Tabla master Zakir Hussain. Photo: Susana Millman

No single concert can capture more than a small fraction of the music of India, a dizzying, multi-ethnic subcontinental nation that is home to one of the world’s oldest classical music traditions (not to mention polyglot pop scenes and numerous folk forms).

But Saturday’s Masters of Percussion concert at Zellerbach Hall features an extraordinary array of artists reflecting the striking contrasts and breathtaking creativity that make India such a vibrant cultural force. A mini-festival presented by Cal Performances, the event is the latest incarnation of a long-running cross-cultural showcase assembled by tabla master Zakir Hussain.

In past years, Hussain designed the evening as an extended encounter between the North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic traditions, but this season the focus has shifted. The concert still unfolds as a series of solos, duets, and ensemble jams, but rather than an internal Indian dialogue the concert features mostly Hindustani musicians with Uzbek frame drum expert Abbos Kosimov thrown in as a ringer.

An acclaimed composer, who has written scores for major Hollywood and Bollywood productions, Hussain is the world’s foremost tabla virtuoso, a creative force in the Bay Area since the early 1970s, and the heir to a tradition he learned first hand from his legendary father, tabla maestro Ustad Allarakha. Hussain created the Masters of Percussion tour as an extension of Allarakha’s legacy as the first Hindustani percussion master to collaborate with musicians versed in the more formal, rule-bound Carnatic tradition.

The event’s roots go back to the early 1980s, when Allarakha felt he was getting too old to keep touring with his longtime recital partner sitarist Ravi Shankar. “He decided he wanted to stay in India and teach, and I said, ‘Why not do tours that highlight the solo aspect of Indian drumming?’” Hussain recalls. “He would do a five or 10 minute solo with Ravi Shankar, but never a complete presentation of the repertoire. I felt it was important that he do that.”

Though Allarakha passed away in 2000, the Masters of Percussion tour is still a family affair, as Hussain is joined by his younger brother Fazal Qureshi, a leading percussionist in India who like Hussain has worked in a wide variety of classical and contemporary contexts. Many of the other featured artists share deep ties.

A family affair

Navin Sharma, another disciple of Allarakha, plays dholak, a two-headed South Indian hand drum. Rakesh Chaurasia, a rising star on the bansuri (an ancient North Indian flute), is the nephew of bansuri innovator Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, a frequent Hussain collaborator. And Sabir Khan, who plays the short-neck bowed string sarangi, is the son of the late Sultan Khan, who performed widely with Hussain and Bill Laswell in the band Tabla Beat Science. [Correction, 03.26.12: Due a production notes error, we originally reported that the sarangi player was Dilshad Khan, Sultan Khan’s nephew.]

Perhaps most exciting is the presence of Meitei Pung Cholom Performing Troup, a performance ensemble that has gained international recognition for preserving tribal drum and dance traditions of the remote northeastern state of Manipur. The group performs an athletic folk style which turns dance and music making into a seamless act, so that the artists create a picture of their rhythmic patterns through their movements.

“It’s so beautiful and marital arts like,” Hussain says. “They’re doing flips and cartwheels, bends and all kinds of graceful fluid movements, and all to the beat of the drum they are playing. It’s fascinating to take drums, which are rhythm, and movement, which is dance, into this one body and make it all work as one.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose weekly Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....