Nasreen Munni Kabir: Zakir, thanks for making time for our book. Can we start today by talking about musical instruments? How long does it take to get accustomed to, say, a new tabla?
Zakir Hussain:
In the world of music, and especially when it comes to traditional music, haste is not a good idea. You need time to build a relationship with your instrument. The instrument’s spirit has to react and then things happen. You don’t just buy a new sitar today, get on to the stage tomorrow and start playing it. The sitar must come into its own. You have to play it for some months before you feel comfortable – ok, now I can play it on stage.

What do I bring to the tabla? I think it is openness and clarity, and that is what we bring to the audience. What I present must make sense, whether that involves a heart-to-heart interaction between musical instrument and musician, or zero hesitancy in the thought process, or not worrying about the parameters – your musical statement must be created with as much clarity as possible.

I am reminded of a lovely incident. Kishan Maharajji was about to go on stage when someone said: ‘Maharajji, have a great concert.’ He replied: ‘Dekhenge bhaiya, aaj tabla kya kehta hai’ [Let’s see, brother, what the tabla wants to say today].

It’s the same with all instruments – the guitar, piano, bass, or violin. You need to have a relationship with the instrument, because you want it to do your bidding. It has to accept you, and show you that it is ready to take that leap of faith with you.

For example, I need the tabla skin to have a certain amount of give – so when I hit it, it must respond and resonate in a certain way. The tone should have a certain amount of bass, treble and mid-range. The pressure of my hand is different from the pressure of someone else’s hand, therefore that impacts the thickness of the skin – how much extra skin must there be, so that it can bend in the way I want it to.

For those who don’t already know, the word ‘tabla’ comes from the Arabic ‘tabl’ which means drum, but there are, in fact, two tabla drums – the smaller one is made of wood and called the dayan (the right drum) and the larger deeper-pitched drum is made of metal and called the bayan (the left drum). Making the tabla must be a very skilled job. Are tabla makers greatly appreciated?
I personally feel tabla makers in India don’t get their proper due, nor do they get the kind of monetary return they should. If somebody in America makes a guitar by hand for a famous guitar player, they charge between $12,000 and $20,000. Béla Fleck is a master of the banjo, and some of his banjos are worth $120,000. All musical instrument makers in India are not really compensated enough or given the kind of respect and status they deserve.

In my case, Haridas Vhatkar has been making my instruments and repairing them for the past eighteen years. He used to live in Miraj, near Kolhapur, and as a young man he came to Bombay because he heard me play. He decided to learn how to make the tabla, so he could make them for me. Sometimes the parts are made in machines and then assembled together by someone who has the ear and knowledge, while Haridasji does everything from scratch – he gets the buffalo hide straps, polishes and cleans the goat skin to get the rough edges out, etc. It’s all done by hand. The whole process can take weeks. The buffalo straps have to be soaked in oil to make them soft enough so that they can be pushed through the little grooves on the edges of the tabla and then tightened. All tabla makers sit on the floor and work – so all this pulling makes their backs go and it is murder on the hands. You can of course buy a standard tabla, which will not have even 10 per cent of the quality of Haridasji’s work. He has become the Steinway of the tabla!

I have put Haridasji on a stipend. So, if I’m gone for eight months, he does not have to worry, he will still have some money coming in. He came to America in July 2016 during my retreat, and repaired the tabla of forty of my students. He made a bundle and came back to India. [laughs]

Good for him! When I think about the different Indian instruments, the sitar sounds less melodic than the flute or the violin to me. Sorry if it’s stating the obvious.
One of the reasons why the sitar may not feel as melodious to you is because the flute is an out-and-out melodic instrument, and the violin is similar whilst the sitar is both melodic and percussive. Because it has this rhythmic ability, the sitar can very easily feel overbearing. When Ravi Shankarji played, there was great emphasis on rhythm, but that’s not what I noticed in Vilayat Khansahib’s playing. He was more into exploring the sitar’s melodic element. The rhythmic element came into his playing, but did not appear to dominate.

In the old days, there were no microphones and the instruments were not as finely made, so their resonance was very limited, therefore a more rhythmic style was played on the sitar. Listen to the old recordings, you’ll find the sitar playing was somewhat based on the way the Afghani rabab is played.

In instrumental music one style or school is called ‘rababi’ and the other is ‘beenkaar’. The ‘been’ is an ancient instrument from which the surbahar and the sitar were created. The rabab is a lute-like instrument, more prominent in Afghanistan, and from there came this style of rhythmic playing. If you Google a rabab recording, you’ll hear how rhythmic it is. They say that the sarod emerged from the rabab, but I’m not sure. I can’t trace that lineage, but a lot of the rababis eventually became sarod players, like Amjad Ali Khansahib, his father Hafiz Ali Khansahib, and Hafiz Ali Khansahib’s guru. On the other hand, Vilayat Khansahib and Ustad Allauddin Khansahib were from the beenkaar gharana.

It’s strange, but when I was a young tabla player and I heard Ravi Shankarji and Ali Akbar Khansahib play a duet, the sitar sounded very pleasant to me and the sarod sounded very aggressive. I don’t know why. Later, when I started accompanying Khansahib and got to hear the sarod a lot more, the depth of that instrument emerged and I realized it had a much better balance of melody and rhythm. I became a fan of the sarod, but that happened only when I was about twenty-one years old. Before that, and maybe because my father was playing with Ravi Shankarji, I was a happy fan of the sitar.

What about the sound of the shehnai?
The shehnai is a very difficult instrument to play and can sound terrible if it is played badly. There was an in-joke among us musicians about a line in the song ‘Aap ke nazron ne samjha’. The line goes like this: ‘Har taraf bajne lagin saikdon shehnaiyan.’ [A thousand shehnais started to play all around us.] And we musicians would laugh and say: ‘Saikdon shehnaiyan bajne lagengi toh sar phat jaayega!’ [If a thousand shehnais start playing, we’ll get a crushing headache.] [both laugh]

Is it all about the instrument?
That would mean taking the artist out of the equation. To me this chain of thought has limitations. It over-conforms to the rules of tradition and does not allow for interaction between musician and instrument. There was magic when you heard Vilayat Khansahib or Bismillah Khansahib play. There are other shehnai players but has anyone heard of them before or after Bismillah Khansahib? So, is it the instrument or the musician? I have heard many fine sarod players, but their hands do not grab my heart and squeeze it like the music of Ali Akbar Khansahib.

The masters say that your relationship with your instrument should be such that the instrument will get down on its knees and ask you to do what you will of it, extract what you want – have control, command and mastery over the instrument. Then there is another chain of thought that believes that the instrument is just a modem for presenting the music.

That reminds me of a lovely incident. Ali Akbar Khansahib and Sultan Khansahib and I were once sitting in his classroom in California and he said: ‘Sultan, did you bring your sarangi? Will you play something?’ Sultan Bhai replied: ‘Khansahib, I’m sorry, but I have left it at the hotel. I just came by to say hello.’ Ali Akbar Khansahib insisted: ‘We have a sarangi in our music store, let’s bring it out.’

So, they brought out the sarangi and put it down. Sultan Bhai looked at it and said: ‘Khansahib, this sarangi is broken. It’s in a bad state. I don’t think I can play it.’ Ali Akbar Khansahib smiled and said in Urdu: ‘Sarangi agar theek nahin hai toh kya hua? Haath toh tumhara hai’ [So what if the sarangi is in poor condition? The hand is yours]. Sultan Bhai said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and rushed into a corner of the room, tuned the sarangi as best as he could and started playing.

My friend Mickey Hart, who is also a musicologist, happened to be there with his Nagra tape recorder and so he recorded Sultan Khansahib playing. Two years later we released the album and since then, Sultan Bhai and now his family have received close to $12,000 in royalties. My conclusion is it has to be the musician, not the instrument. [both smile]

In the mid-1970s you were involved with Shakti. The impact of Shakti was huge and certainly helped to further the sounds of world music. It not only had musical influences of the East and the West, but also of north and south India. I remember hearing the album A Handful of Beauty (1976), and its title so aptly described the music. Shakti is a real milestone.
The reason Shakti is a milestone, and of personal importance to me, comes from the fact that it opened the doors to the concept of world music. It was doubly sweet because the foundation of Shakti was laid at the same time as Planet Drum.

Shakti is unique and unparalleled in the universe of music and it was probably the first group of its kind to have explored, without limit, the one salient feature that is common in Indian music and jazz – and that is improvisation. There were earlier attempts that combined the two systems, but as far as I know, besides the LP Karuna Supreme, which released in 1975 and which Ali Akbar Khansahib, John Handy and I did, all other attempts involved composed solos that were written without spontaneous improvisation.

Shakti explored the idea of spontaneous improvisation. The advantage we had was that John McLaughlin, apart from being the most versatile guitarist of his time, was also someone who had studied the Indian system of improvising. He had learned how to play the veena, and our other team member, the violinist L. Shankar, had learned about jazz harmonies and had worked with that form. As we’ve discussed, working extensively as a teenager with Hindi film musicians, who played all kinds of Indian and non-Indian instruments, helped me. I was also given an insight into the jazz and rock world by my father who brought from his travels many records of bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. I remember Abba had me take some piano lessons as well.

The most important fact was that we, the Shakti team, were young enough to allow for musical ‘sacrilege’, and so we could ignore the restrictions imposed on us by our respective traditions in the interest of finding a road towards oneness. Similarly, the connoisseurs at that time frowned upon interactions between south and north Indian musicians, but the advantage for TH Vinayakram, fondly known as Vikku, and me was that rhythms are universal. In addition, I had the good fortune of occasionally working with the great maestro Palghat Raghuji, and had also come across south Indian musicians working in Indian film music. I gleaned information that would help to overcome any barrier between Vikkuji and me. We were young and game enough, and fortunately away from India and critics or so-called well-wishers who would have been happy to give us negative advice – and so we were totally comfortable running amok on the taal road. [smiles]

There we were – four musicians from varied backgrounds sitting on a stage platform in Indian style, and with complete conviction, playing music that was never heard before – it was a totally positive offering. The energy of four as one was strong. We were confident that our musical statement would become valid and accepted as a road to traverse and that would eventually lead to what is now known as world music.

Excerpted with permission from Zakir Hussain: A Life in Music, In Conversation With Nasreen Munni Kabir, HarperCollins.