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Trilok Gurtu

Trilok Gurtu Interview

 

As a percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer, Trilok Gurtu has forged an impressive career. He’s performed and recorded with some the world’s top-tier jazz and world music artists including Don Cherry; Dominique DiPiazza; Bill Evans; Jan Gabarek; Jonas Hellborg; Zakir Hussain; Karsh Kale; Salif Keita; Angelique Kidjo; Bill Laswell; Nguyên Lê; John McLaughlin; Pat Metheny; the group, Oregon; Terje Rypdal; L. Shankar; Joe Zawinul and numerous others. As a first-call sideman, he has appeared on numerous CDs, DVDs and compilations, supporting a wide variety of artists and genres. [Editor’s Note: To view Gurtu’s extensive discography, visit www.trilokgurtu.net.]

 

 

Gurtu’s demand as a first-call percussionist notwithstanding, under his own name, he has been highly creative and productive. Since 1983, he’s produced 15 highly acclaimed solo albums, each one boldly crossing genres, styles and sometimes continents. For example, in addition to his compelling Indo-Jazz excursions, Gurtu was one of the first Indian percussionists to explore and incorporate the music of Africa with Indian influences. His newest studio project,Massical, released earlier this year, continues to refine that exploration, in addition to branching out in new directions. Massical is arguably one of Gurtu’s finest albums to date; it’s continuing to earn high praises from his fans worldwide as well as from the media.

 

Trilok Gurtu

Trilok Gurtu

 

It’s not an overstatement to assert that Gurtu is one of the world’s most celebrated percussionists. Among his various esteemed awards and nominations: “Best Overall Percussionist,” Drum Magazine, 1999; “Best Overall Percussionist,” Carlton Television’s Multicultural Music Awards, 2001; “Best Percussionist,” Down Beat magazine Critics Poll in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002; and “Best Asia/Pacific Artist Nominee,” BBC Radio 3 World in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Abstract Logix: I read on your website a joint interview you did with Selvaganesh. A comment he made really struck me: “Before we train our hands, we should tune our ears to good music. Listening is the first lesson.” Your thoughts?

Trilok Gurtu: I think this is very natural. You’re lucky if have a good teacher who tells you this. It’s very logical. But it doesn’t always work like that in Europe or America, you know. So the teaching is in the listening. Exhibiting comes later on. And I think this is very common in India, about listening. I don’t know if Selvaganesh was talking about his childhood or if he understood it later, I’m not sure. When you’re young, I doubt that anybody understands this. I think {laughs} after playing with [John] McLaughlin, he got me a little bit wiser, probably.

 

 

AL: I can see where that would happen. I had the honor of interviewing him last year and learned so much during our nearly two-hour conversation.

TG: {Laughs.} He’s a very good teacher and great person. Very intelligent.

AL: You studied tabla prior to taking up percussion. In addition to Abdul Karim, who were some of your other teachers; would some of us recognize their names?

TG: I think there a lot of Indians who might recognize them but probably most Americans would not. I studied from Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb first. And then I studied with Ahmed Jan Thirakwa.

AL: How old were you when you first started lessons?

TG: I was about five or so when I first started playing tabla with my mother [renowned vocalist Shoba Gurtu], and then I began taking lessons when I was about ten.

AL: Later on you began to experiment with percussion …

TG: Yes. I took tabla first. But the lessons I got were for accompaniment, not for soloist. Not like the great maestros like Zakir [Hussain] and other great tabla players. He’s my age but he had the fortune being with all the top-notch musicians all the time. I was with some top-notch musicians although they weren’t that well known. But they were incredible, my mother being one of them. My grandmother, too, she was a dancer. So I studied that way. Also my brother was in to the Bollywood scene so that piqued my interest as well. Over time, I just got interested in playing other instruments.

AL: How much of a transition was it for you to move from tabla to a trap set?

TG: That’s a strange story about using a trap set. I got rid of that drum terminology when I became disillusioned with the Berklee College of Music.

 

 

AL: I didn’t know you had attended that school.

TG: Yes, I did. And I said, “I’m never going to play like this ever in my life!” You know, many of the Indian musicians who go there want to learn, without knowing their own music system’s rules, they go there and they get completely disillusioned. I know I was. But I don’t want to speak for everybody. When I started playing drums it was at the age of 10 or 12. I played every instrument. I played for marriages, I played on the street. So this is a different background than a normal [Indian] classical musician. I had no instruments so I played on everything; whoever would give me the instruments, I played. And I never took money from my parents to have instruments. My brother had some instruments made, so I used to borrow his. I’m mostly a self-taught musician.

AL: I’m still so surprised to learn you’d attended Berklee for a while; I never knew that about you.

TG: Yes, but not finishing there was a blessing in disguise. It enabled me to develop my own style out of all this arrogance that comes out of these types of institutions. I think the musicians were not even helpful when I was in America, they were pretty … because I came from the third world, you know? They were pretty much in your face, that kind of thing.

AL: When was that?

TG: 1975.

AL: Because I think it’s changed somewhat now, they’re much more accepting of international students.

TG: Of course, because they have less work {laughs}. Nobody’s calling them and they have to bite the bullet. And now there are some very good musicians out of New York. There’s all kinds of music coming up so they have to be a little bit more humble and be thankful for what they get. And thankful for whatever respect they get in Europe and everywhere else in the world. You don’t get that in America, you know. You know that?

AL: Unfortunately, that’s very true these days.

TG: It’s all about money and how large of an audience you can draw. And it seems like many in the music industry over there don’t care very much and nobody’s very hospitable. I mean it’s very rare to see, even when I was with John [McLaughlin]. It was very rare. So it’s a very different ballgame here [in Europe]. But my audience and my fans in America, they were fantastic. I would really like to play for them again. Not the politicians and the bureaucrats but for musicians and the people who love music. They have no caste, religion, creed, nothing.

AL: You don’t tour the States that often anymore.

TG: Not now. I used to tour twice a year, from 1980 until 2000. But then when Mr. Bush came into office, and all this post-9/11 stuff … You don’t realize how degrading it can be when you want to get a visa. If this process was done to Americans who want to visit other countries, they’d hit the roof, man. The Americans just tried to do something to a really famous Bollywood actor. Imagine this happening in reverse. It doesn’t work. Robert, it doesn’t work. This sort of thinking and action doesn’t cut it. We have to work hand-in-hand, mutually for music and culture. There is no body good or bad. We have to work together. We can’t have this attitude that “we are the best.” It doesn’t work. Not even within India or in Africa. We have to work together.

AL: That’s one of reasons I loved the video you performed on, Voodoo Chile—The Music of Jimi Hendrix, where there were musicians from different countries and genres coming together to celebrate a common cause. You all produced some wonderfully unique arrangements of Hendrix’s tunes.

 

 

TG: Yeah, I know what you mean. I would like to represent that type of thing if and when I can come to America. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I probably still have a good following in your country, even though I haven’t toured there in a good eight or nine years. I would like to really come and play for my audiences there. One of the problems is I don’t have a U.S. booking agent right now. We lost a lot of money, everybody lost a lot of money, even John [McLaughlin] lost a lot of money touring America. So it was out of sheer love for our American audience that we came, because the record sales are not there. So we need help to come to America.

AL: Okay, changing gears a little bit … In addition to the Hendrix video I saw, there are several YouTube videos of you in concert now, and also on your website. I sometimes see you playing a wooden, triangular-looking device with three drum heads in it. Where did you get that?

TG: This something I found in the ’80s, and I also found a fantastic bass drum sound to represent the tabla.

AL: I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve always loved your bass drum sound. One of my best friends calls it “Popeye Drums.” Don’t ask me where he got that name from.

TG: {Laughs.} I just started EQ’ing it, tuning it, and working with it … Because when you start something, everybody starts laughing about it. Now everybody plays that triangular-shaped set of drums … Sivamani uses it, everybody does it. Everybody’s playing my instruments, dipping them in water … But when I did it, I had to go through criticism, “What kind of drum set is that?!” It’s ethnic, it’s an Indian drum set. So I searched for and obtained these drums so I could represent my language, the tabla language from India, that’s how I made it. It’s because I’m coming from tabla, mostly.

 

 

 

AL: Have you ever experimented with Roland’s HandSonic [electronic hand percussion instrument]? It’s quite diverse sonically.

TG: Yes, I used it on Beat of Love.

AL: I’ll have to go back and listen to that album more carefully.

TG: {Laughs.} It’s a nice instrument.

AL: Getting back to John McLaughlin … When we spoke last year, he discussed at length about how Ravi Shankar encouraged him to learn Carnatic konnakol [terminology describing the vocal percussion and rhythmic counting system from South India] and how important it was for him in developing his own musicianship.

TG: I studied Hindustani [North Indian] and also Carnatic. But I don’t say that I have any authority to all this. I am not a Pandit or an Ustad

; I just happen to love music. I don’t want to claim any authority. But I would agree with my friend that the study of Carnatic music is very important. For me, and for musicians, I would recommend Carnatic and African music, especially for my kind of style of playing.

AL: Before our time is up, I wanted to compliment you on your new album, Massical. I think it’s one of your strongest projects to date.

TG: Thanks very much, I appreciate that.

AL: I’d have to say that my favorite song is “Kuruksetra,” which you actually dedicated to John McLaughlin. It’s certainly one of the longest and most in-depth pieces you’ve composed in quite a while. Very impressive.

TG: Thanks. Some people have recently said, “Oh Trilok, you’re just trying to please the audience.” I said, “Okay I’ll write something different.” So I came up with this song. It’s very intense. It starts off mysteriously and then it starts building up in density as well as in rhythmic and melodic complexity.

AL: How did you go about writing it?

TG: I worked on it on the keyboard and I sang. And because I’d worked with a string quartet before on my album, Arkeology, I knew I wanted that element in this song as well.

AL: And there’s a brass section, too. This one of the first times you’ve worked with horns, to my knowledge.

TG: I did it together with my band member, Carl Cantini. He actually put the whole brass section together. He’s very talented.

AL: Yes, in reading Massical’s liner notes, I see he plays many different instruments; what an asset. I remember hearing the song for the first time and thinking, “This song is amazing! I’m even hearing a brass section.”

TG: Yeah, yeah, I surprise people a lot {laughs}. It’s a classic composition. And even John was very jacked about it when he heard it. You know, I think the main thing is to get this CD to the American audience. Because I do think it’s strong. I think when the people hear it, just like my earlier albums, they’ll going to like it very much.

AL: Of that, I have no doubt.

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