Celtic Connections locates The Pulse of the World (with a little help from Zakir Hussain)

In cheery form throughout, at the end of last night’s show Zakir Hussain expressed his gratitude that the audience had cheered the assembled musical line-up back on for an encore. It was as though there might actually have been any concern, following the assuredness of the group’s mesmerising performance. Stopping in his tracks for another moment on the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage, the legendary figure joked: “Wait, do we call this ‘Intic’, or ‘Celdian’?”

Though it might seem a minor issue, the inability to bracket The Pulse of the World simply illustrated an important point, one which made its inclusion as the Celtic Connections Opening Concert hugely fitting. At an impressive 18 years old, "Scotland’s premier winter festival" as it call sitself, with some justification, has long since outgrown any restrictive rulebook limiting it to Celtic music. (Well, if any such thing existed in the first place, of course.)

Nowadays the Scottish "traditional" scene soaks up disparate influences from around the world, and feted musicians such as Indian tabla supremo Hussain come to this country themselves in hope and expectation of meeting their match. There was certainly a sense of play during this performance that could only exist with mutual respect between the quartet of Indian musical wizards, sat cross-legged around the stage, and the gaggle of native musicians on hand to lend a sense of familiarity to any locals in the crowd. Not least with their apparent lack of litheness, requiring some relatively comfy seats to get them through the show…

With Hussain rightly centre-stage, the music at times alternated between more collaborative pieces which made the most of the Celtic connection, and those which showcased the main man and his hugely talented countrymen. The opening number was met with a hushed reverence, minimal instrumentation allowing beguiling subtleties to be discovered in the delivery of the same melody by two very different vocalists: first the Hebridean lilt of Jenna Cumming, then the arresting (and distinctly non-Hebridean) refrain of Kumaresh.

Such numbers showcased wonderfully how the past links between Scotland and India have rubbed off on each other musically. Though still distinct in their differences, as a whole, the group married together their sound so well that they seemed old hands at this fusion, one which was in reality apparently created in a very limited timeframe. Some aspects of it seemed so obvious that –  if they indeed haven’t been properly explored before – then they certainly should be again. A prime example of this was the manner in which the dual fiddles of Patsy Reid and Charlie McKerron provided a flowing, galloping melody for Kumaresh’s own veering interpretations on his violin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a concert starring a tabla virtuoso, the percussion often drove proceedings, one particularly entertaining exchange seeing Hussain, dholak player Navin Sharma and bodhran supremo John Joe Kelly each taking turns to try and one-up each other. Left alone together onstage, Hussain and bamboo flautist Rakesh Chaurasia also toyed with each other, play-fighting as the former time and time again superbly mirrored the latter’s prior burst of noise, each cocking an eye in the other’s direction as they played to see to what limit they’d be pushed to next. They built to a frenetic climax, before capitalising on the tension and abruptly ending for a rapturous reception (most likely long before they’d have run out of steam).

Hussain himself hit the nail on the head earlier on in the show when he said that the collaboration was a case of “everybody’s mind finding something to say”. Over the next two and a half weeks Celtic Connections provides a world of expression, and with this as its introduction to 2011, the festival’s audience can expect plenty of food for thought, with traditional music forms stretching their boundaries so much that they might be considered something of a paradox, if glorious ones at that.



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