On Tuesday evening, the SFJAZZ Center presented a "Zakir Hussain Listening Party" which consisted of an interview by director Randall Kline with the tabla superstar, interspersed with selections from Hassain's recordings. I went to the event out of curiosity, since admission was only $5 for SFJAZZ members, and I wanted to hear the Miner theatre sound system, which turned out to be supernaturally great, even when played from a laptop. The music selections ranged from 1970s collaborations with guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist John Handy to Hussain's 1980s fusion group Shakti to Celtic music for stepdancers that he's working on currently.
Best of all, Hussain turned out to be a funny and charming storyteller, at times sounding like the wise old narrator of Life of Pi. Though Hussain was never shipwrecked in the Pacific, his musical career sounds just as adventurous in a life that seems eminently enviable. In one of his first stories, he corrected the impression that he was from a long musical dynasty in Northern India:
"What do you call a baby bird, you know, the bird that brings the babies? A stork? Well, a stork brought my father to the wrong family. In India, skills are usually passed on from father to son so there are many longstanding musical dynasties, but my father was delivered to a family of farmers. Throughout his childhood, he had a recurring dream where he saw very clearly the face of a man who he had never met. Walking by a river when he was age seven, he saw the man's face in the water's reflection. When he was eleven, he ran away from home to the nearest large city which was Lahore, and stayed with a relative who had a shop there. When my father told him he wanted to study tabla, the relative asked around and found that the major guru was Mian Kader Baksh. He took my father to the music school, where he was asked to play for the guru, and afterwards he asked my father who he had studied with. Nobody, my father replied. But you address the tabla in exactly my style, which is impossible, the teacher told him. You have been teaching me in my dreams, my father told him, because the face he had been seeing his entire childhood belonged to this guru."Hussain's father, Alla Rakha Khan, became one of the most famous and influential tabla players in history, touring globally with Ravi Shankar for decades while instructing his sons in the mysteries of rhythm.
Zakir Hussain started touring across India via cramped railways at age 12, sneaking out of school and having his friends make up excuses for his mother. He made his New York debut in the 1960s while filling in for his father accompanying Ravi Shankar. He moved to the Bay Area during his late teens in the 1970s, where he taught at the Ali Akhbar Khan College of Music in San Anselmo. Meanwhile, he has toured the world over the last three decades with his many musical collaborators. This weekend he is in the midst of a four-concert residency at the SFJAZZ Center, collaborating with percussionists one night, Indian musicians on another, banjo player Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer tonight, and saxophonist Joshua Redman on Sunday. The tickets sold out almost as soon as the concerts were announced, but a few expensive, front-row seats were released yesterday and I snagged a pair for the Fleck/Meyer collaboration. This should be something.