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Badal Roy, Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain: Out of India

Zakir Hussain
Trilok Gurtu
Badal Roy
Badal Roy (photo: Michael Macioce)

On the face of it, the world of jazz and classical Indian music might be viewed as fairly strange bedfellows. One is a 20th century bastard child of American culture, turned genius, and tolerant of rebellion. The other, a centuries-old tradition with strict codes of conduct and respect for its own venerable heritage.

And yet, Indian music has left its mark on the development of jazz, through the specific assimilation work of jazz musicians like John McLaughlin, Pharoah Sanders, Henry Threadgill, Don Cherry, Charlie Mariano, and, by inspiration, John Coltrane and many others.

There is a basis of mutual admiration between the cultures, which is based not only on the different specific musical elements of tonal and rhythm ideas, but on a more deep and profound aspect: these are two of the most prominent music traditions in the world today which are grounded in improvisation.

“People have a bad understanding of jazz,” says Trilok Gurtu, the innovative Bombay-born percussionist who has worked in and out of jazz for years. “Dixieland is jazz, everything is jazz. And then I tell them ‘listen, jazz is improvised music. It’s a new form of improvisation.’ Bach and Beethoven were improvising before that. We didn’t just start learning improvisation because of jazz. As to my roots in India, 80% of the music is improvised. We learn that from childhood.”

It is true that Indian music has had less of a dialogue with jazz than the traditions of Africa, Cuba and Brazil, the link is there for the taking, and the cross-talking. Over the years, jazz has met up with Indian music-especially percussionists-in the oddest places. Take, for instance, the Taste of India restaurant in Greenwich Village, where John McLaughlin used to sit in with a waiter/tabla player named Badal Roy. The young British guitarist, flown over by Tony Williams, asked Roy to play on his seminal album My Goals Beyond, and the rest is more or less history. Roy has since played with Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders and, for nearly a decade, with Ornette Coleman. These days, Roy is branching out on his own as well, releasing albums under his own, established name.

As it has happened, McLaughlin plays an important role in nurturing the Indian-jazz connection, specifically with the three percussionists surveyed in this story. He formed the influential band Shakti with Zakir Hussain in the ’70s, and then inducted Gurtu into a trio in the ’80s.

McLaughlin, whose long, twisting bandography has repeatedly swung through Indian influences, and who himself studied the Indian string instrument, the veena, for a spell, explains that “I didn’t want to play Indian classical music, but what I did want was to be able to play with people that I love and admire and respect, but just be myself, with my jazz background and my affection for this kind of music.

“I think the Indians are very happy also that I don’t want to play Indian music, that I want to be who I am, with my western influences and all. I don’t want to emulate anyone, as long as I can play with them. Of course, they want to adapt to me. They’re ready to break rules in order to play with me. They’re just as open as I am.”

Hussain and Gurtu have occasionally performed in duets together and Hussain has plans to release music with the pair on his label, Moment!. They did have a chance to play together not long ago, on the track “The Wish,” from McLaughlin’s multi-faceted 1995 album The Promise (Verve). According to Gurtu, the rapport from the percussion section almost got to be too much. “Me and Zakir forgot that it was John’s record. We just started playing, and took off, like a big rock falling from the mountain. And John said ‘hey, guys, wait, wait, it’s my record. It’s my solo.’ We forgot about it, you know. Zakir said ‘wow, it’s a great pleasure playing with you.’ I said ‘likewise.'”

For Hussain, his interest in experimental projects and culture-swapping music is a lifelong interest, but not because he turns his back on his past. “Traditional music and tradition are very important to me. I have no qualms in saying that, unless you belong somewhere and have an identity, unless you have roots that you’re connected to, there’s no way that you can reach out and be, or learn, something else, unless you’re connected. You have to have your own identity to maintain that unique quality that you bring to whatever you do.

“I was speaking to George Harrison-and, actually, John McLaughlin, as well-and they both said the same thing. I said to George ‘why don’t you play the sitar more often?’ He said ‘Zakir, I can play the sitar, but not as well as the guitar, so what I have learned on the sitar, if I can in any way express the same thing on the guitar, I think I will do more justice to it.’ That’s exactly what John McLaughlin said about playing the veena. He said ‘I can do more of that stuff on guitar and make it much more valid. There’s no reason for me to try and do this but just to learn and be enriched by this knowledge, and to bring it out to people with my own expression, my own mode, which is my guitar.'”

For these musicians, the trick, ultimately, is to maintain roots while spreading wings.

Badal Roy

Although not as virtuosic as Zakir Hussain or Trilok Gurtu, and without the same classical lineage, tabla player Badal Roy has been a prominent member of the tabla community. He has been appearing in the periphery of jazz, percolating from below, so to speak, for more than a quarter century now. Open the package of the Miles Davis album Dark Magus-one of the recent reissues of electric-era Miles albums-and there is a photo of Roy, long, dark hair flowing in time with the band’s plugged-in voodoo swing.

Or maybe you’ve heard him in the linear thicket of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the extra-Western answer to Denardo Coleman’s drumming. And now, at last, Roy has earned his own bin in your local music outlet. The release of his first official album, One in the Pocket (Nomad), is actually a compilation of tracks from other albums to be released soon, in addition to new tracks recorded for this project, with accomplished flutist Steve Gorn, bassist Mike Richmond, percussionists Glen Velez and Bob Haddad, and-on one of the most impressive tracks-banjoist Jim Bowie.

Roy also has a duet project with guitarist Amit Chatterjee and another album with the Brazilian guitar duo Duofel coming out, and plans for a project with Steve Turre and others. He’s into a new chapter of self-expression.

Born in Bangladesh, Roy arrived in the U.S. in 1968, with the intention of doing graduate work in statistics, not with becoming the first tabla player to make a name in jazz. An avid tabla player, he waited tables in one New York Indian restaurant by day and played tabla by night at another.

A nimble guitarist, whose name he didn’t know for six months, would show up and sit in, and finally asked Roy to play on his album. Then, the guitarist, being John McLaughlin, My Goals Beyond.

“Later on,” Roy says now, with a note of incredulity, “when the album came out, people were saying ‘oh, you did something with John McLaughlin?’ Then, I realized that ‘hey, this guy is a superstar.’ Right after that, he did the Mahavishnu Orchestra. When he was touring with that band, I was with Miles Davis.

“My short story is this: I came here to do my Phd in statistics, specializing in demographics, and my hobby turned into a profession. I was never really trained as a tabla player. I got the basic instruction, about how to produce a sound, and the syllables, but I’m mostly self-taught. I got some lessons from Zakir Hussain’s father, Alla Rakha. At that time, he was touring with Ravi Shankar all the time. At that time, me and Colin Wolcott would go and take lessons with him.”

To hear him tell the story now, Roy stumbled into the jazz scene before he knew what had hit him. “I wish I could play with Miles now. I had just joined at that time and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know how the bass sounded. Even with My Goals Beyond, which is such a beautiful album, I still feel that I could redo it now. But, I guess, at that point, whatever I did was right.”

In a sense, Roy’s instinctual route to education may have helped free his mind, and keep him open to new ideas. “As I was self-taught and was not bookish in learning, I was free to make mistakes-as I do all the time, I still do. Ornette tells me, ‘get those drums and play some bad notes. Then when you come back to good notes, you’ll really appreciate them.

“I tune my drums in many ways. Sometimes, he says ‘don’t even tune them. Just play. Let’s see what happens.’ I still can’t accept that. I don’t mind playing bad notes, but my tabla should be in tune. If a song is in A or G#, fine, I want to play in that key most of the time. But he says ‘do some D or play some E#, and then come back to G#.’ (laughs). That’s Ornette. He’s a genius, man.”

Roy has been a musical compatriot in Coleman’s resurgence of the last few years, which has put him in some unusual situations, such as when he played solo tabla behind a controversial body-piercing segment in the “Tone Dialing” extravaganza at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1995. “Tone Dialing” returned, to Lincoln Center this summer, as part of an Ornette Coleman series which included a rare performance of “Skies of America” with the New York Philharmonic.

In New York, Roy explains, “I was sitting there playing while two girls were juggling and one girl was jumping on crushed glass. It was short, not like San Francisco. That was crazy. They asked me about it and I felt that it wasn’t necessary, but that’s Ornette, you know? Then he comes out and plays great. I don’t know any other saxophone player like Ornette.

“You talk to that guy for two hours on a one-to-one basis-that guy is a genius. Super genius. He didn’t get his MacArthur Grant or six honorary PhDs from top universities for nothing. If you meet with him on a one-to-one basis, you will be in love with him the rest of your life. He’s a beautiful person, calm and quiet. I said ‘Ornette, you are fantastic.’ He says ‘oh, but I am still trying to play a note.’

“Anybody with lots of knowledge, like a tree with lots of fruit, the whole tree bends down, alright? If you have lots of knowledge, like Ornette, you’re just down to earth.”

Like Coleman, Roy does what he does, off to the side of orthodoxy, with a calm confidence. “Don’t even compare me with anyone else. I’m Badal Roy. I sit down and play and give my feelings, try to share them. Nobody is better than anyone else. Whatever you play, you are fine, as long as you’re in tune and play a couple of beautiful notes and made people happy, you have done it. You have done it. I strongly feel that.”

Trilok Gurtu

When Bombay-born percussionist Trilok Gurtu started playing with Oregon in the mid-’80s, taking the place of his friend, the late Colin Walcott, ears perked up and heads turned. Not only did the percussionist have an unusual set-up, a strange, pieced-together percussion/drum kit, half-Indian and half-global. He played with the group for a few years, but the best was yet to come.

A more dynamic, explosive side of Gurtu was revealed when he joined John McLaughlin’s new trio in the late ’80s. It was a sit-down gig for Gurtu-literally, as he sat on the floor behind his conglomerate kit-and skillfully mixed ideas from his native land with jazz-oriented notions. Those ideas have been explored further as Gurtu began leading and recording his own groups for the CMP label. A highlight from that period was the album Crazy Saints, featuring improvisational duets with Joe Zawinul-with whom he toured for a year-and a cameo by Pat Metheny.

Gurtu’s latest venture is an acoustic group called The Glimpse, which recently released its Silva label. In contrast to Gurtu’s more electric projects of the past, the new band’s instrumentation includes the Indian veena, the Moroccan gnaoua, as well as guitar, bass and piano, and-as with most of Gurtu’s albums-vocals, his first area of study.

The new band’s debut album is dedicated to the late Don Cherry, one of the first American jazz musicians, apart from Charlie Mariano, who Gurtu played with, and whose interest in music from around the globe resonated with the percussionist. Gurtu believes that Cherry’s importance is only now being discovered. “It is always this way: when a person passes away, you know the value of this person. I think he was ahead of his time, too.”

In his formative years, Gurtu was not focused on tabla, but the voice-the most revered instrument in Indian tradition. “In my family, my mother, my grandfather, my grandmother, they were all vocalists. My grandfather was also a scholar and a sitar player. So I was trained in accompaniment and vocal, and then I started learning tabla. I was trained in North Indian classical music. Vocals were the most important part of my training, because of my mother and all the people who came to my house. They were all great musicians. I can be thankful that it all happened to me. I was playing tabla mainly for vocal accompaniment, never as a soloist.”

Though trained in Hindustani music at home, Gurtu also developed a taste for western music-including The Ventures-while going to Catholic school in the ’60s. “I took a liking to everything. Jimi Hendrix I especially liked. That’s the kind of thing that I feel is missing nowadays-this raw touch. I came across Coltrane and all those people. I was thankful, and I was shocked when I heard it. ‘What is this?’ My curiosity got me to where I am, developing a love for it.”

He was intrigued by drums, but he didn’t have a kit, and didn’t know how to get around on one, which provided the seeds for his later mutant kit. “I’m auto-didact. I never learned anything except tabla, so I used to play Hendrix on tabla. I did a short thing on Jimi Hendrix on German TV, with Pharoah Sanders. I did “Stone Free,” like I used to do in India on tablas, and with a group. But at that time, they were thinking I was silly. What was this? Now it’s a big fashion.”

Jazz held a natural attraction for Gurtu, as well. “What I liked very much was bebop, because it was close rhythmically to African music. I always thought jazz was close to African music, because of the triplets and all that. I know a little bit of African music, too. So the bebop was very nice. And I loved Sonny Rollins, because of the way he felt time. Bebop was very interesting to me, especially with Charlie Parker and Max Roach, Clifford Brown, the Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter and Art Blakey.

“But now I don’t hear that anymore. If I listen to something, I listen to Monk. He’s very close to my ear, too, rhythmically and with his harmonies. He surprises you all the time. If there is no surprise, what’s the point. Monk really surprises me, like ‘ooh, wow, why, what happened here?'”

How did his unique set-up come about? “The drum set came because I didn’t have anything. I didn’t know how to hold a stick. From then on, I started playing the kit, but I didn’t have access to any drum kit. I had to hire one to practice. All these hardships of not having instruments and running around to get instruments, just developed intense love for me, because it didn’t come easy. I had to really struggle. It became like a crazy love, an obsession. I did everything. I played for films, just so I could get a kit to practice. I didn’t have a cymbal. In Italy, I started putting percussion together. Africa, a snake drum, tabla. Colin Wolcott gave me the high-hat. Slowly, I developed this style.”

As a musician who lives in Hamburg, Bombay and London, and who eludes easy categorization, Gurtu explains, “I got labeled as a fusion musician and this and that and I say ‘is it a crime to love jazz and be associated with that?’ We get all kinds of labels. With “The Glimpse,” I’m trying to move away from that, to make it Indian and ethnic. If I use harmony, I would rather use something which is not in one particular style.

“I’m trying to create something that I hear inside myself. I’m trying to go away from this picture, this label that someone like me gets, because I love jazz and I have been associated with Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. But I’m not a jazz purist. I play improvised music. This is the message of this group.”

Zakir Hussain

A month in the life of Zakir Hussain, one of the world’s most respected tabla players and son of tabla player Alla Rakha, record company owner, and cross-cultural rhythm conspirator, might consist of this list of projects-which he was in the midst of at the time of an interview late last summer. He had just returned home, briefly, to the tiny, verdant Northern California town of San Anselmo, after seven weeks on the road with Planet Drum, the percussion group led by former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. The band was part of the travelling musical circus called the Further Festival, a gathering of Dead-related bands playing to hordes of jam-hungry fans across the country.

A few days later, Hussain would travel to India to perform in front of the presidential palace with Ravi Shankar, a longtime partner in music. The performance would be televised nationally, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of India’s liberation. Then, he would travel to Australia to perform with a group of South Indian musicians, after stopping in New York to master four new albums on his label, Moment!

It would seem that Hussain is a musician with an appetite for activity. “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that I’m available cheap,” he laughs. “Actually, I enjoy it. It’s kind of strange to say that I love playing music and playing drums, but it actually is the case. I enjoy being on stage and communicating through that mode. It’s like being home, in that nice, deep couch, being there and watching your favorite TV program or whatever. It’s comfortable. That’s what it is, after all these years.

“You know, I watch my dad, and he’s 78. He has been playing for 63 years now. He gets on the stage, and his face lights up. It’s like ‘ok, let’s go.’ And I’ve always wondered if I would have the same zest or passion or love for what I do, drumming-wise, when I get on the stage after playing for 60 years. I hope that I do. I think I feel the same way that he does now when he gets onstage. It’s fantastic to be up there.”

Although he was born in Bombay and trained in the classical Indian tradition, Hussain was drawn to music from the rest of the world, early on. That eclectic outlook informs what he does today, when he’s linking up with players from other worlds.

“I just went on a tour of 27 shows, with Giovanni and myself and David Garibaldi and Mickey Hart and others from Nigeria and from South Africa. All we did for hours on the bus was to sit there with percussion instruments and play together. To me, that was much more interesting and fascinating and fun than being onstage playing those sheds. We only had an hour and we had to do what we do and make sure that the people danced. This was an amazing thing. We were there on the bus, jamming for hours, and talking about rhythm traditions.”

Is there a more easy, seamless fraternity between drummers who come from diverse traditions than on other instruments?

“Well, rhythm is universal, we know that. At the same time, there is a rhythm cycle of one beat. It’s a pulse. As long as you can ride that pulse wave, and understand what the other guy is doing and have a basic idea of how to translate your stuff into that, it’s like having an IBM-compatible Macintosh. It’s like having a Bata-compatible tabla or a conga drum-compatible mrdingam, and just going with that and tapping in-downloading.

“That’s what makes it universal and easily accessible. Rhythms are everywhere. Rhythms governed us. In the past, we marched to the drum. We sent messages with the drums. We tried to bring rain down with the drums. Drums were a major governing force in man’s world.

“Somewhere along the line in the Renaissance period, we lost that aspect of it and went into a melodic domain, which was beautiful and fluid and everything, but it didn’t have this organic, primal, rhythmic force, which is incredibly hypnotic. So it’s no surprise to me that rhythmically, it’s easier to communicate. You don’t have to deal with five-million chords and ten-million ragas and 80-million melodic riffs and whatnot. You just have rhythm, and it stems from one beat,” he says, starting a tempo with snapping fingers.

His own broad sense of musical possibilities can be traced back to his arrival in America. As an impressionable 18-year-old, Hussain went to the University of Washington in 1970. There, multi-cultural education was in place in the music curriculum. “It was fortunate for me to arrive in that atmosphere, and to then sit in and learn, and share what I had. I was young enough to be able to learn and be flexible. If I had been ten years older, I probably would have been too rigid and too deeply entrenched in my tradition to actually accept anything else. I was just the right age, at 17 or 18. I was ready.

“Elvis was just about all we knew. I couldn’t really understand what he was saying (imitates his drawl). Actually, I used to think, in those days, that there was a different language called American, with John Wayne talking and ‘kimo sabe’ and all that stuff. It was that kind of mind I brought to America. When it became available, I gobbled it up.”

The real turning point for Hussain came when he met McLaughlin, and the seeds were sown for the band they called Shakti. McLaughlin, whose interest in Indian never really waned, recalls the unusual circumstances of meeting Hussain: “I was living in New York and I was already very much involved in this and I had friends who had a shop that sold tambouras, etc. I said, ‘if ever any Indian musician comes in-I don’t care what he plays-I want a lesson from them, so call me.’ So they called me up one day and said, ‘well, we have a master musician here who plays percussion.’ I said ‘I don’t care, keep him there, I’m coming down.’ I knew that all Indian music was essentially vocal music; if you could sing it, you could play it-all of it, no matter what instrument you play. So I said ‘I want a vocal lesson from you.’ So he gave me a vocal lesson. After the lesson, we started talking and from that meeting we became firm friends.”

It was formed accidentally, put together by McLaughlin for a birthday celebration for his then-guru Sri Chinmoy. Only later, as McLaughlin was pondering moving beyond the electric fusion of his Mahavishnu Orchestra, did the band become official-with a name, and a contract on Columbia.

Shakti, short-lived though it was, remains one of the most successful east-meets-west projects from the jazz end of the spectrum. “It was one of the first truly workable combinations,” Hussain comments.”

We used to talk for hours about chord changes and how (violinist L.) Shankar should try to solo over that, but not like the Indian way where it was just a drone. John used to play records with Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams, just to give me an idea of what jazz drumming was all about. We used to talk for hours and hours in his loft in New York. It was one of the greatest learning periods for me.

“So when we got on to playing, it wasn’t that I just had to play the Indian tabla repertoire or Vikku had to do just South Indian repertoire or Shankar had to play his Carnatic South Indian violin style. It was whatever fit in, whatever went. I even remember using my hammer to slide over my tabla to create a different tone, which I never even imagined was possible.”

In 1992, Hussain started up his own label, Moment!, which has released close to to 20 albums by now, including his Rhythm Experience and cross-cultural projects like a recent album by saxophonist George Brooks. But the original impetus was to pay respects to classical Indian musicians.

“Basically, the idea was to represent Indian music the way it is best represented, which is live. Indian music being an improvisational music, the best moments are live moments-the third set. That’s when the best things happen, and it’s difficult to recreate that in a studio.”

Moment! has evolved over its five-year existence, and Hussain is keen on expanding its scope. Ravi Shankar’s Live at Albert Hall is on Moment!, and Shakti’s ’70s Columbia albums have been reissued on the label, and he launched an ongoing “Masters of Percussion” series, involving such drum world legends like Hidaglo, Trilok Gurtu, Peter Eskine and Mickey Hart.

Despite his complex roster of projects and affiliations, Hussain shouldn’t be portrayed as a prodigal son, culturally speaking, who left his roots behind. “My first love, the deep love, has been my classical tradition. I do at least 120 shows of just that all over the world, playing Indian traditional music. About 10% or 15% of the time, I do other things.

“It has always been my intention to be connected with my roots and tradition, and to follow the classical path, but it is also my intention to learn more and find out what exists in the world. It’s not solely to just play all these other things myself, but to understand enough of that to communicate what I do. For that reason, it’s important.” Originally Published