BACK IN 1974, Zakir Hussain, then a 20-something tabla virtuoso, joined the jazz guitarists John McLaughlin, ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram and violinist L Shankar, to form what would be regarded as one of the most iconic fusion groups. The interest in so-called world music hadn’t yet exploded then, and such a collaboration wasn’t viewed as an instant route to success. “Everyone thought I flipped out. It was not well-received at all by the record company or my agent and manager,” McLaughlin recalled in a recent interview. Many connoisseurs of the respective traditions even found the idea of such a group outrageous. “The most important fact was that we, the Shakti team, were young enough to allow for musical ‘sacrilege’,” Hussain would tell the writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, in the book Zakir Hussain: A Life in Music. “And so we could ignore the restrictions imposed on us by our respective traditions in the interest of finding a road towards oneness.”
The two found common ground, they would say, in the improvisational quality of jazz and Indian classical music. People took their time to warm up to the group. But its unique sound—a coming together of the Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions, and a hybrid of Western jazz and blues with Indian traditional melody—became a sensation over time, and opened the doors for other musicians keen on this emerging category of ‘world music’. The group released a few albums, played concerts, got disbanded, then reunited (as Remember Shakti, with some new members), and continued playing on and off.
Given the reverence with which it is held now, the band has never been in need of a seal of approval. But it did come a few nights ago when it won its first Grammy. Hussain, McLaughlin and Company won it for This Moment, their first album in many decades, in the Best Global Music Album category. Shankar Mahadevan, who is a part of the band, would later tell journalists, “They [Hussain and McLaughlin] are the pioneers of the concept of fusion. The seed of thought was put in people’s heads by them. Nobody could have thought about that.”
Many other Indians also picked up Grammys that night. But for Hussain, it was a particularly special one. He picked up two more Grammys, the first time any Indian has won so many in a single night. Hussain, who has been collaborating with the banjo legend Béla Fleck, the bassist Edgar Meyer, and Indian flautist Rakesh Chaurasia for several years, picked up the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for their Indian classical-meets-jazz album As We Speak, and Best Global Music Performance for the track ‘Pashto’, which is framed as a tribute to the tradition of Indian classical musicians playing with British imperial bands in the early 20th century.
For a musician who has always sought to be, in Hussain’s words, “a student, not a master”, he has spent a lifetime seeking new sounds, and blurring the lines that exist between various musical traditions. He probably owes a lot of this to his father and guru, the legendary tabla exponent Ustad Alla Rakha, who often collaborated with other musicians, and used to travel and perform with Pandit Ravi Shankar on the latter’s world tours. Hussain has been collaborating with celebrated musicians from different traditions for decades now, from his work with Shakti, his collaborations with jazz sax greats like Charles Lloyd and John Handy, to his work with rock legends like George Harrison, Van Morrison, and Grateful Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart. His collaborations with Hart, as a part of the percussion-based world music band Planet Drum, have also brought him two more Grammys in the Best Global Music Album category. The first came in 1992 (the award was known as Best World Music Album then), and the second in 2009.
All these wins make Hussain, along with Shankar and the conductor Zubin Mehta, among the most lauded Indian musicians by the Grammys. But for someone like him, such numbers probably hold little value. The ideals his music represents means more. In a time of much global strife and factitious discourse everywhere, as he walked up to the stage to pick the award for ‘Pashto’, he probably sought to remind us: “Without love, without music, without harmony,” he said, “we are nothing.”