Zakir Hussain’s renowned ‘Masters of Percussion’ brings global drumbeats to Portland

By Prakruti Bhatt (OPB)
March 18, 2023 1 p.m.
This year's "Masters of Percussion" includes (left to right) Navin Sharma, Tupac Mantilla, Mélissa Hié, Sabir Khan and Zakir Hussain. The ensemble will perform at Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on March 21, 2023.

This year's "Masters of Percussion" includes (left to right) Navin Sharma, Tupac Mantilla, Mélissa Hié, Sabir Khan and Zakir Hussain. The ensemble will perform at Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on March 21, 2023.

Courtesy of Susana Millman

For Grammy-winning percussionist Zakir Hussain, Portland is a stark reminder of the power the mountains hold.


“It’s where I visit Mother Nature and bow to her friends, her energy and her tolerance of humans who are messing with her,” Hussain says. Like a pilgrim making a holy pilgrimage done once a year, the Indian tabla virtuoso has visited the region for the past four decades, either as part of tours or to reconnect with his friends or a hectic combination of both.

This year is no different.

Zakir Hussain will be bringing his critically-acclaimed “Masters of Percussion” tour to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday. Attendees can not only expect musicians seamlessly blending rhythms and melodies together during the show, but also a musical conversation that introduces new percussionist forces.

“Masters of Percussion,” which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, is known for its ever-changing lineup – Hussain is adamant about showcasing drumming traditions from all across the world.

This year’s ensemble includes Colombian-born percussionist Tupac Mantilla, sarangi artist Sabir Khan, dholak player Navin Sharma and drumming master Mélissa Hié.

The tabla, sarangi and dholak may not be familiar to Western percussionists, yet each is core to the global musical traditions at the heart of Hussain’s decades-long project.

Hussain has performed alongside women musicians before as part of independent tours, but Hié is the first woman to be a part of the “Masters of Percussion” ensemble since the group’s inception in the 1980s. “It is great to finally showcase a female master drummer, and from what you may call the cradle of drumming or rhythms. It is firmly believed by one and all that rhythms originated in Africa,” says Hussain. “To have her represent that part of the world where rhythms came from and to have her play with us is really great.”


But why did it take so long to add a woman to the five-person ensemble?

The 72-year-old musician strongly emphasizes that he does not classify performers by gender. Rather, it is a question of finding someone who fits in the grander scheme of things.

“To be able to find a percussionist from a non-Indian tradition who is around the same wavelength, has a similar idea of what rhythms are all about and is not in any way hesitant to be able to mix it up on stage with other genres of rhythms. … It’s not that easy.”

Hussain found the spark he was looking for in Hié.

However, that spark is not instantaneous as most would assume. It’s a slow bloom that involves meeting families, elevating conversations and unraveling multiple layers of friendship one jam session at a time. And this usually takes at least about 12 months. “That’s why ‘Masters of Percussion’ happens every other year because we spend a year doing research and getting to know each other… until we get to a point where we really feel comfortable with each other and feel confident that we can get on stage and do some damage,” Hussain says.

Each time Hussain went to Europe, he met with Hié in Paris over French food, and they would talk rhythms.

When he was not in Paris, the conversation continued over Zoom.

When he finally got to the point of playing with Hié, he knew she’d be the perfect fit. It was during these sessions that Hussain knew that this was going to be the next combination for “Masters of Percussion.”

Hussain also believes that a concert’s success is contingent on the mood of the instrument. In simple words, Hussain says, his tabla is his best friend.

“If a concert is a success, a large part of it is because the spirit inside of that instrument, my mate, was in a good mood,” he says. “You never know what is going to happen.”

With another pilgrimage to Portland fast approaching, Hussain believes his tabla is willing, ready and eager to perform.


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