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Q&A: Zakir Hussain

The tabla maestro talks about composing for movies, his addictions, and writing symphonic music

Rolling Stone IN Sep 10, 2010

Ebert Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

With his trademark frizzy hair, Grammy-winning tabla maestro Zakir Hussain looks decades younger for a man who will turn 60 next year. Trained in the classical tradition by his father, the legendary Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain has been among the most experimental of contemporary Hindustani musicians. Starting out as a child prodigy – he gave his first public performance at the age of 12 – his career has spanned nearly five decades. He was among the earliest Indians to achieve cross-genre fame in the US in the Seventies, first by appearing on George Harrison’s famed introspective album Living in the Material World (1973), then teaming up with John McLaughlin to set up the famed Indo-Jazz bands Shakti and Remembering Shakti, and later collaborating with the likes of Bill Laswell, Mickey Hart, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. Through all his experimentations he keeps coming back to his classical roots in India, performing around the country, and for the last few years organising the day-long percussion festival in Mumbai every February, on the occasion of his father’s death anniversary. The Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan award winner recently inherited the mantle as the leader of the Punjab Gharana. Hussain’s also has had a long love affair with films. He played a memorable role in the 1983 Merchant-Ivory film Heat and Dust, and has played tabla tracks on films like Francis Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now and Bernardo Bertolucci‘s Little Buddha. He most recently scored the music for Aparna Sen’s critically acclaimed Mr and Mrs Iyer, where he also lent his voice to three songs. Hussain’s music will be heard again in Sona Jain’s upcoming debut movie, For Real.

The last time you composed music for a movie was eight years ago, for Aparna Sen’s ”˜Mr and Mrs Iyer.’ What made you choose this movie now?
Are you saying that I’ve something to do with female directors now? [laughs]. It was just Sona’s personality. Although it was her first project, the way she spoke to me and her whole passion about the script – which is very good – and her confidence to be able to see it through, convinced me to do the music.

I can relate to the story as it reminds me of my childhood. As a kid, my mother would look after us, while my father would travel for concerts. In this story, the mother is a musician, who travels a lot. It reminded me of my father travelling; the way he would call us and hear our voices when he would miss us. I could actually picture that when the script was narrated. It was like reel had become real. So I took up the project.

Do you see yourself in the girl child in this movie?
I sort of do, yeah. For a while, I would wonder where my father was. Questions of his love would arise. There were situations when he would land up in Mumbai airport after four months of being gone away and catch a connecting flight to go to another city to play and wouldn’t even come home. We would visit him at the airport, so questions arose as to why he wasn’t coming home. But then, I began to understand. Although he was away, he was with us and he was always constantly talking to us. Similarly in this film, the main character is of a musician and has this kind of scenario with her family.

Much of today’s music is electronic. What do you think of that?
I think that’s just a way of expressing yourself. It depends on what you are needed to do. The feature character of the film is a jazz singer so I tried to create that atmosphere and I didn’t use electronic at all. I used a live jazz orchestra meaning bass, drum, piano, saxophone, guitar. The music was recorded like a concert. We’ve done the music in such a way that you can identify the characters with the music.

It is said that musicians don’t listen to their own work. Do you?
I would listen to my performances a lot to remind myself that there is no such thing called a performance. Sometimes I would hear myself play live and think it was great, but a few days later, I would think that the same performance was rubbish. I would also hear my performances to remind myself that there was no such thing called perfection.

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However, when I compose music for a film, my main focus is to compose the music that fits with the film. I cannot compose just for the sake of composing. The music must blend with the film, which what makes a great soundtrack.

If not a musician, what do you think would you have been?
A tabla player [laughs]. Since I can remember, I used to sleep with a tabla next to me, which was occasionally replaced by my wife. But mostly, it’s the tabla there. I cannot imagine not having that contact. To me the tabla is a pal or friend, a brother, and a mentor. Ever since I can remember, tabla has been my mode of speaking and for me to be able to express myself coherently without it seems like it is impossible. I cannot imagine my life without that instrument. So I’m that and I would always be that and even if I can’t be that, I would want to be that.

Lady Gaga, the American popstar, most of the time carries a cup of tea during performances. Some even say that it inspires her music and it’s the secret of her high vocals. You had been the brand ambassador for Taj Mahal tea and people still remember you as ”˜Wah Taj’. Do you have connection with tea too since you are holding a cup now as well?
If I was a singer, maybe. But I cannot dip my fingers into the tea and play the tabla [laughs]. But I know people always remember as me ”˜Wah Taj!’ Classical Indian music has always been on the background when you put Bollywood and pop in the set. So you need something that can help you get the message across. Get it to the people so they would come and see. That’s what Taj tea did for me. It helped me to get the music out there and if they see me for thirty seconds and then they recognise me when I’m in town. There is curiosity and then it’s up to me to convert it to music.

Are you addicted to tea?
I drink tea when I am in India when you are recording in studio and stuff. It’s like, ”˜Chalo chai peetey hai’. You forget that you had tea just half an hour ago.

But are you addicted to anything in particular?
I am addicted to music and I supplement that by having some tea because I can’t always be listening to music. But tea has a good music since I was a young kid. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. No alcohol, no cigarettes, no paan, nothing. So this is it.

What kind of music you have been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Western classical music lately because I am writing a piece for a symphony orchestra. So I’ve been listening to Western classical orchestra composers and trying to compose something. I want to get an idea of what orchestration is like. Because you have to know if there is a clarinet at point A and an oboe at point B and a bassoon behind them, you need to know what to compose. You must write a line which is best suited for oboe, best suited for a clarinet, best suited for bassoon and make it together in such a way when it’s played together it works. It’s a challenge writing an orchestra.

Do you watch television and what do you think of music reality shows?
Yes, I do watch television whenever I get time. I am more of a sports guy so I’ve been watching soccer, tennis and cricket.  But I haven’t been following any reality shows. I must admit that they help in bringing some really good talent. It’s really good for a world of music to have that kind of talent coming and nurture it to bring it forward.

AR Rahman has suddenly emerged as a global face of Indian music industry where in old times, it was very difficult for an artist to be recognised at an international level. How do you see it as?
The world has become very small today. Everything you want is a fingertip away. Forty years ago things weren’t like what they are today. It is great that AR Rahman is famous in a time where technology has propelled him to superstardom today. The only person I can remember achieving so much fame forty years ago is Pandit Ravi Shankar.

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Also, we have to remember that India has a huge television viewing audience. AR Rahman’s popularity in the West has drawn more people towards learning more about India as well.

Who’s your favourite artist?
It’s hard to say. Everyone is different. You have Asha Bhosle doing a cabaret and Lata Mangeshkar doing a sad Hindi love song. It’s difficult, really. For instance, I was in Nice, Southern France recently and came across a girl playing the bass and she was amazing. She was doing this duet with a guy on the piano and it was such brilliant music. So at that point, she was my favourite. I’ve had favourites like John McLaughlin and Pandit Ravi Shankar. The magic arrives without announcing itself.

Not many know but during the Seventies, you moved away from Indian classical to rock. What made you go for rock and then get back to Indian classical music?
Yes, that’s right. My father taught me something very important. He said, “Don’t try to be a master, just try to be a good honest person and you will just be fine.” Being a good student meant, living it and then you could understand what’s it all about. The integrities of it, the falls of it, the highs of it, everything. So I lived a life of a rock & roll musician for a year and half because I wanted to learn about it. Being a rock musician helped me be a performer on the stage in India and world and bring those moves into my world of music. I think that’s one of the thing people liked about me”¦ that I was able to express myself physically on the stage whilst playing tabla. And they could see the excitement of whatever I was doing. That’s a lesson I learnt there and that’s how I became popular. I know that I cannot be a rock musician. I’m an Indian tabla player. So whatever I will learn out there, I use it in the media where I can project myself best. So it’s all learning experience whether I do a jazz thing, a classical thing or rock & roll thing.

Is Zakir Hussain the same to his family, media and audience?
I don’t pretend to be anybody else. I will tell you exactly how I feel it in my heart and my mind and I will not phrase an answer in a way that you want to hear. It is my life and it is going to be here for you to look at. I am artist, so I am public property. So for me to say that I want my private time is bullshit [laughs].

Anything special we can expect from you in future?
I am doing a concert. Well, I am going to write symphonic music for an orchestra. I told you that. So that’s surprising because after Ravi Shankar in the Seventies no other Indian classical musician has been asked to write a solo symphony. I am looking forward to that. I am doing a ballet, a Western classical ballet which is very unusual. And one interesting thing about is that I am the only musician performing the ballet. I have twelve different instruments in the orchestra with me and they have been arranged in such a way that I can reach them without having to sit down pick one and play. So I am going to be playing those twelve instruments at the same time alone with the whole ballet company performing. So those things are all happening out there. In the world of pop, we have great music directors interacting in the world of pop over there and that isn’t my territory. My territory is jazz, electronic, classical Western and so.

Do you plan to act in a movie again?
I’ve never actively pursued acting because I know I am much better as a tabla player than an actor. And again, when I do film music, I don’t go looking for it. Whatever comes to me and if it appeals to me, I would do it. So in terms of acting, it’s the same thing. If something comes to me and I feel I can do it provided I’ve the time then I would love to do it. These are all experiences that help me to become a better musician. It’s a part of a creative process.

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