Celebrated Composer & Tabla Player ZAKIR HUSSAIN & MASTERS OF PERCUSSION Mesmerize Washington DC WPAS Concert with Drums & Flute

By Devapriya "Debu" Nayak

Click Play to listen to a clip from Zakir Hussain & the Masters of Percussion
A WPAS Concert at Kennedy Center, Washington DC

Zakir Hussain and Masters of Percussion perform  at The Kennedy Center on March 17Washington, D.C., March 17, 2012 (Washington Bangla Radio) After his remarkable concert with the National Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago that is still resonating in Washington, Ustad Zakir Hussain returned to Kennedy Center today with The Masters of Percussion - some of the brightest stars of Indian music today. The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS).

Simply put,  Ustad ji is a Tabla wizard and a virtuoso. He uses every part of his two palms of his hands to make the Dayan and Bayan (right and left  drums -Tabla) talk. His fingers constantly become blurry while playing, and while doing that he simply bludgeons the audience into submission. “Ustad” Zakir Hussain, a salutation which he refuses to accept (listen to his interview with Bharati Mitra … like everything in India there is a story behind this one too), is a master of this art and the genre’s most celebrated and recognizable artist around the world. He is also the proponent of a new movement going around the world called “Tabla science” which he teaches at Princeton University. (more info on this in my Tabla blog) . Ustad Zakir Hussain, in recent years,  has reached new heights in exposing new audiences to this ancient musical craft. Tabla, although a relatively newer percussion instrument in the sub-continent, dates only back to 300-500 years compared to Pakhawaj, Mridangam, Madol and other percussive instruments in the Indian sub-continent.

We saw Zakir ji, in the show at the Kennedy center concert hall, offer some newer and exciting elements of sound production for the Tabla lovers in the area. The stage opens with a very traditional tabla duet (which he is used to performing with his father Ustad Alla Rakha), with his brother Fazal Qureshi. The two sets of Tablas, just like any tabla duet performances in India, were set to two different octaves. They highlighted interaction of melodic movements, borrowing stories from Hindu mythological tales of Ganesh and Shiva,  interspersed with speedy syllables of “relas” and “kaida” elements (bols) of Punjab school (gharana), in this syllable-chanting duet piece. The only thing that was missing in this particular piece is the crucial role of a Sarangi player as it is done in a traditional Tabla duets/solos. They decided to keep the time with hand signals - borrowed from Karnatic style – as it’s done in a South Indian Taal Vadya Kacheri.

In the 30/40 minutes duet instead of a traditional two hour duet as it is done in India, Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi took the route of a meditative aspect (as it’s done in vocal music with Alaap) first. This was performed with short Peshkaar type movement, and then as time went by, they got into intricate rhythmic patterns, as they have done many times to the western audiences. This was the expressive aspect. A melodic aspect that has rigid ground rules based in the north Indian tradition of music. These two parts were masterfully  crafted and then executed. When it completed with a climactic “Tihai” or a triplet pattern of rhythm, simply  thrilled and mesmerized the concert hall audiences.

Later half of the program was joined by the other “master drummers” of India. As Zakir ji said in his other interviews, he always looks forward to have fun with these guys. “These guys are fabulous maestros and loved and revered in regions they come from”.  And the KC concert definitely showed why it is so. The master drummers typically represents various regions and cultures of India and nearby countries…joining Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi are T.H. Umashankar (Ghatam – South Indian Clay Pot), Navin Sharma on the Dholak,  and Uzbekistan's Abbos Kosimov on the doyra frame drum. The only melody instrumentalist in this entire percussive ensemble was Rakesh Chaurasia (nephew of legendary flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia) on bamboo flute.  In the second half, the emotional aspect Indian classical music was captured on the flute (Rakesh) and Zakir Hussain on Tabla using different ragas and folk tunes. Percussion played a huge role, very innovative I must add, in depicting the mood -  pathos, romance and excitement – all in one soap box. The Manipuri dancing drummers were the heart throb of the audience. This part of the journey in this concert was quite exhilarating for them as everyone got quite spellbound.

For Tabla and/or percussion lovers everywhere, this is an exciting concert. Because of two reason: first, It captures the cultural aspect of drumming in the Indian subcontinent. It’s an experiment with beats that goes into rhythmic tizzy with different folks without losing a beat. Therefore, a huge lesson in group exercise.  A student of drums or hand percussion, western or eastern living in this country would definitely benefit out of it.  Second, melodic aspect drumming and music  woven together in the second half is an eye opener. It not only shows you how to develop drumming technique (meditative) from a simple rhythmic structure  to complicated components of rhythmic exercise (sawal jawab or question answer) to the fullest.

As zakir ji says, "I enjoy doing that," he says. "So much fun to revisit the repertoire and to relive the time with my teacher, my guru, my father, who taught me that stuff when I was young."

A Brief Recap of the performance by Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion

Lights inside the Kennedy Center dimmed to Meitei Pung Cholom, dancing drummer from the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, creating rhythms not only on his drum but also his feet while dancing along.

The spotlights moved to Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi (younger brother of Zakir, and both students of their legendary father Ustad Alla Rakha), on their Tabla sets, tuned differently just right so that a scintillating exchange of rhythms demonstrated speed, accuracy, and versatility of the wrist and fingers of two iconic contemporary Tabla players and their instruments. Fazal eventually pulled out his Kanjira and more rhythmic exchanges followed.

Somewhere during this time, when the audience was completely absorbed in the two brothers, THV Umashankar has quietly come in and sat down with his ghatam (clay pot). After a scintillating solo by Umashankar, he and Fazal created the next phase of rhythmic magic. The artists were enjoying themselves thoroughly, too - for example Umashankar would cause much amusement by playing lower and lower on his ghatam and eventually running out of surface space on the instrument. He also went very soft suddenly followed by two loud bangs causing many hearts to jump followed by more laughter.

After the break (which was strictly enforced with the organizers reminding everyone there would be no late sitting), the audience was introduced to Rakesh Chaurasia on the bansuri (bamboo flute), Navin Sharma playing the dholak and Abbos Kosimov from Uzbekistan on the doyra.  Rakesh's flute was accompanied by rhythms created by Navin and Abbos, after which Abbos stunned everyone with his remarkable expertise with playing not one, but three doyras at the same time - at one time he would have one doyra spinning on a finger on hand and playing two more with his other and the spinning one all together. After finding themselves unable to resist clapping to Abbos' rhythms, Navin impressed everyone with his demonstration of rhythms from his dholak. After their solo performances, Navin and Abbos had a few rounds of spectacular exchanges between the dholak and the doyra.

The finale would start with Zakir and Rakesh - the flautist and the tabla player, and eventually the masters of percussion all joined together, resulting in a overwhelming show of talent with power and sublimity that would keep the audience speechless just before a spontaneous standing ovation at the end of the show.

Unfortunately, noted Sarangi player Dilshad Khan could not be present in the show due to the United States Department of State not having approved his visa for travel to the USA.

Masters of Percussion, an outgrowth of Hussain’s tours with his father, the legendary Ustad Allarakha, has enjoyed successful tours in the West since 1996.

Funded in part by the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, an agency supported in part by National Endowment for the Arts.

WPAS is committed to making every event accessible for persons with disabilities. Please call the WPAS Ticket Services Office for more information on accessibility to the various theaters in which our performances are held.  Services offered vary from venue to venue and may require advance notice.

Washington Performing Arts Society has created profound opportunities for connecting the community to artists, in both education and performance.  Through live events in venues that criss-cross the landscape of the D.C. metropolitan area, the careers of emerging artists are guided, and established artists who have bonded with the local audience are invited to return.  In this way, the space between artists and audiences is eliminated, so that all may share life-long opportunities to deepen their cultural knowledge, enrich their lives, and expand their understanding and compassion of the world through the universal language of the arts.

Zakir Hussain & Masters of Percussion

Fazal Qureshi, tabla & kanjira
Rakesh Chaurasia, bansuri (bamboo flute)
THV Umashankar, ghatam (clay pot)
Dilshad Khan, sarangi
Navin Sharma, dholak
Abbos Kosimov, doyra
Meitei Pung Cholom – dancing drummer of Manipur
Saturday, March 17 at 3 p.m., Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Editor's Note: Debu Nayak, an acclaimed Tabla instrumentalist and a great percussion and Indian Classical music enthusiast (among many other things), lives in Sterling, Virginia and can be reached at tablaguy@aol.com or via his blog http://www.tablaguy.com.