Zakir Hussain & Marcus GilmorePercussion’s power unites across borders

Published in January 2020icon-clockTime to read: 1m30s
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Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain quickly took note of the talent of his protégé, American drummer Marcus Gilmore. By the end of the mentorship, in part thanks to the affirmation of his mentor, Gilmore reached his goal of writing his first composition for orchestra. Along the way, Hussain taught to Gilmore the Indian principle of a musician’s love for his instrument.

by Sarah Crompton January 2020
  • Zakir Hussain
    The Mentor
  • Marcus Gilmore
    The Protégé

“I see him as a bit of a sage. He’s like a kind of Yoda, he really is,” says Marcus Gilmore talking of his Rolex Arts Initiative mentor the legendary drummer Zakir Hussain. “I have so much respect for him not just as a masterful musician, but as a person. He’s very insightful and very attentive and like a lot of wise people, he doesn’t need to say a lot to get his point across. He listens, then he says what he has to say and that’s it.”

The 33 year-old New York-based drummer is laughing as he compares Hussain to the large-eyed mentor in the Star Wars universe, but there is no doubting the almost mystical quality that Hussain, a composer and music producer as well as an Indian tabla virtuoso, has brought to their relationship. In one of their meetings in India, Hussain took Gilmore back to the suburb of Mumbai where he was born. “In India we almost literally worship the instrument that we play; the one thing I think the Western world has lost, or maybe forgotten, is the relationship between an artist and his or her instrument. The reverence of that relationship. I wanted him to go back to the source and see that.”

The same quality attaches to the bond between mentor and protégé. “In India they say that a guru does not teach. It is the student who extracts the knowledge. This happens when a student inspires the master and sparks this desire in the master to be able to share information. In reverse what happens is that the master has suddenly seen this way of being able to transmit the knowledge.

“That’s what I’ve learned from Marcus. To talk to someone like him, I have had to learn his language, his vocabulary. I am enriched.” Gilmore feels he too has been fundamentally altered by their encounters. “It’s an example to me every time I am around him. I am always observing him. As James Baldwin says, children don’t always listen to their elders, but they imitate them. Actions speak. Zakir carries himself with respect and he is also very respectful towards people. He is sharp but also patient. I have learnt from the way he distributes his energy.”

Their work has encompassed playing together, in concerts and with Gilmore spending time with Hussain at the annual tabla workshops he runs in Mumbai and California; he has also observed him at work as a composer, working on a score for the Alonzo King Lines Ballet, based in San Francisco, and on a score for the Kronos Quartet. But their relationship has particularly focused on the composition that Gilmore has written to be premiered at the Rolex Arts Initiative weekend in Cape Town in February 2020.

Zakir carries himself with respect and he is also very respectful towards people. He is sharp but also patient. I have learnt from the way he distributes his energy.

Marcus Gilmore, 2018-2019 Music Protégé

It is his first composition for a classical orchestra, incorporating drums and jazz musicians and when we all meet in New York, in a utilitarian rehearsal room at the DiMenna Center, Gilmore is hearing it played live for the first time by the American Composers Orchestra. Hussain has driven down from Boston where he received an honorary degree from Berklee College of Music the previous evening. He looks on with warm interest as Gilmore takes charge, asking questions, perfecting sounds.

“What I like is his immense confidence in his ability to communicate and interact. That’s a remarkable change over the past two years. It’s so hard to write for an orchestra and if he can do this now, it’s pretty scary to imagine what he can come up with in future,” he says. Gilmore adds: “It’s been a really big learning experience for me.”

From the first Gilmore told Hussain that he wanted to compose more, to add that strand to his already successful career as a sideman for artists such as Chick Corea, and as a successful jazz soloist. “I play all the time in many different environments and there’s a great deal of spontaneous composition involved with that. But I wanted to write through-composed music; I have all these ideas floating around in my head and I need to get them out. There’s a part of me as an artist, that I felt had to be exhaled, if you like, to be developed. Playing drums is only one element. I feel the potential is infinite.”

As an experienced composer, Hussain has been able to give Gilmore specific advice. “I walked him through the very infancy of my developing a piece of music. I would sing a rhythm to him and then ask him how I translated that into a melodic idea. Then the next layer was to figure out what the instruments in the orchestra might be. I helped him to translate the grammar of the rhythmic sentences and paragraphs into melodic sentences and paragraphs, because they don’t line up exactly.”

“Zakir really assisted me in solving specific problems,” Gilmore adds. “He just helped me to see the bigger picture. I remember a few months ago, I had all these little sketches and I didn’t know how I was going to make sense of it, what to keep and what to omit. I was playing things for him, and he would say things like ‘That sounds similar to this’ or ‘That sounds cool but try to get a clear, simple melody first and then build upon it.’”

Underlying such technical know-how, was more general encouragement and support. “I think every rhythm player can compose. It’s a psychological thing and a mindset that stops them,” Hussain remarks. Gilmore understands that feeling. “I know there are a lot of negative stereotypes of drummers. But it is a form of wilful ignorance. It doesn’t take a lot to see the potential of the drum – it was the first instrument. A heartbeat is a drum.”

What unites the two men is this belief in the melodic potential of drumming. In tabla playing, with its complex, dividing patterns its relationship to melody is clear; in Western music it’s more often seen as simply percussive, a trend Gilmore, the grandson of the great drummer Roy Haynes, stands against. “He is unique,” says Hussain. “His connection with the drums is such that his hands and his sticks pretty much get absorbed in the instrument. What that allows him to do is to speak through his drums. That is a gift.”

He sees his role as giving Gilmore confidence in that talent. “I guess the one thing I try to tell him is not to be threatened. If you are confident, you are not afraid to fall flat on your face. Failure is nothing but the first step of success. When you fail, it’s the first lesson of what not to do again. If you know that, you can move forward in this world.”

For Gilmore and Hussain, as for the other proteges and mentors, their bond has moved beyond the professional into a familial one. They are now firm friends who will, Hussain says, “play together a zillion times in the future.” Both feel they have absorbed information from the other. Hussain says: “I got updated. My software is from way back, and now there are some fresh ideas, thoughts and rhythms that come from the way Marcus looks at things.”

For Gilmore, the knowledge shared has been invaluable. “I’ve gained insight into the field, into the industry and into myself as an artist,” he says, smiling. “But as much as he imparted all this incredible information to me, he also said that the most important thing is that it has to feel right to you.

“Really great mentors, like Zakir, don’t say ‘This is the only way you’ve got to do this.’ It’s like, I am going to try to give you some tools. This is what I have learnt. What does it mean to you? In the end, you always have yourself, so you have to be at peace with that. That’s the essence really.”

Sarah Crompton is one of Britain’s most respected writers and broadcasters, commentating on all aspects of culture and the arts. Her work appears in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Times and The Observer, among others.

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