A Journey in Rhythm: Mr. Zakir Hussain Leading the Way

Last night I had one of the most intense moments on my trip. Let me tell you about it. I had a dilemma. Either keep exploring the dazzling North of India, or come back to Mumbai, traveling 26 hours on a train, to see one of my favorite Indian musicians, Ustad Zakir Hussain. Hard choice, logic and heart, arm wrestling hard in my mind.

I went where the heart told me to, so I came back to Mumbai. And in a good hour I decided to do so.

The occasion was a tribute to the Guru of Tabla Allarakha. Right in the heart of the lovely Colaba district. I didn’t know Colaba that well, when I was in Mumbai. I stayed in the suburbs, had a real Mumbai experience (sometimes too real, I’ve been told), but missed a bit of the Art Deco and Victorian ornamented streets of Colaba. Good opportunity to do so, I recall thinking.

At first I was a bit afraid. After all I had travelled 26 rough hours and he event was not advertised and info on times and lineups were non existent. At the same time, that also gave me the conviction of how special of an event that would be. I knew the essential, and it was driven with that conviction that I went and found the Y.B. Chavan Auditorium.

From the beginning, there was a sense of communion, of simplicity, of enjoying music in its purest form, rid of any superfluous doses of acting or drama. The simple stage of contrasting dark background and white clothed stand shouted “We’re here to play, we’re here to share our Art…” And so they did, and doing so, they left me ecstatic for a good 5 and a half hours.

I got there alone, and immediately realized this was a family. Everybody knew what they were up for. Everybody seemed to have the sense of coming here and see someone dear and, through music, partake in tributing their inspiration, Allarakha. Of course I was an outsider, as I was the only European in the audience, but never I felt like I was a stranger. Everybody I spoke to were truly surprised and honored that some foreigner, Portuguese guy would take interest in their culture, in their musical expression.

Allarakha was a great influence on Tabla playing. He accompanied Ravi Shankar in the 60’s, and with him, he was one of the greatest ambassadors of Indian music in the West. Of course he’s dear to all the community. This was his tribute, the Guru Purnima. Their students performed beautifully. The teachers blew me away with skill and technique, but also with a delivery that surpasses any intensity I’ve ever witnessed. You see, Indian music has as much of composition and technique as it has of improvisation. That’s the beauty of it. Imagine if Einstein was doing equations, suspended on a trapeze… no net under. I close my eyes, and let myself go. Very few moments in my life have I felt so privileged… I could intake all the good things that music has to offer. Devotion to an art, amazing mastery of an instrument, but also the will to go beyond, to spontaneously invent, on the spot. Sit back, enjoy the ride, it’s a bumpy one. Ride that rhythm, let yourself go and, on each corner, there will be an astonishing surprise. I found myself cheering happily with the crowd. Counting the tempos, underlining the last one with hands in the air and an unison “awww”.

As to Zakir Hussain… Ustad Zakir Hussain… let’s say the best was saved for last. There was sheer anticipation in the crowd. A true effervescence swept the whole audience, from the young kid next to me to his father. I think even the father’s mustache was excited. Standing ovation when he took the first step onto the stage. Very humble, he almost shushed us, saying we’re here to honor my father and guru, Allarakha. Zakir, that short man on stage, frizzy hair and kind of a childish smile transfigured himself as soon as he touched his instrument for the first time. I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time. My fascination for Indian music comes from an autumn afternoon in 1994, when a friend introduced me to Zakir’s work with some fusion jazz musicians. That’s over the topic, anyways. Right now, he was at home. No Western influence, just the tradition his father taught him. Truly Amazing…

I’ve seen amazing artists perform, Music has given me a lot of inspiration throughout the years… and I’m very thankful for that… But I’ve never witnessed such performance. To say that his instrument is the prolongation of his soul is not doing justice to it. Such a fantastic mix of power and subtleness, as if each movement was shed with light. Picture Mozart as Xaman, drumming with as much grace as precision and power. By the end I was completely ecstatic, and I must admit, tears were flowing down my face. A lady looked at me and smiled. “Why’re you crying?” I simply answered that very few times have I felt so much joy. Very few times have I felt that the world makes sense…


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