Arts, Music

Strumming a New Tune

Zakir Hussain (photo by Jim McGuire)

Zakir Hussain (photo by Jim McGuire)

Back in December, premier Irish guitarist Tony Byrne got an unusual email. Would he be interested in going on tour with Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain and his troupe of Indian and Celtic musicians?

“Are you free, are you interested?” Byrne recalls. The answer was easy. “Being on a stage like that, I couldn’t say no.”

Speaking from his hotel room outside Washington, D.C., on the fourth night of the tour, Byrne has absolutely no regrets about playing in Hussain’s show “Pulse of the World: Celtic Connections.” He joins some of the world’s best Indian and Celtic musicians: Rakesh Chaurasia, bamboo flute; Fraser Fifield, flute and pipes; Jean-Michel Veillon, flute; Ganesh Rajagopalan, violin; Charlie McKerron, fiddle; Patsy Reid, fiddle; John Joe Kelly, bodhran—and Hussain himself, widely acknowledged as the master of the Indian tabla drums, one of the most devilishly complex percussion instruments on the planet.

Celtic Connections explores the surprising ties between the rhythms and melodies of two distinctly different genres of world music. Those connections can be close indeed.

“A lot of these styles of music are linked, especially through percussion instruments, and a lot of the wind instruments as well,” says Byrne.

Still, the instruments, the styles of playing them and the musicians themselves are different enough that the contrasts are also pretty clear—and if some of it sounds like experimentation, it’s because it often is, says Byrne.

“The Indian musicians who are playing with us will pick up on a motif in a small line we play, and then they can come back to you with a little four-note phrase. It’s like they’re echoing back to you, and call and answer. You have a match, and a mismatch at the same time.

“They can dip in and out. That’s really fun when that happens. The more concerts we do, the more that that happens. We have a blueprint, but we can all deviate from that. It’s great to see that developing. It’s almost like jam sessions. That’s really exciting.”
Earlier in his musical career, Byrne was a rock drummer, and when he learned to play guitar, he incorporated a lot of percussion into his right-hand technique. That’s good when it comes to rhythm, but Byrne has to hang in there with the melody as well, which can be complex.

“I’ll always lock into John Joe and Zakir’s playing but I also have to lock into the chords,” Byrne says. “You try and cover all the bases.”

Even though Byrne’s style of play is powerfully percussive, that’s no walk in the park, either. John Joe Kelly is most directly in Byrne’s sightline, he says, “so we naturally, almost instinctively think together what to do.”

Zakkir is a bit more challenging. “Zakkir can play in any time signature. The guy has never missed a beat in his life. Its mesmerizing to watch him do it.”

If you’re a musician, though, that kind of challenge is what you live for.

“You’re always striving and trying to making it better,” Byrne says. “You become more focused and you become really alert. It is a challenge but it’s an exciting challenge as well.”

Pulse of the World: Celtic Connections will roll into Philly on March 27 for a concert at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street. The show starts at 7. Tickets and info here.


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