There's something quite contradictory about a man who's an icon of Hindustani classical music but has played with Van Morrison, endorses a fairly prole tea with the inane exclamation "Wah Taj!" and who's consistently been voted the sexiest man in India for over a decade.
But then Zakir Hussain is no ordinary classical musician. It is precisely this combination of prodigious talent, charisma and adventurousness that have made him the classical music equivalent of an international rock star. Hussain was in Kathmandu this week, where he played to a packed and appreciative Royal Nepal Academy.
He has been here before and played at the Academy with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia in 1997, but what he enjoyed best was being in Nepal as a tourist, "incognito", seeing the sights and wandering around the streets, listening to the rhythms of everyday life. Faced with a crowd, Hussain will go on a bit about Nepal's mystical and religious resonance, the beauty of its mountains, Lumbini and Pashupatinath. But one on one, the man has a lot more to say.
But first, a hyper-standard bio: Hussain started playing tabla as a "wee lad"-a tot of two. When he was brought home from hospital, his father, instead of whispering the more traditional alphabet or other words of holy wisdom, filled the newborn's ears with the subversive beats of the tabla. The rest is a slice of music history. Hussain went on his first international tour at 12, played for Hindi films through his youth, all the while giving virtuoso Hindustani tabla performances. In his mid-20s, in 1975, he teamed up with British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, famous for his association with the Mahavishnu Light Orchestra, and in another unusual move, with two practitioners of Carnatic music, violinist L Shankar, and percussionist Vikku Vinayakram. The result, Shakti, is a classic of collaboration between diverse musical styles. Hussain has since played with everyone, including the poppy Van Morrison, the mad prophet of free jazz, Pharaoh Sanders, and the new guru of electronic music, Talvin Singh.
Shakti may have been one of the first instances of truly organic-sounding collaboration between seemingly incompatible musical styles, but it didn't feel like it for Hussain. He was simply facilitating and playing music that came naturally to him, that he would've liked to hear, but didn't exist. Hindi film music is much maligned, but its catholic borrowing, from classical Arabic music, bop or ska, Rajasthani folk music, ragtime or Beethoven concertos, means that people who listened to it, or, until twenty years ago, played it, like Hussain, were used to all sorts of unlikely marriages. Growing up in Bombay in the 1960s didn't just mean familiarity with the workings of film music for Hussain, but also exposure to every American and British trend that hit the shores of India, like classic and psychedelic rock. Add to that the obsession with India that led to the Beatles showing up and jamming with Ravi Shankar, whose own collaboration with Hussain's father, Ustad Alla Rakha, was well-established at the time, and you begin to understand Hussain's musical licentiousness-er, adventurousness.
Hussain remembers being fascinated with the possibilities of manipulating music and technology to produce unexpected effects even back in 1967. The Beatles were visiting his family, and George Harrison had this nifty portable record player. "It was amazing. I'd never seen anything like it. It was tiny-a 78rpm would extend just over the end. Harrison had these little speakers to go with it. You just plugged the cord into an outlet and played music! But what really got me was Revolver-they'd just finished recording it and they played it to us. They were pointing out how this one track ('Tomorrow Never Knows') had a section that was mixed in backwards. My father kept asking what was wrong with the original recording that it needed to be played backwards. But that was really the point, to do something different from what people were used to hearing. That really got me."
A few years later, Hussain, still playing and improving his Hindustani music skills, was doing much the same thing. "I was the first person in Bombay-excuse me Mumbai-to have a ghetto blaster. And when I walked around with it, I didn't even think of carrying it in my hand. It had to be on my shoulder. I used to walk around Bombay with my boombox listening to 'Light my fire'." From ghetto blasters to experimental Indian classical-jazz was a logical step, it would seem, listening to him. Hussain was clearly not a "classical music nerd", as so many young people who take their music seriously are labelled. Not only did he walk around with a boombox and "just scrape through" all his exams he was also on his school and college cricket team and, this is hard to believe, the wrestling team.
He doesn't listen to as much rock music now, mostly just favourites like Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin ("I listen to her regularly") and James Brown, who Hussain has seen live four times just in the last year. But Hussain also listens to music he believes is important, but which he may not enjoy in the same visceral way-"academic listening", which requires darkness and intense concentration, so it can be dissected and analysed later, like Indonesian gamelan music or Nubian drums. Listening to all sorts of music is important, says Hussain, "because otherwise how do you communicate with people, how do you understand what they're all about?"
Hussain doesn't have any long-standing musical partnership like his father's with Ravi Shankar, but he comes pretty close with Ustad Sultan Khan, one of the foremost sarangi players and composer and singer of the vastly popular song, "Piya Basanti". He says Khan has the last word on all his recordings and even sat in for Hussain when he fell ill while composing the score for the South Indian film Vanaprastham two years ago, and on Hussain's latest foray into experimental and alternative music. Last year, the duo collaborated with Talvin Singh, famous for his dance music album Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground, one of the phenomena that sparked off this new wave of interest in things vaguely Indian, with one important difference. Unlike in the 60s, it is now mostly cultural figures of Indian or South Asian origin determining what "Indian" thing becomes flavour of the month. And Zakir Hussain, collaborating with Talvin Singh (who Hussain claims is "a fine tabla player, though he hides it") on their new album, Tabla Beat Science: Tala Matrix, released last year, charts new territory in many different genres of music, and sets the agenda for further musical innovation.
None of this means Hussain is giving up on classical music. He still performs and introduces new audiences to Hindustani music in his inimitable style. At the Royal Nepal Academy, he was quite the showman, playing mad solos and regaling the audience with amusing anecdotes about how different tabla sounds evolved. Some say he's gimmicky, but when he banters with the audience in the middle of what is usually quite a hierarchical affair, with the performers performing and the audience reverentially listening, he's also taking classical music out of the bracket of High Art and allowing people to engage with it just as music.
Hussain, who turns fifty next month, is called an "architect of the modern world music scene", but he's done more than that. His musical journey is in some ways emblematic of the kind of future many South Asians want to see. He's played across genres with John McLaughlin, Pharaoh Sanders and George Harrison. He's creating new forms of "Western" music for an interconnected world with a drum-and-bass musician like Talvin Singh. But as he does all this, he's also helping keep interest alive in Hindustani music for its own sake through his classical recitals. Contradictory, yes, but we live in a mixed-up world.