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Interview: Max ZT

If you’re a regular at the Blue Frog, you’ve probably seen a tall, lanky, messy-haired American gent milling about the place for the past couple of months. He’s Max ZT, a musician

24 Feb, 2010

Amit Gurbaxani

Contributing Editor

If you’re a regular at the Blue Frog, you’ve probably seen a tall, lanky, messy-haired American gent milling about the place for the past couple of months. He’s Max ZT, a musician who plays the hammered dulcimer, the Western equivalent of the santoor. ZT will perform at the Frog this Tuesday with tabla player Aditya Kalyanpur, another familiar face at the venue who you might have seen on stage with The Giraffes or Taufiq Qureshi. ZT, who lives in New York, and is in Mumbai to study with santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, was put in touch with Kalyanpur by the latter’s school friend, filmmaker Amit Masurkar. ZT and Kalyanpur met, jammed and the result is Beyond Borders, a concert that will also feature vocalist Sayali Oak and drummer Manoj Thapliyal and a guest spot by renowned bansuri player Rupak Kulkarni.

We’re surprised that the Frog is hosting Indian classical music artists on a non-dry day but ZT and Kalyanpur claimed that though they will perform some compositions based on Hindustani ragas, Beyond Borders is not a fusion act. “I like to call it world music rather fusion,” said ZT who added that the gig would after all feature “a Persian santoor being played by an American who grew up playing Irish music”. There’s also a heavy African influence in his solo work, some of which he will perform. We spoke to 25-year-old ZT, who despite playing a fairly traditional instrument has had a fairly eclectic career.

First up, what does the mysterious ZT stand for?
ZT stands for Zbiral-Teller. Zbiral is my mother’s last name. She’s from Czechoslovakia.

You started out playing traditional American and Irish folk music from the age of six. Why did you travel to Senegal?
I met a Senegalese kora player at my music school in New York. He was the head musician of the Senegal National Ballet. I went there with him to study drumming. The sound of the kora is similar to that of the dulcimer but it’s plucked. I had a drum kit and it made sense to get my percussion chops up to help my dulcimer playing. I realised that drumming is not what I wanted to do but decided to apply Senegalese techniques of playing to the dulcimer since the sound and tuning of the instrument is the exact same pattern. I’m doing the same with the santoor.

What made you want to train with Shivkumar Sharma?
My problem was that, in America, I did not have anyone to look up to as a dulcimer player. For the last ten years, I’ve been experimenting more and getting into jazz and blues and fusion. I’ve been looking up to Hendrix and Coltrane and looking at different [musical] cultures, and the only one I’ve felt I really needed to study was [that of] India. Shivji’s sound is what I’ve been trying to do for 18 years and haven’t been able to.

Tell us about the great battle of the hands, the National Hammered Duclimer Championships, which you have won in the past.
The competition is held in Kansas and has been around for 60 years. I won it in 2005. The prize was a dulcimer and that’s the one I’ve brought with me here. There are 80 competitors. It’s funny but I just decided to my own thing because all the other people were doing very traditional stuff. I played all my African stuff, which is why I won.

How did you come to be known as the “Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer”?
A journalist for NPR who did an interview with me in 2000 said that because I used to play really fast. The hammered dulcimer is not really challenged. It’s been in one school for 300 years, so anything outside of that is very different. But I take the comment with a grain of a salt. Shivji plays faster than me.

What was it like opening for Jon Bon Jovi?
It was the weirdest gig of my life. It was last March in Phoenix, Arizona. I played with a Western classical quartet led by violinist Lucia Micarelli. It was a fund-raising concert organised by Mohammed Ali to raise money for the fight against Parkison’s Disease. Jon Bon Jovi was the headliner. Other than Bon Jovi, everybody was lip-syncing. A lot of the winners from American Idol were there. I wouldn’t call it the highlight of my career but it was an interesting experience.

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