After a pandemic hiatus, tabla master Zakir Hussain vows that he feels reborn

After six-and-a-half-decades spent mastering his instrument, jamming with some of the biggest names in rock music (most famously the Grateful Dead and George Harrison), winning a Grammy and playing countless memorable shows before countless riveted fans, you’d think tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain would be on auto-pilot by now.

But you'd be very wrong.

“I feel reborn,” says Hussain from his longtime home in San Anselmo, a town just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.

Hussain’s sense of renewed musical purpose and possibility is rooted in two things: a liberating emergence from pandemic isolation and his recent discovery of VHS tapes containing footage of his father and teacher, Allah Rakha, instructing his gifted but impatient son in the 1970s.

After a long and unpleasant live performance drought during the height of COVID, Hussain made a full return to concert halls and other venues last year. His current tour — which includes an SCP Special Concert on April 7 with the Masters of Percussion — is his first in several years where audiences will be largely unmasked. But he’s throwing caution to the wind in the name of musical connection. While Instagram and Zoom stood in for creating and communicating during the darkest days of contagion, nothing matches live performance sonically or emotionally. 

When he first re-experienced a live audience after being “lost on an island for a couple of years,” he says, “there were tears in my eyes.” Now, a year later, he’s more enthusiastic than ever about sharing his music with the world. And thanks to those unearthed VHS tapes, the reviewing of which kept him office-bound “from dusk till dawn” and caused him to be “lost to the family for about three months,” he understands it better than ever.

When he first re-experienced a live audience after being “lost on an island for a couple of years, there were tears in my eyes.”  — Zakir Hussain

“I was a young whippersnapper with enough patience to be able to understand the length and breadth of that which was being transmitted,” Hussain says. “I remember [my father] saying, ‘Do this,’ and I rattled it off, because I was good at doing that. And he’d be like, “OK, now try this way,’ and I’d rattle it off. But I never really sat down to understand where it’s from. What is the significance of it? Who were the masters who came up with all this information? Those questions weren’t asked by me because I was an “OK, what's next’ kind of a student.

“But as I was looking at these tapes with a 71-year-old body and mind that are more relaxed and more patient, I was suddenly hearing what was between the lines. Those compositions started to morph into something else, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, that's how it’s supposed to be.’ I realized that what he was teaching me had something to do with where I was going at that time. He saw that I was going to work with John McLaughlin and Shakti. And that I was going to be doing work with Mickey Hart. And we were going to do rhythm, percussion ensembles, and whatnot. So he was teaching me compositions, which I was playing by myself, but I was totally ignoring that there were layers to it.”

That experience of musical discovery, Hussain says, impacted not only the way he interprets the material but how he teaches his students. It also helped him reconnect on a spiritual level with his late father and reinvigorated his relationship with the tabla.

“We believe in India that each instrument has a spirit inside,” he says. “When you’re learning to play that instrument, half the battle is to get that spirit to accept you. It basically means how you become totally comfortable sitting in front of that instrument, holding it, touching it. And inside you feel a natural kind of umbilical cord forming between you and the instrument so that it throws back at you that which you've just thought of doing.”

Hussain may be a tabla master, but he’s always learning.

“It’s like a new life,” he says. “I'm born again. I'm fresh and recouped, and I can’t wait to share that with people.”