Zakir Hussain: Master of the Speaking Hands

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Zakir Hussain is not only regarded as one of the world’s leading fusion artists and greatest percussionists, he’s also accumulated a lengthy list of genre-defying collaborations. Hussain has performed with Grateful Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart on the Grammy award-winning project Planet Drum.  In 1999, he formed the musical group Tabla Beat Science with visionary bassist-producer Bill Laswell. Virtuoso jazz guitarist John McLaughlin joined forces with Hussain in Shakti, a groundbreaking ensemble that explored the early fusion of Indian and jazz music. For 100 minutes last Friday, the Kahilu Theatre audience experienced an unforgettable aural and visual experience like no other in the venue’s 38th season.

Hussain was originally scheduled to play a duet with sitarist Niladri Kumar, but visa issues with immigration prevented Kumar from traveling to the Big Island. Taking his place was accomplished sarodist Alam Khan, son of the renowned sarode maestro Ali Akbar Khan. Alam has performed with a wide array of artists from different genres such as the Grammy winning Tedeschi Trucks Band, Bob Weir, and composer Rob Wasserman. Alam was also personal assistant to his father during his final years of life, helping him in teaching at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California. Alam has played with Hussain before, but this was his first time performing in Hawaii.

Chuck Gessert, Kahilu’s Artistic Director, noted in his intro that he was thrilled to bring a world-class artist like Hussain to the Big Island and expose our community to sub-genres of beautiful music they may have never heard before. The two-time Grammy-winning tabla virtuoso Hussain, 68, is no stranger to our state. He’s toured the islands with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra in 2009, and his daughter was married on Maui.

Zakir Hussain

The Kahilu theatre was filled to capacity, and concertgoers gave Hussain a rousing welcome of applause and cheers. Hussain walked up a short set of steps to a three-foot tall raised platform, touched the stage before walking on it, perhaps a blessing, and then proceeded to sit cross-legged and barefoot in front of his pair of tablas. He explained that the tabla is a fairly new instrument, about 200 years-old, but India has been playing a repertoire on a variance of them for about 2,000 years. “It’s very similar to a piano and has a great dynamic range with all sorts of combinations and permutations,” remarked Hussain. “This type of drumming has a language that can be spoken and written down, and there are stories of gods and goddesses.”

Hussain then dusted his palms with powder, and played a short warm-up set before Alam came on stage. He dedicated a brief syncopated rendition of “Happy Birthday” to his close friend and Big Island resident Charlie Anderson. Hussain followed with a wild nine-minute solo, peppering it with snippets of “The Pink Panther Theme” and the drum solo from Iron Butterfly’s 1968 hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Alam Kahn

Alam entered the stage area with his sarode. It’s a beautiful 25-string lute-like instrument with a deep resonate tone. Hussain said there would normally be a third person joining them on stage playing the tanpura, but instead they used a pre-recorded track made for Alam’s father. The tanpura is a long-necked string instrument that doesn’t play a melody but supports the sarode’s melody by providing a continuous bourdon or drone.

Hussain and Kahn’s duet began with an alap, a meditative part of the performance. An alap is an improvised, but structured introduction to a raga, which traditionally pays homage and respect to the spirits of music that are no longer with us. Kahn’s alap lasted about ten minutes before it transitioned into the main composition “Hem Bihag.” Altogether it was a 31-minute piece filled with Hussain’s tabla wizardry, and Kahn’s engaging finger work.

The duo’s second and final composition, “Misra Kirwani,” was a faster tempo raga lasting nearly 30 minutes. It was captivating to watch Hussain’s spellbinding dexterity on the tabla as he used his fingers and heels of his hands to create melodic tones. There were several times where Hussain and Kahn launched into a call-and-response duel – each challenging the other to the edge of impossible. Hussain often looked over at Kahn in amazement and smiled with gratitude at his fellow musician’s top-notch skills.

As the crowd gave a standing ovation, Chuck Gessert returned to the stage to bestow leis and hugs for both musicians – devoted fans waited in the lobby for a chance to meet the performers.

Hussain offers a 104-minute documentary download on his website called The Speaking Hand. Check out the trailer here. Watching Hussain’s father explain the tabla’s melodic rhythm is worth the price of admission alone. On Kahn’s site, he has three CDs available including the recent EP called Vignettes.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby

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