UMS's CrossCurrents brought a stunning display on the beauty of fusion music

Sunday, November 5, 2017 - 4:36pm

Growing up in an Indian household, Zakir Hussain has always been a household name for me. I’ve listened to his music crackle out from the boombox in our kitchen, the sounds of the tabla resounding off the walls. I’ve danced Kathak, a traditional form of Indian classical dance, to his compositions and have been astounded with the speed that is necessary to keep up with his tempo. Understandably, when I heard Zakir Hussain was coming to Ann Arbor with his band CrossCurrents, I was stoked.

Hussain is widely recognized as one of the most influential musicians of our time. Born in Mumbai, India, Hussain is treasured worldwide as a maestro player of tabla, a traditional type of Indian drum played with the hands. CrossCurrents, Hussain’s latest endeavour, is a blend between classical Indian music and Western jazz. His band is composed of a stunning array of musicians: the revered bass player Dave Holland, known for his large contribution to jazz, and Shankar Mahadevan, one of the top vocalists to come out of India in the last two decades. Others include leading saxophone player Chris Potter, the “Godfather of Indian Jazz” Louiz Banks on keyboard, Sanjay Divecha on guitar and Gino Banks on drums.

CrossCurrents capitalizes on the high level of improvisation in both Indian classical music and jazz, blending the two styles together to create a new and unique sound. To all those who are skeptical, rest assured, CrossCurrents seamlessly switched from Indian classical to jazz in a way that was fresh and exhilarating.

The band walked out to a full audience in the Michigan Theater on Wednesday evening, and everyone whooped and hollered when Hussain entered and bowed to the audience with his palms pressed together, an Indian gesture of greeting and respect. Dave Holland dressed in a kurtha, a traditional Indian garment worn by males, and the audience chuckled in admiration. With full smiles on their faces, they started to play.

The first piece started with the tabla and sax, a contrast that jarred the audience at first but slowly won their awe. The sharp, ringing sound of the sax contrasted greatly with the mellow, deep tabla, yet both complimented each other perfectly. Hussain fed off the sax’s leads, maintaining eye contact and following his pace the whole time. Gradually, the other instruments joined in, some tentatively and others loudly. CrossCurrents’ sound could be described as intervals of all the instruments playing together with random breaks for a rapid tabla sequence or sax solo. The effect was nothing short of beautiful.

The carnatic piece performed, a common type of Southern Indian music, deserves special mention for Mahadevan's vocals. Much like opera singing, Carnatic music puts emphasis on long stretches of notes within one breath and the rapid transitions between notes during this. Each time Mahadevan sang a note, his hands moved in front of him accordingly to the music. Every crescendo or decrescendo was followed by his hands, his eyes concentrated upwards towards the balcony level. Just when the audience thought he couldn’t hold the note any longer, the power in his voice would double. In the breaks of singing, Hussain would play his tabla to mimic what had just been sung. The sax and bass would harmonize as well, adding in a burst of jazz to what was otherwise a very traditional type of Indian music.

This connection between Indian and jazz music was exemplified in the jugalbandi sections of the performance. In Indian music, jugalbandi is when one instrument plays a melody, sometimes lasting for several minutes, and another instrument has to play this exact melody by memory. Usually this is done between the tabla and another Indian instrument, such as the sitar, a string instrument partially resembling a large guitar. CrossCurrents, however, chose to extend this jugalbandi to Western instruments as well. Hussain would play a short sequence on the tabla, and Holland would reciprocate on the bass. Shortly after, Potter would mimic this on the sax. When the audience, primarily Indian, realized this trend, they laughed appreciatively.

Hussain’s tabla solo near the end of the performance brought home the message of CrossCurrents. His hands danced over the tabla at a speed so fast that they were a blur. From my seat, it looked like he wasn’t even touching the tabla at all, yet the sound rang loud and clear around the halls. His fast breaks were accompanied by dramatic pauses, during which the audience cheered quickly before he resumed again.

Hussain’s playing proved just what a master he is. After a long stretch of Indian classical playing, Hussain suddenly switched to an excerpt from perhaps the most iconic classical music piece ever, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart, and the audience roared with laughter. Hussain successfully showed that Western music truly does have a place in the world of Indian classical. His message, and that of CrossCurrents, will not be forgotten.