Ustad Zakir Hussain | White Star
Ustad Zakir Hussain | White Star

Once upon a time, there lived a tabla maestro who gave his daughter 500 original rhythm compositions as dowry on her marriage to a young man in Delhi. That, according to legend, is how the art of tabla playing spread across the sub continent.

"The roots of what I do are firmly embedded in this country," explains tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, “so for me, coming to Pakistan, especially Lahore, is almost like a pilgrimage.

Before leaving for Lahore, Hussain felt that it may not be a bad idea to investigate whether there is a second maestro's daughter with another 500 compositions to her name. On leaving Pakistan, Hussain remains single, but rumour has it that he left many smitten hearts behind — and not all belonged to daughters or tabla ustads from Lahore!

Acclaimed by critics everywhere as one of the most gifted tabla players of all times, Zakir Hussain recently teamed up with local whiz kid, electric pianist Adnan Sami Khan, for a series of concerts Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Sponsored by Pearl Continental Hotels, the tour was a resounding success, leaving audiences in every city hungering for more. For the many who haven't quite had their fill of Zakir Hussain, and for those who obviously missed out, he plans to return to Pakistan for a solo tour in March.

Meanwhile, the mercurial maestro will keep himself busy doing a record with Herbie Hancock and a Japanese flutist — an appropriate project for someone who has previously engaged in musical collaborations with musicians such as George Harrison, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder.

This interview was conducted the day after the first concert, where an uncharacteristically punctual and patient Karachi audience waited about two hours to hear Hussain and Sami Khan's scintillating version of fusion music.

“I was told Pakistani audiences arrive at nine when the invitation is for seven, so according to my watch I was on time,” quips Hussain. (The real reason for the delay, apparently, had more to do with missing a plane connection).

lncorrigibly effervescent, Zakir Hussain exudes charisma, both on and off the stage. Articulate, confident and remarkably talented, Adnan Sami Khan has already climbed quite a few rungs on the success ladder and is clearly destined to climb more.

In this Herald interview, the dynamic duo hold forth on their recent association and the shape of musical things to come ....

Adnan Sami Khan | White Star
Adnan Sami Khan | White Star

Fahimeh Fifi Haroon. How did the two of you decide to tour Pakistan together?

Zakir Hussain. We have a common friend to blame for that. I met this guy at a concert in London and he said I must get together with Adnan. He was quite persuasive, so I said yeah, sure, put it together and we’ll see what happens. Next thing I know, the phone rings at 4 am in the morning and on the other end is this bright chirpy voice saying, “Hi, I’m Adnan calling from Pakistan,” while all I could manage was a groggy hello. So that was how it all began.

Haroon. Apparently you met for the first time at the concert venue and hadn’t really agreed on what you were going to play.

Hussain. We didn’t plan ahead at all. In fact, our Karachi performance was almost like a rehearsal. I had never seen Adnan before that night. And we hardly had time to say more than a word to each other in the dressing room. It was like, “Hi Adnan, how are you doing, and why are you wearing a tuxedo?”

Haroon. Yes, why were you wearing a tuxedo?

Hussain. And in such hot weather …

Adnan Sami Khan. I guess I thought it would look different.

Hussain. What he means is that he just wanted to wear something that would go with his gold Rolex.

Khan. I had heard a lot of Zakir’s stuff, of course, but he had no idea what I could or couldn’t do. And there we were facing roughly a thousand people …

Hussain. Who had been waiting roughly about two hours. It was almost like a blind date!

Haroon. Which explains why you started off with a relatively simple, but essentially appealing selection, and saved the more intricate material for the last part of the recital.

Hussain. I think the basic goal in front of us when we started to play was to warm up the audience. We thought we’d give them something they could have fun with before going on to the serious stuff.

Everything was more or less spontaneous — and that’s what was special about the Karachi concert. It happened for the audience and for us simultaneously. We were as new to each other as they were to us.

There is always a certain excitement and freshness in the first time you get together with another musician. There were times when Adnan would whisper messages across the stage to me about what he was going to do, and I would nod back as if I had understood everything. Little did he know that I couldn’t hear a word!

Photo taken from the February 1990 issue of the Herald | Arif Mahmood
Photo taken from the February 1990 issue of the Herald | Arif Mahmood

Haroon. Everyone felt that your concert ended all too quickly, that you should have played longer.

Khan. Actually, the organisers had told us to play for about one and a half hours because they had arranged a dinner afterwards.

Hussain. This must be the first time a concert ended because someone wanted to have dinner!

Haroon. Were you excited about the prospect of playing for a Pakistani audience?

Hussain. The biggest appeal of the tour as far as I was concerned was that it was a tour of Pakistan. I have been wanting to come and perform for a very long time. This is the land of my ancestors. In fact, my uncles still live In Lahore. And it had been far too long since the last time I was here. I was only seven years old then.

Haroon. Do you retain any memories at all of that first visit?

Hussain. I remember falling off a horse and running into a fence, from which I still have (rolls up the hem of his trousers) a mark on my knee. Don't mind my legs — I know they're skinny! I also remember getting lost somewhere near Bhatti gate. And seeing Hercules in this dingy little Lahore cinema owned by my father's friend.

And eating chole and halwa in the old city. For me Pakistan is full of fond memories. I had also heard a lot about the country from Pakistani musicians who come to India. So for a long while I've been waiting to come to Pakistan, to experience the country for myself, to see what is so different about this place.

Haroon. And what do you find different about this place?

Hussain. Nothing! Like the Karachi concert for instance, I felt I was playing for an audience that seemed remarkably familiar, even though I was seeing these people for the first time. It was like playing in Delhi or Lucknow or any other place in lndia.

Frankly, I came here thinking I was coming to a country which would be overwhelmingly conservative —and maybe it is because I haven't really seen the rest of it yet. But the audience I played for in Karachi was not the conservative crowd I had expected at all.

I had thought that there would be certain set rules and regulations, a defined code of behaviour. That people would make an effort to remain calm and composed.

I mean, I'd seen shows organised by the Pakistani embassies abroad, and I thought I would have to deal with that kind of thing. But it wasn't like that at all. The Karachi audience was a very comfortable audience to play for. There was a tot of warmth and appreciation.

There was a genuinely perceptive crowd. It was a great turn-on! Ten minutes into the concert all the nervous jitters were gone and I was really having a fantastic time.

Haroon. Do you feel any cultural affinity with Pakistan?

Hussain. I have always had a fascination for Pakistan. In a cultural context, a lot of what I do musically has its roots here in the Punjab. Presently, there are five different schools of tabla playing: Benares, Lucknow, Dehli, Farooqabad and Punjab.

Over the centuries, tabla playing developed in these five centres. I belong to the Punjabi school of tabla playing. My father who was my teacher as well taught me in this style, and his teacher also lived and died in Lahore. So for me going to Lahore is like a pilgrimage. I have such strong emotional ties to the people and the place.

Photo by Arif Mahmood
Photo by Arif Mahmood

Haroon. Everyone has a reason for choosing their vocation in life. Why do you play the tabla?

Hussain. Since my childhood, nothing has given me more pleasure than playing the tabla. For me, it's the ultimate trip. Some people take cocaine to get high — I play the tabla. I get sad, I play the tabla. I feel happy, I play the tabla.

All the emotions I have ever felt are related to this instrument. I am most comfortable when I am sitting behind it. I feel like I am in total control and I can handle anything that's thrown at me. It's when I feel the most communicative. Put me in a group of people to talk with and I don’t feel half as sure of myself. But the tabla is something special, something enjoyable to offer to people. And that makes me feel good.

Haroon. Was Heat and Dust your first film experience?

Hussain. Well, I had done a few television commercials, including one for cigarettes, even though I don't smoke! But, yes, Heat and Dust was my first film role. I was brought in at the last minute as a replacement for Naseeruddin Shah, who opted out of the film because he felt the role wasn't powerful or meaty enough and that Shashi Kapoor had the plum part.

Which meant that Merchant Ivory Productions were stuck without one of their major stars only ten days before shooting. So as a last resort they called and asked me out for dinner.

Now, I've known Ismail and Jim for years, and thought they wanted me to do a soundtrack for them, but when they told me it was an acting job, I was ready to run. And then they told me I would be playing opposite Julie Christie-and that was tempting.

But I was still running scared. Finally, a day before the shooting, Ismail came to my house, had my mother throw a few clothes into a bag and literally dragged me in to the car and onto the plane for Hyderabad. I was given the script that night and told to be up at five for shooting at 6:30. They didn't even have clothes for me, so we had to borrow some for the first few shots! It was quite funny, really.

Of course, all this meant that I never got to know the part very well. But Julie helped out a lot with the acting. I remember driving James Ivory crazy because I could never stop fidgeting with my hands — after all, I am basically a tabla player.

So there are several places in the film where they've shot only half-shots, with Julie holding my hand below the camera so that I wouldn't fidget — which, of course, I didn't mind at all!

Haroon. You spent your first major acting role in Heat and Dust primarily making moves on Julie Christie throughout the film. Not too bad a deal, really, for a beginner.

Hussain. Oh, I agree with you there! But seriously, it was absolutely wonderful working with Julie Christie. She's a very fine person and a sensational actress. During the making of Heat and Dust she was going through a phase of de-­Hollywooding herself.

She felt she'd had it uptil here with Hollywood. So she got out of the place, out of her relationship with Warren Beatty and ran away to Wales to lead a rustic existence, driving a horse cart and baking her own bread.

She moved into a cottage with this left-wing radical running his own Marxist newspaper and decided she didn't want to have anything to do with the people back in America. It was in this frame of mind that she gave up the chance to do a 750,000 dollar role in a big film and came to India to do Heat and Dust for literally peanuts.

Photo taken from the February 1990 issue of the Herald | Arif Mahmood
Photo taken from the February 1990 issue of the Herald | Arif Mahmood

Julie tried her best to be a normal person. She didn't want to live in a five-star hotel. She was quite happy to walk around on her own, catch crowded buses and eat food from street vendors.

Haroon. Any more acting plans for the future?

Hussain. Currently, I'm doing the musical score for two telefilms and am acting in one of them. The last time I did a film project was Questions, where I played a terrorist — probably because I look like one!

Haroon. Adnan, at the concert that night you seemed far more comfortable playing the jazz piece than you did the raags. Do you think jazz is more your forte?

Khan. I have lived abroad most of my life, so my exposure to Indian classical music is fairly recent. I suppose I am more comfortable with jazz because I have been playing it that much longer, and also because classical music is a much more disciplined genre.

I started playing music when I was about six and didn't discover Indian classical music until I was fifteen. So, essentially, I had a lot of catching up to do. I remember my father playing a cassette for me when I was fifteen — Amjad Ali's Durga.

He said this is from our part of the world, you must listen to it. And I continued rewinding it and listening to it from early evening until midnight. By the end of it I was nearly in tears. I couldn't believe that for all these years I had missed out on something so special.

I felt like I had lived my life like a poor man sitting on this broken-down chair, not realising that underneath this chair was a treasure chest that I couldn't see because 1 hadn't bothered to look.

Haroon. Zakir, you received a doctorate in world music at the University of Washington in Seattle. Currently, the West is opening its doors to new kinds of music from a variety of cultures. Why do you think that World Beat – as it is called – has become such a major music phenomenon?

Hussain. I feel that young people today are much more receptive to different kinds of music. Also, they now have greater access to recordings from all over the world. I was in Paris and went t o see Ustad Fateh Ali Khan in concert. It was quite an experience. The crowd was going crazy even though they didn't have any idea what the words meant.

World Beat works because it has rhythm. The words aren't really crucial — you can get up and dance. Even if you don't understand what the song is all about. Classical music – Indian or otherwise – is not that accessible as a genre.

Rather, it's the kind of music which entails going within yourself to discover what you're all about —knowing that, feeling that and being aware of it. Classical music requires a certain amount of seriousness, a certain commitment.

It makes you acutely aware of everything around you. It enhances the power of your senses. It magnifies your abilities in so many different fields. Moreover, classical music gives me the confidence to play anywhere in the world. I know I don't have to ape anyone.

If I'm doing something with Herbie Hancock, I can meet him on equal terms. I don't have to kneel down and think he's God, because I have as much to offer him as he has to offer me. My classical training allows me to experience and appreciate many varieties of music without losing my identity.

I can experiment with jazz or blues and still have a base to come back to. In other words, I have a home. And that's what I always tell young people. Don’t forget where you come from. Don't forget who you are. You can wear anything, you can experience anything, but at the end of the day, when you shut your bedroom lights at night, you should sleep easy because you have an identity of your own.

If you are a crow who wants to walk like a peacock, you may forget your own walk. In the long run, maybe it’s better to be a crow and merely admire the peacock instead.

This article was originally published in the Herald's February 1990 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.