By Mary Mueller
Shirtless, barefoot Meitei Pung Cholom entered the Trustees Theater stage the night of April 5 stomping his feet, banging his double-headed drum and jumping in swirling, wide circles. Cholom’s muscles bulged as he powerfully struck his drum, sunk to his knees, and closed his eyes in the passionate mixture of balance, rhythm, and movement that is Manipuri dance. Both feet leaped off the floor and over his head as he spiraled around his drum, creating a whirlwind of sound and motion.
It was the perfect opening for Zakhir Hussein’s fast-paced and emotive “Masters of Percussion” tour, featuring a diverse line-up of percussion virtuosos for this year’s Savannah Music Festival. After Cholom’s drumming dance, the spotlight settled on Dilshad Khan, who sat cross-legged, caressing the strings of his sarangi (similar to the sitar, only played with a bow).
Just as the audience began to slip into a dreamy daze, one of Khan’s hands began to fly across the board as the other gently strummed, creating a dynamic contrast between long, lulling chords and quick, successive notes.
Hussein joined him slowly and quietly on tabla (small hand drums), then swiftly increased the pace, rocking his whole body to the music and occasionally using his wrists to rub the surface of the drums.His solos were reminiscent of Neil Peart’s as his fingers moved faster than the human eye, becoming a flesh-colored blur.
Fazal Qureshi clapped along until he jumped into the rhythm with his own tabla and kanjira. The drumming grew faster and faster, Hussein and Qureshi trading off, until the beat became almost too fast to keep up with, a sort of Indian Dueling Banjos.
Qureshi’s mouth stretched into an excited smile even as his brows furrowed in concentration, fingers dashing across the drum with stunning speed and power. The players grinned at each other, swaying along to the beat and clapping to each others’ solos.
Their camaraderie was impressive; each player knew how and when to forefront and background each other. The performance became like watching a conversation between friends, with strings and skins substituting for mouths and hands.
At times, the sarangi would be so soft it was almost a whisper, only to suddenly burst into a collaborative explosion of sound and speed, constantly moving and transitioning. Each stroke was deliberate and passionate, with near-perfect timing. Energy pulsated throughout the room, commanding attention and building anticipation until the audience hung on every note.
One by one, more musicians entered the stage; Rakesh Chaurasia stepped out with his bansuri (bamboo flute), THV Umashankar with his ghatam (clay pot) and Navin Sharma on the dholak (two-headed drum). Abbos Kosimov tossed his doyra (somewhat like a tambourine) up into the air, flipping and spinning it like an Italian pizza maker– while still playing it. The lighthearted air and improvisational quality made it feel as if audience members were friends listening in on an impromptu jam session.
Which it soon became, when renowned cellist Edgar Meyer stepped on stage for a song, surprising everyone. His cello changed the atmosphere of the concert, bringing a more reflective, meditative tone to the playful mood. His deep, low notes created the kind of music that speaks to your soul, settling and calming you, placing you firmly within the moment while transporting you millions of miles away, to exotic lands or the landscape of dreams.
The musicians of Zakhir Hussein’s “Masters of Percussion” hit all the bases of a perfect performance– energy, talent, creativity and passion. Their music was purely spiritual, powerful and clear enough to make you grin or cry.Contact Mary Mueller.