“Don’t try to be a Master son, just be a student”


Zakir Hussain in live concert in Sydney on October 21

By Lokesh Varma


Interviewing Ustad Zakir Hussain is a rare treat, the answers in soft American burr being insightful and full of candour and wit.

This is no wonder as Ustad Zakir Hussain is universally acknowledged as a virtuoso, composer and percussionist whose tabla performances are of the “highest order and marked by uncanny intuition and masterful improvisational dexterity”. He is one who just did not stop after mastering Hindustani classical music but has also collaborated, jammed and made music with many Western musicians, bagging both a Sangeet Natak Akademi and a Grammy in the process. Or one who has been acknowledged as a living master by George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin back in the 1970s and Bela Fleck and Charles Lloyd in the 2000s.


The interview was memorable. A tired Zakir was asking questions between sleeps, the Venice music festival, Florida and the Golden Gate Park concerts: “So where is this Down Under”? The response, “out of sight, out of mind, Ustad?”, got The Indian Down Under the first round.

Ustad Zakir Hussain will not only perform again at the WOMAD festival in Adelaide, but will also stop at the Sydney Opera House and at the Perth Commonwealth Festival. While his modestly makes him say that “he is thrilled to be in Adelaide and get another chance to listen to the incredible depth of world music”,   the reality is that we Down Under have been extremely lucky to play host to Ustad and his Masters of Percussion. Apart from the expected tabla playing in solo and duets, the performers will explore the frontiers between the tradition, folk and classical.

Accompanying the main act will be a star cast. Taufiq Qureshi, Abbos Kosimov and Nilandri Kumar, along with the colour and athletic energy of the drummers from Manipur.

If Zakir’s 2008 performance at the Sydney Opera House is anything to go by, we are in for a similar treat. As a critic once said the “tabla is a remarkable instrument. It can be tapped, petted, stroked, caressed, hit, pounded, rubbed or poked, each technique resulting in a wonderful new sound. Taken together, the tabla can be as expressive as any chordal or more traditionally melodic instrument.”

How does Zakir understand “the language of the tabla”. How can he recreate the Indian rush hour””with trucks, scooters, cars, dogs and elephant – and the obviously resultant traffic jam, make his drums sound like a galloping horse (quoting the “Lone Ranger” theme song in the process), a moving train and a jumping deer or the sounds of Siva’s drums. What allows him to accompany Indian classical musicians, Western performers, compose music for the American National Symphony Orchestra or the Athens Olympics or simply act in Ivory Merchant productions?

He does not regard genes handed down from his father and Guru, the late Ustad Alla Raakha nor his years of careful riyaz in making him. It has “more to do with the environment I grew up in. The constant exposure to melody (ragas) and rhythm (tala) influenced me.

Ustad Alla Raakha used to whisper ragas in his newly born old son’s ears. His childhood memories are of the sounds of tabla echoing through their Mumbai home. And years of knowledge and study before his first professional concert at age 12.

And there was the gentle rebuke that’s stayed with him all his life, “Don’t try to be a Master, son, just be a student and you will do fine.”

While he has just done fine, what about his legacy to the World of Music? After all, he turned 60 this year and his formidable touring schedule must tire him. He has also been busy passing on his skills to a select group in New York and Mumbai. At this stage, he turns modest.

“The seeds of fusion between Indian and Western music were there before me. It was Pandit Ravi Shankar and my father and even many Bollywood music directors who had experimented with fusion music. I merely made it accessible to the world. I reached out to them.”

But what about your legacy, how will you want to be remembered?

“I just want to play music. My legacy will be written after I die, not yet.”



The legendary tabla genius

With six of India’s greatest classical musicians and the dancing drummers of Manipur

Venue: Concert Hall
Date: Friday 21 October, 8pm

Standard: $139 / $119 / $99 / $79

Ticket Booking Enquires: For all general booking enquiries please call the  Contact Centre  on

+61 2 9250 7777 +61 2 9250 7777             email  for more information.


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