Global Beat: Zakir Hussain Revisits a Historic Family Dog Summit

Jeff Tamarkin on January 25, 2021
Global Beat: Zakir Hussain Revisits  a Historic Family Dog Summit

It was May 29, 1970, and Zakir Hussain had only recently arrived in the United States from India, the country of his birth. Like his father, Alla Rakha, before him, the 19-year-old musician was a master of the tabla drums, a prodigy who’d performed his first concert at the age of 7. He’d recently completed a U.S. tour accompanying sitar great Ravi Shankar, who’d advised him to remain in California and try to make a name for himself. As Shankar had discovered just a few years earlier while performing at the Monterey Pop Festival, young Westerners were enthralled by traditional Indian classical sounds. The music cast a hypnotic spell that enraptured the hippies and influenced their favorite psychedelic-rock bands.

Now, Hussain found himself in San Francisco, scheduled to accompany Ali Akbar Khan, the 48-year-old virtuoso of the sarod, another multi-stringed instrument, and Indranil Bhattacharya, who would play the sitar that evening. While preparing for the concert—to be held at a venue called Family Dog at the Great Highway— Hussain eyed “a short man madly dashing about the stage, setting up mic stands and cables while speaking rapidly.” Zakir Hussain had just had his first of many encounters with Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the soundman for the Grateful Dead and the world’s foremost manufacturer of illegal LSD.

Bear, as he was called, was there that night to record the music. Fortunately for future generations, his tape recordings have survived these five decades and have recently been issued under the title That Which Colors the Wind. Credited to Khan, the two-disc set is the latest release in the “Bear’s Sonic Journals” series, following packages featuring the Allman Brothers Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Hot Tuna, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and the father-son acoustic duo of Doc and Merle Watson. Consisting of two lengthy ragas, the 46-minute “Zila Kafi” and the 74-minute masterpiece “Sindhu Bhairavi,” the Indian music concert recording is absolutely exquisite and the music is spellbinding and joyous.

“There is no way of telling how a performance will unfold on a given day,” says Hussain, the only surviving member of the trio. “The magic, some days, arrives and, on other days, does not; it is the same as having a good day or a bad day or an in between day.”

For Hussain, the opportunity to play with Khan was a gift to be treasured. “He was a musician’s musician,” Hussain says. “He always looked for something new to say in his music, and he took chances with his music—not worrying about critics, not worrying about failing, not threatened, not playing it safe, always reaching for that special moment. He gave new direction to instrumental interpretations of the ancient Indian ragas; he transformed the way the sarod is played. He is singularly responsible for giving a new voice to the sarod. He expanded its language. In my humble opinion, he is—without exception—the most important Indian instrumentalist of the 20th century.”

For all that Khan and Shankar did for Indian music and their respective instruments, Hussain has indisputably become, since those early days, the most celebrated tabla player in the world. His list of credits is enormous, including collaborations with such Western music stars as George Harrison, John McLaughlin, Charles Lloyd and, perhaps most notably, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Hussain has worked with Hart on numerous projects, winning the first-ever Best World Music Album Grammy in 1992 for their Planet Drum record and another in 2009, in the Contemporary World Music Album category, for Global Drum Project. (The latter set featured Hussain, Hart, Sikiru Adepoju and Giovanni Hidalgo.) Hussain is also a recipient of the 1999 National Heritage Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Arts, among other accolades and awards.

Listening back now to the Family Dog concert, as stellar as it is, Hussain is acutely aware that he’s grown as an instrumentalist over the past few decades. “My playing now is nothing like it was in those days,” he says. “I was a young whippersnapper out to impress the hell out of the audience— technique was all important, playing fast and strong/loud was the goal. In some ways, listening back reminds me how far I have come, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction and acceptance of Khan’s influence that brought me to this point. To see the contrast of me then and now is very good—not just for me but also for the young tabla players of today.”

Still, he retains a fondness for those long-ago times, and especially for that one night fortuitously captured by Bear. “Family Dog was unlike every other concert room I grew up playing in,” he says. “In India, we were used to having the audience sitting on the floor around the riser, on which we would sit and perform. We could touch the people from our sitting positions. The hall was fully lit and you could lock eyes with the audience. You could talk to them and hear their response. That would egg you on. In contrast, Family Dog was a darkened room with virtually no eye contact with the audience. The audience was quiet and meditative, and so the real-time response we got in India was missing. Instead, there was, among us [musicians], an interaction that became more intimate and in depth because we played for each other and fed off each other on many levels, more so than in India.”

As for the recording, released by the Owsley Stanley Foundation, “It is a special sonic experience in the audiophile realm,” Hussain says. “Recordings in India in the old days were done with equipment left behind by the Brits. The tapes were erased and reused. There was little attention paid to insulation in the recording room and, half of the time, there was a bit of distortion creeping in. Bear’s vision of creating not only audio, but also painting a picture of the musicians, was in those times a unique and revolutionary idea.”