Interview: Zakir Hussain, tabla maestro opening Celtic Connections

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Celtic Connections starts tomorrow night with an Indian artist who has always been fascinated by the links of his native country's music to Scotland

• Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain will be performing at the opening gala of Celtic Connections

FOR Indian tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, the Celtic connections he's forging this week, ahead of tomorrow night's festival opening gala, have been nearly 40 years in the making – if not far longer. "I've had an interest in working with Scottish musicians ever since I started playing with John McLaughlin in 1974," he says, referring to his long-time guitarist collaborator (Yorkshire-born, but of Scottish descent), with whom he co-founded the seminal Indo-jazz outfit Shakti.

"His understanding of my traditions led me to believe that musicians here would have a more open view of what Indian music was all about."

Similarly, just as McLaughlin cites childhood exposure to Scottish pipe bands – after his family moved to Northumberland – as a key early influence, so Hussain sees our best-known national instrument as a key link between seemingly disparate musical worlds.

"Bagpipe scales and tonalities are also really common in Indian music," he says, during a break from rehearsals in Glasgow. "I've always been fascinated with this connection. Maybe it comes from the time of the British Raj, all the military pipers who were there at that time. It's there in the drumming, too, the combination of snare and bass – we have that in drum traditions all over India as well."

He also points to similarities between Gaelic puirt-a-beul, or mouth music, and the quickfire South Indian vocal technique called konnakol, as well as the oral rhythmic system of bols, by which tabla is taught – in turn not a million miles from the canntaireachd vocables traditionally used in bagpipe instruction.

Hussain's Celtic cohorts this week – fiddlers Charlie McKerron and Patsy Reid, pipers/whistle players Michael McGoldrick and Ross Ainslie, bodhran ace John Joe Kelly, guitarist Matheu Watson, Gaelic singer Jenna Cumming and the Boghall and Bathgate Pipe Band drum corps – find themselves in singularly august company. The percussionist is son and heir to the late, hugely venerated Ustad Alla Rakha Qureshi, Ravi Shankar's favourite tabla accompanist, and a fellow linchpin in the Western popularisation of Indian music.

Hussain, born in Mumbai in 1951, first went to the US – where he still lives – as an 18-year-old with his father, Alla Rakha, staying at the California ranch owned by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart while Alla Rakha was on tour. (An unusual choice of in loco parentis, perhaps, but it doesn't seem to have done Hussain any harm). Following this deep-end immersion into 1960s musical counterculture, including days-long jam sessions with the likes of David Crosby, Steven Stills, Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia, he swiftly emerged as a supremely gifted and inspirational pioneer of what would come to be called world music.

Among myriad other awards and accolades during his career, in both India and the US, his 1991 recording with Hart, Planet Drum, won the first-ever Grammy for Best World Music Album. At the same time, Hussain's work has always resisted categorisation. Besides McLaughlin and Hart, his list of previous collaborators includes George Harrison, Van Morrison, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Cobham, Yo Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and the Kodo Drummers of Japan. He's created music for films (including Apocalypse Now and Heat and Dust), ballet productions, the Olympic Games and the 60th anniversary of Indian independence.

Long before all that, though, Hussain was initially, and deeply, steeped in his native classical traditions: he's said that Alla Rakha began singing rhythms in his ear when he was just two days old. He remains equally at home amidst the ancient, exacting disciplines of the raga form, and its rhythmic complement the tala, as he does on his genre-spanning adventures, and points to the timing of his musical education as having formed a natural bridge between the two.

"Indian classical music was originally confined to the royal courts and temples," he explains. "After independence in 1947, though, the courts were dissolved, and the musicians were left without a job. They had to figure out how to make a living playing for ordinary people, who weren't familiar with the music's traditions or rituals; how to present it to that audience in a wider public context. As a form of stage entertainment, therefore, Indian music is only 70 or 80 years old. My father was of that generation, and it was after this change that the tabla came more to the fore, developed a greater interaction with the singer or other instruments. Before that, the tabla player was very much the second-class citizen among musicians – just as drummers tend to be regarded in any style of music – and so the role of the tabla as I know it only goes back 30 or 40 years: it's a tradition that's developed greatly even in my lifetime."

Another factor in his openness to wider musical influences, Hussain says, was his early apprenticeship playing in Bollywood orchestras, with their distinctive mix of Indian and Western instruments and musicians, as well as the strongly improvisational nature of Indian classical music, which underpinned his early involvement with jazz and psychedelic artists. Even before he moved to the US, too, he had a direct line to the latest music there through his father. "I had the first boom-box in Mumbai," he recalls. "I'd walk down the street with it on my shoulder, blasting out Come on Baby Light My Fire. My father brought back albums by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jefferson Starship, the Grateful Dead – so that when I arrived in California, musically it didn't seem like a culture shock at all, it really felt quite seamless." As to how he approaches previously unfamiliar musical territories, including this latest project for Celtic Connections, Hussain quotes renowned Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, another member of the Planet Drum line-up: "He said listening to each other is the first and last rule of collaboration.

"And before we even pick up our instruments, that means communicating as human beings. For our first 'rehearsal' on Monday, we hugged each other, had a cup of coffee, chatted, told jokes – because if you connect on that personal level, that then extends naturally into the music. When we're playing together, it's as if each musician has their own small corner within a single shape, or like a clock ticking round: you listen to each other and wait for your space. If everyone's doing their thing all at once it sounds like mud, but if you allow that time and space then each element retains its identity, while discovering new connections between them."

l Celtic Connections' opening concert, The Pulse of the World featuring Zakir Hussain, is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall tomorrow night at 7:30pm. The festival continues until 30 January.

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