The Beat Goes On

Tabla Beat Science experiments with cross-cultural strains.

Forget fusion. The proudly multicultural music of the all-star project known as Tabla Beat Science is a form of fission--an explosive release of energy that creates heretofore unheard new musical organisms each time the group performs.

Led by Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and American bassist-producer extraordinaire Bill Laswell, Tabla Beat Science will play a rare concert Friday night in the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall. Ken Foster, director of the UApresents performing arts series, had the good taste and foresight to book one of the few dates on the critically acclaimed ensemble's two-week concert tour, its first-ever extended jaunt.

Formed in 2000 and with two albums under its collective belt--the studio debut Tala Matrix and last year's Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove (both on Axiom Records)--Tabla Beat Science melds traditional Indian rhythms, African vocal styles, jazz improvisation and dub bass lines with contemporary electronica styles, including breakbeat and drum 'n' bass. The result can be furious or contemplative, but is always fascinating and never predictable.

The current incarnation of the group features Hussain and Laswell, as well as drummer-composer Karsh Kale, turntablist DJ Disk, vocalist Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw and violinist-vocalist Pandit Ganesh Iyer.

When Tabla Beat Science first came together for Tala Matrix, the project was never intended as a permanent band, said Hussain in a recent phone interview from San Francisco, where he lives with Antonia, his wife of almost 25 years.

"We had no aspirations to play concerts. The record was done, and somehow it seems to have caught on with a wider audience than we imagined," the Bombay-born Hussain said.

So the group played a few one-off gigs, such as music festivals in Beirut and London, before combining forces for a now-legendary outdoor August 2001 gig before a sold-out front of 13,000 listeners under the eucalyptus trees of Stern Grove in San Francisco.

The concert would become the two-CD live album, but, again, there was no premeditation involved.

"We were just going to play this concert in the park and had no concept of making a live album," said Hussain. "But we make a point of digitally recording all our performances, and with multi-track recording equipment, computers and ProTools, it's so easy to make a live recording. Then we heard it and realized something special happened, so we decided to release it."

"Something special happened" seems to be the modus operandi of Tabla Beat Science. And, naturally, improvisation is a required component of its music.

"If you are gonna explore the realms of jazz--and even someone like DJ Disk, he has toured with Herbie Hancock--and Indian music, along with Arabic music, you have to touch that area. Improvisation is an integral part of all three traditions, and that creates a connection from which the musicians can draw. That is part of what is beautiful about TBS. It's just fun to see what happens."

It's not surprising, then, to learn that the members of Tabla Beat Science refrain from over-rehearsing their music into a rut.

"We'll hold maybe one or two rehearsals before going out on the road," Hussain said. "We'll arrange songs loosely, and just know that in the middle of, say, this song, we'll do 'something.' Then there may be a new element, or musician, and it's time to throw them into the mix and see what happens. The result is always something different."

Rotating personnel also help provide new influences. The first TBS CD featured electronica musician and tabla player Talvin Singh and percussionist Trilok Gurtu, but they weren't available later.

The second album features not only Ethiopian singer Gigi, who in 2001 saw the release of her gorgeous, Laswell-produced solo album, but DJ Disk, also a solo artist and a premier turntablist who started out in the vaunted hip-hop crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz.

Exposing the flesh-and-blood heart behind electronica is one of Hussain's favorite aspects of Tabla Beat Science.

"It's so rare to see musicians from an electronica background--you know, techno, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, re-mixers, whatever--have their work showcased on stage with live musicians, as opposed to a few people behind electronic equipment not really appearing to do much on a dimly lit stage," he said.

"This brings back the human elements of improvisation and spontaneity."

Indian sarangi player and vocalist Ustad Sultan Khan, an original member of Tabla Beat Science, will not play during this two-week tour because he is Muslim and observes the festival of mourning called Muharram, Hussain said.

In Khan's place for this tour will be Pandit Ganesh Iyer, for whom Hussain has great respect. "He is a violinist and a fabulous singer. So instead of playing the sarangi, he will play the violin, but it will be in traditional Indian style."

Hussain said he has known Laswell, the wizardly bassist, genre jumper and master producer--having worked on albums by artists as diverse as Public Image Ltd., Motorhead, Mick Jagger, Material, John Zorn, George Clinton and Pharoah Sanders, among others--for more than 20 years. The two have collaborated often.

Among Hussain's credits are collaborations with Ravi Shankar, Mickey Hart, Jack Bruce, Van Morrison and Billy Cobham. He is a founding member of the fusion group Shakti with guitarist John McLaughlin and violinist L. Shankar.

His diverse history has allowed Hussain, like many of us, to experience many of the differences and similarities among cultures.

"The world seems to be suddenly shrinking. Everyone can look into each other's windows without leaving their own homes. The connections have always been there, but only now can we experience them more easily. We just started to notice this in the 20th century."

Hussain also sincerely believes such attitudes are not solely applicable to music and the arts, but could be helpful to the world's leaders in these times of terrorist acts and impending war.

"The people of the world, they tend to respect each other more after they have seen what each other's culture is about," he said.

"Unfortunately, unfamiliarity raises doubts, disagreements, dissolution and a sense of brooding. Getting to know other cultures may bring about a little more clarity among our world leaders."