Zakir Hussain tells stories through classical Indian music

Susana Millman/Courtesy

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The fat underneath their chins sways, their heads wobble and bobble, their hands flit faster than hummingbird wings — these are men in a trance. They speak to each other without opening their mouths, but with looks and nods, with the subtle variations of the tones of their instruments. They are Zakir Hussain & The Masters of Percussion and they appeared at Zellerbach Hall last Saturday night to captivate an unsuspecting crowd.

Zakir Hussain, a child prodigy, widely regarded as one of the best tabla (Indian drum) players in the world, the composer of soundtracks for films such as “Apocalypse Now” and the winner of a Grammy award probably could have played the tabla just as beautifully if he had been half asleep and had two broken arms. He oozed with the ease of expertise.

Yet he was not the only expert present. Rakesh Chaurasia played the bansuri, a bamboo flute, with lilting tenderness, a divine sound as clear as rain. Abbos Kosimov, from Uzbekistan, played a doyra, a kind of hand drum. It was one at first, but then two more; he juggled them around, then played three at once and never missed a beat. Ningombam Joy Singh, a dancing drummer, spun about in a circle in the air and when he landed on the ground, he beat a drum — repeating the motion so that he resembled a ceaseless whirling tornado.

The drum can sound like anything — like the tick of a clock, like the click of a typewriter, like the boom of a cannon, like the clip clop of horses, like the pitter patter of raindrops, like the rattle of a snake, like the whoosh of wings — it has a versatile vocabulary, a range of emotions. It is a language unto itself.

Hussain emphasized “the narrative power of drumming” in the performance when each percussionist used their instrument to play different characters from a story in the ancient Indian epic, The Ramayana. The characters were portrayed through dance by classical Indian Kathak dancer, Antonia Minnecola. The story depicted a battle between a divine bird and a demon king. Minnecola, wriggled and writhed on the floor of the stage as the wounded bird, while the piercing beats of the drum gave voice to the bird’s pain.

At one point, the audience began to clap along with the percussionists. They would play a beat, and the audience would mimic it. They would play another, a little faster this time, and the audience would clap again, a little faster. An conversation of improvisation ensued. The drums sped up, the audience clapped faster. The drums sped up again, the claps quickened. The drums sped up more, they began to beat so fast, that the audience could no longer keep up — outpaced by the hands of these masters, which seemed to be moving faster than sound itself.

Long ago, the classical musicians of India performed in the palaces and courts of kings. Today, classical musicians play to sold out crowds in places like Zellerbach Hall, where for 20 dollars, anyone can watch the world’s greatest percussionists work wonders on the stage. Even if classical Indian music is not your cup of chai, the piercing beauty of these instruments transcends the bounds of subculture and specificity, for these instruments are the grammar of a universal language, in which words are superfluous, in which communication has been distilled to its purest form. To learn this language, the simple act of listening will suffice.