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2024 Grammys: A delightful harvest for Zakir Hussain and Indian music

On the musical brilliance of the winning works from India at the GRAMMYs this year

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World-renowned Indian tabla doyen Ustad Zakir Hussain has won an extraordinary three Grammy awards, with two separate music acts, featuring other leading Indian musicians. These Grammy victories in the global music, contemporary music and performance categories are among several highlighting the immensely rich contributions of South Asian music to the world. Many might be looking at this victory as another feather in India’s cap. Meanwhile, it’s worth taking a moment to focus on the musical brilliance in much of these works.

 

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AT A GLANCE:

• Ustad Zakir Hussain has won three Grammy Awards across two different acts: one with Béla Fleck and other musicians and one with the band Shakti.
• One of the Awards was for the track Pashto which draws imaginatively on Afghani folk melodies and rhythms.
• Other Indian and South Asian background artists featured quite prominently among the Grammy nominees and winners and there were two Australian winners.
• Among the nominations was campaign song Abundance in Millets by Falu and Gaurav Shah featuring PM Narendra Modi

The first of Hussain’s awards was for the album As we speak by Béla Fleck (banjo), Zakir Hussain (tabla), Edgar Meyer (double bass), and Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri or North Indian bamboo flute), which won Best Contemporary Instrumental album. A masterpiece in instrumental music, different sections of each track are gorgeously woven together with a lovely balance between the different musical styles. The album’s scintillating eighth track Pashto won Best Global Music Performance. Drawing its melody from delightful folk sounds and rhythm of the north-west frontier and Afghanistan, Pashto is an incredible collaboration, with Fleck especially showing his understanding of South Asian musical sensibilities with tasteful forays into Balkan music and bluegrass and Hussain’s tabla setting and driving the pace.

Ustad Hussain’s tabla is also central to the album This Moment by legendary world music band Shakti which won Best Global Music Album. Formed 50 years ago by trailblazing guitarist and jazz fusion pioneer John McLaughlin with Hussain, L. Shankar, and Vikku Vinayakram, Shakti’s newest iteration still features Hussain and McLaughlin with a new generation of stellar Carnatic musicians – singer Shankar Mahadevan, percussionist V. Selvaganesh, the son of Vikku Vinayakram, and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan.

This sublime album, a must-listen for any Indian classical rasika open to other styles, is notable for its passages of konnakōl (Carnatic rhythm vocalisation) and the dulcet voice of Shankar Mahadevan. I was particularly taken by the innovative interpretations of ragas such as in the track Mohanam, which used unexpected pedal notes to give the iconic raga Mōhanam (Hindustani Bhūpāli) a completely different feel, highlighting McLaughlin’s deep engagement with raga-based music. Accepting the award, Mahadevan said, “Thank you God, family, friends, and India! We are proud of you India!” and added a sweet dedication of the award and every note to his wife.

Other Grammy nominees and winners from South Asian backgrounds this year included LA-based Brian Rajaratnam among the winners of the highly coveted Best Record award for his production work on Miley Cyrus’s deliciously defiant track Flowers and US-based Pakistani singer/producer Arooj Aftab and American musicians Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily the three of whose rich atmospheric release Love in Exile was nominated for Best Alternative Jazz Album, to name a few. Australians also featured with Kylie Minogue and Tommy Emmanuel also winning awards.

Going from ragas to rāgi, among the nominees not to win were Indian American artists Falu and Gaurav Shah in collaboration with Narendra Modi for the song Abundance in Millets, an interesting choice of nomination for Best Global Music Performance. This campaign song was released to coincide with 2023 being declared the United Nations International Year of Millets and features a 30-second snippet of PM Modi speaking at a millets conference. Besides Falu’s beautiful vocals in the Hindi sections and some catchiness in the melody there is nothing remarkable about this song to warrant its nomination. And while hunger and biocultural diversity are urgent global problems for which millets are a likely part of the solution, the PM’s excerpted message that millets “will adorn India and world’s prosperity” makes the song more of a creatively presented international trade pitch, the aims of which call for some scepticism.

Returning to the winners, I hope, amid the excitement and national pride surrounding the exciting Indian connections, that we might marvel at the richness of South Asia’s diverse musical heritage more broadly and the sheer brilliance of Ustad Zakir Hussain, one of India’s, and the world’s, greatest musical stars of all time, whose approach inspires but also forges much needed understanding across increasing religious and national divides. Hussain’s final words on accepting the Grammy for Pashto sum it up fittingly, and as crisply as any of his tabla phrases: “Without love, without music, without harmony, we are nothing”.

READ ALSO: Grammys 2022: South Asian artists win big

Mahesh White-Radhakrishnan
Mahesh White-Radhakrishnan
Mahesh White-Radhakrishnan (they/them) is a singer and scholar of language and music working in Wangal/Gadigal Country and based at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. They are the 2022 National Folk Fellow, winner of the ABC Top 5 for the Arts in 2022, co-host of the and podcast Music!Dance!Culture! and an advocate for social and environmental justice.

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