In 1994 the San Anselmo, CA-based Moment! record label released an album with the title Masters of Percussion. It was a ten-piece percussion ensemble that the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain had gathered together. The musicians included a handful of Hindustani and Carnatic drum maestros, the US drummer Narada Michael Walden, the Puerto Rican-born conga player Giovanni Hidalgo and the eminent sarangiya (sarangi player) Sultan Khan. It became an enduring and winning formula as well as one with infinite possible variations.
Twenty years on, 2014’s Masters of Percussion provided ample evidence of just how winning that mixed cultural formula has proven. Its septet performed a no-intermission, almost two-hour straight set of variations on tuned percussion themes.
Hussain was the one constant factor on the Barbican stage. The consummate showman and the evening’s de facto master of ceremonies, he talked in plain English. He dedicated the evening to the South Indian solid body mandolinist U. Srinivas who had died, aged 45, on 19 September 2014. He made no attempt to announce or back-announce the tāl (rhythm cycle) or time signature. That said, at one point, as Hussain’s silver hammer retuned, he top-tipped that teentāl, the 4+4+4+4 16- beat cycle, makes for easier mid-performance retuning. That was about as technical as the performance got.
This was to be an evening of feeling rhythmicality. No degree in musicology was necessary to get what was happening on the stage. He demystified the intricacies of tabla composition. He compared one terse bols (rhythm syllable) composition to a tweet. It went, “Come, drink, eat, music, go home.” One Raj-era dishoom! bols composition went “cannon: wheel, nozzle, gun, cannonball, flint, boom! boom! boom!” The obscure rendered understandable.
Hussain’s own tabla configuration was a one-bayan (bass) and two-dayan (treble) three-piece affair. It granted various permutations of the tabla’s dayan and bayan ranges and allowed greater timbral changes mid-performance by switching dayan. Additionally he played judicious ‘spot-colour’ percussion such as clappers. In varying permutations from duo to full ensemble, by his side he had Rakesh Chaurasia on bansuri (bamboo flute), the sarangiya son of Sultan Khan, Sabir Khan, the Uzbeki musician Abbos Kosimov on three doyra or dayereh frame drums (with jingles), Deepak Bhatt on the defining Punjabi stick-hit barrel drum dhol and Vijay S. Chavan on the smaller South Indian hand-hit barrel drum, the dholki.
From the opening exchanges between him and Sabir Khan to the final complete ensemble finale it was a magnificent evening. They combined rhythmicality of the highest order and quality with unrepentant entertainment values and visual elements. Hussain’s abilities and sensitivities when accompanying principal soloists are a given. Yet in terms of sensitivity I would rank his empathetic accompaniment of Rakesh Chaurasia – the flautist son of Hariprasad Chaurasia – on a par with Hussain accompanying the bansuri maestro G.S. Sachdev at Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s 80th birthday gala celebration at the Marin Veterans Auditorium in 1992. Hussain’s endorsement of a new generation of musicians summons memories of what the likes of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar did for him. It all comes round again.
There probably has never been a time when humankind hasn’t ineptly bandied around the term genius. It is a word to be used exceeding sparingly. Zakir Hussain Qureshi is a genius of the tabla, rhythmicality and musicality. On this particular October night he was, no question, the gold-standard genius tablawallah on the planet.