is what happens, so when I play with Dave Holland and he says “OK I have this piece in seven that I would like to play, you know, let’s play this”, I’m playing the music but I’m more looking at him, into his eyes, his body language, his smile, his serious face, and from that I’m ascertaining what it is that I am supposed to do.
Sal -- Thank you and I’d like to get back to a couple of those points a bit later. Great actors are continually besieged by offers of great scripts for them to consider for their next projects. The readers might be interested in hearing about how this works for you? Are you the one who is the main initiator on collaborations or do you have a network of adventurous artists like you, who constantly want to extend their range and call you and say, “hey, wanna do something?”. How does it work for you?
Zakir – It’s both ways because I am also one of those adventurous artists who wants to learn more and so like this group with Dave and Chris Potter and others, it was my initiative, I wanted to put it together so it happened but at the same time it turns out that Dave said “why don’t you and Chris and I do a trio tour in Europe next year?” Or Mickey Hart calls me and says “you know what? I’m thinking about doing this project and we should get together and see if we can, you know, talk about this and figure out how this can be done” or John Machaughlin found me and other Indian musicians who I have played with over the last 40-45 years, it’s all a matter of calling each other.
At least in India there is very little visibility or existence of a management company. Mostly musicians contact musicians directly. It’s like a sitar player like Ravi Shankar would call me and “say, oh Zakir, I’d like you to play with me in such and such town, can you do it?” he’ll say, “be there or do you want me to do your tickets or something” and I would say, “no, no, I’ll take care of that” and we’ll deal with it and that’s how it goes. It happens all the time. Collaboration, because the management people are not visionaries, they always look to you as musicians to tell them what it is that you want to do. Like when I wanted to do this Cross Currents show I had to convince my management that this will work, that its gonna happen, yes, there are musicians coming from India, me from here, somebody from Seattle and then there’s Dave and Chris and “how is it going to all work?” and I told them, “believe me its going to work, just see if you can sell this project”. They’re not the ones who will assemble it, yes, its possible that there are musicians who I don’t know, personally who may contact them and say they would like Zakir to work on our project, that’s a different story but 85% of the time it’s musicians calling musicians.
Like when I did the Herbie Hancock project, it wasn’t his management that called me, he called me directly, “Zakir, I want you to do this tour with me, can you do it?” And when I said yes, he said, “OK, I’ll have my management assistants call you up and take care of all the arrangements”, that’s later. I think that works beautifully when musicians get in touch with musicians its giving out the message of respect and protocol and treating each other at a level that is of comfort to each other and sends out the message that “I really want you to do this with me” as opposed to a management company calling you. So that is what still happens in India and I know that on occasions it happens here.
Sal -- Given the broad range of rhythmic traditions in which you have worked, can you say that over the years you’ve been able to tap into some hidden, or not so hidden, commonalities between say, African conceptions of improvisations, afro-caribbean grooves, flamenco rhythmic cycles and afro-american feels? Surely there is something you have tapped into simply because of the connection that you have had to so many musicians, have you found a commonality everywhere or anywhere?
Zakir -- Absolutely, ah, the gypsies from the desert state of Rajastan traveled through the Silk Route all the way through Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe and into Africa, into Spain, so we find that the melodic structures, scales and certain rhythm cycles are similar. Like Andalusian music or Middle Eastern music.
We call melodic scales ragas, in the middle east they call them maqams, but most of the time, whether it’s a Nubian like Hamza El Din or an Egyptian like Abdul Wahab, or Umm Koulthum or Dou Dou Rose from Senegal, these are all people who think with spontaneity as their vision. Even though they may have figured out a way to convey their thought process to, say, a battery of drummers or other musicians, even then, in a spontaneous mode where they will pick and choose how they will conduct that battery.
I noticed this with Dou Dou Rose from Senegal where he had twenty hand drummers and he’d be in the middle and he’d conduct them. Normally the conducting is done with a composed piece of music but no, not him, his signals would tell them where it is that he wanted them to go and those signals happened at his whim, whatever he wants to hear at the moment. There is creative process in play that has the now feel. It’s happening now. So all this African continent and the banjo having come from Africa, obviously its all connected, improv is a major portion of it, even when you go listen to Gospel, for instance, there’s improv there, and jazz refined it further and gave it to the world but Indian music has it, Middle Eastern has it, Tunisian music has it, to a certain extent Chinese music has it and so does Japanese music, so they are all people who believe in creativity and spontaneity and that has to be something that drives the creative process or else it becomes something that is stale, something that is mechanical.
What I’m trying to say is that it was in the Western world that they figured out that they needed to martialize this, they needed to have somebody be the one who was going to the be the man with the stick, so music had to be written and because it was written and it was composed, drums were taken away and it became a very spiritual connection as far as the church and the music was concerned, it became very melodic and harmonic, and so it needed to be controlled. But the rest of the world still believed in their creative juices being allowed to flow and so I don’t find that playing with jazz musicians or playing with African musicians or vice versa is an issue because we all believe in being able to be fluid, be, you know, open with our thought processes as they are taking shape.
Sal -- I did an interview a number of years ago with Paco de Lucia. He was playing a concert in Vancouver and mentioned to me his venture into jazz, saying that it was entirely intuitive. I asked how comfortable he felt playing with jazz musicians and he answered very honestly saying, “you know what? I had no idea, I don’t know anything about jazz, I just play with these guys because it’s a natural experience and it’s a natural connection to something that we both know that we don’t need to verbalize and certainly don’t need to write down.” What you’ve just said sounds very similar to that perspective.
Zakir —That’s exactly it, it’s a conversation being taken further on onto the stage into the realm and the language of music. You interact and you’re speaking to each other but now you’re speaking in riffs.
When I was learning my art form, which is tabla, the first two or three years of my learning process I wasn’t even allowed to touch the drums. What I was supposed to do was sing the rhythms, just tap the rhythms and keep time, like holding a clave in my hand as you would do in the Latin music world and sing. I had to hold the time signatures and I had to sing rhythms. The reason for that was that I had to learn to speak that language. It had to have expression, it had to have feeling. So I wasn’t going to simply recite robotically, it had to be like I was talking, I was forming words, phrases, sentences and telling a story. That’s what playing music is all about.
Once I learned to speak in this language, I could transpose that way of delivering that information onto my instrument.
Sal -- Do you know the mridangam master Trichy Sankaran?
Z – Of course, from York University. He’s a master. I hate him, (laughing). He’s so good, he’s so amazing. One thing I have to say about him is that all the old masters in India, they play the music and they transmit the information but the information is translated in the shape of the patterns and the language of the patterns and so on to the students. Breaking it down and analyzing it, definitions of it, how to standardize the efforts so that everyone is on the same page as far as the learning process of it is concerned has not really been taken as seriously until Trichy came along and started to do that through his teaching process and now actually he has designed a system that works well for the students and there are answers that meet the requirements of the questions and that’s a great thing.
Sal -- He has indeed influenced so many people in Canada and the US. He and I were having a conversation once about “free jazz” and he said to me that it would be musically a very difficult thing to be completely free or without rules and structure because he said his freedom came from working within the multiple rules guide his tradition. You, of course, would have a very similar training in that it was very, very rigorous but at the same time adhering to the rigour is what might allow you to fly beyond it. I wonder what part structure and tradition play into your interaction with all these non-Indian music collaborators?
Zakir – Well first of all it gives me a root to plant myself and strong enough so that I can reach out and be part of another something and become part of something else and more but having my own identity as a comfort zone that I can come back to and also bring to the table when it comes to sampling wares of each other’s genres of music. I grew up being that disciplined and having that flow of adrenalin. That’s basically what it is, you’re challenging yourself to work within a certain confined area and that challenge allows you to be able to focus and be able to pit yourself against whatever hurdles there are that you will face and need to deal with and cross when it comes to the world of rhythm and the ride that you have to take.
I also feel that if I am to collaborate with musicians, say I’m going to play with Charles Lloyd (jazz saxophonist and flutist), I have to have certain flexibility of being able to abandon my life jacket, if so required, and have that confidence inside of me knowing that I can float with these guys in this ocean. I am of the opinion that we must cross over, that where the idea of the band came to be Cross Currents. We must be able to have the discipline and the challenge that that poses but at the same time, al leap of faith and freedom and the challenge that that poses to you. They are both challenging, they are both very demanding of your focus, your discipline, your commitment and your understanding and your ability to be a good listener. When I was with Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira he used to say “don’t wait for your turn to play, learn to listen to what’s going on, then you can be a part of the conversation”.
It’s important that we have the ability to jump out of an airplane with a parachute but waiting till the very last millisecond to pull the cord, till then you’ve flown free, and you find your way.
The first time I saw Cecil Taylor (pianist and founder of free jazz movement) at a jazz festival in 1976 it wasn’t making any sense to me. I was standing next to guitarist John Maclaughlin and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, listening to Cecil and I was watching John and Wayne and they were in ecstasy. And me, I couldn’t make any sense of this; I asked, “what’s going on here, what’s happening”. I looked at John and he saw me and he understood that I was not getting it. All he told me was this “don’t just stand there just listening, try to listen but also watch him. Watch Cecil, watch the bass player, watch the drummer, watch them, because what they are doing when it comes to free form is a dance that involves every little particle of their being. It’s a yearning and a desire and a scream and a wail to be able to find a way that has yet to be discovered”.
It's important that we have the ability to jump out of an airplane with a parachute but waiting till the very last millisecond to pull the cord, till then you’ve flown free, and you find your way.
Zakir – Well I’m jealous of all the young artists. Because when I was 18 or 19 I had an almost non-existing idea of what music in the rest of the world was about. There were no computers, no Google, YouTube or whatever, or CDs or DVDs, or iTunes, nothing. So today’s musicians in India that I have noticed, all the young Indian musicians grow up learning simultaneously Indian classical music, Indian folk music, Indian pop music.
There is no stigma that Indian classical musicians shouldn’t play pop music or folk music or anything. It’s now opened up where there is an acceptance of all formal forms of music as music of equal standing as opposed to lesser or higher, it’s gone. So that’s great, they are doing that but apart from that they have access to all sorts of music from all over the world and instant comparisons between jazz harmonies and Indian monochromatic music and they grow up doing both at the same time so by the time they are like twenty or twenty one they can go sit with anyone and in any place and trade riffs and patterns so comfortably like as if they belong there. So I am seeing that Indian musicians, at least in India, have figured out a way to be able to co-exist or wear different hats at that same time and be comfortable doing that. I find that they are able to interact and work with musicians from all over the worlds much better.
The reason I started working with Mickey Hart (drummer for the Grateful Dead) was because when he came to my father (tabla master Alla Rakha) and said “I want you to play on my album” my father clearly told him “look, I’m too old for this, I’m set in my ways, I have no idea how to loosen up, but my son, he’s young, he’s going to be able to be open enough to be able to do that so have him work with you”. So that’s what happened with me. I have to say that today’s young musicians are in a much better place, they are more well informed and more comfortable as musicians of global ability as opposed to musicians twenty-five or thirty years ago.
Sal -- Can you tell us about what role or mentoring, which I understand you do quite a bit of, what role does that play in your continuing artistic development?
Zakir – It’s both ways. If I’m going to helping somebody out it’s actually going to help me out too. Indian music tradition is an oral tradition or has been up to recent times and because its an oral tradition it was talked about around the fire or one on one like from a father to a son, or a teacher to a student. There was no documenting so therefore the stories have evolved, that patterns have assumed different shapes and forms, so when it comes to today where questions are easily asked.
In my days you did not question what was being taught to you. You just learned it. But in today’s world, the students actually ask you why is this and why is that and how does it compare to x, y and z. You have to have answers available that would stand up to the traditions that you are representing and stand up to the test of time. That the definition that you provide will stand five years, ten years down the road.
That’s what mentoring and guiding someone is all about. You have to actually discover from the very bare bones the art form that you have learned and how to make it appear visually to someone who you are mentoring in a reasonable way with all logic in place and convey it and transmit it. I’m finding that that is such a great challenge and I know that ever since the time that I started to do it my understanding of my own tradition has grown by leaps and bounds. I know that a lot of other young tabla players and sitarists are doing the same thing and we are coming to an understanding that is both a great source of awe and reverence and also at some point disappointing. The reason for that is, I mean, you know how stories gain humungous size over many tellings, that is something that has happened with our music and our way of life as musicians in India.
Things have been put into places and out of proportion and way up in the stratosphere and made it in such a way that they have become, first of all, difficult to explain, secondly, turned away a hell of a lot of people because it looked out of reach and thirdly, when dissected and analyzed, having found that its not that, that its this simple thing, the disappointment of having found that it is not Shangrila but just the city of Bombay instead is there. All that is very exciting for me because now the reality has set in, in truth and in more real time and in perfect logic explain what our music is all about as opposed to stories that angels have given us.
Sal -- How have your collaborators like Sanjay or Louiz Banks (Indian jazz pianist) inspired this new generation of Indian jazz artists. Many people don’t even know that this is a big thing or an emerging thing of that its been around for a long time in India. It would be really interesting to hear you speak about those two collaborators in particular.
Zakir – Well, these two guys over the past 30 years have been instrumental in grooming so many young musicians. I mean look there’s this drummer named Ranjit Barot (Indian drummer, film composer) who is now the drummer of choice for John Mclaughlin and he’s playing in John’s band Fourth Dimension, they’re on tour right now in America with John, and American guitarist Jimmy Herring, they’re doing a tour together. This is a direct influence of someone like Louiz Banks. He directly influenced Sanjay, there’s Prasana (Carnatic guitarist, composer), there are incredible Bollywood film composers and that vocalist Shankar Mahadevan ( Indian film playback singer), who has sung with us, and who is a great Bollywood composer and Salim-Souleihman (Hindi film composer duo), there’s like at least thirty or thirty five of them right now who are successful composers, performers, and artists on stage who are doing immensely well and are playing music with a hell of a lot of people all over the world.
What’s happened is that now we have two or three very big jazz festivals that take place in India, two blues festivals, we have a symphony orchestra, we of course have orchestral Bollywood systems using sequencing and electronica and everything. This all happened because of somebody like Louiz Banks opened up his house to anyone who wanted to learn something about this art form. We didn’t even have a good piano in India about forty years ago but now we have pianos, cellos, basses and stuff and people are playing and learning, drumming and…look at Vijay Iyar, a great jazz pianist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, a very fine alto saxophonist in the jazz world. Amit Chatterjee, a major guitar player who played with jazz pioneer Joe Zawinul and all those guys there’s a hell of a lot of Indian musicians who have really blossomed as jazz musicians and performers and have been accepted by this part of the world to be in their groups. This is all a big effort from Louiz Banks and Sanjay I have to say.
Zakir, a heartfelt thank you for a wonderful conversation about music and rhythm, something I could talk about all day.