Zakir Hussain’s Tabla Brings Indian Classical Music into the 21st Century with Triveni at The Egg 

The Beatles and The Grateful Dead have both been inspired and influenced by Indian classical music. Simple and sublime, the sounds of the tabla (twin Indian drums), veena (the Indian lute), and the singing violin are informed by the discipline of years in instruction and an Indian heritage that traces back more than a thousand years.  

Three of the world’s most renowned performers in these traditions play The Egg on Sunday, April 10th. Zakir Hussain, Kala Ramnath, and Jayanthi Kumaresh perform together as Triveni named after the mythical site of the union of three sacred rivers in India. The name aptly represents the confluence of the varied musicality that the three maestros bring to this collaboration. 

Generally regarded as the best tabla player in the world, Hussain joined forces with Mickey Hart, percussionist in The Grateful Dead, point man for the hedonistic psychedelic movement that changed the definition of popular music and pop culture forever. Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, his Grammy-winning 1991 CD, included the best percussionists from many different world cultures including Babatunde Olatunji, Airto Moreira, Giovanni Hidalgo … and Zakir Hussain. 

Talk about a culture clash! “I was able to execute ideas, and repertoires and stuff which were a thousand years old almost flawlessly and play them all out, but when I came here, and I ran into Mickey Hart, suddenly a whole different world opened up,” says Hussain. 

“I was suddenly faced with all these very different ways of looking at rhythm and being able to express it. Some were very rhythmic, very scientific just like mine. But some were very open, very lyrical, very fluent, and very spontaneous, laid back or driving forward, and suddenly to look at the beat in a very rigid, box-like manner was not the way to go. I had to be open.” 

Hussain’s work with Mickey Hart taught him how to advance the world’s view of the tabla from being an accompanying percussion instrument to being a primary instrument at concerts. So, the master who did graduate work at the University of Washington and had spent his life studying the tabla from his father (also a world-renowned tabla player) became the student to a man much of “straight” society regards as one of the most famous hippies in the world. 

“Coming from India to this world and thinking I was going to teach them about Indian music, it became a teaching and learning experience,” says Hussain. “It shaped me into a couple of areas like no other in India, and I was lucky to be able to have that color inside of me which appealed to the young audiences all over India and gave me somewhat of a higher shelf to live on than other young tabla players of my generation.” 

Zakir Hussain four years ago performed to a full house standing ovation at the Troy Music Hall. To say the show was intoxicating is an understatement. Whole Indian families attended, some in ceremonial dress. As the start of the show approached, there was a palpable buzz that abruptly stopped as two musicians took the stage, bowed to their fans, and began to play.  

The sound began as a pure clarion call of the flute and built into a give and take of the flute and tabla circled around and around in ever more energized flights. The audience of all ages was completely quiet until after repeated epiphanies at which point they exploded into applause. 

Hussain does for the tabla what Bela Fleck does for the banjo. He’s expanding an instrument once thought to be solely for accompaniment into a lead role. He makes the two tablas sound like four instruments at once. Each hand plays a different tabla. He gets a variety of textures depending on how far into the center of the tabla he hits it, how hard he hits it, and whether he uses his palms or fingers to thump, glide or pop the stretched skin. 

Joining Hussain at The Egg are two performers whose heritage goes back centuries with academic credentials unmatched by almost any American musician. 

Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh is one of the leading Veena (roughly, the Indian lute) artists today. A sixth-generation musician, she began playing the Veena at the age of three and is one of the youngest Veena artists ever to receive the A-TOP GRADING, the highest from All-India Radio. She has performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, The United Nations in New York, and the Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle. She founded the Indian National Orchestra, where 21 musicians playing different Indian instruments came together under one banner to showcase Indian classical music. A researcher, she holds a Doctorate for her works on “styles and playing techniques of the Saraswati Veena,” and conducts workshops and lecture demonstrations around the world. 

Maestro Kala Ramnath with her “Singing Violin” stands among the world’s finest, most inspirational instrumentalists. Her playing has been featured on the Grammy-nominated Miles from India project, and her compositions have appeared in the Grammy-winning album 27 Pieces and the Kronos Quartet’s 50 for the Future. The UK-based Songlines magazine called Kala Ramnath one of the world’s 50 best instrumentalists and selected her album, Kala, as one of its 50 best recordings.  

Kala has performed at the most prestigious music festivals in India and appeared on world stages including the Sydney Opera House, Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, Singapore’s Esplanade, New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany, and the Edinburgh Music Festival in Scotland. 

Hussain credits Mickey Hart and Planet Drum with activating his muse in a way that frees his Indian classical muse in ways unique to the style. “Mickey Hart was very important, very humble, and he sought the help of these great masters himself initially, and that’s why they were with him, and when I arrived, they were there, and through him, I was able to receive this information in its most organic and honest form.” 

“Global drum rhythms have become the high point of music content in stadiums and whatnot. It is something that did not exist in the mid to late ’80s when we were struggling to put the Planet Drum albums out there, and then finally it won the Grammy and all hell broke loose.” 

To pull this off required an incredible adjustment in attitude. Here’s how Hussain did it. “I had to understand the words “groove,” “in-the-pocket” and so on, and there’s the tempo. That’s where you need to be, and you don’t drive it. You let it just move in a leisurely manner. All those kinds of things were not the issue in Indian music. You just played the material.” 

Triveni performs Sunday, April 10th at 3 p.m. at The Egg at Empire State Plaza in Albany. Tickets are $34. You may purchase tickets in person at the Box Office, by calling 518-473-1845 (TDD 518-473-4168), by faxing your order to 518-473-1848, or by mailing your order to PO Box 2065, Albany, NY 12220.  

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