How a teenage Zakir Hussain ended up on the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic ranch

We often forget how many of Indian music’s global stars led an international life from their early days. Ravi Shankar, to give just one example, first came to Europe aged ten, as a dancer in his brother Uday’s groundbreaking troupe in the early 1930s. A generation later, he would tour America in his own right, along with tabla virtuoso Ustad Alla Rakha, who was by the late 1960s revered as an icon by many Western percussionists.

The great rhythmist brought his son – a teenage Zakir Hussain – over with him, thus continuing the cycle of international upbringing. And…he decided that, for the summer, it would be a good idea to leave the young drummer with all those friendly people at the Grateful Dead’s infamous Novato Ranch (pictured above) – an epicentre for musical hippedom in late-1960s California as well as all the colourful paraphernalia that came along with it.

In Zakir’s account, he had already been experimenting with non-classical music, albeit in a rather different context: “My father had sent me to record on Bollywood sessions…horn section on one side, string section on the other…bass, piano, sitar, sarod, sarangi, flute…all kinds of bells”. He even had a ‘fusion’ group at this time: “I would play bongos or congas and we’d cover Bollywood songs…and sometimes, I don’t know what possessed me, I got up on the mic and sang…but even I was not ready for Mickey Hart and the Grateful Dead…it was a whole different world”.

While (I’d say understantably) stating that he’s “not going to tell you all the details…”, Zakir does share a few vivid insights into his experiences on the ranch: “Here I am on the floor, and I look up and then there’s Jerry Garcia…totally oblivious to this body lying down there, and David Crosby humming…over in the corner there’s Grace Slick screaming away, Carlos [Santana] would show up…and just kind of jam – all these musicians!”.

Zakir, in his description, “was never really asked to partake in the ‘other ceremonies’ apart from the music…I was so taken by all that was going on musically, that I didn’t even notice this other thing was there”. Whatever experiences they may or may not have shared, Zakir and Mickey Hart have certainly opened each other’s musical minds over the years, forming a percussive and personal bond that has endured for decades. I share Mickey’s estimation that Zakir is “probably the most advanced rhythmist on the planet”.

Standout collaborations include the landmark cross-cultural album Planet Drum (1991), as well as work on Mirage Volcano and the Diga Rhythm Band. Never dull, Mickey often took unorthodox approaches to shaking up the creative process – e.g. flying in John ‘Rolling Thunder’ Pope, a charismatic, self-proclaimed spiritual healer, to perform a fire ceremony before laying down one album. The two drummers’ ever-playful partnership has also seen them sample the mechanical grindings of a ranch water pump for the rhythm of a 1972 track, and they continue to play today. 

● Read nextPandit Kishan Maharaj, Benares tabla powerhouse – the bold, colourful life of an uncompromising virtuoso

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