Interview: Ustad Zakir Hussain on Celtic Connections Concert in Washington DC - Indian Ragas meet Scottish Strathspeys

By Bharati Mitra

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ZAKIR HUSSAIN'S PULSE OF THE WORLD: CELTIC CONNECTIONS • Tuesday March 17 • Washington, DC • Lisner Auditorium

Washington, DC, March 14, 2015 (Washington Bangla Radio) Ustad Zakir Hussain is bringing his eagerly awaited "ZAKIR HUSSAIN'S PULSE OF THE WORLD: CELTIC CONNECTIONS" concert to Washington DC on Tuesday, March 17, 2015 at the Lisner Auditorium. The groundbreaking ensemble is on its first tour of North America with flowing melodies of Celtic instruments including bodhran, violin, pipes, flutes and whistles, combined with tabla, bamboo flute and Carnatic (South Indian) violin to create a powerful and organic musical experience. Tickets and more information are available at the GWU Lisner Auditorium website »

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to chat with Zakir just before his "Zakir Hussain & Masters of Percussion" concert in DC (you can listen to it here ») Zakir is one of the most pleasant and interesting persons to talk to. And I was eager to find out what was it that motivated him to combine Indian classical music with Celtic music - Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Breton instruments and music - a rather rare combination!

As I fell into chatting with the Master of Percussion, he revealed that this combination, in fact, was not so unique. As a child, he had observed marching bands pass by his street during religious festivals, in which there would be a Pathan Band, with Scottish bagpipes, Irish drums, as well as Paithani sehnais, Punjabi dhols, Maharastrian Dholki, etc. This rather hybrid type of music had enthralled him & stayed stamped in his memory.

Many years later, the Arts Council of Scotland invited him to come to Scotland with his band of musicians and see if he could combine Indian classical music (Northern as well as Carnatic) with Celtic music: Scottish, Irish, Welsh & Breton (French Celtic). So he went over with Rakesh Chaurasia (representing North Indian Classical music in his flute) and Ganesh Rajagopalan (Carnatic Violin) and held a ten day residency in Scotland. During the “getting to know one another” sessions, Zakir discovered that some of the Gaelic mythical figures are strangely similar to Indian mythical figures and an analogy of Bonny Prince Charlie could very well be drawn to Mahabharata’s Arjuna, for instance. The Irish hero Fionn was brought up in secrecy so that he could not be killed off by his father’s killer Goll - making this story somewhat similar to Sri Krishna’s infancy.

Additionally, Zakir found similarities in rhythms & raga structures as well and decided that instead of creating “new” music, it’d be better to combine the songs….”some of theirs and some of ours”…and place them side by side to see how the whole effect comes out. Well, the result was a resounding success in Scotland. Zakir decided that they should not stop at just one or two concerts but should bring this to the masses and let everyone enjoy this hybrid combination. Hence he decided on the tour.

Zakir went on to relate some funny anecdotes as well, for instance, how impressed he was with how much and for how long this group of musicians could guzzle down beer and still be fully sober and ready to create music! Their simplicity and relaxed attitude to hang out even after a concert to make more and more music….even in a pub…even where there were many people around listening….even when the musicians were not getting paid for this music…engulfed in their own world of music…impressed him immensely!

ZAKIR HUSSAIN'S PULSE OF THE WORLD: CELTIC CONNECTIONS • Tuesday March 17 • Washington, DC • Lisner Auditorium

When asked, which one of the Celtic instruments he was most impressed with, Zakir’s answer was the Bagpipe. The Bagpipe serves the purpose of a Tanpura in Indian music, holding the tune, providing the drone, but the Bagpipe, being a double reed instrument, serves an additional purpose: it provides the reed music (such as the harmonica) as well. Zakir said that he is excited to be able to present the bagpipe to his audience on March 17th at the Lisner Auditorium.

Zakir declined to name a “favorite” or “best” musician or group of musicians he has worked with in the past, claiming that each is different and has a uniqueness of his or their own.

Zakir continued to tell us how he has been going back & working with famous musicians who he had worked with before…because the learning process goes on…going deeper and deeper into the understanding of their music….also he goes back to India from time to time just to rejuvenate himself and connect with his roots because that’s his identity. This provides him the confidence he needs.

Zakir had respect for other musicians who are creating Global Fusion Music all over the world, for instance, Dr. L. Subramhanium, who he had worked with as a young man. He mentioned his Shakti collaborators, such as L. Shankar (in Violin) and Vikku Vinayakram (in Ghatam), as well as other famous world musicians such as A. R. Rahman, R. D. Burman and we even discussed devotees such as Tyagaraja, and poet-philosophers such as Nazrul and Rabindranath Tagore.

In conclusion, his advice to a young tabla player just starting out in the field would be to not only learn the instrument, but also to learn all there is to learn about the music, songs, and dances he expects to accompany. In other words, don’t just stop at being a percussionist. Go beyond that.

Zakir Hussain’s Pulse of the World: Celtic Connections

Zakir Hussain, Tabla

Zakir Hussain is today appreciated both in the field of percussion and in the music world at large as an international phenomenon and one of the greatest musicians of our time. A classical tabla virtuoso of the highest order, his consistently brilliant and exciting performances have established him as a national treasure in his own country, India, and as one of India’s reigning cultural ambassadors.

Widely considered a chief architect of the contemporary world music movement, Zakir's contribution to world music has been unique, with many historic collaborations, including Shakti, which he founded with John McLaughlin and L. Shankar, Remember Shakti, the Diga Rhythm Band, Making Music, Planet Drum with Mickey Hart, Tabla Beat Science, Sangam with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland, and recordings and performances with artists as diverse as George Harrison, YoYo Ma, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison, Airto Moreira, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Cobham, Mark Morris, Rennie Harris, and the Kodo drummers. His music and extraordinary contribution to the music world were honored in April 2009, with four widely heralded and sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall’s Artist Perspective series.

A multiple Grammy-award winner and the recipient of countless honors, Zakir has received titles from the Indian, American, and French governments, Grammys, and “best percussionist” awards from significant music journals.  He has scored music for many films, events, and productions including the 1996 Summer Olympics.  He has both composed and performed with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet (for which he received two Isadora Duncan Awards), YoYo Ma’s “Silk Road Project” with choreographer Mark Morris, and, with his oft-times collaborators and band-mates Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, with both the Nashville and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.  Zakir’s second concerto, Concerto for Four Soloists, a special commission for the National Symphony Orchestra, was performed at Kennedy Center in March 2011, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.  His third concerto, the first ever composed for tabla, will premiere in Mumbai in fall, 2015, with the Symphony Orchestra of India.  

Rakesh Chaurasia, Bamboo Flute

As is so often the case in India, Rakesh is following in the family tradition; his uncle, Pandit (Master) Hariprasad Chaurasia is among the icons of his generation, and Rakesh is his most accomplished disciple.  He has performed with a broad spectrum of the great musicians of India, as well as Western musicians like Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Joshua Redman.  He has received many important awards in India, most recently the Pannalal Ghosh Puraskar in 2013.  He has taken part in many prominent festivals, including WOMAD in Athens and the Festival of St.-Denis in Paris, and was invited to conclude the 24-hour live BBC Radio broadcast celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee.

His special gift is the ability to preserve the purity and intensity of the flute in the midst of many instruments.  The Bansuri, the bamboo Indian flute, is a magical instrument that is so ancient it is part of the mythology of many cultures; Krishna, Kokopelli, and Pan all played it.  Rakesh is a worthy successor!

Fraser Fifield, Flute/Pipes

One of the more distinctive pipers in Scotland, Fraser is an uncommonly wide-ranging multi-instrumentalist, performing on various pipes, whistles, the soprano saxophone, Bulgarian Kaval, and occasionally on percussion.  Perhaps that variety is why, as Jazzwise put it, he is “an outstanding product of the Scottish jazz-folk scene who at one moment can blow a low whistle like Charlie Parker steaming his way through ‘Ko-Ko’ and at the next knock out an air on a sax like a Highland traditionalist.”  He’s released five albums of original music on his own Tanar label, has been commissioned by a wide range of festivals, the Scottish Arts Council, and the BBC, and performed from the U.S. to Azerbaijan with groups like Capercaillie and Afro-Celt Sound System, among many others.  

Jean-Michel Veillon, Flute

Though Celtic culture is associated with Scotland and Ireland, the region of France known as Brittany is Celtic as well.  Jean-Michel Veillon was first a dancer and then a bombard (old type of double-reed oboe, typical of Brittany) player in his teens before moving on to the transverse wooden flute.  His first influences were Irish, but he soon created distinct articulation techniques that reflected his Breton heritage.  After years of touring the U.S. with groups like Kornog, Pennou Skoulm, Den, and Barzaz, he has become renowned for introducing the wooden flute into Breton folk music.  In the words of the Welsh/British folk magazine Taplas, “If you have any interest in the flute, folk or otherwise, Jean-Michel Veillon’s recordings are, like Matt Molloy’s, indispensable.”

Ganesh Rajagopalan, Violin

Violin entered Indian music perhaps 200 years ago, and in that time few have become more distinguished than Ganesh Rajagopalan.  In the Indian tradition, he began his studies young, and was performing by the age of seven.  He became famous in a duo with his brother Kumaresh, but has played extensively with a who’s who of Indian musicians over the years.  He has worked with many greats, from Zakir Hussain to the Oscar-winning Bollywood music director A.R. Rahman to the legendary John McLaughlin.

Charlie McKerron, Fiddle

Charlie McKerron was born in London and spent time in Africa before his family returned to his father’s homeland of Scotland when he was five. By the age of 12 he was winning fiddle competitions, and after completing school he came to prominence as a member of Capercaillie, a traditional Celtic band from the Argyll area of Western Scotland.  It began in a purely acoustic vein, but over the years achieved considerable fame by experimenting with various elements of fusion – funk bass, synthesizers, and the like.  Charlie has also achieved acclaim for his ability to write new songs – “Bulgarian Red,” for instance - that have been adopted as part of the Scottish folk canon.

Patsy Reid, Fiddle

Patsy Reid is undoubtedly the most in-demand traditional fiddle player in Scotland.  Just as she was finishing college (a 1st Class Honours degree from Strathclyde University), she co-founded Breabach, which was nominated as the best Folk Band by the BBC Radio 2 at their 2011 Folk Awards.  Soon after she began working with various groups, including the celebrated Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, Dougie Maclean and Kylie Minogue, and in the studio with a passel of projects.  At the 2012 Olympic Festival she fell in with Zakir Hussain, and since then has visited India four times, collaborating with various South Asian musicians.  Her percussive chopping style will be a prominent part of the tour.

Tony Byrne, Guitar

A Dubliner, Tony has focused on traditional Irish music since leaving college in 1999, so his work with Matt Molloy and Lunasa will not be surprising.  But he’s also crossed into somewhat different territory to play with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, the American dobro master Jerry Douglas, banjo king Bela Fleck, and the classical violinist Nicola Benedetti…quite a span!  In addition to college teaching credentials in Dublin, he has worked with the Galway Arts Festival and has been a cast member of the award-winning play Trad, which has toured to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as Australia.

John Joe Kelly, Bodhran

England’s The Guardian said of John Joe that he was “…surely the greatest living Bodhran player” alive, which pretty much covers it.  He is certainly one of the most sought-after bodhran players on the folk music scene today.  He is a member of Rook and the Mike McGoldrick Band, among others.  Although a stalwart of the traditional scene, he is constantly expanding the boundaries of what one can get out a simple drum.  In recent years he has been involved in many world music collaborations, with musicians varying from Tim O’Brien and Kate Rusby to Don Tyminski…and now Zakir Hussain.

Bharati Mitra

Bharati Mitra is the head of Tagore Music Group of Greater Washington DC who have been staging innovative musicals, dance dramas and plays across our country, including Arupratan at North American Bengali Conference ("Banga Sammelan") and "Chobi - A Musical". She has been interviewed by WBRi's Arijit Chakrabarty that you can listen to here »