Concert Coverage and Exclusive Interview with Trilok Gurtu

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Trilok Gurtu: Indian classical music + jazz + world music!

Percussion and fusion fans were treated to a special open-air performance at the UB City Amphitheatre in Bangalore this month: by ace percussionist Trilok Gurtu. The event was presented as the Sur Taal Festival by Bangalore-based World Music Centre (http://wmc.org.in), which in the past has also featured East-West fusion performances by other international artistes like Guy Mauffait on the Chapman stick (http://www.deccanherald.com/content/31830/todays-letters.html).

A world-class percussionist on tabla and a whole range of percussion instruments from around the planet, Grammy Award winner Trilok Gurtu has collaborated with the who’s who of Indian classical music and international jazz: his late great mother Shobha Gurtu, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, Shankar Mahadevan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Sultan Khan; John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Jan Garbarek, Don Cherry and Bill Evans.

On the world music front, he has also performed and recorded with Salif Keita, Gilberto Gil, Kudsi Erguner, Hassan Hakmoun, Angelique Kidjo, Omara Portuondo and Tuvan throat singers. Instrumentalists have accompanied him on guitars, violins, sitar, santoor, flute, didjeridoo, saxophone, trumpet and keyboards.

Trilok took to playing the tabla at the age of five. He emigrated to Hamburg, Germany in 1978; now in his fifties, he continues to draw influences from around the world and play in dozens of festivals and cities across the globe. He was born into a musical family in Bombay, India; his grandfather was a noted sitar player and his mother Shobha Gurtu was a classical and thumri singer.

I first heard him play with his mother Shobha Gurtu at the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Poona (http://sawaigandharvasangeetmahotsav.com/, http://www.festivalsofindia.in/sawai/), and many years later at the Rotterdam International Jazz Festival.

His fusion journey with jazz began with Don Cherry, and he later joined the group Oregon (featuring Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless, Glen Moore). He teamed up with L. Shankar, Jan Garbarek and Zakir Hussain for the East-West collaboration album “Song For Everyone,” and was a core member of The John McLaughlin Trio.

From 1998 onwards, Trilok Gurtu released a string of albums with his own groups: Usfret, Living Magic, Crazy Saints, Believe, Bad Habits Die Hard, The Glimpse, Kathak, African Fantasy, The Beat of Love, Remembrance, Broken Rhythms, Massical and 21 Spices.

See my earlier review of his album Kathak (http://worldmusiccentral.org/2011/11/03/multi-layered-kathak/) and my write-up on his performance at the Rotterdam International Jazz Festival 2009 (http://music.techsparks.com/?p=82). Also check out Trilok Gurtu’s jaw-dropping discography at http://www.trilokgurtu.net/discography.php

Trilok has been cited as an important influence for young Asian musicians in the UK such as Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and Nitin Sawhney. Downbeat magazine has named Trilok “Best Percussionist,” proclaiming that “musically, the world is his stage”.

His latest album ’21 Spices’ features rock drummer Simon Phillips and NDR Bigband. His more recent festival performances include Ravenna Festival, The Hague Jazz Festival, Gnawa Festival, Bohemia Jazz Festival, Festival Musica dal Mondo and Viljandi Folk Music Festival.

Jazz and Indian classical music are solidly grounded in improvisation, and lend themselves very well to collaborative fusion. Along with Africa, Cuba and Brasil, the wave of influences from India in jazz lineups and releases continues to increase. Indian classical music provides an “incredible base” to understand even the most diverse rhythms of the world, according to Trilok.

As early influences, Trilok Gurtu cites bebop and African music, with musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Wayne Shorter and Art Blakey.

Joining him for the Bangalore performance was sitarist Ravi Chary (http://www.ravichary.com/) who has performed with Trilok on his albums African Fantasy, Beat of Love and Broken Rhythm. Ravi himself has just released his own debut fusion album “Ravi Chary Crossing.”

The opening act this time was the eight-member Bangalore-based fusion band “Rhythm and Raga,” featuring Word Music Centre founders Sangeetha Srikishen (on lead vocals) and Gopi (on percussion), along with Manoj George on violin, Frijo Francis on keyboard, Sai Babu on Afro-Cuban percussion, Steve on electric guitar, Yedi Govindan on harmonium and Sukanya Ramgopal on ghatam. Sukanya even had an array of five ghatams, each tuned to a different frequency!

Their songs included “Maharajah Jazz,” based on the Raga Gambheera Natai composed by the late Maharajah of Mysore, Sri Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, and “Beantown Blues (named after the origins of Bangalore or Bengaluru: ‘Town of Boiled Beans’). They also played a fusion version of a Kannada folk song, and another high-energy piece called “The Chase,” with interesting call-and-response interaction. The audience responded with enthusiasm to the performance, despite the occasional loudmouth who perhaps thought he was at a head-banging rock concert!

The audience by now was primed for the headline act, Trilok Gurtu himself. His performance in Bangalore was as usual a real treat, mixing the acoustic tradition of India with jazz, electronica and world music.

From rattles and djembe to tabla and loop machines, Gurtu built sonic textures in layers of percussive rhythms. He also added bol (percussion language) and scat singing (mimicking the sounds of percussion with “tok tak” clicking sounds!). For over an hour he moved in circles around his intriguing array of percussion instruments, straddling continents and genres with his hands, feet and drumsticks.

For one segment he had his left hand on a djembe and right hand on the daya (right hand tabla drum), then he swivelled and switched to his left hand on the baya (left bass tabla) and his right hand holding a drum stick on the snare drum; his right foot then joined on the bass pedal.

He also dipped a rattle and then a plate into a metal bucket filled with water, striking the bucket with its handle and the plate with a mallet. For another segment, he played patterns of three beats with his right hand on the tabla simultaneously with patterns of four beats with his left hand on the djembe.

Ravi Chary then joined him on stage with a scintillating bol duet, followed by pieces on the sitar. The entire band of “Rhythm and Raga” then came on stage for the final tracks. He also divided the audience into left and right camps and conducted a participatory bol session with them.

His stage presence was delightful and irreverent, mixing intricate multi-layered percussion solos with hilarious commentary and digs at Bangalore traffic! “Don’t kill yourself,” he advised the audience member who was shouting himself hoarse. “Please make the stagelights brighter, I can’t see anything, I feel like Ray Charles,” he admonished the stage crew. “I can’t compete with Boney M and all that stuff,” he joked when music from a nearby pub became too loud.

And at one point, dissatisfied with the drum kit, he switched to the cajon and carried on playing seamlessly. “What man, what’s going on man; yen ri,” he joked, mimicking Bombay and Bangalore colloquialisms, to the delight of the Indian audience.

At the end of the performance a German official was invited to come on stage and garland Trilok Gurtu. “Merci,” Trilok said in French. Many more came on stage to felicitate him. “This stage is becoming as crowded as Bangalore traffic,” Trilok joked.

Trilok Gurtu has performed a number of times already in Bangalore. After his Bangalore performance, Trilok Gurtu left for Bombay to play with Zakir Hussain in a tribute concert ‘Mharo Pranam’ to Shobha Gurtu (http://www.radioandmusic.com/content/editorial/news/zakir-hussain-trilok-gurtu-perform-a-tribute-concert). Other accompanying musicians for the tribute concert include sitarist Niladri Kumar, keyboard player Sangeet Haldipur, bassist Sheldon D’Silva, vocalist Shubha Joshi and disciples of Shobha Gurtu.

But before he left for Bombay, I was fortunate to catch Trilok Gurtu for an interview in his room the morning after his concert, thanks to his host Sangeetha Srikishen from World Music Centre. It was an honour as well for me to gift him with a copy of my book, “Indian Proverbs and Quotations” (http://IndianProverbs.in).

How often do you come to India to play?
I come at least once a year, especially to Bombay. I have been coming back every year for the past 27 years ever since I moved to Germany.

What are your favourite instruments to jam with?
I like any and every instrument if it is played well!

What were some of the directions your music took?
I was influenced by Indian classical, then rock, Bollywood and jazz. I also embraced flamenco music about ten years back, then Middle Eastern, Brasilian and African music.

I didn’t see many Latin American instruments in your stage lineup this time.
If I put too many instruments on stage it will become crowded just like Bangalore traffic! I would love to bring every percussion instrument I have, but I also have to be mindful of my excess baggage and the cost to my hosts and sponsors!

What were some of the ragas that were played in your concert?
Raga Kalavati, Raga Bhupali. My favourite is Raga Yaman.

It was interesting to see you switch from the drumset to cajon when the drumset kept moving about.
You have to adapt! I can play on anything. Some musicians insist on playing only on their own instruments. I do have my preferred instruments but can switch if necessary.

You kept telling the sound crew to make adjustments.
Many sound people do not know how to use their technology. They listen with their eyes and see with their ears! They only look at the displays and dashboards instead of listening carefully.

What is that inspires you in your musical journey?
Spirituality inspires me the most! Especially my guru Ranjit Maharaj.

Concert coverage and exclusive interview by Madanmohan Rao on January 21-22 in Bangalore
Editor & DJ; World music & Jazz
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com

Photos were taken by Madanmohan Rao

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