John McLaughlin and Selvaganesh Vinayakram – The Gateway To Rhythm
Like many Western musicians, the Indian rhythmic system known as Konokol has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve heard the seemingly complex rhythmic-pattern language on many recordings, but as interesting as it sounds, the sometimes rapid-fire vocalizations (Takita, Taka Dimi, etc.) have always befuddled me. With the new instructional DVD The Gateway To Rhythm (Mediastarz Monaco; distributed in the U.S. by Abstract Logix), jazz guitar legend John McLaughlin and Konokol master S. Ganesh Vinayakram (who was a percussionist in McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti band) not only explain and demonstrate the Konokol system in a way that’s easy to understand, they illustrate how learning Konokol will give you a deeper understanding of rhythm in general. McLaughlin has advocated Konokol as a system for learning rhythm without drums for over 30 years.
Konokol is basically a vocal drum language. Each Konokol sound is a word that you speak to represent a certain number of notes, based on the number of syllables in that word. In essence, you are vocally mimicking specific drum strokes. The five Konokol sounds covered in The Gateway To Rhythm are:
Da = 1
Taka = 2
Takita = 3
Taka Dimi or Taka Juna = 4
Da Di Gi Na Dum = 5
It’s important to note: each Konokol sound represents a rhythmic pattern, not a specific note duration. For example, you can say Takita to represent a group of three notes, but those notes can be a triplet, quarter-note triplet, or any group of three notes however they may fit into the bar. A group of five notes could be vocalized as one Takita plus one Taka, or one Da Di Gi Na Dum, whether those five notes represent one full beat or not. Choosing one sound over another is determined by where you want the accents to fall in the bar, since the proper Konokol form is to accent the first syllable of each sound when you say it (except in the case of Taka Juna where you accent both the Taka and the Juna).
Overall, The Gateway To Rhythm is well presented with fine production values. Not much is used in the way of graphics, but the rhythmic score shown at the bottom of the screen during Vinayakram’s demos and improvs is nicely done and easy to follow. The DVD is divided into six chapters. The early chapters deal with subdividing bars of 4/4 using the various Konokol sounds. If you have no experience with Konokol at all, as I didn’t, these early chapters help to make the whole art form far less intimidating than it seems. There’s a certain How does he do that? factor when you see a master like Vinayakram really flying through a Konokol improv, and you have no idea what it’s all about. By working through the early chapters, you’ll gain a foundation of understanding so you’ll at least know how they are doing what they are doing, even if you can’t do it yourself yet. And if you’re like me, after gaining some deeper knowledge about any discipline, you’ll be even more impressed when you see a master of that discipline at work.
One thing that is stressed in the early lessons on this DVD is the importance of keeping the time by clapping your hands (or using a metronome.) If you don’t do this, you can get lost at sea very quickly, especially in the later chapters when more advanced meters such as 5/4 and 7/4 are covered. Overall, the lessons are very well explained, and the DVD’s larger purpose of using Konokol as a gateway to a deeper understanding of rhythm really works.
Each chapter concludes with a Vinayakram improvisation, followed by a demonstration by McLaughlin, both based on the material covered in that chapter. Vinayakram’s improvs are among the most interesting and eye-opening parts of the DVD. They are fairly simple at first, but turn into Konokol shred-fests in the later chapters. The whole concept of subdividing rhythms using Konokol really sinks in when you view these short improvs.
Following Vinayakram’s improvisations, McLaughlin demonstrates how Konokol can also be applied to a melodic instrument (in his case, the guitar), by playing snippets of several of his compositions stretching back to the Mahavishnu Orchestra days. For example – after the second chapter, McLaughlin shows how that chapter’s main focus, Takita, can be applied to the Mahavishnu classic The Dance of Maya. The main melody of this song is in 10/4 time, and can be broken down as Takita, Taka Dimi, Takita (3+4+3=10), and the shuffle section, in 20/8, is six Takitas, plus one Taka (3+3+3+3+3+3+2=20). Other songs McLaughlin uses as examples include You Know, You Know, The Wish, and 5 Piece Band. In each case, McLaughlin does a great job of demonstrating how this eastern system of rhythm can be an asset to a western composer.
One of the highlights of the DVD is the improvisation McLaughlin and Vinayakram perform together at the conclusion of the final chapter. With Vinayakram riffing away right next to him, it’s easy to see how the rhythmic variations in McLaughlin’s lines have a strong Konokol inspiration.
McLaughlin and Vinayakaram’s main goal with this DVD is to present Konokol as a great tool for mastering rhythm without the aid of a drummer. After watching this DVD it’s hard to argue with them. Rhythmically subdividing bars of music can be a difficult task, especially when you are working with odd meters such as 5/4 or 9/8. Konokol gives you a way to practice this discipline anywhere, without an instrument (other than your own voice and hands.) This makes The Gateway To Rhythm one of the most unique instructional videos you will find. It’s not a guitar instructional video, it’s not a drumming instructional video; it’s designed to make you a better musician overall (no matter what instrument you play) by tackling what is arguably the most important aspect of any style of music – rhythm.