Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain at the Town Hall: Deep Grooves and Great Wit
For a player who aspires to mystically become one with the music on any given night, Indian santoor virtuoso Shivkumar Sharma is one funny guy. At his sold-out show last night at the Town Hall, he and percussionist Zakir Hussain egged each other on, trading deadpan riffage, goosing each other with trick endings, pregnant pauses and a tongue-in-cheek Bollywood or folk music quote or two all the way to a mad dash for the finish line at the end of roughly two hours onstage. While most of their jokes were musical, Sharma isn’t above messing with the audience. He wondered aloud if the numerous toddlers in the house would prove to be sonic competition (they were), and in tuning his 86 strings, turned what could have been an ordeal into a lively, even plaintive melody. Hussain played bad cop to Sharma’s poker-faced good cop for most of the concert, firing off a series of long launching-pad tabla solos that began as total buffoonery and were then toned down a bit. But the most irresistibly comedic moment of the night belonged to Sharma, when he finally decided to outdo his sparring partner – and Hussain was there in a split second, as usual, this time to play straight man as Sharma ramped up his solo with a muffled, muted, over-the-top bombast.
In between jokes, the concert was 180 degrees from that. Sharma is to the santoor – the Indian hammered dulcimer, godfather to the Egyptian qanun, Hungarian cimbalom and the many zithers – what Les Paul was to the guitar. As a young prodigy, Sharma revolutionized the instrument, expanding its range and giving it a sustain that made it compatible with ensembles larger than the small groups employing it for traditional Kashmiri vocal repertoire. Bollywood – which he stoically made fun of, notwithstanding the fact that he’s one of the music’s founding fathers – wouldn’t be the same without his influence. At 75, his fingers are no less nimble on the hammers than they were forty years ago: if anything, he’s even subtler now, judiciously improvising from a steady march to a dancing, rippling, ringingly anthemic energy and alternating fiery pedal-note lines with whispery glissandos as the concert wore on. His first alap (jam) picked up steam when Hussain entered with a stately 4/4 beat that artfully morphed to 7/4 and then the jousting began. Sharma’s second solo improvisation was more deliberate and cut to the chase more quickly, Hussain wasting no time trading licks, shadowing and weaving in between Sharma’s increasingly agitated cadenzas and downward progressions. Their gallop to the finish was a rich reminder that music, in the right hands, doesn’t have to be dark to be deep. Sharma will no doubt be back in town at some point in the not-too-distant future – keep an eye on the World Music Institute calendar.
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