Zakir Hussain, Niladri Kumar, Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart fluidly mix musical traditions at Zellerbach Hall

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Susana Millman/Courtesy

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Western classical music and Indian classical music can be thought of like two different languages, with structural attributes and phrases that can translate from one into the other. At the same time, there are realms that one has elaborated upon and the other has approached radically differently or not at all.

Take “raags.” These are to Indian classical music what modes are to Western classical music. But raags have been enumerated and explored to the point that each raag has a distinct personality and signature motifs to draw on.

Zakir Hussain, the world’s most celebrated player of the tabla and a longtime Marin County resident, and Niladri Kumar, world-renowned sitar maestro, started their show Oct. 26 at Zellerbach Hall with an exposition on the raag Bageshri in their native North Indian classical, or Hindustani, style.

Kumar took his time exploring the raag in a free-form, meter-less improvisation known as “alap.” The “sruti” — the drone, set to the tonic, that accompanies all Indian classical music — filled the negative space in the music and in the hall. In traditional fashion, Kumar transitioned from the alap into the “jod,” the section where improvisation proceeds in sync with a slow pulse.

Hussain began to accompany Kumar for the “gat,” a melodic composition, playing the seven-beat cycle of the “rupak taal” and, eventually, the eight-beat “teen taal.” They did a call and response, both of them sometimes playing at blistering paces with total control on their respective instruments. This led into the “jhala,” the frenzied climax that concludes a Hindustani piece.

Hussain and Kumar ventured outside of their tradition in the two pieces that came after intermission. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart joined them for the first, with an elaborate percussion setup that included a drum kit, an electronic vibraphone, a loop pedal, a double bass bow, bells and more. Kumar switched from his sitar to a “zitar,” the name he coined for the electronic sitar that he invented. Hussain set up many additional non-Indian drums around him.

Like a Hindustani piece, this piece began suspended in time. But, from the sound of things, it was also adrift in space: The soundscapes they produced on stage ceased to read as human. They seemed more like transmissions from the jungles of another planet.

The atmosphere gave way to a backing beat from Hart with kicks that boomed through the auditorium. Hussain dropped in as well, occupying the gaps between kicks with flurries of tabla. Kumar soloed on the zitar in a jazz improvisation style with Indian classical touches; with his reverb turned way up, his instrument could nearly pass for an electric guitar. Hart’s vibraphone was set to a synth that can best be described as the late DJ Screw’s rendition of a laser beam. The denouement came as Hart played some haunting bells and, as everything else on stage quieted, a flutter of Hussain’s tabla sent the piece back into the silent vacuum of space.

A confluence of rock, space and Indian classical instrumentation is not new — it harkens back to the American and British psychedelic rock of the late ‘60s, like Hart’s own band.

“It was complicated initially when I didn’t know anything about what (jazz and rock drummers) did,” said Hussain in an interview with The Daily Californian when asked about collaborating with Western musicians. “These days, I can talk in their language. And what I do is not that much of a mystery to them; they just have a different way of thinking about everything.”

The third and final piece split the difference between the disparate influences. Niladri began by strumming some intervals on his instrument and playing some chords broken up into triplets. But these notes fitted right into the raag that he had chosen for the last piece, Bhairav, and he flowed right into it. The piece was delivered traditionally with occasional Western touches.

Hussain jazzed up a bar here and there with the other drums he had on stage, and, in the midst of rapid-fire improvisation, he quoted the rhythm of William Tell. Kumar responded by playing the opening riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” The playful exchange delighted the crowd. In the piece’s final section, the jhala, Kumar worked his way up to the absolute top of the fingerboard and, well, shredded.

Contact Parthiv Mohan at [email protected].

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