I am dancing at the feet of my lord, all is bliss, all is bliss

I've been at this for the better part of a year now, and thus far I've resisted trying to write about the man who is probably the world's greatest living musician.

Part of it is that I feel thoroughly unqualified to talk about Indian classical music.  It is a vast ocean, and I've stepped into it a couple of times and splashed around with my feet.  Its musical forms, tunings, rhythms, harmonies, its use of form and improvisation those are all well outside my experience and training.  While I love much of what I've heard, I also know that I barely understand what I've listened to.  I have the strong suspicion that any opinion i could have about it is like forming an idea of American pop music by listening to "Rumble" and "Good Vibrations" and nothing else.

But I've seen Zakir Hussain play, and I know what I saw.

Hussain, who lives in San Francisco today, is the master of the tabla, two small goatskin drums played with the fingers and hands.  The tabla are incredibly expressive, despite their size.  When you watch Hussain play, he is not only striking the drumheads with incredible speed and precision, he is also touching them softly to tease out specific overtones and shape the tonality of the sound.  The drums can thud, and click, and tap, and sing, all depending on how he touches them.

It's entirely because of Hussain that the tabla has moved from the side of the stage to the center over the last fifty years.  His charisma, charm, and massive talent turned the instrument from one that accompanies other musicians to one that other musicians accompany.  He has the eerie capacity to be flamboyant and humble at the same time.

He is also remarkably generous to other musicians.  I've seen him perform, with great enthusiasm, accompanying musicians who simply weren't even in his league.  (It can be a downside of going to see Hussain:  you end up watching a performance that's like John Coltrane trading solos with Kenny G.)  

In 1970, Hussain began working with the English jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, and under the name Shakti, they've been collaborating together with other musicians on and off for decades.  (After a long hiatus, they're performing now as Remember Shakti.)

This video is the two of them, along with the great santur prodigy Shiv Kumar Sharma, the Tamil percussionist V. Selvaganesh, and an uncredited fifth percussionist hiding on stage left, playing a piece that Sharma composed, in performance sometime in 2013 or 2014.  This is a beautiful, long piece, during which the musicians play as an ensemble, form into duets or trios, and solo, the focus moving around the stage according to rules they seem to understand intuitively.  The guitar seems to be wandering off in a little fantasia, and then suddenly the santur joins in unison, which was the plan all along even though only the two of them saw it coming.  The ease, grace, and fluidity with which these men are playing is wonderful to see and hear.  

For all I know, this is to the Indian classical tradition what "A Fifth Of Beethoven" is to the West's.  I'm probably revealing myself to be a rube by liking this.  But I know what I heard.


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