Zakir Hussain: “The Speaking Hand”

A colleague brought my attention to this fantastic documentary that concentrates on the art of tabla performance, which is available, in full, on YouTube.

Zakir is a Hindustani tabla player from Mumbai (son of Alla Rakha). Even if you’ve never heard his name, you have probably heard his work.  He has performed and collaborated with several American artists, including Bela Fleck.

Additionally, he’s composed several film scores (and starred in a few!).

The first segment of the documentary is below. Quite a bit of it is in Hindi, with German subtitles. You can view the rest on Youtube itself:

Part 1:

Hyper Mashup: Mozart Recap, Filtering Reactions, Poolside Music Theory, Fencing with Buddha, & Anxiety Meets Coffee Mug Tintal

Well that’s that. I’m having a love affair with Mozart. Now on to the Gran Partita. My new goal is to perform a lecture series on all 3 of Mozart’s Wind Serenades. Then I’ll back up a bit and disentangle a few divertimentos.

Yours truly, Conducting Mozart's K. 388 (July 22, 2010)

My lecture recital went well. I know it must have, because it’s 24 hours later and I’m not having doubts about it yet. Usually I have these filters in my head saying, “I think it went okay”, “I did terrible”, “ He said I did great but he’s just saying that” – I could go down the list. This is the first time [ever] that hasn’t happened. I was actually happier with this performance than either of my undergraduate recitals or anything else I’ve ever conducted as a graduate student– except perhaps the culminating spring concert of Saturday Music School, but that burst of pride had everything to do with how far my students had come.

The Mozart performance was nowhere near perfect – neither was the lecture… but I was prepared for both, and so was my ensemble. Actually, it wasn’t the best they’ve played it, but knowing how hard they worked on it, and how great they sounded in rehearsals, I’m thrilled with the results.

(This is one of those conflicting Buddhist moments of mine – is it okay to be proud of an accomplishment? WWBD?)…

I can take a deep breath now that it’s over, and find a new project or two. I’ve got 3 weeks until diagnostic exams for theory placement in Tallahassee, so my head will be stuck in a mosaic of musically historical examples ‘til then. Starting tomorrow, at least I can do it while sitting by a pool in Florida (assuming we hit the road ahead of this tropical storm). Cocktail please! The Type A side of me is trying to come up with a study plan. I like chronology so I think I’ll start with Josquin and end with John Mackey. The idea is that I should be able to analyze an excerpt from any piece of music put in front of me from the past thousand years or so, and be able to pop out the composer, their compositional techniques, style, and any relevant cultural context)…. Uh huh. Getting right on that. Ironic – I’m jumping into an academic program with an emphasis on music of the entire planet with the intention of escaping European art music for a while, and yet I can’t escape European art music in my round of entrance exams.

It’s a great example in reference to the lack of standardization of ethnomusicology programs (it’s still a new field). While some of the degrees (depending on the school) are analysis-based, some are based in historical ethnomusicology, some are based in western musicology, some are based in anthropology, some are based on world music performance, and some are based in sociology. I’ve seen some ethnomusicology graduate programs that don’t require a prior music degree assuming you can speak intelligently about music and you have a strong anthropology background. Some are a great mixture of all of it (like where I’m about to plunk down). Yep – I’m grateful for that.

Random tidbit: I spent about an hour tonight vigorously playing tabla on a rough ceramic coffee mug while chatting with my partner. I counted at least 15 timbre variations on that silly mug based on fingernail tapping, swiping finger-pads, and the occasional palm slap. I wanted to record it. Maybe it’s a sign that I need to rest… or lay off the coffee… or start this degree program.

Badal Roy teaches my students the language of the tabla

Recently we were able to get Badal Roy as an SMS special guest. It’s the fourth time I’ve met him, but I’m glad I captured several parts of his presentation on video. He broke things down so simply for the kids – what an amazing master musician!

Indian Classical Music meets the Kids of New Orleans

I don’t use the term ‘classical’ with my students. Admittedly I treat it, sometimes, like it’s a “bad word” – there’s a stigma attached. The age-range of kids I teach is wide, but there’s a good chunk of them who see classical music as ‘evil’ music full of dead white men. Who can blame them with how we teach it? With how I approach it (or don’t)?

This weekend, I introduced them to Badal Roy, an Indian classical musician (see previous post). He came in as our guest artist on Saturday since he had a short residency in town anyway. He is an amazing musician, yet I also realized he is human, and flawed – a good lesson for me, and one I keep coming across with all of these amazing people I’ve been exposed to lately.

My students enjoyed the tabla, and enjoyed Badal – but I felt as though he didn’t talk enough. I wanted more. He walks through the door – a foreign accent, a foreign instrument, sitting on a rug in front of them, playing unfamiliar rhythms. I was itching to hear him teach the kids about the traditions of tabla, about the ensemble settings, the venues for performance, how to learn tabla, the spiritual aspects of playing. He burst that bubble pretty quick. He spent a long time teaching the tabla language, the syllables, the integration of syllables, the transfer of the language to the right hand, the transfer of the language to the left hand, the integration of hands plus syllables, Bol – the way Indian musicians talk about what they’re going to play (instead of “this piece is in B”, it’s “play dha tin tin na”).

As an aside, in the past month I’ve been exposed to Brasilian, West and North African, and Indian drumming – they all have so many similarities. They’re all based on spoken language, they all consider their drums to have an identify, a self.

About 20 minutes into the program, he asked some of the kids to play with him and trade 4 bar solos on their instruments. Well, these kids have no fear. But they are still brand new instrumentalists. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well and he wasn’t sure what to do. The kids are learning 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 – not 11, 13, and 17-beat measures. So, as a result I asked him a few questions – gave him a few lead-in things to talk about: i.e. traditions, Indian classical music, his teacher and how he learned, information about ragas…

I was so impressed with his playing, and yet not so impressed with his ability to answer questions. Then again, if his answers are full, then my stereotypes of Indian classical musicians (based on all the previous ones I’ve met, which include some pretty prominent ones) are incorrect – which is good as well as thought-provoking. He didn’t seem as disciplined. He improvised rather than learn specific ragas and rhythms (any in fact). He had a teacher, but was not part of a lineage. All surprises to me considering his impressive resume.

I did learn a bit more about the language of tabla – and appreciated that a great deal. I walked away wanting (of course) to learn more about it, to play myself. I’ve always had an innate sort-of technique for playing drums with fingers rather than palms. Perhaps its early tabla exposure…

I am so grateful to have such great musicians at my fingertips these days. I know I keep saying that but it’s true. I’m so relieved when I find out they’re human.

(***Disclaimer: All of my students in these photos have parent-signed release forms allowing me to post photos & media)