One of the first Indian classical music recordings purchased back in 1990 was the spectacular Venu by flaustist Hariprasad Chaurasia with accompaniment on tabla by Zakir Hussain. Over time, other recordings featuring both were acquired and, in the case of the incomparable Hussain, his staggering speed, dexterity, precision, power and invention have become increasingly apparent.
This has been true in such recordings as the studio and live releases of Tabla Beat Society, which Hussain formed with the great bassist and producer Bill Laswell, and in others.
Gradual exposure to more Indian classical music over the years, especially through a slew of impressive releases on the British-based Nimbus label, have also increased the desire to attend a concert, but this had proved elusive over the last quarter-century . . . until last night.
My wife and I went to the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts to hear Hussain and sitarist Niladri Kumar. We got cheap $20 seats on the upper level overlooking the stage at stage left, but the ability to look down somewhat directly over the two master musicians, especially Hussain who was on the right side of the stage, seemed to me to make the siting a superb bargain.
For two and a half hours I sat mesmerized by the incomparable artistry of this incredible players. Kumar was very impressive, starting out, typically, with slow evocations of themes and gradually building the foundations of his improvisations in the time-honored tradition of Hindustani raga. When it came to the fast sections, he performed with amazing speed, power and flexibility and was deserving of all the praise heaped upon him by Hussain and the audience.
The ustad (maestro) was humble and humorous, gently introducing the music, his fellow musician, and throwing in charming bits of playful comedic touches that put everyone at ease. He said, rightly, that the tabla player is there to support the lead instrument (whether this is a sitar, sarod, sarangi, vocalist, etc.) and he was extraordinarily generous in giving Kumar plenty of room to show off his technique and style.
However, Hussain was the undisputed star of the show. It is hard to describe what a master does in words. The only reasonable way to express what his astounding playing does is to simply say that pressing my hands against my face or side of my head, grinning or smiling, and shaking my head each time he launched into a dazzling display of virtuosity was the reaction. It was simply unbelievable.
My wife, who has hardly heard any Indian classical music before and was probably exhausted after getting up at 5:15 a.m., working all day, and then getting our kids fed, was highly engaged and impressed and thanked me for taking her.
Well, thank you, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Niladri Lumar for fulfilling beyond expectation what had been 26 years of unfulfilled wishes to see a performance of Indian classical music. Now, I want to see more.
Before the show, I purchased Selects, a CD produced by Hussain and his wife Antonia Minnecola for their Moment! Records label from excerpts of live recordings in India from 1994 to 2000. Notably, there is no sitar here, but there is excellent work on the harmonium by Appa-ji and the sarangi by the phenomenal Ustad Sultan Khan. Of course, Hussain's unreal tabla work is highlighted in these pieces.
It has to be said that, as great as this disc is, it just cannot, so soon after hearing the mindblowing concert given by Hussain and Kumar, come close to capturing that feeling of the live performance experienced in person. That might seem obvious, but it becomes glaringly apparent after especially powerful concert experiences, such as last night. What a thrilling and memorable experience!