Indian Percussionist Masters the Tabla with Indian Art Form, Mesmerizes Western Audiences
(March 21, 2012 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA) There is a reason why stages featuring the beautiful art of Indian classical music usually have their seats filled with a monotonously brown audience. Steeped in hundreds of years of local and regional traditions, the scientifically artistic sounds of Carnatic percussionists, sarangi musicians, dholak performers, doyra masters, and tabla phemons do not immediately translate well for American or Western audiences. Then again, when you have a legendary tablaist in Zakir Hussain and an equally apt team of jaw-dropping master percussionists performing in a Walt Disney Concert Hall filled with a crowd as diverse as it was on March 21st, struck is a perfect harmony of hyper-focused Indian culture and universally palatable ears.
His brother, Fazal Qureshi, and six other artists here joined Mr. Hussain at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles on March 21st, with collectively more than 1,000 spirited souls at the acclaimed percussionist’s first West Coast stop on his 17-city, 30-day North American tour. In his approximately two-hour adventure through the sounds of one of India’s most beautiful instruments, Mr. Hussain did what he traditionally does whenever performing Stateside: he presents an art form deeply rooted in Indian culture that is ultimately appreciated and respected by a diverse yet inclusive audience.
Indeed, Mr. Hussain may be tabla’s greatest ambassador, using his tremendous mastery of the ancient craft to build musical bridges that connect India to the West and beyond in such a way that makes it appear as if such bridges were existent for generations. It was in this spirit that Mr. Hussain presented the latest iteration of the Masters of Percussion tour, with the legendary musician bringing his brother and wife along to add a new nuance to a traveling show that has recurred steadily since 1996.
A virtuoso performance that was as delicate as it was mesmerizingly powerful, Mr. Hussain did more than give full meaning to the phrase “Masters of Percussion.” By the time audiences filed out of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he demonstrated how his artistic and technical skill is savvy enough to not only define a cultural genre, but also compellingly entertain individuals who may come into any venue he headlines, armed with nothing more than cursory knowledge of his musical repertoire.
Beyond Mr. Hussain’s own individual mastery of the cultural art form handed down to him from his father, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, the 61-year-old tabla player skillfully interacts with his audience and stage mates all at once. Indeed, the finale performance featured every musician on stage, each rising to the maestro’s challenge with articulate grace.
Preceding the climactic finale was an affectionate interplay between two siblings, as Mr. Hussain and Faizal Qureshi engaged in a tabla duel of sorts. Indeed, the duo captivated the audience with a mesmerizing back-and-forth highlighted by Mr. Hussain’s mastery of a perfectly pitched bass melody with the occasional comedic twist via the "William Tell Overture."
While Mr. Hussain clearly set the tone, the evening was not all about him. The audience was welcomed back from its intermission break with a dynamic performance from a duo clearly not to be confused as Batman and Robin. (That’s a good thing, no offense to my DC Comics brethren.) Navin Sharma and Abos Kosimov charmed the audience with their respectively sweet renditions of the dholak (the two-sided drum popularly seen in Punjab) and doyra (a frame drum). Collectively, both Sharma and Kosimov escalated their respective performances to levels rarely found in any music circle, delightfully entertaining the audience with such classy and fun energy that may only be rivaled by an outdoor jazz show or a late-night drum circle in the alleys of New York City or the streets of Berkeley, California. Mr. Kosinov earned a near deafening applause when he effortlessly simultaneously played three doyras.
Not to be overlooked were the soothing sounds of Rakesh Chaurasia’s bansuri flute, which intertwined with the harmonious beats of Sabir Khan’s sarangi. As they joined forces later in the second half, both Khan and Chaurasia were so effectively calming with their contrasting yet unifying performances, an audience full of rattlesnakes could have been charmed into a nirvana-like state.
Engaging the audience to clap along in unison to the beat of his own drum, T.H.V. Umashankar demonstrated why he is one of the most acclaimed artists of the South Indian classical percussionist movement. Emphatically beating on his ghatam, which resembles a clay pot, Umashankar was as playful with the audience as he was worthy of its undivided attention, with his ability to elicit harmonically pitched beats from an instrument least likely to be noticed as one.
The audience was left yearning to see more of Ningomban Joy Singh, who intermittently presented slices of his high-octane dancing drummer performance. Dedicated to the beautiful Indian traditional folk dance form of Manipuri, Singh demonstrated remarkable athleticism in turning a percussionist performance into a visual delight.
Speaking of dancing, Mr. Hussain’s wife, Kathak dancer Antonia Minnecola, added another layer to the Los Angeles show that some audiences, along Mr. Hussain’s North American tour, will not be able to enjoy. In portraying the Indian art of storytelling – Kathak derives from the Sanskrit word katha, which means ‘story’ – Ms. Minnecola recited a small slice of the mythological story of Ramayana, where the Lankan Lord Rama kidnapped Goddess Sita and engages in a battle with a bird (later blessed by Lord Krishna).
Whether it was a segment of storytelling, a duo engaging in an enthralled back-and-forth, or an epic solo by the headlining maestro himself, Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion turned the Walt Disney Concert Hall into a vaulted room full of awed connoisseurs who had no desire for the house lights to fully turn on…ever. If there was a moment of sustaining fleeting escapism in the name of an artistic performance touching one’s mind, heart, and soul all at once, it was captured on March 21st at the Frank Gehry-designed concert hall. The remaining audiences for Mr. Hussein’s tour are in for a euphoric treat.