“Tabla is the most complete percussion instrument”

World-renowned Tabla maestro Fazal Qureshi will be in New Zealand later this month. The younger son of Ustad Alla Rakha who was a constant accompanist for Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the younger brother of Tabla’s most famous name Ustad Zakir Hussain, Fazal answers questions put to him by Indian Weekender editor-in-chief Dev Nadkarni in a telephonic interview from India.

What’s it like being a member of the first family of the Tabla, or shall we say the Tabla world’s royalty?

(Laughing aloud) Ha, ha… That’s the first time I’ve heard about Tabla royalty! There are several things: there’s a lot of pressure and responsibility because people’s expectations are high since I’m from the same family as Ustad Allah Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Responsibility – because you must make sure that if at least if you don’t add to the name you don’t spoil the name. So, that responsibility and pressure is always there and I have been fortunate enough to learn from my father and the three of us have played many concerts together in the US, UK, Europe. For me that is a signature from my father that you can actually play now…

My first concert that I played for my college was covered by [your father] Mohan Nadkarniji himself… he was invited to listen to two young players on Sitar and Tabla – that was me – in 1979-80 and he gave us a good review in the Times of India. That was approval and the fact that I have actually played with my father and brother is approval – that yes, you are good enough to play.

Can you give us a few details of the way you and your siblings were trained by your father the great maestro Ustad Alla Rakha?

My father was a democratic man. He never differentiated between sons and other students. It did not matter if we were sons or not there were no distinctions. I used to sit with the other students and learn. He was a busy man in the 1970s, travelling so much but whenever he was there, we used to learn from him. It was was difficult to catch him because of his travels. We relied a great deal on his tapes and CDs while learning from him but playing with him was even more instructive – not so much sitting in front of him but being with him, watching him… how he handled the rhythm cycle, learning his technique… that was the way we brothers picked it up.

One now hears a lot more Tabla in international music – particularly instrumental ensembles – when did this start to happen and why does the Tabla fascinate western percussionists?

Tabla is an instrument that has developed more than any other percussion instrument in terms of sound and technique – it’s an instrument that can be termed as the complete percussion instrument because of the variety of sounds it can produce and the baya is so versatile that you can even produce melodic sounds – my brother is a pioneer in this and in the olden days some maestros used to produce actual notes on the baya while accompanying other musicians. My father and brother have contributed in making it a global instrument – so you hear the Tabla in pop songs, rock music, film background scores – it’s well accepted and recognised.

As a Tabla maestro yourself, what similarities and differences do you see in the way percussion is played in Hindustani and Carnatic disciplines?

Everything is different. It is related to culture. We dress differently, speak differently, there’s a cultural difference… musically too it is different. North Indian music has been influenced a lot by other music from outside such as that of the Mughals and other invasions that happened during the history of Indian civilisation. The South was relatively isolated. So the two music disciplines went differently. The Mughals brought in Tabla, Sitar, Sarod. The points of view also differed… the difference is cultural… difference is in the way of looking at music… I do play with a lot of south Indian percussionists… Talas and ragas are same but the point of view is different. But you can find ways of coming together as many artistes have done – like my father and brother. We are all Indians, but it’s just like all fingers are not the same.

What are your activities at present besides accompanying musicians in concerts around the world?

Three of my albums are getting ready. Two are classically oriented and one is a fusion album – I call it experiments in music. It’s going to be ready next month and the other two also will be ready soon… Besides playing, I also tour a lot… I am in Europe next month with my other fusion band… so basically travelling, recording, composing…

Tell us more about Mynta – how did it come about? Is Shankar Mahadevan actively involved? Who are the other percussionists on it? Musicians from which other nationalities are involved in Mynta?

I am the only Indian percussionist now. Shankar used to be part of it but not any more – we have western percussionists. Basically Mynta a Sweden based band. I met them 23 years ago and have played with them ever since. We’ve produced 6-7 albums; we travel all over Europe, the US, India. It was love at first sight between us in 1986 – we’re still going on… If you want to play fusion music, you need to spend a lot of time with the band and understand each other closely.. only then can you come up with real good music. We now have a Saxophonist from US, In India we have Vikku Vinayakram, Shankar Mahadevan when he has the time – and many others.

My favourites are Fuzzy, Song from Brahmaputra and Teabreak – what was your role in their composition/ production?

Fuzzy was a on the spot creation by me. We were sitting in the studio and the idea suddenly came up to me… I just thought I should produce something with rhythms but interacting with some melodic structures – so that’s how Fuzzy came about… and when we are doing a composition or recording an album we play it a number of times during a tour and after 20 concerts or so, the piece takes shape and then we go into a studio and do a commercial recording – that’s how we do it. We play, alter, replay offer suggestions to the composer, and so on.

What changes do you see in the way Tabla is taught these days – especially outside India?

Popularity has increased tenfold… I still teach at a class in Mumbai that father started… wherever I go there are all kinds of people who want to learn… US, UK, Japan, everywhere. This has given an insight to a lot of people on what the Tabla is… and it’s no longer seen as an exclusively classical instrument. It’s now a popular instrument

Your father emphasised on memorising hundreds of bols, which I’m pretty sure you’ve imbibed as well… Is the same emphasis placed on bols by modern teachers?

People do not have much time these days. They come for an hour. The Guru Shishya Parampara does not exist anymore – 10-15 students taught at a time for an hour… they go home and practice, come back. Memorising bols is not there any more… Times have changed.

Can you tell us more about your concert in NZ?

I’m looking forward to playing with Adrian though I’ve not met him. But that’s how it is in Indian Classical music. You often meet the artiste for the first time on stage. And just play: 95% of our music is improvised… everyone knows the basics the artistes just build on it… that’s the true classical way of doing things… go on the stage and play.

I wanted to visit NZ for a long time and never got an opportunity. I’ve been all over the world except NZ. It’s my pleasure to be there and thanks for making the efforts for me to come. Looking forward to meet Indians there.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, September 2009