Taufiq Qureshi’s exploration of the African djembe in the context of Indian classical music has kept the musical tradition alive and made the genre relevant and accessible to newer audiences, all the while leaving a mark on world music. We speak to the percussionist to learn about his connection with the djembe and the many ways in which he interprets rhythm through sound and cultures.
Taufiq Qureshi may have been born into a family of tabla maestros. But it’s hard to imagine the ace percussionist anywhere other than behind a djembe. It makes sense then that rhythm seems to know no bounds for Qureshi, for it was a bond established the moment he was brought home from the hospital as a newborn. Growing up in a home reverberating with the sounds of the tabla, or ‘naad’ — his father Ustad Alla Rakha and brother Ustad Zakir Hussain practiced riyaz on the daily for hours on end — it became second nature for the young Qureshi to try to replicate those sounds on all sorts of surfaces. At the age of ten, under the tutelage of his father, he went on to learn the repertoire on the instrument for many years before he would come across the djembe.
“I was always looking to define and transpose all that knowledge and repertoire that my father taught me by way of the tabla on to some other surface. I had been attracted to the bongos, drums and even R.D. Burman’s voice percussion since my childhood days,” says Qureshi, who describes his tryst with the djembe as an instant connection. He had tried all sorts of percussion instruments including the congas that “produced too much of a dead sound” for his liking, the bongos and even the tarbuka, both of which had too small a head to produce the mighty bass, mids and highs that drew him to the djembe in the first place.
A drum for everyone
Shaped like a goblet with a hardwood body and drumhead covered in rawhide, the djembe can create a wide range of pitches, namely the bass (low), tone (medium) and slap (high), by striking and stroking different areas of the head. The instrument, said to have originated in Mali in West Africa as far back as the 12th century, has been an integral part of daily life and rituals in West African countries for generations even as its popularity reached far beyond. For the Bambara people in Mali, the word djembe translates to ‘everyone gather together in peace’. While there are several origins of the word, they all symbolise the idea of communal gathering and harmony.
The word djembe translates to ‘for everyone’, Qureshi tells us. If we are to consider the appreciation he receives for his traditional solos rooted in Indian classical music spanning a little over an hour most times, we’d be pressed to agree that the instrument and its sound indeed resonate with all. Whether it’s in India or on prestigious stages at venues like Carnegie Hall and South Bank Centre, Qureshi continues to bring his unique touch on the African instrument to both Indian classical and fusion concerts. This, and the fact that Qureshi has scores of students in India and abroad who are well on their way to learning Indian classical rhythms on the djembe.
Also a notable composer whose pioneering technique and style is all the rage in studios, he has composed award-winning advertising jingles, and even recorded and arranged background scores for film tracks — the most recent was for the film Brahmastra. His album Rhydhun released in the year 2000 is indicative of the impact that his masterful exploration of the intricacies of Indian rhythms on a non-Indian instrument has on world music. He as also played with John McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti in the remarkable album Saturday Night in Bombay (2001).
A confluence of cultures
Qureshi’s own fusion ensemble Surya stems from his experiments with the indigenous African instrument back when he studied at St Xavier’s College. By this time, he had already been playing the tabla with Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia among other stalwarts. Starting out as a college band, Surya reached new heights when Qureshi brought in exemplary musicians including singer Shankar Mahadevan, Salim Merchant (piano) and Sridhar Parthasarathy on the mridangam. “We’ve also been fortunate that Surya has had my brother as well as classical vocalist and sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan in special editions,” says Qureshi, who has performed with the outfit across India and in Dubai, too. The music of Surya is rooted in Indian classical and jazz fused with influences of world music like Latin, Afro, folk, Middle Eastern and even pop and Bollywood for that matter. Other than Qureshi on the djembe as a constant, Surya has seen a roster of musicians on instruments ranging from the electric guitar and sitar to the sarod, harmonium and keys.
Preferring to call it a collaboration and collective effort rather than a band, Qureshi tells us that every one of the performing musicians’ contributions are immense, both melodically and rhythmically. Even when it’s his own composition, the musicians are given a free hand to contribute. Qureshi’s limitless exploration of rhythm is also seen in the body and vocal percussions that he is known to weave into the music of Surya. “It’s a tradition that’s become a part of my repertoire. The breath itself is an instrument that can create rhythmic motifs. Voice and body percussion is very primal. I’ve tried to take this rhythm and transpose it outside of me,” says Qureshi, who breaks into a series of vocal phrases as we speak, starting with using his breath in a percussive manner before moving on to the double voice technique, or throat singing, used by the Tuvan monks.
Improvisation is another crucial element that defines Surya. “Our music predominantly depends on spontaneous improvisation which is the essence of Indian classical and jazz music. Both these schools of music are marked by improvisations where the head is fixed but the rest happens right there and then. Therefore, a piece we might have performed a month ago will never sound the same if we had to perform it in the present. There’s so much live interaction happening between the musicians.”
The compositions are classical based, meaning there’s a raag, or scale as it is known in Western music. “There’s a proper raag-based melody and the taal is also of a time signature maybe of say ten or seven beats, apart from the usual 4/4 and 6/8. The improvisation happens according to the raag and taal which is based on the Indian classical structure. But what happens in the improvising is purely influenced not only by Indian classical but also by jazz, rock, pop, Afro, Latin and so on. Because there are three percussionists, there’s a lot of rhythmic interaction taking place where sometimes we’ll just veer towards a Latin or Middle Eastern rhythm. There are question-answer scenarios happening between the percussionists which people tend to love,” he explains.
Speaking about the upcoming concert at the NCPA later this month, Qureshi says that the show titled ‘Conversing Streams’ is all about different streams of music coming together as one. It is also very much a conversation in which the musicians will converse with each other using rhythmic exchanges. Aside from Qureshi on the djembe, vocal rhythms and other percussions, the concert will present Sarang Kulkarni on sarod and electric sarod (Z ROD), Kaushiki Joglekar on keyboards and harmonium, and Qureshi’s son Shikhar Naad on the djembe and additional percussions.
“I would love the audience to come with an open mind,” he says. “Very often, I’m asked whether we’ll play something new. To be honest, we try our best to make our music sound new even though we may have derived it from a well-known raag or taal. We will do our best to make it sound unlike anything people may have heard or experienced before. But whether we are successful will depend on the audience and whether they come in with an open mind.”
Conversing Streams will be presented on October 15 at the Tata Theatre (NCPA Mumbai)
This feature was originally published in the October 2022 issue of ON Stage, a monthly magazine produced by the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai (NCPA)