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Best of both worlds

Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham, who is making waves in Europe, talks about his latest album "Urban Folklore"


From Jimmy Hendrix to Om Vigneshwara, it's been quite a journey.

A journey that Ramesh Shotham, the Indian percussion master from Cologne currently making waves in Europe, began right here.

This was when he was a drummer with a 1970s rock band called Human Bondage, which he co-founded with his brother Suresh Shotham in Chennai. Since this was in the 1970s, he began by playing the music expected of any rock band post-Woodstock: much to the delight of the many hippies and youngsters who hopped off planes in order to find the truth, love and peace that India, the home of spirituality, was expected to supply to the West.

The Shothams then played music inspired by the likes of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Till they discovered Indian music, and the fabulous sound of Indo-Western fusion.

Then, Ramesh Shotham decided to return to his roots, and study the music of the South. He began by learning the tavil, a South Indian temple drum, in Chennai and went on to learn classical percussion at the Karnataka College of Percussion in Bangalore.

So when he moved to Europe, he began to find other classical musicians from different traditions, to fuse music and melody from all over the world.

India-inspired fusion

"World music is a development that has been going on since the mid-1980s," he says, explaining why it isn't exactly a new trend, even if it's getting popular in India only now. "There has always been an interest in Indian music." He does however say there has been a swell in India-inspired fusion lately. "I'm one of the people who has been promoting this sort of music in Europe. (While Shotham plays with various artistes, he has his own group `Madras Special'.) And now, there's the resurgence of Shakti, brought about by John McLaughlin (the legendary British jazz guitarist), with Selva Ganesh.

Discussing the December music season, which he is "trying to catch as much of, as possible," he says, "There seems to be a lot happening here... but with the fusion thing, it's always been a question of the Carnatic side of it overshadowing the Western. I don't know if that's because of a lack of awareness of Western music... " he trails off, adding thoughtfully, "there is a need to be humble when you approach and try to learn a new form. You have to go half way in meeting their culture. I have met some talented Carnatic musicians who think Carnatic music encompasses the world."

World music

Practically all the western artistes who are now playing fusion successfully have taken time to learn and understand Indian music. Zoltan Lantos the violonist, for instance, who has worked with Shotham on his latest CD, `Ramesh Shotham and Madras Special: Urban Folklore' studied music in India. "He was born in Hungary, but lived in India for several years," says Shotham, adding, "so he contributes a great deal of experience from both music worlds."

The rest of his Madras Special team is equally proficient in both worlds. There's German Christian Zürner, who's known for his mastery of Indian rhythms. Mike Herting is a well-known German pianist who skilfully bridges the East-West divide. And Sandhya Sanjana, their vocalist, is originally from Mumbai, though she now lives in Amsterdam.

"The album's called Urban Folklore," he grins, "because this is about city people interpreting traditional elements."

The compilation, which was released just about two weeks ago in Europe, is a live radio recording by `funkhaus europa WDR' of a recent concert. "The recording was done in a town called Bochum, not so far from Cologne," says Shotham, "And it was a Sunday morning concert. But the audience was very enthusiastic. The venue was full, and there were people standing in queues to get in."

It's unfortunate that World Music, currently the rage in Europe, is so niche in India, says Shotham, adding India has tremendous potential, both in terms of audiences and performers. "You can create such incredible music here. You just have to mix the music from the North and South, the songs from the villages and hill stations."


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