Zakir Hussain, considered by many to be the world’s foremost player of the Indian tabla drums, has spent a big chunk of time in New York this spring, thanks to a wide-ranging performance and education series run by Carnegie Hall. Perhaps the most public part of his visit involved a set of Carnegie concerts from April 26 to 29 with collaborators like banjo player Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer—who are planning to release a recording, Triple Concerto for Banjo, Double Bass, and Tabla, this fall—as well as saxophonist Charles Lloyd, santoor player Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, and percussionists Steve Smith and Giovanni Hidalgo.
Behind the scenes, though, Hussain’s educational activities have been equally interesting. Beginning back in February, Hussain participated in the first half of a Carnegie Hall Cultural Exchange—a distance-learning opportunity via live feed from New Delhi. At Zankel Hall in New York (10 a.m. New York time), students from several public high schools in New York City participated in interactive performances with a live jazz quartet, the Robin Eubanks Group. High school students in New Delhi, at the same time (7 p.m. New Delhi time), watched and interacted with Zakir Hussain and several other Indian musicians at New Delhi’s Sai International Centre Auditorium. Each group asked questions about music coming from halfway across the world, and students in each city demonstrated music and dances in Western and Indian musics, examining the role of structure in each. A New York student (pictured) demonstrated a simple step called “Walk it out,” which involves a simple pivot on the toes. Though it was hard to be sure—given the the fact that the action in New Delhi was visible and audible through speakers and screens—I’m pretty confident in describing the New York students as being rowdier than the students in India. They were not one bit embarrassed, when asked what sort of structure they couldn’t live without, to answer “I can’t live without my phone” and “I can’t live without playing basketball at 3 a.m.”
In April, I dropped in on a much more advanced part of Hussain’s Cultural Exchange—professionally speaking, the opposite end of the spectrum from the high school kids. This was a seven-day professional workshop with drummer Steve Smith, violinist Kala Ramnath, santoor player Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, and kathak dancer Antonia Minnecola (Hussain’s wife). The day I sat in, the atmosphere was pretty intense. The participants, all already quite accomplished, came from around the world and had applied through competitive process for space in the workshop—clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, violinists Max Baillie and Jeremy Kittel, bassoonist Brad Balliett, tabla player Rajesh Bhandari, cellist Mike Block, trumpet player Patrick Boyle, guitarist Sean Frenette, pianist Dinuk Wijeratne. Naturally, there were several percussionists: Matt Kilmer, Tupac Mantilla, Noya Schleien (the only female participant), James Shipp, and Rich Stein. As the musicians arrived for the workshop, many immediately sat down and began madly scribbling notes. These turned out to be starting-off points from what had been accomplished at the previous day’s session. For Western musicians, combining the structure of Indian classical music with its improvisatory aspect seemed to be the biggest challenge. You need something on paper to tell you when to play, but within that structure, you need to create a little mini-composition on the spot. And accurately finding the place exactly where to do this is tricky for Western musicians.
Many comparisons were made to jazz, with its handing-off of solos to individual musicians. It was often difficult for musicians—and these were all extremely accomplished players—to get the rhythm element to end at the same time as the melody element, though. This involves doing things like figuring out how many times the melody you’ve just written—let’s say it’s six measures long—can occur over a seven-beat tal (rhythm), so that they end at the same time with neither hanging on too long or unfinished. It can be tricky since measures in the melody might be counted in eighth note values while the tal might be beat in quarter note values. The other intriguing aspect for a classically trained Western musician was the way even a seven-beat pattern does not sound the way a seven-beat pattern might, if we created it. Unlike the sound of Western subdivided music (seven beats are almost always subdivided into 4 +3, or 2 +2 +3, think of part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and you get the idea), the seven beats in Indian music don’t necessarily incorporate those sub-patterns. Sometimes the emphasis might be on the third beat only; or just the first beat. Some of the musicians wrote detailed music notes on the road map for the piece that was being created that day—others scribbled a few brief cues. I brought my 12-year-old son with me to observe, and his one accomplishment was being able to hear the seven-beat form Roopak kaida by the end of the two-hour workshop.
Hussain was relaxed and genial, but occasionally seemed exasperated by the difficulties encountered by musicians in this process (they worked quite a bit on the Roopak kaida), but he lightened the atmosphere by making jokes about differences between jazz and Indian improvisation. In jazz, he said, when it comes time for the drum to take a solo, the audience goes home. In Indian music, he quipped, when the drummer takes his solo slot, the other musicians go home.
Hussain participates with the New York high school students, by the way, one last time on May 13—in person at Zankel Hall. The Robin Eubanks Group, meanwhile, travels to New Delhi and performs simultaneously for students from Delhi Public School Dwarka, Sanskriti School, Shri Ram School, and Vasant Valley School
Photos: (top) High school students demonstrate ‘Walk It Out,” photo by Stefan Cohen. (middle) Zakir Hussain playing the tabla. (bottom) Zakir Hussain teaching a workshop, photo by Stephanie Berger.