An eleven year old boy sits by a river in the mountains of north India gazing into the rippling stream. He’s torn up inside. He’s been bewitched by music—especially drums—for as long as he can remember but his family of farmers and military men aren’t happy. They don’t want to hear anymore of his bleating about wanting to study the tabla. His mother has managed to broker a ceasefire and convince the boy’s father to allow him to take some singing lessons from a local teacher.
The boy finds solace by staring into the river. And recently he’s been seeing the face of an old man looking back at him from below the watery surface. Sometimes he swears he can hear the man whisper, “Look for me. You must find me.”
At last his family agrees to let the boy take some drumming lessons from Ustad Lal Mohammad. The boy is overjoyed. But is intrigued by his teacher’s frequent reference to another man, Kader Baksh, as the ‘great master’ of tabla. The boy learns to play tabla as well as pakhawaj, the barrel shaped drum that accompanies dhrupad singing which he is also learning.
He is pleased with what his mother has managed to accomplish but his insides still burn. Without notice the boy makes the decision to leave home in Jammu and go to the bright lights and big city of Lahore, a day’s journey down the mountains. Once he arrives he goes to hear a dhrupad singer perform and manages to convince the show’s organiser that he can sit in for the pakhawaj player who has failed to show up. The show must go on, and though sceptical of the precocious 12 year old, the singer and organiser agree.
In the following days word spreads through Lahore’s large community of musicians about the little kid that accompanied the singer so expertly. His taals were impeccable. And he never lost or messed up the tempo. It’s as if he’s been playing for 20 years not just a few.
These whispers reach the ears of an old Ustad who arranges for the kid to be brought to his baithak to see for himself who everyone is talking about. ‘I’m Kader Baksh,’ the old man says. The boy instantly recognises him as the face of the man in the river. When Baksh asks the boy who he studies with, the boy replies immediately, ‘You.’
The boy in this true story is A.R. Qureshi aka Alla Rakha. After several years of ustad/shagird with Kader Baksh, Alla Rakha found employment with All India Radio in Delhi and then Bombay where he tried to establish himself as a music director (with some limited success). But performing was his true passion and through the early 1950s he performed and made recordings with the likes of Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan and an up-and-coming sarod player named Ali Akbar Khan, whom he accompanied on his radio debut.
In 1958 he joined Ravi Shankar on a tour of Japan which proved to be Fateful for both men. In each other they discovered a kindred spirit: someone open to new musical ideas and unafraid to take chances. Over the next 25 years or so Alla Rakha accompanied the sitarist on all his international tours and recordings and thanks to their performing in several major American music festivals (Monterey Jazz, Woodstock and the Concert for Bangladesh in New York) he became the most famous tabla player in the world.
Not only was Ravi Shankar an adventurous musical soul he was a star who didn’t mind sharing the limelight. On stage he insisted that Alla Rakha sit next to him (rather than sightly behind him, where accompanists usually positioned themselves) and regularly gave him space to solo and showcase his dazzling finger skills. Indeed, the pair became one of the most famous performing duos in music. Not only were both men supreme maestros of their instruments but they enjoyed a deep connection and understanding that made their music appear completely unitary.
In 1968 as young America’s interest in Indian classical music was surging to its peak Alla Rakha made a landmark record with the big band jazz drummer Buddy Rich. Rich, like Alla Rakha, is an icon, often ranked very near the top of any list of ‘greatest drummers’ regardless of genre. Rich was an exuberant, hot tempered man who frequently alienated friends and peers but, at the same time, “was one of the most technically gifted drummers to ever walk our planet. He had incredible speed and control, power and touch.”
Ravi Shankar composed several compositions for both men to play together and brought in smooth jazz flautist Paul Horn (who studied meditation in Rishikesh at the same time as The Beatles in 1968) as well as sitarist Shamim Ahmed to create a musical space within which the two geniuses could experiment. The album Rich ala Rakha, which we share today, is a milestone in the ‘jazz meets Indian classical music’ story.
“Of the three studio tracks with Buddy Rich, two feature Rich on the drumkit, while one is a duet between Rich on dholak and Rakha on tabla. The opening track, Khanda Kafi is set to a five-beat cycle, known as khanda, with the flute and sitar playing a melody in the kafi scale, hence the combined title. Buddy Rich takes a drumkit solo in the 5/4 rhythm cycle, followed by Alla Rakha’s solo. The second track, Duet in Dadra, captures a spontaneous jam between the two drummers in the six-beat cycle of dadra.
But the most satisfying part of the record is the third and final collaboration…the only piece where they enter into a genuine dialogue on their respective instruments. Rangeela begins as a calypso-flavored composition by Shankar, played by Paul Horn on flute and Shamim Ahmed on sitar. Eventually, Rich and Rakha engage in a jawab-sawal dialogue in which they goal each other with a series of phrases traded back and forth. As the tempo increases and the phrases get shorter they join together and play a steadily building crescenco on the tabla and snare drum, increasing in volume and culminating in a dramatic tihai that complete an exhilarating performance.” (The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli, pg. 106)
This record is sometimes sniffed at by jazz snobs but it is in fact one of real significance. It is hard to imagine that any of Zakir Hussain‘s (Alla Rakha’s son) many collaborations would have been able to happen without this record. Indeed, many jazz and rock drummers, including Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead, have cited the album and Allah Rakha generally as a huge inspiration.
In my opinion this is a fantastic album. I hope you think so to.
01 Khanda Kafi
02 Duet in Dadra
04 Nagma E Raksh
05 Tal Sawari