One Week With Zakir Hussain at Banff

Zakir Hussain teaching at Banff.  Thanks for the photo Imani Uzuri!

In August of 2015, I attended the Banff International Jazz Workshop.  For the second week I was placed in an ensemble taught by Zakir Hussain.  After seeing him perform again at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia last Wednesday, I thought I'd write a little bit about my experience from that week.

Heading to Banff, I only had a very rough idea of how classical Indian music was structured.  A couple of my friends study drums and/or tabla with Dan Weiss, and through these friends, I had heard the words Tehai, Tintal, and some others thrown around.  Through the book "Harmonic Experience." I had become only a little familiar with Sargam.  With this small amount of knowledge from these various sources twice and three times removed, I was about to go into a one week long, two rehearsals per day class with Zakir Hussain -- I didn't even know what to expect.

I still go back to my notes from that week over a year ago and learn from them.  Thinking back on that week's worth of instruction, I'm reminded of this Charles Mingus quote:

"Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple."

Through that whole week, Zakir Hussain made these concepts that had seemed so mysterious to me before I came to Banff seem as simple as nursery rhymes.  He would sing a phrase at us and we would try and play it back.  We played a couple compositions and some different Tehais.  He explained differences between North and South Indian music as well as different rhythmic structures, and how people improvise over them in a traditional context.  He also explained some of the origins of different terms and techniques right down to what kinds of music became popular in different parts of India due to social structures in the 15th century.  I learned a tremendous amount in that week not just about Indian music itself, but the culture that the music grew out of.

Zakir Hussain and Nate Hook backstage before the end of week concert at Banff

One last thing that stuck with me was Zakir Hussain's emphasis on using music to tell a story.  In my own composition, I had always thought about John Coltrane's tunes named after emotions (e.g. Joy, Love, Compassion, etc) in thinking about music as a vehicle to express an idea, tell a story, or emote.  In class, Zakir Hussain would tell us how certain Ragas were played at certain times of day, what some of his compositions meant, and even in a masterclass with his wife who is a dancer, he demonstrated how individual phrases played on the tabla corresponded to specific moments in a story in a way that reminded me of the programmatic nature of peter and the wolf.  Learning music in the disciplined way Zakir Hussain taught and demonstrated to us, understanding the music on a deep level so one can flawlessly execute in improvisation, and never losing track of the initial goal of expressing yourself is (I think) the highest level a musician can get to.  I continue going back to the notes from the class with Zakir Hussain to not just learn, but be inspired.