Tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, renowned sitar player Niladri Kumar performing at Krannert Center

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Tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and sitar player Niladri Kumar will perform together Nov. 16 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts during their first tour as a duo. Hussain is considered an architect of the world music genre, and Kumar is a fifth-generation sitar player who created a five-string electric sitar. Photo by Susana Millman

Zakir Hussain, known as the preeminent tabla musician currently playing the Indian hand drums, will perform with revolutionary sitar player Niladri Kumar at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. While the two esteemed musicians have played together many times, this is the first time they’ve toured as a duo.

Hussain and Kumar will play at Krannert Center on Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Krannert Center director Mike Ross said Hussain has been “transformatively influential” for him.

“In my view, not only does he occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of transcendent artists across all art forms, cultures and traditions, but also his profound openness of mind and extraordinary generosity and celebration of others are a constant source of inspiration,” Ross said.

As a duo, Hussain and Kumar will play classical Indian music, but Hussain has long been a pioneer in collaborating with musicians of other genres. He learned from his father, Ustad Allarkha, a master tabla player, Bollywood composer and accompanist to legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar. Hussain began performing with Bollywood orchestras as a youngster, where he learned how to accompany the different instruments that surrounded him.

Upon coming to America, Hussain and his father played with many musicians who wanted to work with a tabla player. “I understood that it’s possible to be a tabla player but interact with a jazz drummer or a saxophone player or play with a rock and roll band,” Hussain said.

Considered an architect of world music, Hussain performed with Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, in the Grammy Award-winning percussion group Planet Drum, which released a new album in October. Hussain has played with George Harrison, John Handy, Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Herbie Hancock, and he’s performed with the ensembles Masters of Percussion, Tabla Beat Science and the Indian-jazz fusion band Shakti. 

Classical Indian music and jazz have much in common, Hussain said. Classical Indian music “encourages spontaneity and onstage twists. You try to tell the age-old story with a new twist, with a new drama, a new exclamation mark,” he said.

“Jazz allows you the ability to interact as an individual, taking a piece of music and creating your vision of it. You’re training to be spontaneously creative. Indian music is the same way. That’s why you see so many Indian musicians collaborating with so many jazz musicians from all over the world,” Hussain said. His father recorded one of the first fusion records with Indian and jazz drummers.

As a teenager, Hussain performed with Kumar’s father, the sitar player Pandit Kartick Kumar. Niladri Kumar is a fifth-generation sitar musician who learned from his father and later created a five-stringed electric sitar he calls the “zitar.”

“He is a flagbearer for carrying on from the great legends. He has proved himself to be a real master musician,” Hussain said of the younger Kumar.

As younger musicians such as Kumar studied Indian ragas – the musical framework within which to improvise in Indian classical music – they’ve seen how the ragas were interpreted in other cultures and styles of music, thanks to YouTube, Hussain said.

“They had available to them how that raga fit into blues or jazz or Western classical music or gamelan,” he said. “It challenges me to up the ante from my end and find ways to interact and find different ways to be part of the telling of the ancient tales. So, in some ways, I’m refreshing myself or reinventing myself. That is so exciting to see, at my age.”

Hussain has helped elevate the tabla from an instrument of accompaniment to one that is spotlighted in solo performances. There is a traditional repertoire in India for solo tabla music, but performances of the music were limited, Hussain said. As his popularity rose and he started to get offers to play solo concerts, he said he tried to make the traditional solo tabla repertoire accessible to audiences.

“Tabla over the past 30 years has become recognized as a world percussion instrument like the bongos or drum sets. People recognize tabla as a universally available rhythm instrument of choice. You hear it on TV, in movie scores, jazz, Indian music, everywhere,” Hussain said.

He said he hopes the audience will come to the concert with an open mind.

“Because of its spontaneity and the performance being a conversation that develops right there on stage, the audience by default becomes part of it. The experience that happens will never be repeated in the same manner,” Hussain said. “It’s a unique experience that they can take home with them that will only be theirs.”

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