Arts, Culture & Media

Legendary Indian classical musicians bring songs to United States

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Shivkumar Sharma, santoor player, is one member of a classical music duo with Zakir Hussain. (Photo by Sonia Narang.)

India is a country with a long history of Hindu-Muslim conflict. However, over the centuries, north Indian classical music has been a point of harmony for Hindus and Muslims, because it’s merged elements from both traditions.

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“For us, the musicians, there is no distinction of caste, creed, religion, language, no barriers — because melody and rhythm, they don’t have any religion,” said Shivkumar Sharma, a master of the santoor, an instrument with more than 90 strings.

He is currently on tour in the United States, performing with Zakir Hussain on tabla, a percussion instrument. When collaborating, Sharma’s melodic sounds mix with Hussain’s powerful rhythms.

The two improvise on stage, and engage in a quick-paced, back-and-forth musical dialogue.

“Once you’re on stage, you’re not there to repeat what you’ve learned. You’re there to be able to interact and create afresh, and it has to happen spontaneously,” Hussain said. “The whole idea is to be able to carry on the conversation that you’ve been having in the dressing room on the stage. But, the language, instead of words, becomes notes and music.”

Sharma developed his own way of playing the santoor, originally a folk instrument in the Kashmir Valley.

“This is a staccato instrument, the only instrument of its kind, a stringed instrument which is neither plucked nor played with a bow, it’s played with two wooden mallets,” Sharma said.

Zakir Hussain often plays the tabla at lightning-fast speeds.

“When a tabla player like Zakir Hussain is playing with me, I play the melody, I play the raga," Sharma said. "And I select the taal, the rhythmic cycle, and during that process, whatever I improvise, Zakir comes out with his own ideas.”

Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain from PRI's The World on Vimeo.

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