By Lisa Tsering June 2, 2015
Each year, CIIS honors an individual whose life exemplifies the selfless service modeled by its founders, Haridas and Bina Chaudhuri. In 2015, we presented the award to Zakir Hussain for his
extraordinary achievements as a musician, composer, and cultural ambassador.
Grammy-winning tabla maestro Zakir Hussain's connection to Dr. Haridas and Bina Chaudhuri goes back decades. As a young man, he spent many hours at their Bay Area home, as their son Aushim studied music under Hussain's father, the acclaimed tabla artist Alla Rakha.
So when this fiery and compelling performer got the news that CIIS had selected him for the 2015 Haridas and Bina Chaudhuri Award, his sense of gratification was personal. "It's almost like a homecoming," Hussain says. "This prestigious honor coming my way, which I don't know if I deserve, is more of a blessing from Dr. and Mrs. Chaudhuri- who I knew since I was a teenager.
"It's a very special occasion for me, because of that relationship."
Like many other CIIS honorees, the Mumbai-born musician has devoted his life and career to bridging East and West-in his case, by creating a unique fusion of musical styles that introduces new, international sounds to audiences while keeping the highly demanding authenticity of classical Hindustani music intact. This spring, he embarked upon a 14-city tour called "Pulse of the World: Celtic Connections" along with leading musicians from Ireland and Scotland.
"My father was traveling all over Europe, America, and everywhere else," explains Hussain of his childhood in India. "He and Ravi Shankar were a duo, and he'd bring back many records and tapes for me to listen to. Musicians from this part of the world would come to our home, because of my father. So I got to know them and say hello to them, whether it was George Harrison, or Paul or Ringo, [jazz multi-instrumentalist] Yusef Lateef or Duke Ellington."
Although he is best known as a performer, Hussain-a child prodigy who was playing professionally as a session musician at age 12-is also a composer, film producer, and actor (Merchant-Ivory's Heat and Dust), and holds India's Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan civilian honors among many other accolades, including a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
He won his first Grammy in 1992 for the groundbreaking Planet Drum, a collaboration with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart, and went on to win a second Grammy in 2009 for Global Drum Project.
Asked if he considers himself a humanitarian or activist, he demurs. "I don't know if I believe that musicians or artists should have any negative energy when it comes to politics," he says. "But we do, as musicians, get involved with things that matter, such as helping little kids or cancer victims or battered women, so I do benefit concerts for groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the domestic violence nonprofit Maitri."
As an adviser to Rolex's Mentors & Protégés program, he helps the watch company find mentors for promising talents, and offers his home and teaching experience to low-income students in India who show promise.
But one of the most distinctive things about Hussain is the way he loses himself in his music. If we are lucky enough to be there in the audience, we are blissfully lost there, too.
"We all believe that each instrument has a spirit, and half the battle is to get that spirit to accept you," Hussain says. "Once that's done, you are allowed an 'in,' and you can explore the world of music and art through the voice of that instrument to your heart's content.
"So when I'm performing, and playing, I'm in that relationship with my instrument. It's very deep, and it builds that a love that has been built over many decades. "There is no intention consciously to have the audience be a part of it, but I imagine the audience or people listening to me-or any musician who have that kind of a connection to music cannot help but notice it, and become a part of it, and take the plunge with us."