Zakir Hussain and the Power of Introspection and Revelation
Zakir Hussain performed the tabla alonside percussionists Abbos Kosimov and Pezhham Akhavass in Stanford Live's latest short film, The Stitches that Bind Us, now available for viewing by Stanford Live members at the Patron ($100) level and above as well as to current Stanford students. Photo by Kimberly Pross
Having summited multiple peaks in his nearly 60-year career as an internationally renowned tabla player, percussionist, and classical Indian music educator, Zakir Hussain revels in discovering new mountains to climb. Finding ways to perform during a global pandemic is certainly one of those challenges. His recent project—performances and interviews with Iranian percussionist Pezhham Akhavass and Uzbek drummer/doyra player Abbos Kosimov in Stanford Live’s latest short film release The Stitches That Bind Us—seeks to combine the experiences of three musicians and cultures in one room.
The film, which was shot in November 2020, was not Hussain’s first time sharing his music at Stanford University. In 2007, he taught a course in Indian classical music and dance at Stanford.
“The students knew more about music than I did. It was a humbling experience,” Hussain reveals. “I’d be talking about an example, and a student would say, ‘Oh, you mean this,’ and it was already on the screen from their Bluetooth. It was a happy moment to be conversing with human beings in this room where I had arrived thinking I was going to tell them something that was a revelation to them. The revelation was that we had already walked the same path.”
Because of those students, Hussain began to notice overlooked “nooks and corners” and see his music from their point of view. This sort of exchange of music and ideas across perspectives is at the heart of The Stitches That Bind Us.
The genesis of the performance featured in the film occurred in March 2020, when a gradual realization of COVID-19’s impact on a major tour Hussain was planning—let alone how the pandemic would decimate and completely transform daily life for everyone across the globe—began creeping across his consciousness. “When the lockdown first set in, I thought it will be four, maybe five, weeks, and we’ll be back to normal. I was still busy setting up hotels and flights,” he says. “It slowly dawned on us this was going to be a year when we’d better think of something other than going out to perform.”
The “something” he and other musicians thought of led to the creation of Z-Files, Hussain’s attempt to lift the spirits of people in lockdown with virtual solo and group appearances on Instagram that featured rhythm and percussion discussions and demonstrations. “It was open to everybody. It needed to be done to establish contact, to let people all over the world know we’re going to be OK. The message was, ‘Let’s just buckle down; [the pandemic] is not stopping us from interacting, connecting, talking music and rhythm,’” he recalls thinking at the time.
After a few months, the cue to share was picked up by other artists, and Hussain says the resulting “rush hour on the Internet” allowed him to pull back and consider his next move. He began virtual tabla retreats. These intimate sessions were also free online but open only to musical colleagues, such as John McLaughlin and Antonio Sánchez; favorite Bollywood composers; and vocalists from multiple genres interested in virtual projects.
“We started doing composing and recording songs with each one of us doing our parts from our little room studios,” he says. From one such project, the album Is That So was released, but what Hussain held onto were the lessons learned.
He reflects, “What did I learn during COVID? The one thing for certain is that being locked into the house in no way curtails our ability to communicate, interact, be part of a creative process that involves fellow colleagues, no matter where they are in the world. This was a new revelation. To get together virtually and make music was unusual.”
Abbos Kosimov started playing the doyra, the primary percussion instrument in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, when he was 9 years old. Photo by Kimberly Pross
The musicians overcame technological hurdles related to time delays online and were forced by circumstance to seek software from the many countries in which they were sheltering. Even so, Hussain reveals, “We discovered a new understanding amongst ourselves. It confirmed to me that there is no hindrance when you’re focused and passionate about being in that creative zone and part of the process, collectively speaking.” He adds, “There was no feeling of despair. It dawned on me there was no hesitancy or facade or ‘Wow, I have a mountain to climb’ kind of attitude. There was excitement and a feeling of looking forward to this process starting. It was clear that we were not crippled creatively.”
Hussain recognized that his natural, forward-thinking movement had taken a different path; he became thrilled with discovery while comforted by noticing the process followed very much the same structural practices he had employed when he was able to rehearse with other musicians in one room or perform and interact with live audiences.
Perhaps more remarkable than overcoming technological issues or realizing a formidable mountain range was instead a fascinating, surmountable landscape was Hussain’s choice to reclimb a previous summit by casting his attention back to the past. He decided to pull from his archives a stack of cassettes: recorded conversations held long ago with his father, Ustad Allarakha, one of his greatest teachers.
This action—seeking to draw new insight from old material by listening with the mindset of a novice—was typical of Hussain and taken despite a career filled with awards and critical acclaim. Planet Drum, the album co-created and produced by Hussain and Mickey Hart in 1992, won a first-of-its-kind Grammy in the Best World Music category, just one of dozens of awards. Hussain’s celebrated collaborations and recordings include projects with George Harrison, Yo-Yo Ma, Van Morrison, Airto Moreira, Billy Cobham, Mark Morris, Rennie Harris, Alonzo King, and the Kodo drummers. And he has composed scores for numerous films, such as Heat and Dust, Little Buddha, Vanaprastham (The Last Dance), Saaz, Everybody Says I’m Fine!, and Mr. And Mrs. Iyer.
While Hussain digitized the tapes and relistened to the analog recordings of his father speaking to him—Allarakha often woke his son at two or three in the morning after returning from a concert and dove into deep discussions about a master conductor or tabla player—certain ideas sprang out at him. “There were many layers that appeared. He would talk to me about a set of compositions from one master that came from 150 or 200 years ago. He would tell me about that master, where he lived, his family, his character. There were parallels into Western classical music.” Hussain elaborates, “When a conductor becomes a specialist in Mahler, Beethoven, or Bach, that conductor has gone into the psyche of the composer and learned everything about that person who wrote that music. That allows a conductor to put that special light on the piece that no other conductor has had the time or inclination to do.”
With new understanding and focus, Hussain returned to videos of past performances and recordings. Listening to himself play with a wisdom not yet gained when he was younger showed him fresh possibilities for repertoire he had performed for years. Recognizing the potential for expanding the works into more-detailed compositions “was stunning, shocking, elating, and also heartbreaking,” he says. “Because, why didn’t I notice and understand this when my father was alive?” The lesson he came away with was, “I do have a mountain to climb—to learn what has been there for 50 years. That revelation comes thanks to the home lockdown and was a multiemotional experience.”
Almost immediately, Hussain saw syncopations that could be applied, phrases to highlight, offbeats and rhythmic emphasis to assign to works he had learned, memorized, and performed well but without the full understanding of a work’s character. A set of eight compositions he had always performed solo revealed patterns suggesting the pieces could be played in multiple parts by many people playing together.
“I was led to use those compositions to create a new 12-minute piece for Michael Tilson Thomas’ percussion ensemble in Miami. There it was, an ensemble tabla piece based on compositions written 90 years ago,” he says.
The tombak is the primary percussion instrument used in classical Persian music. While the origins of the drum date back to the Sasanian Empire (226-643 CE), the tombak techniques Pezhham Akhavass uses are more recent, from about 100 years ago. Photo by Kimberly Pross
Similarly, performing with fellow percussionists Akhavass and Kosimov in the film for Stanford Live involved an intriguing blend of memories, expertise, newfound technology skills, and just-now revelations. Hussain compared it to passing through a portal. Looking back through the aperture of the journey taken, he realized that where he stands now and where he and the other musicians came from form a continuous, connected path. Human hands positioned to play the tabla can be turned to perform the same music on a frame drum. The portal dissolves; the source at the foundation remains paramount.
Hussain describes the experience for the musicians in the film project: “Even though we are coming from three different traditions and ways of life, how we conduct ourselves in our lives is reflected in our music. [Although] we come from three different cultures—Indian, Iranian, and Uzbek—the source that guides us and that we draw upon is the same. We were coming full circle. Meeting in this environment, we are cousins, or brothers.”
For many years, Hussain kept by his bedside a framed copy of a review of a performance he gave as a sixteen-year-old tabla phenomenon. He says the critic “tore me to shreds.” Even so, rereading it often, he began what remains today a lifetime practice of seeking to learn. “It was the first time I was brought down from the skies I was flying in as a young man. This process continues. I go to performances to see other tabla players and learn things I need to smooth out in my performances.”
From Kosimov and Akhavass he learned new intonations and emphasis he could induce by tilting his instrument, shifting a shoulder forward, or pulling one hand back on the tabla. Even having to wear a mask offered lessons—and affirmed long-held practices and traditions.
“I put the mask on and played, then walked up and down the stairs and did my exercises. Just to see how much huffing and puffing there is [helped me] learn and focus on the tempo I need to breathe,” Hussain explains. “You learn to ration your breathing rhythm and match it to how you play your music—pace yourself, pace your breathing. In a natural setting without a microphone, it’s in line with what I already do.”
Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by San Francisco Classical Voice, WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, East Bay Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others. She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.
Watch Zakir Hussain, Pezhham Akhavass, and Abbos Kosimov: The Stitches that Bind Us on our Films & Screenings page. Stanford Live's short film series is available to Stanford Live members at the Patron ($100) level and to current Stanford University students. If you are not a current Stanford student, become a Stanford Live member to receive complimentary access along with 12 months of benefits.