A Musical Masala at SFJazz Center
Zakir Hussain’s latest cross-cultural project was on show April 2 & 3 at the SF Jazz Center. The Indian tabla player brought together some of his fellow-countrymen with a gaggle of Scottish and Irish players and a Breton. The resulting mix was intriguing, energetic, eclectic and highly entertaining. Considering the absence of electric instruments, the nine-piece band created a rich, layered soundscape, an impressive acoustic extravaganza when the whole ensemble got going.
Hussain is a tabla master and if you want to make empathic musical connections, it helps to surround yourself with virtuoso musicians who do not fear innovation or genre adventures. His Indian colleagues, Rakesh Chaurasia on bamboo flute and Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin, were lively and playful contributors. Fiddler Charlie McKerron from the great Scottish band, Capercaille, is no stranger to adventurous playing. The other Scots were Patsy Reid, the only woman on stage, one of the the most sought-after young fiddlers and Fraser Fifield who mixed it up on flute and pipes.
Flautist Jean-Michel Veillon was the lone Breton and he opened a set with a strange, spectral melodiy from that branch of the Celtic tradition. The Irish representatives were guitarist Tony Byrne who plays with the Alan Kelly Band and John Joe Kelly from Flook, where he’s had plenty of practice accompanying flute players on bodhran. On his solo, he gave Zakir’s tabla array a run for its money coaxing a considerable range of sounds from his one drum.
The shifty, variegated Scottish tunes worked best in the mash-ups. I did not recognize many of the melodies as Irish. Many Western musicians have followed their fascination with Indian music since the Beatles headed east in the 1960s. A few brave Irish artists have explored that path too. Norin Ni Riain was one of the first with her 1996 album, Celtic Soul, where she sang some classical Indian and sean-nos Irish songs with equal authenticity. She is credited with introducing the shruti box to Celtic music which artists like Luka Bloom, Kila and Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart have used in their music.
The playing of the same instruments, fiddles and flutes, yielded fascinating and mysterious sonorities from these disparate cultures. It more than delivered on Zakir’s expectations: “I had all these preconceived ideas of what we would do and how we would make it work. But the more I think about this the more I’ve come to feel that we’re musicians. We’re the same the world over. If you put us in a room together, we’ll make music…”
The San Francisco Jazz Center is a fine musical venue which has begun to welcome Irish music artists. Lunasa and Karen Casey graced the stage there in December. Keep an eye on their schedule for more exciting performances.