Zakir Hussain
Photo credit : Jim Bennett
Photo credit : Jim Bennett
Philippe Couture - November 20, 2023

Waiting for Zakir Hussain, the world’s greatest tabla virtuoso

Music-lovers from Montreal and surrounding areas will have the pleasure of seeing Zakir Hussain at Place des Arts in March 2024, when he will be joined on stage by talented artists Sabir Khan on sarangi and Debopriya Chatterjee Ranadive on flute. The triple winner for various projects at this year’s Grammy Awards, the musician’s name has been the stuff of legend since the 1970s. Let’s take a look at this giant of the tabla.


Attending a Zakir Hussain concert is quite the experience. Audiences are at first captivated by the tabla master’s incredible dexterity. They then fall under the spell of the spectacular musical synergy taking place between Hussain and his colleagues on flute and sarangi. And finally, they are completely astonished by how naturally the musicians seem to bring their demanding scores to life, taking spectators down an infinite number of narrative paths. It’s a blend of instinct and precision, and—in the musically climactic moments—a maelstrom of emotions and sensations. One need only read a few reviews to be convinced: all describe the music as multi-layered, complex, and enthralling.


Tabla, from father to son


Zakir Hussain was born in India into a family of legendary musicians, and he began playing the tabla in early childhood. His late father, Alla Rakha, was also a great master of the instrument, notably performing on stages around the world with legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar (with whom young Zakir also frequently had a chance to play). When he was just 12 years old, Zakir embarked on his first tour! At home, his father often invited George Harrison over for dinner. The Beatles ended up having a huge influence on the preteen.


The first time he set foot in the United States to appear in concert, Zakir Hussain was just 19 years old. But even at that early stage in his career, he was already putting a highly personal spin on the music and shaking up old customs, coming up with an astonishing fusion of traditional Indian music and western sounds.


This fusion is, no doubt, due to the influence of the artists Zakir has performed with, playing jazz with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and English guitarist John McLaughlin, and surrounding himself with new friends orbiting the San Francisco rock scene in the 1970s. It was an era conducive to the blending of various genres.


Tabla, flute, and sarangi


Today, Zakir Hussain is still widely recognized for taking this approach that sits somewhere between tradition and modernity, remaining respectful of classical Indian music yet open to sounds from abroad, and inclined to certain psychedelic elements. As Télérama so aptly put it in 2018, Zakir Hussain is an “all-terrain percussionist who could jam with great virtuosity with the first musician to come ashore—rocker, jazzbo, or wahine.”


In recent years, returning to a more classical approach, he has been appearing on the world’s stages with well-known flautist Debopriya Chatterjee Ranadive, trained in the style of the Maihar gharana school, a renowned tradition in Indian classical music. Alongside them is highly celebrated virtuoso Sabir Khan, performing on the sarangi—a traditional strummed stringed instrument used in Indian classical music. Also stemming from a prestigious line of musicians, Sabir is the son of Ustad Sultan Khan, a world-renowned sarangi maestro.


Virtuosity, tradition, fusion, and great musical emotion: these are what make Zakir Hussain and his talented musicians tick. Reserve your seats for the concert on March 28 in Théâtre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts.


Zakir Hussain playlist


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