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Dang-dut! The sound of the tabla is unmistakable. Sharp, hollow, and surprisingly melodic for a drum, it can percolate in the background like water dripping in a subterranean pool or rattle at full throttle at machine-gun pace. Many people know the distinctive timbre of the tabla from its backbone role in classical Indian music. But since the 1970s, these paired hand drums have also become a staple of world-beat music, throbbing their way into everything from Celtic reels to reggae.
"Tabla has its own solo repertoire which has been written and composed and handed down over the past 1500-odd years," explains tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain. "It is such an extensive repertoire that tabla solo performances have been known to last as long as two hours." The tabla can serve as lead or backing voice. "That is the major difference between tabla playing and regular drumming, which has remained mainly an accompanying instrument whether it's jazz or pop or rock," says Hussain. "But in Indian music, tabla is an accompanying instrument, too."
Such flexibility has made the tabla peculiarly adaptable to cross-cultural collaborations, a fact that put tabla master Hussain in position as a trailblazer. He may not be the father of world beat -- and may not have single-handedly implanted the tabla in the North American consciousness -- but he was certainly a major presence during seminal moments in the birth of cross-cultural fusion music. Saxophonist Yusef Lateef was the first musician to make a serious attempt to fuse Indian music and jazz with his 1957 LP Before Dawn. George Harrison invented raga rock in one fell swoop with the sitar- and tabla-driven ditty "Love You To" on the Beatles' Revolver in 1966. But these and other experiments melding non-Western musical idioms with rock and jazz were attempts at broadening the vocabulary of an established style rather than efforts at forging a brand-new genre.
The more ambitious Hussain linked up familiar and foreign elements to engineer a musical life-form larger than its locomotive parts. With jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian violinist Shankar, he formed the ensemble Shakti in the early Seventies to delve deep into devotional improvisations with swing. With Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, he brought explosive rock-music intensity to explorations of global rhythms in performances with the aptly named Diga Rhythm Band in the mid-1970s. During the 1980s Hussain honed his outreach efforts with his first solo album, Making Music, and at the end of the decade collaborated with Bay Area band Ancient Future, which brought a relaxed California attitude to a world-beat repertoire. In 1992, Planet Drum, an album co-created and produced by Hussain and Hart, was awarded a Grammy for best world-music album and won the Downbeat Critics Poll for best world-beat album.
"Fusion music presents new opportunities as well as new ways of being able to express myself through my own instrument," says Hussain.
These accomplishments would have constituted an entire career for most musicians, but Hussain was equally involved on the classical Indian front. From the age of seven, child prodigy Zakir was already performing Indian classical music onstage under the tutelage of his father, the tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha. "I started learning at the age of three. Whenever my father was home and not traveling he taught me," Hussain recalls. "I used to just listen and watch, and I was also taught by my father's students." After coming to the United States in 1970, Hussain began to accompany many of India's greatest classical musicians and dancers, from Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar to Birju Maharaj and Shivkumar Sharma.
One Asian collaboration from 1974 will get a fresh lease on life May 7 when Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-releases Ustad Mohammad Omar: Virtuoso From Afghanistan with Zakir Hussain. The concert recording showcases Omar's mastery of the rabab short-neck lute, accompanied by a young Hussain whom the Afghani musician was meeting for the first time. The telepathic interplay between the two gives no hint that the repertoire wasn't painstakingly planned and rehearsed. But flying by the seat of your pants, percussively speaking, is a fact of life with the tabla. "Indian tradition depends a lot on improvising," says Hussain. "You take this tradition, make it your own, and that is why it is amazing to be able to play Indian drumming, because I always find that no matter what I do, I can always do it a little different every time."
In the decades that have passed since Hussain helped define world beat, he's still making big contributions to the genre. "I just finished performing a piece that I wrote for Yo Yo Ma, myself, pianos, and upright bass. It was part of the Silk Road Project" -- which was founded in 1998 by Yo Yo Ma, according to Hussain, to study the ebb and flow of ideas among different cultures along the Silk Road. Hussain has also made inroads on the electronic scene, hooking up with Bill Laswell, Karsh Kale, Sultan Khan, and others to record Tala Matrix in a group called Tabla Beat Science.
Meanwhile Americans have grown more adventurous in their musical embrace, so Hussain's Masters of Percussion ensemble doesn't include a single rocker, folkie, or jazzster to sugarcoat foreign genres. Hussain and six other Indian percussionists, including his brother Fazal Qureshi, also on tabla, demonstrate the variety, excitement, and depth of drumming-based musical traditions primarily from the Indian subcontinent. "The core of it is going to be classical, but one thing that makes this version of the ensemble different is that I'm presenting some folk traditions from South India and North India," he explains. "Apart from that, there is also a melodic representation from Rajasthan, where the gypsies are said to originally come from." Ustad Sultan Khan joins the Masters of Percussion playing raga and dance-music extracts on the sarangi, a bowed lute that began life as an Indian folk instrument, but that has been adopted into the classical Indian tradition, too.