By Don Heckman
Despite the title of his performance at Disney Hall Wednesday night – “Masters of Percussion” – Zakir Hussain did a lot more than fill the stage with a company of drummers. And that’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of propulsive rhythm taking place.
Son of the legendary tabla player, Ustad Alla Rakha, Hussain has become an iconic tabla master in his own right over the past few decades, moving convincingly from Indian classical music to fusions with international jazz and pop artists.
But this night was something else. Although Hussain’s playing was as brilliantly virtuosic as ever, his goal was to introduce Indian music in a setting that would offer prime entertainment value for Western audiences easily intimidated by (or just disinterested in) the complexities of the raga and tala system. Neither raga nor tala, in fact, were mentioned over the course of a mesmerizing evening (despite their subliminal presence in parts of the music).
Instead, virtuosity was the primary item on the menu – delivered via high speed, stunningly articulate technical skills, displayed for the most part in challenging exchanges between individual musicians.
One of the high points was the warm interplay between Hussain and his younger brother, Fazal Qureshi, both tabla players, both displaying the rich musical wisdom passed on by their guru and father, Ustad Alla Rakha. As always, Hussain was simply remarkable, especially impressive with his ability to play pitched melodic bass notes (including a humorously inserted, brief excerpt from the William Tell Overture on his larger tabla drum).
Another duo – Navin Sharma, playing the dholak, a two headed drum, and Abos Kosimov, playing the doyra, frame drum – exchanged phrases with all the visceral energy of a jazz jam session. Kosimov, in particular, playing three drums simultaneously, balancing one on a finger while playing a second drum with his other hand, was as entertaining as he was virtuosic.
The performances by the ensemble’s two melody instrument artists – bansuri flutist Rakesh Chaurasia and sarangi (a short-necked string instrument played with a bow) player Sabir Khan — were extraordinary, Playing the complex melodic ornamentations of the Indian classical style with ease, they added a rich emotive contrast to the many layers of percussion sound.
Equally fascinating, T.H.V. Umashankar produced remarkable sounds, while punishing his hands, on the ghatam clay pot drum. And dancing drummer Ningomban Joy Singh was an extraordinary study in physicality, leaping and bounding across the stage while producing propulsive rhythmic sounds on small hand percussion.
The most intriguing part of the program was a collective work, featuring dancer Antonia Minnecola, one of the rare American-born artists adept at Kathak, the classical dance style of India. Based upon an important episode in the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic, the work told the story of the kidnapping of the Goddess Sita and her ultimate rescue by her consort, god Rama.
Hussain assigned each individual musician to a role representing one of the characters in the story, with the instruction to play solo passages as their characters came to the forefront in the telling of the story. In the center of the arc of musicians, dancer Minnecola’s elegantly stylized movements were the focal point for the unfolding saga. Hussain had introduced the piece, and the way it was done, as a kind of creative experiment in the use of a percussion ensemble as a story-telling medium. And it worked.
As did everything else in this mesmerizing evening. Masters of Percussion, yes. More accurately – Masters of the Art of Music.