Master percussionist Zakir Hussain has distinguished himself as one of the world’s greatest tabla players. A working professional from the age of 12, when he began performing concerts of North Indian classical music in his native country, Hussain is perhaps best known for his ongoing collaborations with guitar great guitarist John McLaughlin in the ’70s group Shakti and its more recent incarnation, Remember Shakti. He is also well known to Deadheads for his collaborations with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, including the Diga Rhythm Band and the all-star Planet Drum project (featuring percussion maestros Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto Moreira and the late Babatunde Olatunji).
An open-minded musician with a classical pedigree, Hussain has mixed it up with the likes of bassist/producer Bill Laswell on the electronica-flavored Tabla Beat Science project, with experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser in his electric Miles Davis tribute band Yo Miles!, and with saxophonist George Brooks in the all-star group Summit, featuring drummer Steve Smith, electric bassist Kai Eckhardt and guitarist Fareed Haque. The tabla maestro, who formed his own Moment! Records label in 1991, is currently touring with his Masters of Percussion, which demonstrates both the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) musical traditions in concert while also showcasing Zakir’s younger brothers Taufiq Quereshi and Fazal Quereshi along with his former Shakti partner V.H. (Vikku) Vinayakram).
This past summer, Hussain was feted at the 2005 Montreal Jazz Festival, where he engaged in some scintillating musical encounters over four consecutive nights with fellow master Indian percussionists U. Selvaganesh and Bhavani Shakar, with the great tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, with master sarangi Sultan Khan and with his longtime colleague and close friend John McLaughlin.
While Hussain and McLaughlin formed Shakti in 1975, they had actually met during the summer of 1969, the year that both relocated from their native countries to the United States. “We met in New York at a place downtown in Greenwich Village called the House of Musical Tradition, where I was doing a workshop,” Hussain recalls. “John came to the workshop because he had just come over from England and he wanted to know something about North Indian rhythms and music.”
"I was looking for Indian musicians to study with,” says McLaughlin, “so I went down to the workshop and there was this young Zakir Hussain, who must’ve been a teenager at the time. And he gave me a vocal lesson. It was pretty hard for him because I sing so badly, but it was great to meet him and after the lesson we had a good laugh about it and we became good friends.”
The two stayed in touch, though they didn’t see each other again until 1971. McLaughlin’s jazz-rock fusion band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, “was doing a benefit concert in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion,” explains McLaughlin, “and the beneficiary for the concert was the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music. After the concert Zakir came backstage and said, ‘Ali Akbar Khan would really like to thank you in person.’ So I flew up the next day to northern California and we went to Ali Akbar Khan’s house. I had an acoustic guitar with me and Zakir brought along some tablas, and at some point we sat on the carpet and began playing for Ali Akbar Khan. And I was so impressed with Zakir. That whole experience of playing with him really marked me.”
“It was like we’d been playing together since we were little kids,” adds Hussain. “Everything was just perfect: anticipating each other’s moves, stopping and starting together, doing the same things together. It was just one of those magical things.”
By 1973, while he was studying South Indian vina at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, McLaughlin befriended a young violinist named L. Shankar. “We’
Shakti (Columbia, 1976)—Debut recording of this powerhouse East meets West ensemble, recorded live at South Hampton College on Long Island on July 5, 1975.
Making Music (ECM, 1987)—Zakir Hussain’s debut as a leader, featuring McLaughlin on acoustic guitar, Jan Garbarek on saxophones and Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri.
Saturday Night In Bombay (Verve, 2001)—Recorded live in Bombay, this dynamic offering documents the exhilarating chemistry between Hussain, McLaughlin, V. Selvaganesh and U. Shrinivas.