This post is a little late, but last weekend I went to see Zakir Hussain, one of the world's greatest tabla players, at the Wortham theatre downtown. The show was put on by the Indo-American Association of Houston, who do events like this periodically. I went in expecting some pretty straightforward classical Indian music, and found out that instead Hussain had decided to do live versions of many of his film scores. He had an incredible ensemble along with him, including his multi-talented percussionist brother, Taufiq Qureshi; Sultan Khan, who is an amazing vocalist and sarangi player who has also worked on many Indian film scores; and Salim Merchant, who added synths and textures and has also done significant film score work. Zakir Hussain had never done this particular type of performance before, and I was surprised when he came into the hall from the back, walking through the audience, singing. Initially I thought, man, this is kind of like Angus being carried through the crowd at an AC/DC show, but later found out that this is common practice in Indian venues. Hussain established real intimacy with the crowd this way right from the start, and told little stories, introduced his pieces, talked about the other performers, and apologized for his singing, pointing out that he's really a tabla player, not a singer. He hardly touched the tabla, in fact, during the first few numbers. What I heard was a lush synthesis of traditional vocalization and instrumentation with orchestration, electronica, ambient sounds, and percussion.
Zakir Hussain has performed a lot on the world music circuit, and I have always been a hard skeptic about this kind of stuff because I associate it with bad car commercials where some land-crushing SUV is driving in the Sahara somewhere, while legions of dusty, ethnic looking people look on, and in the background is some nauseatingly sanitized yet lilting African folk song that apparently is supposed to make you feel connected with the rest of humanity even though you are sealed away in an air-conditioned bubble going 80 mph. I always imagine the lilting lyrics being translated as, "Yes, Yankee, today you drive your luxury vehicle, but some day we will cut your liver out and feed it to our hogs". I also tend to associate world music with whiny, do-gooder musician/celebs who decide suddenly that swilling whiskey and screwing hot women isn't good enough for them, and they decide to go ethnic and go find some rastafarian losers to jam with. Or some hairy-legged, pot-smoking college chick who is always crying about American imperialism and how she would go right now to Guatemala and live in the rain forest and help the indigenous peoples grow bean sprouts or whatever the fuck they grow there, except that she is getting over this really bad rash from using non-organic body lotion and besides, she has to, like, pay off her student loans, but she is going to work for a marketing company that, like, pays part of its profits to fund legal counsel for displaced Aborigines and stuff and they have these really cool commercials with African music in them.
Despite all these preconceived notions, I was not too cynical to truly enjoy this show on many levels - the sound textures, the dramatic quality, the amazing technical artistry, the composition, and the fact that despite being a crypto-imperialist xenophobe, I really, really dig Indian music. For his last number, Hussain went on an incredible tear on the tabla - my worries that his concentration on his film scores would cheat me out of a divine tabla performance were completely unfounded. Like many virtuoso players, you watch and keep saying, over and over, "how the fuck did he do that?" just like John Fahey allegedly said after listening to a cassette of Leo Kottke for the first time. Sometimes, in other words, the virtuosity can become a distraction from the music itself. Fortunately Hussain is very versatile and his forays into other music traditions have helped to keep him from being only a great tabla player. His singing was probably not that great technically, but it didn't matter because he had the feel right. I really got the feeling these guys were sitting in my living room jamming, and that is always a great thing. Sultan Khan, on the other hand, had a tremendously powerful voice - I know it's hard to imagine a diminutive, elderly Indian man sitting on the ground shaking the rafters, but he sure as hell did. It made me call to mind the time I saw Albert Collins at Antones in Austin, many years ago. Well, Albert Collins was absolutely fantastic. But up on the stage with him was another old guy whose main job appeared to be to hold Albert's guitar cord when he went into the audience. He was wearing a black suit, and his eyes looked like he had pulled them out, rolled them in sandpaper and Jim Beam, and put them back in his head. Apparently his name was Elroy (I'm not making this up) and finally Albert brought him to the front of the stage and gestured to him to sing. Elroy looked like he was going to sing, started toward the mic, then turned around and walked off in disgust. He repeated this a few times before he finally relented- and then blasted out the most mind-blowing, soul-splitting, howl of musical rage I have ever witnessed in my life. For the rest of the number, my jaw was hanging slack, my eyes were bugging out, and I realized that I was only a few feet away from supermen - men who were not from this planet, men who by their very existence defied the laws of the universe. I felt a little bit of that same feeling of awe and reverence for Sultan Khan. But everyone in Hussain's ensemble was extraordinarily talented. They demonstrated extraordinary ability to improvise off of film score compositions that one would have expected to have been possible only as set pieces done by much larger orchestras, or created in the studio. By doing this they proved to me the incredible value of live performance even in a period when music is dominated by technology.
The show also woke me up to the reality that even though popular music in this country may be at an all-time low right now, there is still a rapid pace of innovation in other less visible musical genres. They may not be household names in America, but who the fuck cares? They sure as hell don't, because they have their music. Kudos to the Indo-American Association for bringing some real art to this city.