Zakir Hussain: An Intimate Experience in Easton

by Jamie Kostura, Photos by Jess Cuttic

Being a fan and student of North Indian (Hindustani) classical music, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that a leading exponent of the form was going to perform at Lafayette College.

Ustad Zakir Hussain, a maestro of tabla and world percussion, has mastered and transformed the art and practice of tabla. He’s the son of the great Ustad Alla Rakha (Ravi Shankar’s tabla player known from Monterey Pop, Woodstock, etc.), perhaps the most important Indian percussive musician the West has experienced during the latter part of this century. And he performed right here in my hometown.

What is this giant doing in our humble little town of Easton? At first, I thought given his status, he should be in venues capable of entertaining and enlightening thousands of people. However, I realized during his performance that Hindustani music is, in fact, an intimate experience. Zakirji and Niladri Kumar (his duet partner for the evening and formidable on the sitar) provided just that: a personal journey into sound, sight, breath, and emotion using the Jugalbandi, which literally means “entwined twins”—a musical duet of two soloists. The nuances of this music and the audience interaction require a smaller venue, and Lafayette’s Williams Center provided the perfect stage.

Zakir Hussain at Lafayette College in Easton PA, Lehigh Valley PA

Niladriji opened the concert with the Alap phase of the performance; the slow, meditative, unfolding of the raga. In this case he chose Yaman, a raga which is typically performed in the evening, offering a romantic sentiment. As the air of the auditorium settled, the romantic tension was building. The audience was transformed and, in some cases, transported elsewhere. I watched eyelids meet and softly close, breathing slowed: the drone of the tanpura and Niladri’s sitar strings, bending, looping, and sliding, were all that could be heard. Regardless of whether every concert-goer understood the technical prowess and details of the Vedic traditions that were being imparted upon them, the sound that was produced was exhilirating and at times overwhelming.

Once the Alap had reached its graceful pinnacle, Zakirji began the tabla equivalent of the Alap, called Peshkar, wherein his particular style was introduced. Slowly and with extreme precision and emotion, Zakirji unfolded the rhythm while slowly building a tempo and striking various fingerings and Bols (tabla syllables) on the tabla: Na, ti ta, tun, Dha, Dhin, dhere dhere, ti ri ki ta, and many others that only he knows were brought forth. It’s as though he took each of his tools carefully out of his tool kit to prepare the audience for what was to come next.

What came next was simply awe inspiring: First-class music performed by engaging experts at their craft, right here on the stage of Lafayette College. Extreme musical complexity came from the instruments, traveled to the audience, and was transformed into simple emotion. Just like the nuances of the sound coming from the tabla and the sitar, the microtones of emotion were also felt. In the audience I observed joy, excitement, anticipation, wonder, contentment and everything in between.

The concert continued, with the duet playing off each other. First, Zakirji would play a simple background rhythm, creating the canvas on which Niladriji would expose a sitar composition (Gat). Niladriji then turned it inside out with numerous complex variations played from slow to medium to fast tempo, a speed so blazing yet which did not degrade the precision of the melodies or solos. The audience reacted accordingly, with grateful, spontaneous applause.

Then it was Zakirji’s turn. He started his tabla solo on top of the simple background melody of the sitar (Lehera). This is when the closed eyelids in the audience opened. Opened wide. Then confused smiles. Inhalations without exhalations. Who knew hands could move that fast! Was he using all of his fingers? Palms too?! Did he just play the “Smoke on the Water” melody on a tabla? The faces in the audience were asking so many questions.

Thirty-five minutes went by, and they had only finished the first piece.

To try to continue to explain the details of the resultant sonic experience in the remainder of concert would not do it justice. And as for all of the faces in the audience that I observed? Those were my own faces. After all, this is Indian Classical Music. It’s an intimate experience.

Jamie Kostura lives in Bethlehem, practices tabla and sarangi and is interested in learning how sound is not separate from matter, emotion, and our worldly experience.  His partner Holly actively sustains his practices and life pursuits and his daughter (and the photographer who made these photos), Jessica Cuttic, provides him with infinite inspiration. He also works with the Stay Strong Project.

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