Musicians, particularly those playing jazz, are said to tell stories through the music they play. Their improvised solos and interpretation of existing music (as in standards) give them this scope. It is natural that they constantly seek a greater musical vocabulary to express themselves even better. A mentoring programme with more experienced musicians, even from other genres, would logically have the effect of widening their musical horizons and vocabulary. Luxury watch maker Rolex has been attempting to bring about this with their Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, an international philanthropic programme that seeks talented young artists around the world and pairs them with recognised masters for a period of creative collaboration in a one-on-one mentoring relationship, with the aim of perpetuating the world’s artistic heritage.

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative for 2018-19 features an India connect, bringing together percussionists Ustad Zakir Hussain and young America-based jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore. The legendary table player has been mentoring Gilmore for the past year. They were in Mumbai last month to perform as well as to discuss what they have achieved in the time they spent together. In an interaction with journalists, Zakir Hussain says that he is not seeking to teach Gilmore any techniques or technicalities of percussion. “He has mastered those already,” he says. Citing experiences from his own upbringing, he adds, “I absorbed a lot just being around Abbaji – tabla maestro Ustad Alla Rakha, when I sat through innumerable music concerts. Just being a fly on the wall is an immense learning experience.”

With this osmotic process in mind, Hussain got Gilmore to travel to India on a number of occasions. He not only got to experience the annual Ustad Alla Rakha memorial concert in Mumbai that Hussain helps organise, but also travelled with his mentor to Punjab to get a firsthand look at the seat of the musical gharana that the tabla player belongs to. At the short but wonderful set that the duo played at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House on the evening of December 11, one could not help but notice the nuances and subtlety of rhythm in Gilmore drumming, that seems to have been a direct result of the time that he spent with Hussain. What the audience saw was the finest essence of the time honoured `Guru – Shishya’ tradition in Hindustani classical music.


Interestingly, this Zakir Hussain-Marcus Gilmore mentor initiative is not the first of its kind. There are quite a few examples of Indian classical musicians imparting their wisdom and craft to American jazz musicians. Pandit Ravi Shankar played and recorded in the late 1950s with jazz musicians, notably saxophone and flute player Bud Shank. The legendary saxophone maestro John Coltrane revived the then forgotten soprano saxophone to try and capture the nuances of Ustad Bismillah Khan’s shehnai, which fascinated him. And maestros ranging from Ustad Vilayat Khan to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Imrat Khan. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Ustad Zakir Hussain himself have schooled several other American and European musicians in the Hindustani classical tradition. Gilmore, in a sense, is only the latest entrant to the distinguished list.

The finale of the Rolex Mentor – Portege Arts Initiative – will take place next month in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Rolex Arts Weekend, where Gilmore will present  the end-result of his yearlong mentorship — a  composition called `pulse’, a concerto for drums  featuring himself and musicians from the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. He will follow it up with a discussion Hussain, where the two will provide each other’s perspective on the programme.