When did you first meet Kodo and what was your impression?

I've met them over the past few years.  But the most serious meeting took place in Mickey Hart's studio in March of this year.  But they had already been talking to me before that for this festival. (Earth Celebration 2001)   But we met there because of the new Kodo CD that's being recorded.  So I came together with Mickey to see if we could do a piece together.  That was a more one-on-one intimate meeting.  Before that we had met, said hello, and we'd been in the film "Zakir and His Friends."  So since March we've been more closely connected, more collaborative.

We played in Mickey's  studio for a few days.  We had a good time performing together.  Until then I was wondering how it was going to work.  But then in March when we played together it sort of fell right in.  I had been working with an ex-Kodo player, named Leonard Eto, for about seven years now.  In fact after Sado (Location of Kodo concert) I will be performing in Tokyo to have a concert together.  So I was already sort of aware of the patterns that emerge from the drums, the odaiko.  It seemed it would work but I had no idea how it would work with all of them together.  But then in March when we played in Mickey's studio I was convinced it was going to be incredible.  And the subtlety of the instruments as well as the power of it, the range is so incredible, I was wondering if any of the instruments would be able to cope with it.  But after we played in March I decided that I should bring the fabulous
Vinayakram, my Shakti mate from the 70s.  His instrument is the ghatam which is a soft instrument.  But it seemed like it would work just beautifully.  His son Selvaganesh on the kanjira.  And then Ustad Sultan Khan on the sarangi, the melodic instrument.  I thought it would be nice to have the Sarangi along.  It works well with the flute because it has the same tonic range. 

When did you compose the songs you will perform?

We worked on them over the email route.  The patterns were discussed.  In March we discussed some patterns.  Then when the Artistic Director (Motofumi Yamaguchi)  worked on those ideas and sent the information to me.  But the final shape took place two days ago when we arrived and went straight to rehearsal.  And w ran through all the pieces and decided what instrument will play when.  I tried to get off the stage but they wouldn't let me so I guess I will be there all through.  Some of the instruments will come in and out.  We added the dance.  Dance is very important element in Indian rhythms because they wear bells on their feet.  So it fits in very beautifully.  We did the final workout of the pieces only two days ago.  But some of the pieces are already part of the Kodo repertoire and we created space for the Indian percussion to fit in.  And there are a couple that have been worked out from scratch.  The Kodo dancer and Indian dancer will play with my ensemble, not Kodo.  Then there is a jingbang where everybody plays together.

Tabla is a very improvisational instrument while taiko is more patterned.  How did you work together?

Well Kodo has moved a little bit more into the deep end I would say.  They are not just playing fixed music.  Within their fixed framework they are leaving space for drummers to improvise a little bit.  And in fact in the pieces we are playing we have left room for each other to improvise.  But having said that, tabla is a kind of instrument that, because of its improvising capability and sound capability in terms of range (being melodic and rhythmic), it's able to fit with anything.  And the one piece that I am really looking forward to is where the there is a taiko and tabla duet.  So it's going to be interesting.  We have left room in there to improvise.  So I think it's going to be extremely challenging.  And I think it's much more challenging for the Kodo drummers than it is for me because I am so used to improvising and they have to catch the qeues I give them.  And it's not coming from fixed material or repertoire.  But having done the rehearsal, it's falling into place.  And in anticipation of my arrival they have been doing lots of improvisation so that they are comfortable in never-never-land.

The tabla is primarily an accompaniment instrument.  So did you find that you work off of them most often?

Yes, it has always been so.  With any kind of music that Indian instruments have worked with it has been the Indian instrumentalists who have moved into the other area.  It's because of the quality of the instruments, the ability of the instrument, and the comfort in being able to improvise.  It's easier for us to move into the other person's territory than it is for the other person to move into ours.  Except for the case of Ravi Shankar when he played with symphony orchestras.  He composed Indian ragas for them to play.  And they were written out.  So they were fixed but they were improvised when they were being composed.  But with Shakti or with Mickey or Olatunji or Giovanni, it's much easier for the tablas to move to their neighborhood.  Someone like McLaughlin is a musician who crosses over because he has studied both forms of music for many years.  So he is able to play Indian ragas and real crazy rhythm sycles and be able to improvise and feel comfortable.  But McLaughlin I think is a rare musician who is able to do that.  Someone like Mickey Hart cand do that.  We played 10 and a quarter beat patterns and improvised and he played along just fine.  And Giovanni Hidalgo, he can do things like that because he is a crazy man who can play all kinds of incredible stuff.  But most of the time it is the Indian musicians who move into the territories of the other musicians because of their ability to improvise.

It seems that tabla is similar to Poongmul or Samulnori of Korea.

I played with Samulnori.  I have done three festivals with them in India.  They tore the house down.  It was amazing to watch them take the Indian audience and play with them.  I love Samulnori.  We have a folk tradition in India where we use similar kinds of drums with similar kinds of bells.  It is usually played in temples and is called "kirtam."  And that's so close to Samulnori that it was easy to bring the Kirtam group and put Samulnori on stage and watch them break the walls down.  What was really interesting was in Seattle we had a concert where myself, Billy Cobham, Tito Puente and the Samulnori played together.   But it started with me soloing and then Tito joining me and then Billy coming in and finally Samulnori.  But what was interesting was that there were no hiccups, no speedbreakers, no red lights.  It so seemlessly flowed right into them coming on and joining us.  That old saying that rhythm is universal is so old and corny to say these days.  The pulse is the same everywhere.  We just have our own way of registering it or decorating or packaging it.  It just comes through so beautifully.  As you said, tabla fits with Samulnori.  The reason it fits is because of the Kirtam tradition that we have in India and because tabla is played in that tradition.  And because of the similar instrumentation.  It may be possible that they are all related.  In the 1400s there was the Chola dynasty which was based in Madras, Tamil Nadu.  That dynasty was one of the most powerful kingdoms of its time and it conquered the whole coastline including Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and up to Hong Kong.  So it's possible that at that time these traditions collided and certain exchanges were made.  An that's why we have similar scales and similar rhythmic patterns.  We even have similar temple drums and mythical stories like Sita and Rama and Ravena and whatnot.  When you go to Indonesia, the dancers do these stories that they have in Thailand with Hanuman the monkey god of India.  So all these traditions sort of collided.  So it's possible that they all have the same roots.  So it's easy to see that Indian percussion instruments work well with these traditions. 

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Interview: Zakir Hussain