Zakir Hussain - Biography

Grammy winning tabla player Zakir Hussain is acknowledged as one of the greatest Indian percussionists of the 20th century. He has played Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar, jazz-rock in Shakti with John McLaughlin, rock with George Harrison and world fusion in Planet Drum and the Diga Rhythm Band with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. He has made tabla, an Indian drum little known in America, an essential part of the world music landscape and achieved fame for his uncanny improvisational skills.

Hussain was born in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1951, the son of Ustad Allah Rakha, one of the most famous tabla players in India and the long time accompanist of Ravi Shankar. His father Allah Rakha used to sing him to sleep by chanting the complex rhythm patterns of the tabla. (Tabla is the word for two small hand drums, the smaller, high pitched dayan, or tabla, and a larger bass drum or dayan. The word tabla means drum and is related to the Arab word tabl — drum.) Hussain was playing before he could speak and was playing professionally by the time he was seven. By age 12, he’d already accompanied Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Birju Maharaj, and Shivkumar Sharma. When he wasn’t practicing tabla he attended St. Michael’s High School in Mahim, and St. Xaviers in Mumbai.

At 18, in 1970, he became tabla player for Ravi Shankar on a tour of the United States. He landed a job as a music teacher at the University of Washington at Seattle, where he encountered the music that changed his life — rhythms from the Middle East, the Arabic continuum, Africa, and Asia, as well as jazz and Western classical music. He moved to San Rafael, California in 1972, when he was offered a job teaching at the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music. There he met his future wife Tony and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who was investigating Indian rhythms.

Hart and Hussain hit it off and began collaborating on Rolling Thunder (1972 Arista/1995 Arista) a Hart solo project. This led to their first band as co-leaders, The Diga Rhythm Band (1976 Grateful Dead/1983 Ryko). Hussain also met jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and played with his band Shakti alongside Indian jazz fiddler L. Shankar. They toured extensively and made three albums in the 70s; the live Shakti with John McLaughlin (1975 Columbia), A Handful of Beauty (1975 Columbia), and Natural Elements (1977 Columbia).

As his fame grew and the interest in world music intensified, Hussain was in demand as a session player and worked as a side man on albums by George Harrison, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison, Jack Bruce, Tito Puente, Billy Cobham, the Hong Kong Symphony, and the New Orleans Symphony. He was a featured player on Pharaoh Sanders’ Save Our Children (1998 Polygram).

As a leader, Hussain made his first solo album, Making Music (1987 ECM), a world jazz effort with John McLaughlin. Tabla Duet (1988 Chhanda Dhara) was an exploration of Indian percussion with his father Allah Rakha That year he was also given the title Padma Shri Zakir Hussain from the Indian government, the youngest percussionist to ever win the honor. Hussain continued to collaborate with other musicians and played with his own band, the Rhythm Experience, a group that included Mickey Hart, Narada Michael Walden, Mel Martin, Alla Rakha, and Vince Delgado.

In 1991, he founded Moment! Records to release his own music, traditional Indian albums and the efforts of world music artists he’d worked with. Zakir Hussain and the Rhythm Experience (1991 Moment) set a high bar for world fusion, as did Global Meditation - The Pulse of Life - Rhythm & Percussion (1992 Moment). 1991 also saw the release of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum (1991 Ryko) a session that also included Olatunji, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju and other heavies. It won the first ever Best World Music Album Grammy.

He also released the traditional Indian album Tabla: The Zakir Hussain Way (1991 Music Today), as well as Magical Moments of Rhythm (1995 Eternal), Essence of Rhythm (1998 Polygram), Sambandh (1998 Terrascape), Colors (1998 Crescendo) with Indian violinist Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan and Vanaprastham (1999 Uni Jazz). In 1999, McLaughlin and Hussain reunited as Remember Shakti and cut the two disc Remember Shakti (1999 Polygram), The Believer (2000 Polygram), and Saturday Night in Bombay (2001 Uni). Hussain received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1999 for his efforts top preserve traditional music.

Hussain continues to forge his own path, releasing music that embraces traditional Indian forms, pop, jazz, electronica, and world music. He scored the Merchant/Ivory film In Custody (1994 Angel), and with Mickey Hart has made Mickey Hart's Mystery Box (1996 Rykodisc), Supralingua (1998 Rykodisc), Spirit into Sound (2000 Arista) and Global Drum Project (2007 Shout! Factory). In 2000, he joined Bill Laswell for the electro jazz fusion project Tabla Beat Science and made two albums with them - Tala Matrix (2000 Axiom/Palm), which included contributions from Trilok Gurtu, Karsh Kale, and Talvin Singh, and the two disc Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove (2001 Palm). Hussain is featured on Charles Lloyd’s live album Sangam (2006 ECM) and also makes regular excursions back to his classical Indian roots. Traditional titles include Concert for Peace (1995 Moment), Ravi Shankar’s 75th Birthday concert in London with Hussain on tabla, Violin in Concert (1995 Moment) with Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Drums of India (2003 Saregama), Punjabi Dhamar (2004 Saregama) with his father, Alla Rakha, Raag Chandrakauns (2004 Saregama), In Memory of Alla Rakha: Wizard of Tabla: Vol. 1 (2005 Chhanda Dhara), In Memory of Alla Rakha: Wizard of Tabla: Vol. 2 (2005 Chhanda Dhara), Sangeet Sartaj (2006 Living Music India), and the 2CD set Deserts of Rajasthan (2007 Saregama).

In 2000, Hussain composed music for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In 2002, he wrote the score for choreographer Mark Morris’s “Kolam,” part of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Triple Concerto for Banjo, Bass and Tabla, a piece composed by Hussain, Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck, was performed with the Nashville Symphony in 1999. In 2007, the government of India asked Hussain to compose a song for the country’s 60th independence day celebration. The result, “Jai Hind,” has been recorded by dozens of Indian artists and orchestras.

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