Zakir and His Friends


Besides being a famously fleet-fingered Indian classical percussionist, Zakir Hussain seems like a pretty interesting guy. Lutz Leonhardt’s self-
described “rhythm experience” of a documentary, however, is less about Hussain’s art and life than about cinematic montage and the world’s diverse beats. Tabla master Hussain’s peripatetic existence is conveyed by the passing countryside as seen through train and car windows, with the
clickety-clack of railroad cars suggesting a seamless continuity between the rhythms of everyday life and Hussain’s music.

Tabla players on Hussain’s level perform with dizzying speed and subtlety. Here, though, the shape and texture of Indian classical music disappears into the pursuit of dazzling technique. An early sequence dwells thoughtfully on an artist deeply immersed in his music, but, in their paucity, Hussain’s onstage performances seem almost like afterthoughts.

Rather than checking in with real musical friends of Hussain’s (such as percussionist Mickey Hart, with whom he has worked on many occasions), lengthy stretches of the narration-free film are relegated to more casual connections: a quartet of Venezuelan kids slap out drum solos on their faces and heads, Japanese members of the percussion ensemble Kodo perspire in torrents while beating on large taiko drums, female dancers in Burkina Faso shake their considerable booty, and Balinese musicians carve and perform on gamelan drums. More loosely aligned “friends” include the assorted Indian, South American, and Asian brush choppers, pole pounders, woodcutters, and corn shredders Leonhardt dwells on. The impression I got was that— forget about his film’s purported subject— Leonhardt could watch these manual laborers toil all day long.