Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Zakir Hussain at a Nashville rehearsal.

Courtesy of Alan Messer

Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Zakir Hussain at a Nashville rehearsal.

November 18, 2018

Chemistry of a Trio: An Interview with Zakir Hussain

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Powerhouse players Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer have reunited once more and visited Cornell. Ahead of their concert, we were able to speak with Mr. Zakir Hussain, perhaps the world’s most highly influential and virtuosic tabla player. If you haven’t seen Zakir Hussain perform, search for a concert of his on YouTube. It is no mistake that his incredible skill, personality and charm have been praised; it really does put a smile on your face to watch him play.

The “tabla is a percussion instrument,” Hussain explained. “It comes from rural India and it has abilities that some of the percussion instruments do not have. It can be tuned, so it has pitch and it can have all the seven notes of the scale.” The tabla is a two-piece drum, allowing one of the drums to be tuned to give melodic support, and the other to give rhythmic support. The tabla is a very special instrument, allowing for a high level of versatility. It has been used by Hussain and others in a variety of traditional, classical and contemporary musical styles.

Hussain performed on Friday with some good friends of his, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer, who play banjo and double bass, respectively. Both Fleck and Meyer have incredible accomplishments and will reunite with Hussain to form their “super-trio.” The trio mixes Indian classical music with jazz and bluegrass to yield a satisfying, heartwarming experience. Adapting the tabla to bluegrass and jazz music made sense for Hussain.

“Rhythm is universal. That allows for a rhythmic instrument to fit in more comfortably with any form of music. As far as playing with Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer is concerned, banjo and bass, they are also of the same variety of instrument as my tabla. That is, they are both rhythmic and melodic instruments. We have something very much in common.”

Hussain enjoys playing with Fleck and Meyer not only because of their musical mastery and the stylistic commonalities of their instruments, but also because they have built up a personal and professional chemistry. This visit to Cornell is not the first for the trio — Hussain recalls that performing for a crowd of rambunctious college students is quite fun, especially when younger audiences don’t typically come to music halls. Now they have a better understanding of each other. This is not limited to each other’s musical styles, but also includes on-stage chemistry, mental temperaments, physical cues and facial expressions. Namely, “what does it mean when one of them smiles at me and looks at me with the eyebrows?” Time spent as friends and musicians have enabled them to develop a greater synergy.

With the addition of Rakesh Chaurasia playing the flute and contributing exotic harmonic accents, Hussain is excited to bring new shades of the trio’s music to Cornell. The concert was highly anticipated and sold out! Undoubtedly, Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer and Rakesh Chaurasia will bring a heartwarming fusion of worldly culture and personal passion to Bailey Hall.

James Robertson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jar524@cornell.edu