Few eastern musicians have made a stronger connection to the west than Zakir Hussain. It is fitting since his father; legendary tabla virtuoso Allah Rakha, popularized the instrument worldwide and pioneered North Indian traditional music to England and the Americas. His mastery and theoretical genius certainly influenced a young Mickey Hart, drummer from an experimental band from the other end of the world, the Grateful Dead. Hart was fascinated with Indian traditional music and their ancient percussion. He formed a friendship with Hussain and in 1976 they recorded the landmark fusion album Diga Rhythm Band. It was active shift of focus on the percussionist and world music, and facilitated its introduction into the sphere of American pop music. Jazz musicians had a longer relationship with these Eastern prodigies, but rock would never be the same after they finally had the chance to meet. Since then Hussain has built an enormous career larger than his tabla virtuosity as a musicologist, actor, and educator.
Last weekend Hussain ended an impressively diverse stint as artist in residence at the San Francisco Jazz Center. Everything from clinic style sit-ins, workshops and varied headliner collaborations sold out almost instantly. Grateful Web was lucky enough to get invited to Hussain’s bold Celtic Connections project last Thursday in the Hayes Valley Neighborhood of downtown San Francisco. Situated between the theatre district and the seedy Civic Center Square, SF Jazz brings the finest of artists from around the world to Northern California. It’s clear why Hussain brought Celtic Connections for its United States debut to the intimate acoustics of Miner Auditorium. He began the evening by briefing us on his contemporary fascination with Celtic music that he began exploring in 2011. The results were inspired and explosive. Now he has assembled an impressive array of players to fuse an entirely new breed of musical possibilities.
To our good fortune he brought along accomplished flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and eastern fiddler Ganesh Rajagopalan. The magic that evening was their beautiful partnership with Celtic players Fraser Fifield (flute/pipes), Jean-Michel Veillon (flute), Charlie McKerron (fiddle), Patsy Reid (fiddle), Tony Byrne (guitar) and John Joe Kelly (bodhran). Nothing preconceived could have prepared the audience for the cross-cultural blending of last weekend’s performances. Over the evening Zakir Hussain led the cooperative through a variety of collective originals along with samples of one and others separate musical paths. It was humbling to watch how each player’s different background allowed them to appreciate what the others were playing all the more. In organic movements the music developed into something less describable than felt, notwithstanding plenty of incredible solo drumming from the master. The distinct spectrum of sounds and tones that the tabla can produce makes it more of a heartbeat than a backbone. We were privileged to have had the chance to sit in on more than a night of music, but an evening of empathy.