Review: Duo playing tabla, sitar amaze crowd

It’s hard not to describe the performance of Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar at The Egg’s Swyer Thea

It’s hard not to describe the performance of Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar at The Egg’s Swyer Theater Friday night as anything but amazing. It was many other things too, but it was definitely that.

The show started with Hussain playing alone on his tabla — two small hand drums dating back to at least the 1300s — for 10 minutes or so. Cross-legged on the floor of the prop-less stage, Hussain tapped lightly, letting each tap ring out different tones, before tapping again, eventually generating steady, melodic rhythms. Not unlike a piano player, his right hand played the more melodic, varying sounds, his left hand the deeper, bottom end.

But he seemed to get more sounds from his two hand drums than one gets from a grand piano. Using all 10 digits, both his palms and the heel of his hands, it seemed he had a dozen sounds going on at once sometimes. That was the amazing part.

Then there was his constant creation of new concepts and new sounds from various parts of the drum skin he played for the full theater. He asked us to listen for horses running, rain falling, a steam engine and footsteps. He set different moods, seemed to play a scale at one point, and even imitated a walking bass line for fun.

Once the audience got through that display, Kumar, sitting next to him, played the sitar. Again he started with slow, single notes that he let ring out until no longer audible. The audience didn’t stir, everyone seemed to follow each note until it vanished. After luring us into his spiritual playing, he moved into a rhythmic pattern that eventually led to a frantic crescendo.

Both come from a family of musicians, Kumar a fifth-generation sitarist. Both play steeped in the tradition of their instruments but are credited with modernizing their instruments. Kumar occasionally played recognizable guitar licks — using his whole body to play during one climactic moment — and Hussain easily chased him down with drum moves common among western set drummers.

Make no mistake, they played far outside the boundaries of both eastern and western traditions, creating beautiful sounds and intensely deep moments that required little effort for the listener. While the music feels foreign and inaccessible at first blush, it is quite easy to fall into.

For half the show the two played together, demonstrating uncanny synergy. Their skills to anticipate one another and their use of silence were awesome. For all their seriousness, they have fun with each other and with the audience. “Why is everyone so quiet?” Hussain asked at one point, knowing well his ability to mesmerize a crowd into silence.

In western cultures, the drums keep the beat for the music. In many cultures — Latin, African and Indian particularly — drums are often the music, playing the melody along with the rhythm. Hussain offered a perfect lesson on the boundless music one can make with a simple hand drum — and yes, incredible talent and imagination.

Often an inspiring performer makes you want to buy and listen to their records. Hussain does more than that — he makes you want to buy and learn to play the tabla.

Categories: Entertainment

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