Zakir Hussain playing tabla as LINES Ballet company artist Shuaib Elhassan dances

Meet Zakir Hussain | Tabla Virtuoso and LINES’ Fall Season Collaborator

Written by Erin McKay

Integral to our 40th Anniversary Fall Season is Grammy-awarded tabla virtuoso and longtime collaborator and friend of Alonzo King, Zakir Hussain. A master of classical Indian percussion, Zakir deepened global appreciation for tabla through decades of innovation and reverent commitment. “He goes large, and he goes deep,” says Alonzo. “That’s what I like.” [4] In addition to his instrumental work as an educator and composer, Zakir fostered dialogue between North and South Indian musicians and contributed to groundbreaking collaborations with artists such as John McLaughlin, Charles Lloyd, and Mickey Hart. [5] “Zakir is one of the great masters of our time,” shares Robert Rosenwasser, co-founder and executive director of LINES Ballet. “ He’s a legend.”

Join us as we dive into Zakir’s story weeks before he takes the stage with our dancers from October 12-16 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Tickets are available at City Box Office. Quotes from this piece have been edited for length and clarity; content is sourced from a number of Zakir’s past interviews that are included at the bottom of the article for reference.

“Growing up,” Zakir explains, “I had all this mumbo jumbo in my head.” And it wasn’t until he heard his father’s students practicing that he realized what was going on up there [1]; the rhythm of the tabla was inside of him. It turned out that as an infant, Zakir’s father had sat and sang rhythms in his ear for hours every morning until the age of three. [2] This all started two days after Zakir was born.

Young Zakir Hussain performing with his father, Ustad Alla Rakha
Young Zakir Hussain with his father, Ustad Alla Rakha | Sourced from Zakir’s Twitter account, @ZakirHtabla

It is traditional in the Islamic faith for a new baby to be handed over to the father on the second day after birth so that he can whisper a prayer in his child’s ear. [1] At the time of Zakir’s homecoming though, his father was gravely ill. “People were coming to pay their respects,” says Zakir. His father could barely hold him for the ritual; his arms were so weak. [7] But in his weakness, he recited the rhythms. Zakir’s mother was a bit irritated by this. She said, “What are you doing? You should say a proper prayer.” And his father responded, “This is my prayer.” He was reciting the rhythms that he, a conservative Muslim, offered to Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of music, knowledge, and art, and the God Lord Ganesha. [1]

After three years of whispers from his father, Zakir naturally had a lot of information in his head. But instead of his father leaning into Zakir’s curiosity for the tabla, he pulled away. Zakir attributes his father’s approach to reverse psychology [2]. Despite this, he still found ways to feed his interest, picking up bits and pieces from his father’s students [1] and playing the tabla whenever he could get his hands on it. In fact, “if I didn’t have the tabla,” Zakir admits, “I would see my mother’s pots and turn them around to play. Once or twice I did it with the food in them, and you know what that did…”. [2] 

At seven, Zakir played tabla for a concert at his school, and his father took notice. That same evening, he asked his son if he wanted to start studying the instrument seriously. Zakir agreed, unaware of just what “serious studying” entailed. The next morning, his father came into his room and woke him up at 3am for his first lesson. He shared the origin, lineage, and composition of rhythms with his son before anyone else in the house was up, and for the next few years, that was their routine together. From about 3-6am, Zakir would study tabla and learn about the Hindu Gods and Goddesses from his father. Then, he would leave to study the Koran at the Madrasa, and by the afternoon he was at Saint Michael’s High School, where he would sing Psalms and hymns and complete the rest of his academic studies for the day. [1]

Ustad Zakir Hussain with his father, Ustad Alla Rakha | Sourced from the article “Happy Birthday Zakir Hussain!” published on Poetry on Drums

His education was rich in diversity and low in restrictive teaching. “None of these institutions ever imposed their will on me or any of my fellow students,” reflects Zakir. The same was true with music; he wasn’t subjected to the thinking that he had to study for a certain amount of hours in the day, so his approach could be more relaxed and open to exploration. [2]  

“Music was an insulated process in India.” Zakir explains, “Families taught sons and daughters, and musicians married musicians.” He felt lucky because he was shooed out of the house at a young age and able to explore what the world was all about. He was given both freedom and a tool; that, for him, was tabla. [3]

“As I was learning the language of tabla,” Zakir says, “my father used to tell me, ‘take a phrase and just get to know it, as if it’s a person or a character.’ I had to look at a phrase from all directions.” [2] “My father would ask for 20 compositions and computations of the same phrase, and then he’d ask me to do it backwards and upside down.” [1] This approach to teaching led to self-discovery, critical thinking, and development of personal style that is evident in Zakir’s family.  His two brothers, Taufiq Qureshi and Fazal Qureshi, are also percussionists; they all studied with their father, yet they each play differently. [1]

Along with individualism, Zakir also had a spark of early entrepreneurship. His father was a well-known, sought-after musician, and letters were constantly coming to the house inviting him to perform. While looking at the mail one day, Zakir got an idea. While his father was on tour with Ravi Shankar, Zakir decided to start responding to the inquiries on his father’s behalf. He offered himself up as a substitute, writing, “Hello, Ustad Alla Rakha is on tour in America, but his son is available in case you would like to have him come instead.” [3]

Ustad Zakir Hussain | Photograph published in Folio Magazine Dec 1997 | Sourced from the article “My First Performances-Ustad Zakir Hussain” published on Medium

And eventually, this strategy worked; someone agreed to have Zakir play professionally. When that “ok” came through the mail, he hustled to make it happen. Zakir gathered money with his friends, took his tabla, told his mother something music related was going on at school, and departed on a two and a half day journey to perform in Patna for a festival. He didn’t tell the principal or his teachers, and soon the Mumbai police were looking for him. Meanwhile, Zakir arrived at the train station, and no one was there to pick him up. Eventually, a man sipping tea came over and asked if he had seen a musician getting off the train. Zakir asked for the name. The man replied, “Somebody called Zakir Hussain,” and Zakir asserted, “That’s me!” “He had been expecting a thirty something year old man,” Zakir laughs, “instead it was a kid in a school uniform and shorts.” Upon realizing what had happened, the man brought Zakir back to his home, sent word to the police, and a telegram to his family. “My mother was furious,” Zakir says, “but I had the perfect antidote; I gave her the two hundred rupees I had made, and everything was fine after that.” [3]

Despite the fiasco of his first professional job, Zakir continued to work in his pre-teens. He was the only student who was allowed to go away and play recordings and concerts during school. This was all thanks to one of his teachers, Mr. Sharma. “He was a fan of my father,” says Zakir. “He made an arrangement with the principal and the other teachers to make sure that I received and turned in my assignments.” [3] Mr. Sharma made it possible for Zakir to play professionally in the Indian film industry at only 12 years old. [1]

Zakir’s father’s schedule led to another opportunity with one of his greatest inspirations, Ravi Shankar. “I tried to emulate him,” Zakir explains. “Ravi dressed well, spoke well, and figured out how to present the music so that audiences got it. Indian classical music was performed in the courts and temples of India until closer to the country’s independence in 1947. Royalty started to dissolve then, and they were out of a job. The musicians were so used to playing for the king, nobility, and other musicians, that even when festivals started popping up as a potential source of income, they had no clue how to package their performances for the stage. Ravi and others demonstrated how to make Indian music a performance art form. That’s why so many young kids, including myself, looked up to him.” [3] 

Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha | Sourced from Zakir’s Twitter account, @ZakirHtabla

Ravi invited Zakir to perform with him for a concert in America [3], and this first experience in the States led to many more. Zakir later returned at 19 to teach as an assistant professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. But shortly after he started, he got a call from Ali Akbar Khan, who had a music college in Marin. He said his tabla player had left, and he asked Zakir if he would come and teach with him at his school. It was an offer Zakir couldn’t refuse. And it was a good thing he didn’t, because he met his future wife, Antonia Minnecola (a Kathak dancer and teacher), in Akbar Khan’s living room. [2]

Zakir Hussain and his wife, Antonia Minnecola | Sourced from Zakir’s Twitter account, @ZakirHtabla

“Antonia had the idea that Indian musicians were very proper and all vegetarians,” Zakir jokes. His first date subverted her expectations. “I took her to Jack and the Box,” he laughs. “That was all I could afford. Afterwards, we went to Sausalito where we looked at the moon and got ice cream together. But I think what really sealed our relationship was that one night when she lost her contact lens on the street. It was dark out there. The street light was far away, but I still found her contact. That probably impressed her.” [2]

Zakir has performed with Antonia over the years, as well as with his daughters, Anisa Qureshi and Isabella Qureshi. For him, the most successful collaborations come when those involved are close. “It doesn’t matter if you are playing with musicians of the same tradition as you or another,” says Zakir, “you must intimately know them… The music that we play has a lot to do with spontaneity, instant understanding, and on the fly decision making. For that, you have to know each other very well on all levels, including the person’s likes or dislikes in terms of food, films, politics, or fashion, what their family is like, and how they relate to music… This is all very important because when you get on stage, you converse.” [2]

Shakti (band) members: Vikku Vinayakram, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, and L. Shankar | Sourced from Discogs

Zakir shares this close connection with Alonzo; he also shares it with his bandmates of Shakti, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary with a new album and tour in 2023 [6]. “Fusion has been going on for a long time,” Zakir explains. “when John McLaughlin and I and L. Shankar on the violin and Vikku Vinayakram on the ghatam got together and recorded, the head of CBS, Clive Davis, asked John what we should call our style of music. But we didn’t know, for us it was just music. When musicians get together to play from different genres, they don’t think that they are creating a new style, they are just working in a creative process. But Clive said he needed to have a name for our style so that he could label it, categorize it for Tower Records, and submit it for the Billboard Awards. There wasn’t a category for ‘fusion’ when we started. But it had already been happening for years with the music of artist Madan Mohan or duo Shankar–Jaikishan.” [2]

Zakir is starting to question that categorization though. “I don’t know that fusion is the category anymore,” he reflects, “because that means that you have tried to divide the music up. Music is experiencing a universal understanding right now, a collective acceptance, no matter where in the world, so they might have to come up with a new name.” [2]

Zakir Hussain in rehearsal with LINES Ballet

When it comes to collaboration, art-making, and introspection, Zakir and Alonzo hold very similar philosophies. Same goes for the idea that the investigation is never done. There is always more to unearth, infinitely more to uncover. “Never consider yourself a master,” Zakir insists. “Just be a good student, and you’ll get by just fine. Everyday, you learn something new. What’s the point in thinking that you know everything? When Charles Lloyd [another frequent LINES collaborator] was told, ‘Oh maestro, you were perfect today!’ he responded, ‘Sorry son, I just haven’t played well enough to quit yet.’ That is a very profound statement. If you think you’ve done the best you can, or the best ever, you might as well retire. And that’s not what creativity in any area, whether it’s painting, sculpting, music, or dance, is all about.” [1 & 2]

Celebration of Alonzo King & Zakir Hussain

5 SHOWS | OCTOBER 12–16, 2022


Alonzo King LINES Ballet is thrilled to continue its 40th Anniversary year with a Fall season featuring tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. His collaborations with choreographer Alonzo King renew classical forms, holding respect for the old and ushering in the new with a keen eye for innovation. Don’t miss your chance to see highlights of 25 years of collaboration between these two visionaries.

LINES Ballet company artist Adji Cissoko en pointe leaning over the edge of one pointe shoe with the other leg bent at the knee and tucked across the front of the standing leg. Arms are sweeping, one up above the body, the other out to the side.


[1] Zakir Hussain – Kronos’ Fifty for the Future Composer Interview
[2] Bringing Tabla to the Global Stage | Zakir Hussain | Talks at Google
[3] Jazz Talks: Vijay Iyer speaks with Zakir Hussain
[4] A Risk that Expanded the Boundaries of Excellence
[5] “Zakir” |
[6] “Shakti are back! The Indo-jazz super-group marks 50th anniversary with 2023 tour and new album” | Written by Mike Flynn
[7] Ustad Zakir Hussain @Algebra Live

Banner Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Zakir Hussain and dancer Shuaib Elhassan | © RJ Muna
Fall Season Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dancer: Adji Cissoko | © RJ Muna