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"Percussion is, at this point in time, not just a bunch of people banging on drums accompanying someone else," he says firmly. "There are so many different traditions all over the world that are so incredible. It's important to showcase them, and we do the best we can to make that possible." As it happens Hussain (the son of the legendary tabla player Ustad Allarakha, known to U.S. audiences mainly for his long-time association with Ravi Shankar) probably is more responsible for introducing the Western world to different musical cultures, especially Indian, than just about anyone else on the planet.
A virtuoso tabla player who over the years has accompanied leading figures in Indian classical music, ranging from Ravi Shankar to Ali Akbar Khan, Hussain also has recorded and performed with Western pop stars, such as George Harrison and Van Morrison. And he won a Grammy in 1992 for his Planet Drum collaboration with the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart. For anyone familiar with the rigors and discipline of Indian classical music, it may seem incongruous that an acknowledged master of the idiom would be lending his talents to pop music. But Hussain points out that the bridges between these very different styles are, for him at least, easily crossed.
"The difference is just in the length of the music," he explains. "Someone like George [Harrison] is playing music that requires you to express the mood or emotion that piece of music needs within seconds, or a few bars of tempo, as opposed to Indian classical music, which allows you an hour or two. It's like Indian film music, for instance. If you're writing music for a film, you've got a 30-second scene, and in that scene you've got to do exactly what the scene requires and enhance whatever the scene needs. As opposed to, say, a concert where you've got three hours to say whatever you want to say.
"I remember one time I was recording with George," Hussain continues, "and he wanted me just on this one song. So I started playing along with the song, just fooling around and coming up with something, and suddenly George said, 'Oh, I only want you on this one section,' and when the section came on, it was over before I even knew; it was so short! And so, okay, no problem, I did that. But then, since I was fooling around and playing with the song, he started to notice there were other sections where it was working, and so I ended up playing on those, too. And that's how these things come together, you know."
While rubbing shoulders with a former Beatle might top most musicians' résumés, Hussain probably still is best known for his mid-'70s role as a founding member of Shakti, an ensemble that, via inserting legendary jazz guitarist John McLaughlin's propulsive acoustic work into the milieu of Indian classical music, virtually initiated a "world-fusion" movement. (Shakti reformed for an album and tour in 1999; Hussain says this year will see further recording and live performances.)
"[Shakti] ignited a very interesting look toward world music, and it took many years for it to catch on, but it did," says Hussain, with a discernable trace of pride. "There are certain catalysts that trigger what is to come next, and Shakti was one bright example of what it can be if certain people come together. And because of that, many such groups came about. There was much more attention focused on musicians from various parts of the world and various cultures interacting." It almost seems hard to imagine today, what with the ongoing mainstream explosion of interest in sounds from Cuba, Brazil, and around the globe. Twenty-five years ago, though, the American marketplace simply had no categories for world music.
"When Shakti came out, it was way ahead of its time," Hussain remembers, "and I think people were not quite sure what it was. And especially record companies; there was no world fusion, there was no new age, there was nothing! And it was like, wow, here's this new thing, what do we do? What do we call it? You know, record companies need labels so they can put things in bins and advertise them as such. So maybe we created our own bin!"
Hussain's adventurous tendencies have continued with the Masters of Percussion, a project he has used to feature some of the world's most dazzling players every few years. While past editions of the group have tended to feature percussionists from a variety of different cultures, this current outing is purposely focused entirely on Indian music. "There is an area of Indian drumming that has not been brought to this part of the world, and that is folk drumming," he says. "Folk drumming does not have to kowtow to certain disciplines, as classical drumming does. It's a much different feel."