All that jazz, on the tabla: Zakir Hussain on a unique mentorship experience

An arts initiative invited the tabla maestro to mentor jazz percussionist Marcus Gilmore. We sat down with the guru and shishya to talk about their time together.
Zakir Hussain and Marcus Gilmore during a work session in New York.
Zakir Hussain and Marcus Gilmore during a work session in New York.
Published on Dec 21, 2019 06:53 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByVanessa Viegas

For 16 years, an artistic mentorship programme has paired legends and young geniuses, in an attempt to contribute to global culture. Pairings under the Rolex Mentor and Protegee Arts Initiative have included filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and India’s Chaitanya Tamhane, author Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman, amid a total of 52 others. In the 2018-19 cycle, tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain was invited to mentor the African-American jazz drummer and composer Marcus Gilmore. As the mentorship draws to an end, with the resulting work — Gilmore’s first orchestral composition, Pulse — scheduled to premiere in Cape Town in February, we sat down with the guru and shishya. Excerpts from the interview…

What were you eager to learn from Zakir Hussain at the start of this collaboration?

Marcus Gilmore (MG): People skills, for one (Laughs). I’ve observed how graceful Zakir is. I wanted to observe his lifestyle in general. Spending all this time with Zakir has taught me a few things — what my process is when it comes to composing, for instance. I’ve never composed for an ensemble of this magnitude. He would give me suggestions on how and when to get started.

What have you gained during your time as mentor?

Zakir Hussain (ZH): How many times have you noticed in your own living room a little ledge where there is dust and you haven’t cleaned it? By playing with him I have seen a little different way to sway with my rhythms. Just to be able to sway a little differently has given me an insight as to how I must develop a way of speaking that will be familiar with the younger crowds. In that sense I’m enriched myself. I have interacted with jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd, but to see the world of jazz through the eyes of a fellow percussionist has brought new dimensions to my music.

Classical Indian music is extremely structured. Jazz is by nature changeable. How did the two meet in the mentorship programme?

ZH: I would try to respectfully say the tabla is not just Indian drumming; there is much more of a universal face that has appeared in the presentation of the tabla. It speaks in so many different musical languages and so is the case with the drums that allows for such seamlessly passing of information. So we both have a certain level of intuition of what the rhythms should be, what the grammar should be.

MG: Transferring the language of the tabla to this instrument was tricky because it’s not really made for this instrument and there’s a certain fence, if you have a certain melody. And sometimes you might have like these micro notes from the tabla, so getting that into the drum set can be tricky. So it was quite a challenge to ‘play the tabla’ on the drums.

What is your orchestra piece based on?

MG: This composition is about a few different things, but mainly it’s about the asking myself, ‘How are we still here?’ in the context of African-American culture. How did we survive?

The world has changed so much, definitions of music have changed. Has the role of the mentor been altered too?

ZH: Mentorships are about technical and musical information, but also about sharing your way of life. When I was around eight, a garage below our house was converted into a room for five or six students to live. My mother would cook for them and take care of them. They would practice and when he felt like, my father [Ustad Allah Rakha] would descend. There was a constant connection. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now you’re a working student, you have a job to keep and bills to pay. And over the weekend, if your teacher has the mood, and is not touring, they’ll teach. But you still go. So the dynamic may have changed, but not the role of the mentor.

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