Zakir Hussain's 'Distant Kin' Brings Together Indian, Celtic Traditions

Zakir Hussain, performing in 2012. (Ridvan Yumlu/Flickr)

Zakir Hussain belongs to one of Northern India’s most distinguished musical dynasties, and ever since he landed in the Bay Area in the early 1970s he’s sought out opportunities to collaborate with musicians far afield from the Hindustani classical tradition in which he was raised.

At first glance the swirling jigs and reels and sumptuous ballads of traditional Celtic music might seem like a particularly long stretch for Hussain. But the United Kingdom and India are tied together by a great deal of history, a colonial legacy on which the sun has yet to set. Consider: Hussain’s father, tabla legend Alla Rakha, spent the first three decades of his life as a British subject, and Great Britain’s centuries-long rule of the subcontinent led to countless informal East-meets-West musical encounters.

That history is one of several paths that led Hussain, the world’s foremost tabla virtuoso, to his latest cross-cultural exploration, "Distant Kin" (Moment Records). It’s a nine-piece project that brings together a new generation of classically trained Indian masters with a prodigious cast of players from across the Celtic world.

“This does go back a couple of hundred years,” Hussain told me in an interview earlier this year. “Indian musicians were drafted into the British army’s marching bands, and pipers and big bass drums were a lot like the shehnai and Punjabi dhol. I grew up hearing processions and wedding bands with the pipes and a bodhrán-like frame drum played in a procession. Those sounds stuck with me.”

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The "Distant Kin" album cover

When he’s not playing classical recitals or writing film scores, Hussain has dedicated himself to building musical bridges. The longtime Marin resident was a founding member of the seminal Indo-jazz ensemble Shakti. He’s collaborated widely with Yo-Yo Ma, and he earned the first Grammy Award for a world music album with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s "Planet Drum."

The Indo-Celtic concept first got a test drive a few years ago when a Glasgow festival invited Hussain to participate in a concert series called Celtic Connections. He expanded the framework for this project, which was recorded last spring in San Francisco at the SFJAZZ Center (where Hussain is in the midst of a stint as a resident artistic director). The concert concluded a North American tour, and the music feels utterly organic and lived in. Hussain often borrows the Celtic habit of weaving tunes together as medleys, seamlessly moving from one tradition to another, like on the sinuously swaying “Trinkamp/Tajir.”

Part of what makes the album so consistently enthralling is that Hussain constructed the ensemble by twinning instruments to highlight the way the traditions draw on similar tonalities. His tablas work in tandem with John Joe Kelly’s Irish frame drum bodhrán.

Scottish fiddlers Charlie McKerron and Patsy Reid (who co-founded the acclaimed band Breabach) trade lines with Indian violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan. And on “Michael’s Matches/Rakesh’s Bansuri” Brittany’s Jean-Michel Veillon, a wooden flute player, is paired with bamboo flute Rakesh Chaurasia (yes, he’s the nephew and disciple of his legendary uncle, Hariprasad Chaurasia).

Dublin guitarist Tony Byrne, a rhythmic dynamo, deserves a fair amount of credit for the way the ensemble locks together so effectively. In an interview earlier this year he told me that he grew up listening to Shakti and reveres the group’s guitarist, jazz great John McLaughlin.

McLaughlin’s dedication to classical Indian music was another path that led to "Distant Kin," as Hussain decided he wanted to reciprocate his friend’s passion by collaborating with traditional Scottish players (the ancestry of the Yorkshire-born McLaughlin). While this music flows from a history of colonial rule, "Distant Kin" embodies a far more powerful dynamic, as these musicians find a common language without sacrificing a bit of their identity.