Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Masters of percussion

IT’S always a pleasure to see tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain and ace drummer Trilok Gurtu together on stage. After all, these two musicians have pioneered the popularisation of Indian percussion internationally.

Zakir’s numerous collaborations include Remember Shakti with guitarist John McLaughlin, Planet Drum with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and the electronica venture Tabla Beat Science with producer Bill Laswell and percussionist Talvin Singh. For his part, Trilok Gurtu has been respected as one of the finest drummers in jazz and world music, teaming up with McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Jan Garbarek, Angelique Kidjo and Robert Miles.

The two maestros came again together again at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall on January 27. In a concert organised by Madhyam Entertainment as a tribute to the great singer (and Trilok’s mother) Shobha Gurtu, they teamed up with young sitar genius Niladri Kumar, bassist Sheldon D’Silva and keyboardist Sangeet Haldipur to produce 90 minutes of scintillating music.

While Zakir and Trilok have taken the lead in spreading the reach of Indian percussion music abroad, it was actually Zakir’s father — Ustad Allarakha — who set the trend while accompanying sitar legend Pandit Ravi Shankar in the ’60s. While that mostly comprised traditional classical music, the trend later encompassed various kinds of experimental sounds and a variety of newer musician-combinations too.

Today, numerous drumming champions are doing the concert rounds.  Some of them focus on traditional music, and others on jazz and fusion. On the tabla, we have Anindo Chatterjee, Fazal Qureshi, Bickram Ghosh, Swapan Chaudhuri, Nayan Ghosh, Anuradha Pal, Tanmoy Bose, Aneesh Pradhan, Abhijeet Banerjee, Yogesh Samsi, Vijay Ghate and Rimpa Siva, among others. On drums, we have Ranjit Barot, Sivamani, Gino Banks, Kurt Peters, Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale, Adrian D’Souza, Amit Kilam and Nandan Bagchi.

Among other well-known percussionists, well-known percussionist Taufiq Qureshi is now concentrating more on playing the African djembe using Indian rhythms. Vikku Vinayakram is the master of the pot-like south Indian ghatam. Selva Ganesh excels at the kanjira, a rather difficult instrument held in one hand and played by the other. Bhawani Shankar on pakhawaj and Sridhar Parthasarathy on mridangam are other well-known names.

In the Indian cities, the season between October and February witnesses various combinations of these musicians in concert. Some accompany well-known classical musicians, whereas others team up with different artistes in fusion or jazz encounters. For the audience, each occasion provides reason to party.

Though percussion involves a lot of depth, precision and timing — or mathematics, science and art, if one prefers it that way — the truth is that even the first-time listener gets enchanted by the sheer rhythm and energy. Yes, the more traditional-minded listener may not often appreciate the experimental varieties, but the truth is that innovation happens only if the musician has mastered the basics. The best fusion artistes are the ones who are primarily masters of the pure form.

The fact that the music calendar is packed with a share of percussion events is great news. Paisa vasool, as they say — good return for money spent. However, what’s not so great is the truth that most of the musicians are not releasing fresh studio material too often these days. The obvious reason is that there’s more money and direct exposure in concerts, and CD sales are dwindling, as a result of which even the music labels don’t encourage new albums.

However, if one looks at the past record, Indian percussionists have released some fantastic albums. Though sales have been moderate, these recordings have had a cult following and rave reviews. If one wants to make a beginning, here are 10 CD recommendations:

1)    Rhythm Experience Zakir Hussain: A world music album with an emphasis on Indian percussion. One of Zakir’s amazing creations, along with ‘Masters of Percussion’.

2)    Rhydhun — Taufiq Qureshi:  Zakir’s younger brother comes up with a percussion album that’s great in every respect. It also has appearances by Allarakha and Zakir.

3)    African Fantasy — Trilok Gurtu:  A splendid fusion of jazz and funk with Indian and African rhythms.

4)    Bada Boom — Ranjit Barot: One of the newer releases (2010), this jazz-fusion venture features drummer Barot with appearances by U Shrinivas on mandolin and McLaughlin on guitar.

5)    Rhythmscape — Bickram Ghosh: Tabla player Bickram Ghosh gets into a wider range of percussion on this collection.

6)    Making Music — Zakir Hussain: Though it goes under Zakir’s name, it’s actually an Indo-fusion album featuring McLaughlin, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

7)    Drums On Fire — Sivamani and James Asher:  Popular Indian drummer Sivamani teams up with producer-composer-musician Asher on this album, which is of the more programmed variety.

8)    Taal Tantra — Tanmoy Bose:  A wonderful cocktail of percussion sounds from the Kolkata-based tabla player.

9)    Usfret — Trilok Gurtu: Released in 1987, this album was way ahead of its time, and has inspired many musicians from London’s Asian Underground scene.

10)  Tala Matrix Tabla Beat Science: A group formed by Zakir Hussain and producer Bill Laswell, this blended tabla with electronica and drum ‘n’ bass. Another innovative project.

 This is a fairly good list to start with. Besides this, there are more by Trilok Gurtu (‘Crazy Saints’ and ‘The Beat Of Love’) and Taufiq Qureshi (‘Taalisma’ and ‘Perc Jam’). Other good CDs would be ‘Made In Chennai’ in which Chennai-based vocalist-percussionist Uma Mahesh teams up with drummer Pete Lockett, and ‘Vikku Vinayakram: 60 Years’ Celebration.’

There’s some great work. But as we said, one wishes there are many more recordings in order to appeal to more audiences internationally.


Comments on: "Masters of percussion" (2)

  1. Many years ago, 1998 I guess, Sivamani was largely an unknown entity. I had the opportunity of seeing Zakir Hussain and him performing at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in a ‘Master of Percussion’ concert. Till date it has been a fine concert in my memory. And even better, Late Pt Sultan Khan played the Sarangi. Though it was just a show about percussion, a musician of Sultan Khan’s stature, just sat in to play the repetitive pattern on the Sarangi. That shows the humbleness.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks Satyajit
      In 1998 Sivamani had become popular here – actually from 1995 onwards. But he began making a mark abroad only by the tuen of the century. He’s quite an entertainer and showman. There are people who just love him and there are people who think he overdoes things. Whatever, he’s a big draw, though of course Zakir is the biggest crowd puller among percussionists even today

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