Zakir Hussain and his Masters of Percussion: an exhilarating SMF performance

Exhilarating. Theatrical. Dynamic. Awe-inspiring.

Those are just a few words that come to my mind as I try to describe last night’s Zakir Hussain’s Masters of Percussion in the Trustees Theater in a beautifully produced Savannah Music Festival show.

Writing or talking about the show is all the more difficult because I don’t know the names of some of the instruments and don’t have any idea what “songs” were played with such beauty and passion. Other than the masterful Zakir Hussain and bassist Edgar Meyer — who joined the ensemble for a beautiful and haunting piece before intermission — I don’t know any of the performers either.

The show opened with a darkened stage except for a single spot on a cylindrical drum, with a stunning red sash, at the edge of the stage. I’m not sure which of the dancing drummers of Manipur from the Meitei Pung Cholom Performing Troupe pranced out to pick up the drum — it was either Ningombam Joy Singh or Mujeeb Dadarkar according to the program. Under the athletic hands of the drummer, the instrument yielded deeper notes on one end and higher on the other — a powerful opening.

From there, the show — almost two and a half hours including a short intermission — was comprised of various combinations of traditional instruments and brilliant — and joyous — performances.

It goes without saying that Hussain’s incredibly fast and precise tabla playing electrified the audience of 500 or so.

But each artist had some standout moments — and each seemed a perfect fit into the polished ensemble.

Hussain’s younger brother Fazal Qureshi played the tabla in some brilliant give and take with Zakir, and also played the percussive kanjira.

Rakesh Chaurasia’s bansuri (bamboo flute) was rich as a solo instrument, and was indispensable for bringing depth and balance to some of the more rhythmic pieces.

Ditto for Dilshad Khan and his sarangi. Khan’s face was radiant as the fingers of his left hand flew along the strings while his right hand seemed merged with the bow.

Sitting stage right, THV Umashankar on the ghatam (clay pot) had a stunning second act solo and Navin Sharma’s dholak seemed the insistent driver of the beat for extended periods.

I was most taken, of all the instruments, with the doyra, played by Abbos Kosimov. It’s a round, frame drum with a jingle. Dressed in a delightful white outfit with boots with curved toes, Abbos Kosimov played first one of the Central Asian instruments, then two, then three — alternately standing, sitting, and even juggling.

And then there was Edgar Meyer, whom I have seen perform with Hussain before (along with Bela Fleck). Maybe someone out there can tell me what the composition was that he joined in on, but his bass was particularly moving combined with Chaurasia’s flute.

In his introduction to the show, SMF director Rob Gibson called Zakir Hussain “one of the great musicians of our time.” That much seems pretty clear.

And it seemed pretty clear on Thursday night that Hussain had surrounded himself with the very best.