in performance: zakir hussain and the masters of percussion

zakir hussain

zakir hussain

“Breath, the first rhythm,” said Taufiq Qureshi, accenting his pronouncement at the onset of last night’s performance by the Masters of Percussion at the Singletary Center for the Arts with a bang on a hand held gong.

With that, the cyclical motion of this very persuasive Eastern percussive ensemble under the direction of tabla maestro Zakir Hussain (Qureshi’s elder brother) was underway.

Up first were respiratory vocal patterns from Qureshi, seemingly built on exhales, that underscored the program’s opening mantra. The focus then shifted to a purposely non-percussive device, the wonderfully ghostly sarangi, a short lute like instrument played with a bow, strummed (well, slapped is more like it) like an autoharp and brought to otherworldly life by Sabir Khan. The instrument’s resonance within the Singletary’s massive concert hall when played unaccompanied was stunning.

Hussain stayed in the shadows during all of this. Then, after Khan had made the rounds, Hussain got down to business on the tabla’s double hand drum design, creating lyrical melodies simultaneously with separate bass patterns. His solos also summed up the performance’s overall flight pattern. They began with slow, melodic elegance, built into warp-speed crescendos and subsided only for a beat or two before starting again.

The concert’s second half was initiated by the Motilal Dhakis, a percussive trio from Bengal that entered from the back upper decks of the concert hall, playing massive barrel-shaped drums in a thunderous processional.

From there the performance became playful and, to perhaps bewildered Western ears, a touch more accessible. The sibling violin duo of Ganesh and Kumaresh, accented several tunes with a modest Western touch or two, bringing the music more in line with the global fusion experiments of Jean-Luc Ponty and especially the acclaimed East-meets-West acoustic recordings of Shakti (the John McLaughlin-led group that generously featured Hussain in various incarnations). The brothers were sufficiently animated in their playing, but also served as impromptu cheerleaders during percussive features on two headed drums by Sridar Parthsarathy and Navin Sharma.

By evening’s end, the concert’s cyclical nature went into overdrive with the ensemble’s principle seven member lineup (the Dhakis joined in at the end) exchanging round robin solos that gradually gathered speed as they shortened in length. By the conclusion, single notes flew in wild rhythmic formation. It was a testimony not only to the group’s considerable technical prowess, but also to its ability to transform centuries-old percussion melodies, versed improvisation and ample humor (Hussain described one segment from the first set as “an ancient Chinese composition called Tuning“) into a single, engaging language all its own.

The fact the performance fell on a major basketball night, with the University of Kentucky playing at the NCAA Sweet 16 against Cornell, wasn’t lost on Hussain, either. “We send good vibes to the Wildcats,” he told the crowd just before intermission. Judging by how the ball bounced for the Cats last night in Syracuse, those vibes arrived.


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