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Weekend Pick: Zakir Hussain & the Masters of Percussion

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 13, 2012 5:20PM

Photo Credit: Susana Millman
We've had tomorrow night's Zakir Hussain concert circled in our calendar ever since the 2011-2012 Symphony Center season was announced a year ago February, and we've had our eyes peeled for Hussain's Chicago stops ever since we saw him live for the first time at the last Masters of Percussion show two years ago.

We were familiar with Hussain, having heard him on many different albums with many different artists. He's been playing tabla, the North Indian pitched drums capable of a surprising array of tones and fluid, dizzying rhythms, for just about his entire 61 years, beginning shortly after birth when his father (and Ravi Shankar's tabla player) Alla Rakha would sing bols (rhythmic solfege) to him. Hussain has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians, first with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and guitarist John McLaughlin (check out early Shakti, particularly A Handful of Beauty) in the 1970s and continuing through the years with just about anyone he damn well pleases (Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, and George Harrison, for instance, and an upcoming engagement with Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock).

But as great as he is on record, it doesn't compare to seeing his jaw-dropping technical and musical mastery live, and the Indian musicians (and one Uzbek) he'll bring to Orchestra Hall on Saturday aren't slouches, either. The group, which will play a melange of more or less traditional Indian music, will be slightly different than the 2010 version - disappointingly, Hussain's brother, the humorous showman multi-percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, will not be there, although he’ll be replaced by Hussain’s other brother, tabla player Fazal Qureshi - but the gist will be the same, with percussion augmented by other instruments, the sarangi (bowed fretless string instrument) and the bansuri (bamboo flute), and played in various combinations.

For a taste of what the concert will be like, watch the brief clip below from a Masters of Percussion show. Hussain is in the middle. In general, the higher pitches come from his right hand while the lower ones come from his left. He changes the pitch on the low drum by pressing his hand into the head (thus changing the tension) while playing.

Saturday at 8 p.m., Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, $25 - $70