The banjo can pair well with music that’s not bluegrass? Who knew?
Well, Bela Fleck has made a career of taking his banjo to places others said not to go. He has blended his banjo into styles as diverse as modern jazz, classical and African music. There is a reason he has been nominated in more categories than any other artist in Grammy History. He doesn’t want to be categorized and we’re all better off for it.
On Sunday night at Symphony Center, Fleck and his banjo took the stage with his longtime collaborator/bassist Edgar Meyer and the master tabla player Zakir Hussain. This East meets West collective crossed borders and shared cultures musically to the delight of the audience.
Zakir Hussain in an international phenomenon behind the tablas (traditional Indian drums). His playing is uncanny and really can’t be described in words. His performance needs to be seen (and heard) to be believed. It’s as though he had three hands with all fifteen fingers playing their own beat, all distinct but all together at the same time. At times Hussain’s performance was awe-inspiring and at other times hypnotic. One audience member was overheard saying that she waited 10 years for the opportunity to see Hussain play, and this performance was worth the wait.
Hussain, Fleck and Meyer joined together to blend the genres of traditional Indian music with more Western genres such as bluegrass and rock. The mixture is very pleasing music of the world.
The three of them often play together at a blinding speed – which highlight each individual members’ virtuosity. If one of them couldn’t keep up, then the whole thing wouldn’t work. Instead they built on each other’s performance and the sum of the parts equaled so much more.
The three of them were also joined by another brilliant musician: Rakesh Chaurasia, who is a master Bansuri (bamboo flute) player. His flute playing added another layer to the diverse nature of the music. At one point there was a playful call and response between Chaurasia and Hussain where Chaurasia would play a few notes on his flute and Hussain would answer them – on the drums. Hussain’s immense talent was on display as he reproduced the tones and notes of the flute by banging his hands on the drums. It was truly impressive.
The group also had a sense of humor throughout the performance with some excellent dad jokes, most of them revolved around the tuning hammer that Hussain would take out in between songs to adjust his tablas. At one point, Fleck pulled out a giant cartoonish hammer and pretended to use it to tune his banjo. It delighted the Symphony Center crowd.
The last song of the night was easily the best of the night where the spotlight was directed right at Hussian. He delivered a five-minute drum solo that was intense, frisky and straight up awesome. It was so impressive that if it was the only 5 minutes of music you heard all year, you would be happy.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography