MUSIC / Stars of India shining brightly : Robert Maycock on Zakir Hussain and his percussion ensemble at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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The Independent Culture
PUT ON a festival of contemporary percussion and you can forget about an audience - unless the music's Asian. Ranks of thumping, macho Japanese drummers will attract people in a touristy frame of mind. Percussionists from India have a huge and more strictly musical following , so the QEH was predictably packed on Wednesday for what it modestly described as Zakir Hussain and a percussion ensemble. Modesty be blowed: this was an unprecedented meeting of stars and dynasties from the north and the south of the country, the Indian equivalent of lining up all the Torteliers and the Oistrakhs with Maurizio Pollini thrown in. Nearly four hours on, barely a dozen people had drifted away, and the energy level on the platform was just starting to peak.

Zakir Hussain is the son of Alla Rakha, veteran of the days when the West was discovering Ravi Shankar. Father and two sons - Fazal Qureshi is the other - made up a tabla trio which, at the recital's centre, kept a virtuoso series of solos, duets and full-scale ensembles in hectic action for over an hour. Mostly it was two of them, for the younger son delivered a couple of thunderous, square-cut solos and stayed in the background while the others showed off. It didn't matter. Alla Rakha looks old now, but the mental agility is there, his ingenious cross-rhythms a foil for Zakir Hussain's more physical style, decked out with flashy microtonal chromatic scales.

Each struck sparks off the other in 'recitations', the engaging bursts of mnemonics which, like Hindi skat-singing, introduce a traditional rhythmic sequence. They were undeterred by an amplification system that made climactic tattoos sound like an approaching fleet of helicopters.

Zakir Hussain pulled faces, shrugged, complained out loud, but it made no difference. Still, this is a player who can keep the music going while he chats to the audience about what he is doing and what might happen next. If that includes being set near-impossible rhythmic challenges by a duet partner, so be it: he'll cheerfully tell all (and it all helps the applause if he then rises to them).

That little episode of elucidation came at the height of the evening's other big ensemble, which presented the south Indian ghatam - a big clay pot, emitting a metallic monotone which can be endlessly varied in attack. The player pummels it with clenched fists, taps it with bandaged fingertips, slaps the hole at the top and bounces the whole thing off his belly for extra-deep resonance, at a frantic driving pace which brought Vikku Vinayakram the ovation of the night. This set off a quartet with Bhawani Prasad thumping the pakhawaj, a double-ended ancestor of the tabla (he had presented his credentials with a solo at the start of the recital), and the ghatam player's son Sri V Selva Ganesh on the kanjira, a sort of high- powered tambourine, as well as Zakir Hussain - this grew into a sequence of contests, rapid-fire responses and ever quicker exchanges, at times flippant and laconic to the point of rashness, releasing tensions in a massive concluding foursome. At the start of the recital's second half, there had been a sarangi solo from Sultan Khan, a long slow meditation of serene anguish on bowed strings which remained in the memory as a high point of the evening; but that wasn't the main reason the crowds had come, and the subsequent excitement swept all else aside.

It nearly didn't happen: international bureaucracy and politicking promoters, the usual plagues of Indian events, caused the collapse of one Zakir Hussain tour and the emergence of another with only six weeks to go. The three percussion events planned for the South Bank next week have vanished altogether, though the Asian Music Circuit says it is rescheduling them for next March and hopes to come up with another Zakir Hussain tour as well. I nearly added 'look in Bazaar magazine for dates', but this useful South Asian arts magazine is another bureaucratic casualty - probably terminal, as the Arts Council has withdrawn backing. The current ensemble is around for another week; catch it while you can.

Further dates: Bradford (10 April), Birmingham (11), Coventry (12), Bath (15), Leicester (16), Stoke (17)