London Jazz Festival – Zakir Hussain: Masters of Percussion


Zakir Hussain (tablas), Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri), Sabir Khan (sarangi & violin), Sridar Parthasarathy (mridangam & kanjira), Navin Sharma (dholak) & T. H. V. Umashankar (ghatam)

Reviewed by: Julian Maynard-Smith

Reviewed: 11 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The opening night of a jazz festival and the performance in the biggest venue is … Indian classical music? Cheeky programming, perhaps, even considering Zakir Hussain’s past collaborations with jazz musicians, most famously John McLaughlin.

To a capacity audience, the concert began in darkness with distant singing, slowly joined by Hussain’s percussive vocals, a sinuous bansuri (wooden flute) melody and sarangi drones. The trance-like effect was dampened only by the skittering torch-beam of an usher showing late arrivals to their seats and the glowing squares of mobile-phone viewfinders. The magic woven by the playing soon overrode these distractions, haunting raga melodies slowly building to intricate interplays of rhythm as the three further percussionists added layer upon layer on top of Hussain’s tablas with the mridangam and dholak (double-headed hand drums), kanjira (a tambourine-like frame drum) and ghatam (South Indian clay pot).

And what musicianship! Imagine creating a spellbinding solo from nothing but a pot, which is precisely what T. H. V. Umashankar managed to do, his fluttering fingers rapping out rhythms so fast they almost blurred to pure texture. The audience’s stunned admiration broke into laughter as he topped his solo by tossing his ghatam into the air. Even the three melodic instruments – voice, violin and bansuri – became increasingly percussive, with Rakesh Chaurasia’s melodies building to breathy sub-tones and rapid tonguing, and Sabir Khan’s mournful violin-playing sliding slowly towards percussive bowing. And just as the melodic instruments approached percussion, so the percussion approached melody, Hussain in particular flexing a surprisingly wide range of pitches from his tablas.

By now affinities with jazz were much more apparent: not just the improvisation, soloing and rhythmic complexity but also the ‘call and response’ as players echoed each other in melody and rhythm. Here it was important to see the musicians performing: the trading was so seamless that the ear alone couldn’t always detect who was playing what. That said, everyone knew it was Chaurasia slipping in a humorous quote from the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on his bansuri, generating a big laugh and much-deserved applause.

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