Since his death in February 2000, the London-based Alla Rakha Foundation has been putting on yearly tributes for the tabla nawaaz Alla Rakha. The tenth annual tribute – Shraddhanjali means ‘tribute’ – had a heightened poignancy, for his wife Begum Alla Rakha – or affectionately, Ammaji (mother) to Alla Rakha’s Abbaji (father) – died in late 2009. The billing was Zakir Hussain, Ranjit Barot and Sabir Khan – three sons taking forward Indian arts in their own way.
Ranjit Barot’s mother is the noted, Padma Shree-class dancer Sitara Devi. The decision to have him open Shraddhanjali was inspired. His performance showed how far Indo-fusion drumming has come since Rich à la Rakha, the 1968 release that paired Alla Rakha and Buddy Rich. His solo opener, Invocation, had him playing kit drums to pre-recorded tapes. High in the mix was a fanfare of Indian shawm. Although it sounded like a folk shehnai, surprisingly (well, maybe only for me) it turned out to be southern nagaswaram. Artfully, its sonorities arced over to the unbilled appearance of Tim Garland on soprano and tenor saxophones on Hamsadhawani – a composition messing around with the carnatic raga of the same name. Bada Boom – a title punning on US yoofspeak and bada to mean ‘Big Bang’ – with Garland on tenor meshed better. 6/8 deployed kit drums, vocals, sarangi, tenor and soprano saxes playing off, and against, samples. Given the Shraddhanjali context, I felt its metallic and radio static atonalisms were too intrusive, too stray.
6/8 followed by Song For Abbaji marked the UK public debut of Sabir Khan, the son of sarangi maestro Sultan Khan. The short-bodied, squat sarangi is not the most graceful of stringed instruments but in the right hands it sings like a baby angel. His were the right hands. In him meet the finest young sarangi player since Aruna Narayan, the daughter of sarangi virtuoso Ram Narayan. Although Alla Rakha’s son Zakir Hussain played on the second half’s ensemble performance piece, Barot’s Song For Abbaji, it was in the sarangi and tabla interactions and the duo’s swapping of supporting roles that the infinite complexities and mind- and body-quaking subtleties of Indian rhythmicality were unleashed and the magic flew. Even mid-performance tuning revealed the marvels of tuned percussion. There were passages when Hussain’s hands were a blur. There were times as gentle as a term of endearment wooing the ear. There were also interludes of reminding us that the Punjabi style of tabla-playing is more than arty. Tabla is also about life or vignettes of the natural world. That might be a bolting deer startled by a hunter. Or anywhere India’s street chaos of biggest goes best, with big vehicle, big elephant and hapless little pedestrian trying to weave to the other side. People talk about the greatest this, the greatest that. The contention that there is a greatest rhythmist is absurdly subjective. However, at Shraddhanjali, Zakir Hussain, while playing for his life and his father’s reputation, proved himself patently the greatest rhythmist on the planet this particular night. No contest.