It was only a few weeks ago that Zakir Hussain, the world-famous drum virtuoso and master of the Indian tabla, was making the latest of his discoveries of obscure percussion styles in his home country.
Driving through Maharashtra state, his party stopped for a roadside break by a temple in the countryside. “There was a young man standing there with two different kinds of drums hanging from his neck,’’ Hussain says. While drumming, the man was chanting shlokas - sacred verses in Sanskrit.
“I asked what he was doing,’’ Hussain says. “He said, this is the chanting of the shlokas at the hour when the sun is right above. His forefathers did this 400 years ago in this temple. Here was this kid who had no idea he was doing something so special and so full of emotion. He did not realize the world out there would be stunned by such artistry.’’
In Kerala, Hussain attended a festival where 18 young men circled a statue of the goddess Durga. “They were doing this very special dance while clapping and hitting certain parts of their body,’’ he says. “One lead guy in the middle was reciting mantras. With each mantra, the movement of the dance and the slapping of the body changed.’’
Even in the northeastern state of Manipur, which has a rich percussion tradition that Hussain thought he knew well, he encountered a variant that was new to him. “They drum and dance and sing all at the same time; it requires an incredible amount of stamina. I was like, this needs to be explored further.’’
Exploring further is central to the work of the 61-year-old (but preternaturally boyish) Hussain, by general acclamation today’s greatest living tabla player - at least ever since his father and teacher, Alla Rakha, died in 2000. He thrives on finding rare percussion forms, playing with them, introducing them to his audience.
The young man at the temple moved him so deeply that he promptly arranged for him to come play at a concert in Mumbai. “People just went wild,’’ Hussain says. He now hopes to bring him overseas.
And for close to two decades, Hussain - a globe-trotting dynamo who has been based in California since the 1970s but spends winters in India and tours at length elsewhere - has led the Masters of Percussion, a project dedicated to encounters among top drummers. The group’s composition changes from year to year; its current formation plays Sanders Theatre on Sunday.
“The whole idea is to showcase rarely heard percussion traditions on the world stage,’’ Hussain says. He’s speaking by phone before a concert in Trinidad, another place whose percussion traditions he’s enjoyed working with, including ancient ones brought from rural India by the indentured sugar cane workers in the 19th century.
The current touring Masters come mostly from India. They include T.H.V. Umashankar, who plays the South Indian earthen pot called the ghatam, and whose father, Vikku Vinayakram, played with Hussain and John McLaughlin in the 1970s band Shakti; Navin Sharma on the two-sided dholak; Ningombam Joy Singh, a drummer-dancer from Manipur; and Hussain’s brother and fellow tabla player Fazal Qureishi.
Abbos Kosimov, from Uzbekistan, plays the frame drum called doyra; some tour stops (though not the Cambridge show) also feature Antonia Minnecola, an American practitioner of the Indian dance kathak. To accompany all the percussion, Hussain has invited Rakesh Chaurasia, on the bamboo flute bansuri, and Sabir Khan, on the stringed instrument sarangi; both hail from famous musical families.
A Masters of Percussion concert features a mix of solos, duets, and small groups, and a whole-ensemble finale. This year a section features Hussain and Qureishi exploring compositions for two tablas. These are uncommon, as the tabla mostly accompanies vocals and other instruments or is sometimes played solo. But the brothers recently came across a two-tabla repertoire that was played four centuries ago in several princely courts of North India and documented at the rulers’ request, though nearly unknown today.
Whether it’s delving into the history of his own instrument or learning about and presenting new ones, Hussain says these explorations are vital for his own creativity. “It’s recharge, rejuvenate, learn more,’’ he says. “The more rhythmists I come in contact with, the more I can add to my repertoire.’’
He cites his early California immersion, when he landed amid the likes of the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Babatunde Olatunji, participating in concerts and epic jam sessions and forming a long-lasting collaboration with Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Masters of Percussion has become one of Hussain’s signature projects, but ever gracious (he’s as modest as he is genial in conversation), he prefers to distribute the credit. The original idea of presenting obscure or regional drum traditions from India in particular was his father’s, he says. “It was his wish, and I took it upon myself.’’
He describes his role in the show as that of a guide: “I’m just a little piece of this performance,’’ he says. “The thing I can do is I know each of the musicians, I’ve sat with them, jammed with them. My job is to initiate onstage an idea that two of them, three of them, or the whole ensemble can explore.’’
Hussain embraces his duty to keep the energy of the concert flowing while allowing everyone space to roam. “Drumming can get chaotic, especially improvised drumming,’’ he says. “We are able to keep things a little more calm. But you have to realize these are masters. I’m not going to tell them what to do!’’