‘Improvisation makes music timeless’
PHOTO: R. Ragu
Trilok Gurtu and Selva Ganesh on percussion and the East-West exchange
One stroke on his hybrid East West drum kit and you can hear the echo as far as Europe, Africa and the U.S. Percussion whiz Trilok Gurtu, son of veteran Hindustani vocalist Shoba Gurtu, has been making musical excursions with jazz greats such as the Oregon group, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Jan Garbarek, Don Cherry and rock, African and Cuban musicians. His several collaborative albums have been received the world over with resounding success. Tala and laya in his lineage (son of ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram), a never-say-no-to-learn spirit, raring to innovate…Selva Ganesh and his diminutive kanjira have created a buzz in beat street. Percussion ensembles, global music festivals, international film assignments (he did the percussion track for “Water”, “Vanity Fair”, “Kamasutra” and “Monsoon Wedding”) and now, music direction for a Tamil film “Namanai Anjom”... Selva has arrived.
When the two meet for a Take Two at Taj Connemara, the dinner table at Wallajah Hall shudders with their strokes, as they talk less about themselves and more about the pioneering work of Palghat Raghu, John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain. Chitra Swaminathan listens in.
Selva Tat tadhim tat tom (good evening in percussion language?)
Trilok (smiles) Good start. You know, Carnatic music and Palghat Raghuji mean a lot to me. He is my mentor, my guru. In every interview, even on MTV, I speak about this great mridangist and his mind-blowing technique. Those early years when I travelled around with John as a soloist in his three-member group, I used to bombard him everyday with information about Raghu sir’s mridangam playing. So much so he too became an admirer of this master. I make all the western drummers I work with listen to Raghu sir’s recordings.
Selva Before we train our hands, we should tune our ears to good music. Listening is the first lesson.
Trilok It helps you grow as a musician. You widen your perspective and refine your performance by absorbing the finer aspects of different styles and individuals. That’s how fusion works too. Only when you listen will you know about the works of others and whom you want to team up with.
Selva Musical boundaries are expanding. And we now have a world music genre.
Trilok We talk about genres, styles, systems…actually it’s hard to define music.
Selva Tradition is what we have created but music is divine.
Trilok And universal. In the Seventies, during my years of struggle in the West, I hated it when musicians there dismissed our music as incomprehensible going by the raga-tala patterns. We worked hard to even make them hear our music.
Selva I have seen it all as my father was part of this crossover effort. Young musicians should be grateful to artistes like you, my father and Zakir bhai for opening the musical floodgates.
Trilok We owe a lot to John McLaughlin, the first and the only one according to me who took to our music wholeheartedly. He is one of the main reasons for its global reach. So are legendary sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Allah Rakha and his prodigious son Zakir.
Selva Undoubtedly, they areour anchor. Trilokji, you are a big name in Europe, while Americans swear by Zakir Hussain. Inspired by you all, many from the West are now keen to learn our system.
Trilok The greatness of this system is that you can fit into any musical scenario. I remember playing a symphony with John. They gave me 200 pages of notation. I was puzzled. I then worked on it on the basis of our system of calculation and brought it down to a single page. Finally I did not carry even that page to the stage. My co-musicians looked at me wide-eyed. And I told them, ‘don’t worry it is all in my mind.’ That is the power of Indian music.
Selva They think our music is organised and not improvised. Improvisation is what makes our music timeless. Imagine we can conceive a korvai or a composition sitting in the train or at the bus stop. But westerners cannot do without writing.
Trilok But one thing we need to learn is to be more expressive while performing. I realised this when I worked with African musicians (he has done an album “African Fantasy”). My mother moves her hands and body a lot while singing. When I sit stiff and play she tells me ‘you are a musician not a statue’.
Selva I can never sit straight and play. See the kirtankars, how joyfully they sing. Music is celebration.
Trilok Make sure you do not let yourself go wild on stage. You have to respect the sentiments of other musicians when you are playing in a group. There should be mutual respect and no ego. I will never forget the board I saw outside a recording studio, ‘Leave your footwear and ego outside’.
Selva For more than 25 years you have been working on fusion projects yet your music has not lost its Indianness.
Trilok Please, I don’t want my music to sound western. I get a kick when artistes out there go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at my rhythmic permutations and combinations. I follow Raghu sir’s advice — ‘make simple sound complex and complex, simple. When artistes abroad ask me about the tala patterns and the calculation method, I tell them to go to South India, the hub of classical music. Nothing can match the Carnatic percussion system.
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