Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Alla Rakha Qureshi, 29 April 1919, Ratangarh, nr Jammu, India) Northern Indian (Hindustani) classical tabla player, composer, vocalist and harmonium player, best known for his tabla playing with Ravi Shankar in the '60s-70s when Shankar's music was finding an international audience (after Shankar's initial breakthroughs with tabla player Chatur Lal, who died tragically young). Record-keeping at the time of Rakha's birth tended to be little more than a season or a proximity to a holy day; he celebrated his 75th birthday in Bombay on 15 January 1994. One of the most exceptional and gifted percussionists of the century, he was also well-known as the father of two other outstanding tabla players, Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi; his pupil Tajinder Singh described them as 'the royal family of tabla'. Raised in a family that had no tradition of music-making (and like many devout Muslim families not disposed to that sort of life), his interest in music was fired by travelling theatrical entertainments; he ran away from home to Lahore in present-day Pakistan where he lived with his uncle, and eventually took formal tuition. Unusually he studied under two gurus, that of the Punjabi school under Mian Kadur Bukhsh for tabla (as did his contemporary, tabla player Shaukat Hussain Khan) and that of the Patyala (or Patiala) gharana under Ashiq Ali Khan for voice. Music had become his life in an era when sound without pictures ruled (and the imagination was unbounded); he worked with All India Radio (AIR) at its Delhi location in 1936 with the famed broadcaster Z. A. Bokhari, then to Bombay in 1938 when Bokhari moved (to Lucklow and later to London to Bush House with the BBC). He first met Ravi Shankar in 1939.
In 1943 Alla Rakha left AIR to work in the film industry where he composed and performed music to meet the insatiable demand for cinematic entertainment that had grown since the first talkies arrived in India in 1931. Tellingly for that film, Alam Ara ('Light Of The World'), director Ardeshir M. Irani had employed tabla, violin and harmonium and given Indian cinema its first singer, W. M. Khan, in effect the proto-filmi song. Alla Rakha became a fêted part of Bollywood's musical elite through films such as Ma-bap ('Mother-father') '44, Ghar-ki-Laj ('Family Honour'), Madari ('Street Entertainer'), Jugga ('Jugga', a name), Sabuk ('Lesson', or 'Moral') and Bewafa ('Unfaithful') '47. He was more than an accompanist in an era when the tabla was not supposed to deflect glory or kudos from principal soloist; but the trend in the Bombay film industry was to embrace blander musical fare, often aping Western musical styles, so he abandoned the lucrative world of film music to strike out towards his first love, tabla music. His extensive recording career mainly concentrated on classical Indian music repertoire but, like many other classical musicians, his music-making regularly extended into other fields. He was especially associated with two of the subcontinent's finest sitarists, having worked with both Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar. With Shankar he recorded for labels including World Pacific and HMV (India). One of the most interesting releases, The Anthology Of Indian Music Vol. One on World Pacific, featured in its front billing Ravi Shankar, sarodist Ali Akbar Khan and the South Indian (Karnatic) vina player Balachander; but unusually it included Alla Rakha singing, a skill hardly represented on other commercial releases. (Asked to record his singing for his gharana's archives in 1990 he performed a tappa, a Punjabi singing style, accompanied by his son Zakir Hussain on tabla.) During the late '60s/early '70s he performed in a variety of musical areas and contributed significantly to the growing appreciation of Indian music in the West.
He performed with Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival '67 (captured by D. A. Pennebaker's film Monterey Pop), the Woodstock Festival in '68 (released as Ravi Shankar At The Woodstock Festival '70, reissued by BGO '91) and the Concert for Bangla Desh '71 (reissued by Epic '91). He also came to the attention of the jazz audience with the ground-breaking fusion album Rich à la Rakha on World Pacific/Liberty '68 with drummer Buddy Rich, as well as Paul Horn on flute, Shamim Ahmed on sitar, Taranath Rao on dholak, Nodu C. Mullick on tamboura and manjira, and Amiya Das Gupta on tamboura. The documentary film Ustad Alla Rakha '70 (made by the Indian government) dwelt on Alla Rakha's skills as a percussionist and also introduced Zakir Hussain to the screen. He also guested on percussionist Mickey Hart's solo album Rolling Thunder (Warner Bros) '72 (see entry for the Grateful Dead) with Hussain. Alla Rakha was one of the first tabla players to become a name recording act in his own right, unveiling the power and sophistication of Indian rhythm; he has a tidy number of recordings to his credit, solo and with combinations of his sons; he has also continued to work as an accompanist with major figures in Indian music, and true to the best traditions in Indian classical music, he also taught widely.