Hussain was born in 1951 in Mumbai. His father was tabla maestro Alla Rakha. A prodigy, his father taught him the pakhawaj (or mridang) -- a barrel-shaped, two-headed drum from Indian antiquity -- when he was three. He gave his first solo concert at seven. In 1970, at age 19, he accompanied sitar maestro Ravi Shankar on a tour of the United States. Shankar advised Hussain to remain in America and accept a teaching position at the University of Washington in the Department of Ethnomusicology. He also planned to study for a PhD, but moved to the Bay Area in the employ of Ali Akbar Khan.
Hussain's international touring career began in earnest in the '70s, and he has played more than 150 concert dates a year ever since. In the process of becoming a maestro, Hussain has accompanied virtually every Indian classical music master in his wake. In addition to his father, Shankar, and Ali Akbar Khan, he has worked with Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit VG Jog, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, and dozens of others. As a result, he almost singlehandedly raised the profile of the tabla. While in the Bay Area, he made the acquaintance of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and was a member of his recording and touring side project the Diga Rhythm Band (and later Hart's Planet Drum). Hussain joined with guitarist John McLaughlin and violinist L. Shankar to form the East-meets-West supergroup Shakti in 1975. The band recorded three acclaimed Columbia albums between 1976 and 1977: Shakti with John McLaughlin, A Handful of Beauty, and Natural Elements. Although the group disbanded in 1978, they reunited to tour as Remember Shakti in 1998. In 1980, he played on Shankar's debut ECM offering Who's to Know and the 1985 follow-up Song for Everyone that also included saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Hussain has been equally successful as a bandleader. During the '80s, he toured with Zakir Hussain's Rhythm Experience. At the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, he was nominated for an award as composer and music director of the Merchant Ivory film Heat and Dust. In cinema, he worked with Hart as part of the Rhythm Devils on The Apocalypse Now Sessions (some were used in the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's epic film). Hussain's debut Western solo album, Making Music, appeared in 1987. His sidemen included Garbarek, McLaughlin, and Hariprasad Chaurasia; it was followed by Tabla Duet with his father a year later.
Numerous awards have been bestowed upon Hussain throughout his career. In 1988, he became the youngest percussionist to be awarded the title "Padma Shri" by the Indian government. Despite establishing himself as a leader, Hussain remained a prolific collaborator and sideman. During the '80s alone, he toured the globe several times and played on no less than 75 albums with a host of Indian classical musicians, as well as the reunited Mahavishnu, Earth Wind Fire, Bill Laswell, and Kitaro.
In 1990, he worked with Hart again on the world music outing At the Edge. Some of its other players included Jerry Garcia, Airto Moreira, and Babatunde Olatunji. Two years later, a version of that group issued the Grammy-winning Planet Drum. It also won the Downbeat Critics' Poll for Best World Music Album. In 1992, he released Zakir Hussain and the Rhythm Experience, an Indian band outing with guest spots from Hart and Narada Michael Walden, among others. The following year saw the release of Hazir: Ghazals from India, a duet with vocalist Hariharan. In 1993, Hussain was a member of the studio group that recorded the soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci's film Little Buddha; he also released the soundscape Music of the Deserts, leading an all-Indian ensemble. 1995's The Elements: Space was a revolutionary recording. With fellow percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, a large Indian ensemble performed a cross-genre fusion of electronic, folk, new age, and Carnatic music. Released in India on Music Today, it garnered rave reviews across the globe. The classical trio offering Tabla appeared in 1997. Later that year, the Remember Shakti tour took place with McLaughlin, Hussain, Shankar, and T.H. Vikku Vinayakram. Four shows from the British tour -- including one at Royal Albert Hall -- were issued on Verve as a double-length titled Remember Shakti in 1999. Also in 1999, Hussain played with Pharoah Sanders' band for the Save Our Children outing on Axiom and worked with Hart on the soundtrack to his book Spirit Into Sound.
The percussionist kicked off the 21st century with a second live album from a different version of Remember Shakti. Titled The Believer, its lineup included U. Srinivas on electric mandolin and Vikkam Selvaganesh on ghattam. That same year, Tabla Beat Science issued Tala Matrix. In 2001, the live Saturday Night in Bombay was released by Remember Shakti. In 2002, the percussionist put out two remarkable albums: a tribute to Ustad Mohammad Omar titled Virtuoso from Afghanistan and Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove with Tabla Beat Science. The following year, TBS issued the live DVD Talamanam Sound Clash: Further Adventures in Hype. 2004 saw two live outings by Remember Shakti, released a week apart: Live at Miles Davis Hall and Live at 38th Montreux Jazz Festival. The year also saw Hussain issue two albums of Carnatic classical music, Punjabi Dhamar and Raag Chandrakauns, and he performed in Sangam with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and drummer Eric Harland. A self-titled album of their 2004 improvised concert was released by ECM in 2006. The trio would tour again in later years, alongside Lloyd's quartet. Later in 2004, Hussain would rejoin all of his collaborators in Remember Shakti under the leadership of V. Selvaganesh for Soukha on the Naive label, and he appeared on McLaughlin's fusion recording Industrial Zen. In 2007, the tabla master was part of Hart's group for the collaborative Global Drum Project.
After returning from Africa, composer and banjoist Bela Fleck put together a musical trio with Hussain and bassist Edgar Meyer to record The Melody of Rhythm in 2012, accompanied by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The following year, Hussain returned to Indian tradition once again with Live in Mumbai, a collaboration with Ustad Vilayat Khan and Hidayat Khan. ?Hazir 2, from Hussain's percussion and voice duo with Hariharan, appeared in 2014. The same year Hussain took part in Hafez Nazeri's, Rumi Symphony Project: Untold for Sony Classics featuring Shahram Nazeri and Deepak Chopra. Hussain spent much of the next five years touring, teaching workshops, and collaborating with other artists. In 2019, a trio with bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter released Good Hope on Edition Records. In 2020, Hussain worked with McLaughlin again -- as well as singer/composer Shankar Mahadevan -- on Is That So? a fusion of Hindustani and Indian classical music with 21st century guitar electronics and jazz. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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