America's folk music tradition is rich; its firmament sparkles with numerous stars. Arguably, the most influential was Woody Guthrie, and the most famous was (and still is) Bob Dylan.
India Association of Greater Charleston
Nibedita Chatterjee, president of the India Association of Greater Charleston, is a musician herself (a singer) who first heard Hussain in 1989 or 1990 when she was living in Columbus, Ohio, she said. She once sat in on a set with Hussain, playing tanpura, a sitar-like plucked string instrument.
In 2003, she heard the "Masters of Percussion" show. The next year she moved to Charleston and became involved in the local India Association, which typically organizes four events a year for the growing community of Indian families, friends and anyone interested in the culture. When she heard that Hussain was on tour, she and colleague Joyce Menon arranged to bring him to Charleston, securing the Music Hall and raising more than $30,000 to cover all the expenses.
"This is a great chance for a Charleston audience to experience him," Chatterjee said. "We definitely consider this a milestone for IAGC to host an event like this."
Menon, who is chairwoman of the association's committee for cultural events and a former president and secretary, said her organization serves about 150 dues-paying families. Established in 1984, the association focuses on cultural activities and works side by side with the Hindu Temple in West Ashley, Menon said. Annual events include picnics, an Indian Independence Day celebration on Aug. 15 and Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, a big party with food, dancing, performances and more, at the beginning of November.
"Music is part of every celebration and ceremony in India," Chatterjee said.
Each country has its traditional music and its array of bright stars. In India, the star that shines perhaps brightest of all is that of tabla player Zakir Hussain. He is India's Bob Dylan. His late father, Alla Rakha, also a tabla player, was India's Woody Guthrie.
If you go
WHAT: Zakir Hussain and Masters of Percussion
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 15
WHERE: The Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St.
COST: $30, $40, $50, $75, $100; $20 for students. Tickets are at the Music Hall box office, Monster Music and Movies in West Ashley or Cat's Music in Summerville.
MORE INFO: www.indiaassociationofgreatercharleston.com, 853-2252 or (800) 514-3849
That's an oversimplification, and not entirely fair. After all Indian classical music is unique, demanding a specific set of skills and a certain sensibility. It's much older than American folk music. And such comparisons often confuse rather than clarify differences and similarities. Suffice it to say that Hussain's stature on the world's musical stage could not be greater, and he's coming to Charleston.
Hussain, a two-time Grammy winner and one of India's greatest living musicians, will perform with his band at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at the Charleston Music Hall. Invited to town by the India Association of Greater Charleston, he is at the start of a 30-day, 20-show "Masters of Percussion" tour that will take him across North America.
"It's not only the sort of thing you're happy to see come in (to Charleston), it's great to have it happen at the front-end of the year, rather than wait until the Spoleto festivals to see world music," said Scott Watson, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs for the city of Charleston.
Concert organizers secured a $2,000 award from the Lowcountry Quarterly Arts Grant Program, which is administered by Watson's office and his counterparts with the City of North Charleston's Cultural Arts Program.
"It's exciting for Charleston," he said. "It's just a great opportunity to engage with music that isn't typically something our audiences get to enjoy, and to see it at a standard comparable to any stage in the world."
Hussain's band includes Deepak Bhatt, a player of the dhol (large, two-headed drum); Vijay Chavan, a percussionist specializing in dholki (a smaller, two-headed hand drum); Dilshad Khan, who plays the sarangi (a thick, short-necked and very ancient bowed string instrument); Niladri Kumar on sitar; Selvaganesh Vinayakram, a master of kanjira (Indian tambourine) and ghatam (a clay "water jug"); and Steve Smith, the only American in the group and an accomplished jazz and rock drummer.
Smith, who played with the band Journey during its heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s, is a serious student of jazz, pop and world music.
In a telephone interview, Smith said he was fascinated by traditional Indian music early on but didn't understand it well. He paid attention and learned, and because he was an accomplished drummer who could read music and manage odd, changing meters, he was eventually hired by a tabla player. The learning continued; soon Smith was taking lessons.
"There is a system of organizing the rhythms in a way that is very interesting to me," Smith said. "It's thoughtful and methodical, mathematically interesting and it sounds and feels good as well."
In 2003, Smith caught the attention of Hussain, who he considers "one of the great masters."
The respect goes both ways.
Hussain called Smith "one of my most favorite drummers." Though the two men come from very different musical traditions, they share something in common now.
"It allows me to be able to converse with him in my language of drums," Hussain said.
That language is complex and has numerous dialects, depending on which region of India is featured. Rhythm and melody interact and feed off one another, Hussain said. And the drummers react according to the musical form, style, mood and group dynamic, often launching into lengthy improvisations.
Hussain's father Alla Rakha played with the great sitarist Ravi Shankar and did more than anyone to popularize classical Indian music and, in particular, the set of hand drums he mastered. Alla Rakha recorded a duet album in the mid-1960s with Buddy Rich, showing his student-son a way forward. Hussain inherited not only the gifts of a fine percussionist but the motivation to collaborate with others and share his art with the world.
"I have always wanted to be a tabla player," he said. "Since I was 3 years old, I have been friends with this instrument."
He has worked with Mickey Hart, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, George Harrison, Yo-Yo Ma, Van Morrison and many others.
Asked if his musical collaborations are the efforts of an intentional musical ambassador motivated by opportunities to share his art, he said the question implies a generosity he doesn't necessarily possess.
"My reasons are more selfish," Hussain said. "I just want to learn, I want to know more." That's why he finds non-Indian musicians to play with. "It brings into my playing elements I have not grown up with. I can absorb music I'm listening to or learning from, and find a way to use my instrument in ways I could not do before."
And it affords him the chance to pay homage to others' music, he added.
Though he travels often and spends significant time in India, Hussain calls Marin County, Calif., home. There he met his wife, the kathak dancer Antonia Minnecola, and together they raised two daughters.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the area around North San Francisco Bay was a hive of musical activity, he said. That's when he forged many friendships and working partnerships. Hussain has written film music, including a segment for "Apocalypse Now" (the last 12 minutes or so of the movie); he's written dance music and tabla concertos.
Being a student
His father taught him an important lesson: "Don't try to be a master, just be a student."
This is true of all good musicians, Hussain said. "We all are looking outward to see something that will inspire and challenge us." It's about exploration and discovery, about expanding horizons and plumbing the depths one's soul.
Smith, who has lately immersed himself in Indian music and culture, said Hussain has done much the same thing, just in the other direction.
"He can groove, he can rock, he's funky, he's got the concept of the U.S. groove, (which is) R&B and swing," Smith said. Playing with guitarist John McLaughlin helped put him on the world stage, and over more than four decades, Hussain has become a global sensation, Smith said.
"He is the greatest tabla player in the world. I don't really know if there's a close second."
Steve Smith is a veteran drummer and alumnus of the band Journey. Smith started as a jazz drummer and has played “fusion,” rock, experimental music and, in the last decade or so, classical Indian music.×
Niladri Kumar plays sitar. Zakir Hussain said his collaborator is widely considered “the next maestro.”×