Playing the tabla, on drums

Updated: 16 December, 2019 07:53 IST | Sonia Lulla | Mumbai

The worlds of two instrumentalists coinciding through a mentor-protegee initiative, Zakir Hussain on teaching drummer Marcus Gilmore the art of living, through notes

As we await their arrival at a South Mumbai theatre, there's sufficient chatter about how tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and American drummer Marcus Gilmore's pairing is unusual, since they "come from different worlds". Questioning this ambiguity is only fitting when one considers the mammoth scale on which the Rolex Mentor and Protégée Arts Initiative is held. When you consider the scale of investment this now 17-year old programme demands, it could seem obvious that the organisers would like to "keep it safe" with the pairings — a dancer for a dancer; and author for a writer. But Hussain finds it unusual for people to assume that his experience could be employed to train only a tabla player.

There's enough and more about deciphering musical notes that he can assist with, he says. "When you play [an instrument], there are certain grace notes that creep in. How one proceeds from one note to another [can be taught]," says Hussain, asserting that there was nothing about the art of drumming that he could have taught the Latin Grammy Award-winner, also the grandson of veteran American jazz drummer, Roy Haynes. "He already knows everything there is to know about the instrument, and creating perfect rhythms. If I change [his music sensibility], I will hurt it. His musicality is already unique; why should I change that? The only way I could mentor him was as a musician with more experience. As someone who is closer towards the front seat of the bus, because I got in earlier, I could tell him what he will see later [in his life], because I've already seen it."

The programme demands that the mentor and protégée spend a minimum of 30 days over two years, a requirement that this duo already met with, several months ago. Apart from interacting frequently during their independent tours, they also spend considerable time on Facetime. Ever so often, Gilmore, 34, will send his compositions to Hussain for critical analysis. "Often, I'll go to New York. He too has come to India three times. The first time he was here, he played at my dad's memorial. Next time, I took him to Punjab, the village our kul-gurus come from. I wanted to show him [our] way of life, and how that translates into the way we are as human beings."

However, it appears that it is at Hussain's annual tabla retreats — which brings together 50 odd tabla players from across the globe for several days of musical interactions — that the American seems to benefit from, immensely. "He'd be like a fly on the wall," says Hussain of Gilmore, who has attended two such initiatives. "He'd sit in the corner, and I'd wonder why he wouldn't play with the other players. Then, suddenly, I'd hear him play on the drums what they would be playing on the tabla," says Hussain, as the young musician chirps to state that replicating the fast-paced beats of the tabla on the drums is no mean feat.

An interaction with Hussain is likely to stay with you long past it's over. His unmatched talent apart, his wit, warmth and investment in the task at hand, is worth noticing. Our interaction is peppered with several moments that have him humour the young musician. The latter recounts how Hussain had once perhaps playfully attempted to persuade him to give tabla playing a shot. "I was like, I can't just sit at the instrument I've not spent enough time with; especially if it's his [tabla]," recalls Gilmore. "I've learnt from him a different vocabulary of rhythm. When interacting with someone new, you listen to your sound through their ears. He may see things that I ignore. While playing with him, I've learnt a different way to sway to my rhythm. It has also taught me how drummers from his world [perceive] rhythm, and thus, how I must develop a way of speaking that would be familiar to him. Recently, my brother Taufiq, Marcus and I played together, and Taufiq said he played differently due to the way Marcus reacted to him, and I, to Marcus."

As he continues to fine-tune his skills, Hussain also aims to enable Gilmore to have faith in his work. "[It's essential for] the garb of threat to go away. If you get defensive, you tread through your music gingerly. You don't want that; an artiste must be creative." The initiative culminates with an act by Gilmore in Cape Town next year. He is enabling the drummer to prepare for an act with an orchestra.

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First Published: 16 December, 2019 07:09 IST

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