Drumming For The World
Part 1: Combining Styles and Sounds / Learning to Improvise / The Transition from Indian to Western Drums
Trilok Gurtu is not just a drummer. He's a mesmerizing percussionist and composer who pays little heed to boundaries in music. And you won't catch him slapping a label on himself. Jazz? Experimental Rock? World? Indian? "It's myself, it's just Trilok!" is about as specific as he will get. In a way he is right. Gurtu, a four-time winner of the Downbeat Critics Poll "Best Percussionist" award, is like a human synthesizer of drumming styles. Born into an accomplished musical family in Bombay, India, Gurtu's roots are clearly in the subcontinent, but his playing weaves elements of rock, soul, jazz, African, and just plain good beats. It's what the now compromised idea of "world music" was meant to be. His work with greats like Don Cherry, Zakir Hussein, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Pat Metheny and others has established his creds in the most respected musical circles.
Gurtu accomplishes his sound with one of the more unique kit combinations in music. Centered on the Indian tabla, it incorporates Western elements like snare drum, toms and cymbals, as well as temple blocks, bells, conga, synthesizer and homemade drums of his own making. Like his tabla-playing Indian forefathers, Gurtu plays most of the time sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Gurtu's latest album, The Beat of Love, released June 12, features guest appearances by Angelique Kidjo, Salif Keita, Wally Badarou, Roop Kumar, among others. It's just Trilok. Currently on tour with his band, The Glimpse, Trilok Gurtu shows rhythmical purity is how you make it.
Musician.com: You're known for combining two styles of drumming, the Indian classical style and the Western kit style. How do you unify the two?
Trilok Gurtu: I think Indian and African music is very scientific and very advanced. So everything that comes from the West is either from Africa or India. If you want to talk about pop or ethno - the direction goes towards Africa and India. So I thought, "What I am trying to be, an American drummer, or what?" I had lengthy talk with Gary Chaffee and I talked to Vinnie Coliauta. You know, I haven't studied Western drums at all. I've heard jazz and a lot of pop. That doesn't make me a jazz musician, but when we talk about jazz drumming or soul drumming, it comes from Africa. If you listen to Elvin Jones or Tony Williams, the great drummers, it's really African what they play. It's not coming from Kentucky or Pittsburgh. So that's what I can say, there's nothing for me to unify because it is already unified. You know I wanted to study at Berklee and I was rejected! It was a blessing in disguise. And now I'm going to teach modern drumming there. So this is how life is.
Musician.com: You were born in Bombay, India and had the formal musical training there. Your mother is Shobha Gurtu, a famous singer in India. The training for tabla players in India is usually very long and intense. What was involved in your training as a musician in India?
Gurtu: Zakir Hussein can tell you how heavy the training is. But I was not born into a family of tabla players. I was born into a family of singers, great singers and dancers. The focus was on accompaniment, how to feed the artist, when to play and when not to play, not on solo tabla. That came later. In India we have a family hierarchy, passed down from father to the son. This hierarchy has been of great use to me because it also taught me when I was small how to respect music, how to respect elders who have given you the knowledge. That means to respect our mentors. My mentors are not in the West, they are mostly Indian, or maybe some Pygmy guy that nobody knows. So I was brought up with this kind of feeling and also a spiritual aspect of music, which is very strong in India, and that has helped me to do what I do. When you look at MTV or somewhere else, the role model changes every week. So the young people have no one to look at! My role models don't change every week. They have been there for thousands of years. So this is what I learned when I was small - how to love music and how to embrace music.
Musician.com: The whole outlook on drummers is different in India, isn't it? You know the old joke about drummers - what do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians? A drummer.
Gurtu: No, in India it's the other way around. What do you call a guy who hangs out with a drummer? A musician! It's another thing in Africa and India. I don't think anything is backward or forward or anything is good or bad. Eighty percent of Indian music is improvised. The whole reason to practice and learn to improvise on a small melody is that you must have a lot of skill, you must know music very well to do that. The rhythm plays a big part. And it's very microscopic. We say without rhythm you don't have melody, and without melody you don't have harmony. So without rhythm you are dead! I think rhythm is what makes us do actions and movements. Without rhythm I think nobody can move - you can have just one note, aaaaaaaaaaah! If the purists want an A-440, they can have it all their life.
Musician.com: When and why did you make the transition from playing just tabla to playing a set with Western kit elements and other types of percussion?
Gurtu: I used to play everything separately before I realized I wanted to be myself, I want to sound like myself. I want a drumset that will sound the way I want to. And that's why I started composing at that stage, too - I said, "It's not only drumming. You have to incorporate everything, melody, overtones, everything." It is the melodic approach that made me go to that kind of setup. When people listen to my CDs they say, "Oh he's a percussionist," but they don't realize that I've written all the tunes. I respected all the American and British drummers, Bonhams and all those people, but I want to be myself. I found the tom - toms and tuned them the way I want them to sound - like the tabla or the mringadam. I developed the style to translate my language. Indian music has a very definite language and Indian drumming has a language sound for every tone (recites a few). So all this language I translated into the drum kit. You should be able to sing what you play. If you can sing it, then you are more relaxed, even if you are playing at top speed.
Musician.com: How long had you been playing when you made the transition and what were you playing first.
Gurtu: I started with the tabla and then came to the drumset. I didn't have a drumset, nobody taught me. I had to go around listening to Western drummers because in India, everyone is fascinated with the Western drummers, just like in the West they are fascinated with Indian drumming. I used to like Motown music. I like Sly and the Family Stone, rhythmic music. I did also like Monk very much because I thought he sounded like a South Indian guy playing some incredible music. And of course Coltrane because he was interested in India. But I struggled to study. I studied the hard way.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3