Ustad Zakir Hussain’s tabla connects with the ear more directly than Sumantra Ghosal’s overly long docu on the master percussionist, “The Speaking Drum.” There are multiple dangers in a docu-profile of an artist being made by an unabashed fan — loss of perspective, to name one — and, make no mistake about it, Ghosal is big on Hussain. While the film generously explores contours of tabla playing, its multiple stylings and personalities in Indian music, auds clueless to Hussain will need patience to wade into a vid-shot work that too often assumes you’re part of the fan club. Good fest vibes are in the air, but lack of production polish will limit its reach as a full-length music vid.
The profile is divided into two parts of equal length: The first detailing Hussain’s upbringing and training by his father and tabla master in his own right, Ustad Alla Rakha; the second devoted to Hussain’s career and musical life in both the East and West, with considerable chunks of time given over to concert footage.
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This life of one foot in India, one in the non-Indian world was established early on, since he was raised in a Hindi-speaking Muslim home, but educated in Christian and English schools. Hussain tells of his father’s “childlike pleasure” while playing, and it’s easy to understand how the boy simply picked up the tabla like a toy he naturally adored. Underlying that was a culture of training involving an abiding respect for elders (teachers are literally “gurus”) which has no corollary in Western music schooling.
What is never fully examined by Ghosal, though, is how Hussain managed to both abide by the demanding rigors of Indian classical music and then, step by step, break the rules, and, as it’s remarked more than once here, subvert his music altogether. In lengthy clips of Hussain speaking to the camera, he demonstrates a multitude of techniques and devices (a memorable touch includes how he turns the treble drum in the two-drum tabla kit into a “female” voice, and the bass drum into a “male” one).
The concluding section looks at Hussain’s extensive stays in Northern California (where he met wife Antonio and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart) and delivers tasty concert clips from Hussain’s many gigs with Hart’s Planet Drum ensemble. But neophytes to Hussain’s world will not know from “The Speaking Drum,” for example, that he has also extensively recorded with jazz musicians such as the brilliant Norwegian horn player, Jan Garbarek, and guitar god John McLaughlin (who never appear on screen or are referred to, except obscurely in the acknowledgement credits).
The choppy assembly of many talking heads segments, performances and other bits makes for a less than musical pacing. Some sound elements are sadly sub-par.