Zakir Hussain in conversation with The Navhind Times talks of his collaboration with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and double-bass master Edgar Meyer, categorisation of music, and his father, the legendary Ustad Alla Rakha

You’re no stranger to the Goan stage, Maestro! We’ve heard you perform with the most eclectic partnerships, notably Remember Shakti last year. But this collaboration between you, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and double-bass master Edgar Meyer is a novel venture. How did you arrive at the title of your album “Melody of Rhythm” in your 2009 album with them?

You have three instruments both rhythmic and melodic in their nature. Banjo is melodic but, at the same time, is very rhythmic. So is the bass. Tabla is a rhythmic instrument with possibilities of tones and harmonics. So, the three of us coming together with both sides of the musical coin etched in each of our instruments, it seemed natural to give it a name which highlighted both melody and rhythm.

It is said that you and Fleck jokingly refer to Meyer as the ‘Lord and Commander.’ Is it because his bass line provides the anchor for the work, a sort of basso continuo?

Edgar’s ‘title’ is more about the administrative part of the music. Both Bela and I are able to come up with melodies quite easily for the band to play. However, to organise the harmonic element vis-a-vis the chordal arrangement and the harmonies involved and making sense of the whole form is something that Edgar is great at. Therefore, we jokingly refer to him as ‘Lord and Commander’.

The work is also said to defy categorisation, because there are elements of bluegrass, jazz, Indian and western classical music, folk music in it. Labels like “World music” or “fusion” have also been put forward, but perhaps it’s best not to try to define the music, and just savour it instead?

It’s never musicians who put a name or a label to what they create. Musicians playing ‘jazz’ didn’t call it that. Others did, probably media and recording companies. We feel that what we do is play music. There is no attempt to forcefully impose any of our traditional repertoire into our interaction. Each of us has developed such a deep and intimate connection with our instruments that we think as one. In other words, we don’t have to come up with a piece of music and try to figure out how it will fit on our instruments. It’s almost as if the instruments themselves are contributing to the building of the composition. The union between musician and instrument and among us is much more complete.

You obviously grew into the Indian classical music tradition under the tutelage of your father, the legendary Ustad Alla Rakha. Is this still your reference point, despite your remarkable body of work in several crossover styles of music?

As far as the core repertoire is concerned, of course my father is my main reference point. However, I draw inspiration from many sources and it is not limited to just Indian music. My musical models are from all over the planet. For each element of my music or for each interaction, I look for the appropriate source reference.

You are an icon today, a huge role model. What advice would you give our youth who might want to follow in your footsteps?

My advice to today’s youth is to have pride in your roots and be the best student you can be. Have a student’s mind; to be the master should not be the goal. This is my father’s teaching to me and I have tried to follow it my entire life.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 16 February 2013)