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Brave new/old world

East meets West in harmonious musical fusion

LOOKING FOR proof that it's really a small, small world after all, that cultural barriers are breaking down left and right?

Give a listen to the music that Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer are cooking up on the recent album "The Melody of Rhythm" and in their show this Thursday at the Keswick.

Sparked by a 2006 concerto commission from the Nashville Symphony (though the recorded album version actually features the Detroit Symphony), the fusion of Fleck's bluegrass/jazz-flavored banjo, Meyer's classically attuned double bass and Hussain's centuries-in-the-refining Indian tabla drumming makes for a sound that's old and new, both Eastern and Western in feel. It's also, at turns, high-toned and folksy, and pretty darned jamming, too.

Live, the trio will be doing up some of their Triple Concerto sans the symphony, Zakir detailed in a recent chat, as well as a bunch of other tunes that will take us places we've not been before, but shouldn't really seem all that foreign or incomprehensible given today's eclectic listening environment, he believes.

After all, raga beats now show up often in hip-hop and pop. Listeners likewise embrace Jamaican dub and reggae "riddims" and plinkety African Township guitar without even blinking. And Internet radio brings a whole world of musical options to our doorsteps.

Q: Individually and together, you guys have been into genre-bending fusion music for decades - Bela tackling everything from Bach to West African music to his space-rock/jazzgrass mowing Flecktones; Edgar Meyer with his country-classical crossover things; and you, Zakir, with collaborators like John McLaughlin in Shakti and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart in Diga Rhythm Band, Planet Drum and the Global Drum Project. So what were the thoughts or goals you had, getting into this collective project with Bela and Edgar?

A: It helps that we've known of each other for many many moons. But we've only been interacting for about three or four years, initially because of this concert commission. Then, after it got nominated for a Grammy, we were encouraged to take the group on the road.

Q: What category were you nominated in, and what are you guys calling this music?

A: The Grammy nominating group called the album "Classical Crossover," but there's so much new music coming from all parts of the globe, that they're having a hard time deciding what to call what. Other times, the Grammy committee has nominated and awarded me in the "World Music" and "Contemporary World Music" categories. Things really are changing in terms of acceptance. Who'd have ever guessed an Indian composer would win an Academy Award for the best score [A.R. Rahman, for "Slumdog Millionaire"] ?

As for this trio, we're playing music with no labels in our mind. I find myself playing my instrument entirely different here than the way I did with [jazz saxophone and flute player] Charles Lloyd or with [famed guitarist] McLaughlin in Shakti - a group that Columbia called just "jazz" for lack of anything better to label it in 1975. I was listening the other day to one of the concerts with Bela and Edgar from last fall. It's a revelation to me - how it's all working out. You know, the bass and banjo are both melodic and rhythmic instruments. The tabla is thought of as basically rhythmic but it, too, can offer harmony and counterpoint, with the seven notes you can play on it. So we come together on both levels, with each player shifting between the lead and support roles, the melody and the percussion.

Q: How has this music been received in India? As a much honored traditional musician, are your crossover activities viewed there with anything approaching scorn or ridicule?

A: Not at all. The Indian traditional music goes back 1800 years, but for the last few hundred we've been under the influence of Europeans. The Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and the British all dropped anchor in India and were controlling certain areas of the country. So, music from those cultures was being injected into the Indian fabric. The Bollywood music craze, fusing East and West in movie soundtracks, was starting in the 1910s and '20s, and I found myself playing on many such soundtracks in the '60s that would mix instruments like violins and cellos with sitars, sarods, tablas and such. So what I've done, or what, say, [master sitarist] Ravi Shankar has done with people like [violinist] Yehudi Menuhin, is not that much of a leap for the Indian audience.

Q: What about your father, legendary tabla player Alla Rakha? What kind of a role model and influence was he on you?

A: He's the biggest influence in my life. He was my teacher and one of the first Indian percussionists to make some contact with the western world. He made a record with [jazz drummer] Buddy Rich in 1967, "Rich a la Rahka," an album I still have, that's one of my greatest possessions. He kind of got me going. I've also got a photo of him jamming at Shelly's Manne Hole [a popular Hollywood jazz club of the 1960s and early '70s] with [drummer] Elvin Jones. That was amazing to see and inspiring to me.

It was my father who got me in touch with Mickey Hart. Mickey was studying with my dad and I was visiting with him. Dad was working with Ravi Shankar then. Mickey came in for a lesson and said, "Can I work with you on an album?" Dad says, "I'm on tour with Ravi, so take my son." That was the start of everything. It inspired me to give up my teaching job in Seattle, to move to the Bay area, to Marin County. All these musicians were there - Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jefferson Starship, Grateful Dead and Santana. There was a club a half-mile away, the Lion's Share, a small dump where the Sounds of Champlin would play and Jerry Garcia would jam with them. All kinds of stuff was happening in Marin County. This was 1973. And I never looked back. I'm still there today.

Q: Did you become an American citizen?

A: No, I am still an Indian citizen, but a U.S. resident. I go back twice a year. In the winter time, November to February, is the music season in India and very busy. There are 15 to 20 concerts a week in each theater. And musicians from all over the world come to play. Music is treated differently in India. We believe music is a blessing from the gods and goddesses on mankind. So music is worshipped, as representive of divinity. When Bela and Edgar and I went to India, we had a humungous success.

Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain & Edgar Meyer play at the Keswick Theatre, Easton Road and Keswick Ave., Glenside, 8 p.m. Thursday, $38.50, 215-572-7650,