December 15, 1997  
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MUSIC: TRILOK GURTU
Passion for Percussion

The lightning moves of this Mumbai drummer's hands beat out a whole new definition of fusion.

By Nandita Chowdhury

Trilok GurtuDestiny beckons at the most inopportune moments. Cricket in the courtyard is one of those rituals mothers must never interrupt. Mothers never listen. So what if Trilok Gurtu, all of 13, was polishing his square cut; the message was urgent: "family izzat" was at stake. Mother Shobha Gurtu, the legendary thumri exponent, was in trouble: her tabla accompanist was ill and musical greats like Vasant Desai and Phula Deshpande were waiting for her concert to start. So Trilok, having to quickly exchange Alla Rakha for Sunil Gavaskar in his fantasies, crept on stage and heard his mother command: "Play." And so, without a rehearsal, he did. The audience, stunned, would bellow for encores. And even his courtyard friends must have decided it was worth it. After all, as elder brother Narendra recalls, "Baba had to bribe him with new cricket gear to get him on stage in the first place."

It was obviously a night of seduction. Three decades later, the romance with cricket is confined to television. Passion equals percussion. Now 46, with flecks of grey flirting with his hair, the boy-turned-maestro is sitting once again on a Mumbai stage. Crouched precariously on one knee, a foot on the drum pedal, wrists and sticks dancing over tabla and drums, bols of rhythm spewing from his lips ("tha, takita dhin tha," he screams as his sweat rains under the stage lights), he's just warming up. A synthesised version of raag Sindhu Bhairavi is about to explode. Somewhere in the madness of the moment a voice breaks through the night: "Anything will do!" A micro-second of stillness on stage and Trilok's voice rings out in repartee: "For you maybe, not for me!" The world's best jazz percussionist -- for the third year running, according to the prestigious downbeat magazine's Annual Critics Poll -- is no longer mama's obedient accompanist. And the New Gur(t)u of Fusion has got the attitude to prove it.

"Hey," he corrects, "it's not fusion, it's confusion." Take a glimpse of The Glimpse (his new band) and it certainly seems a music that defies categorisation: a mix of percussion, the sitar, the kaval (a Bulgarian flute) and the ganav (a combination of vocals, guitar and drum). Says long-time buddy and fellow percussionist Ranjit Barot: "Trilok has given a respectability to the term 'fusion' because his music, unlike the others, is not gimmicky. As a composer he brings together a variety of tonal combinations through instruments like a Bulgarian flute, a sitar or a veena."

Having grown up in a Hindustani music tradition and imbibed a love for western jazz, Trilok has merged styles to produce what can only be described as a global sound. Today, as Niranjan Jhaveri of Jazz India says, "Trilok spearheads a significant movement in world music. Absorbing music from Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, China and Japan, he is taking jazz into the 21st century." That is why his name counts. From jazz master Joe Zawinul -- "had a great time sharing the stage with him" -- to Miles Davis, who sought him for a recording, musicians acknowledge his gift. There is a further unique quality to Trilok: he is the only fusion musician who recites bols in the classical idiom. Mother, it seems, is still having a say. As Trilok's present guru Pandit Suresh Talwalkar points out, living in a home where Shobha's voice echoed through the rooms evidently struck a lasting chord: "The gayaki dhang is evident in his music, even as a percussionist."

Even as a pasty-faced student, Trilok's unpredictability was as evident as his genius. His initial tutor, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb, was a rigid disciplinarian: if his protégé didn't play properly it earned him a good hiding. When he did play properly, he was rewarded -- either a bakshish of Rs 11 or a visit to wrestling matches. Yet Khan Saheb also knew that when in the mood, the boy had magic in his fingers. Once, in the presence of the legendary Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, the precocious eight-year-old Trilok, busy sucking on a mango, threw away his favourite fruit, grabbed a tabla and began playing it like a man possessed. Mansur was struck by his genius. His mother recalls: "Trilok became a kansen (one who learns music by ear) rather than Tansen. Whatever the gharana, whatever the music, he played on."

This boy's life was soon transformed into a musical adventure. Jazz in the '60s embraced him first, drawing him later to the Waterfront, a Mumbai band playing in discotheques and occasionally at pop concerts. A drum kit unaffordable, practice came for a price. For borrowing a drum from a friend's father, he had to haul buckets of water from the community tap for the family and the entire chawl. Practice paid. Europe beckoned, and he initially ventured there with Waterfront, later as part of R.D. Burman and Asha Bhosle's troupe, making sounds with cowbells, metal wires, cymbals, anything that held a musical possibility.

Not everyone bowed to his exuberance. In the early '70s, with a recommendation from American jazz star Charlie Mariano in his pocket, he applied to the Berkeley College of Music in the US. They rejected him, so he rejected them. The "Not Accepted" letter was dispatched into the dustbin, and in characteristic style he decided that America wasn't good enough for him and flew off to Germany. Ask him about it and that attitude hits you in the face: "I set out wanting to be like an American drummer, but God ordained that I sound only like Trilok."

There, in Europe, his true gifts unveiled. Playing with Don Cherie, blending Indian music and jazz for the first time, he began setting the pace in the late '70s for much of what present-day fusion is. John McLaughlin, the legendary guitarist whose soul has always had an Indian stamp on it, was seduced immediately: he partnered Gurtu for four years, and "nurtured" him as a composer. Fusion by Gurtu had begun. But for every experimental musician there's a critic nestling nearby. Shobharock, the funky highlight of his first album titled Usrfet -- with his mother, Cherie and L. Shankar, among others -- drew derision. "What is he doing to music?" they asked. There was no time to explain, only sounds to be invented.

It is an uncompromising journey in search of a new music that has eventually been validated. Not just by the Downbeat poll but by the regard in which his Indian contemporaries hold him. "It is difficult for an Indian to go West and do what they do well," says an admiring Ustad Zakir Husain, a man who understands well how hard it is to earn universal acceptance, having travelled that less-trodden path himself. "Trilok has excelled at that. He has bettered what they do best."

Trilok is just beaming, his face shining. There is some more to be said, it seems. Last month, he animatedly reveals, the renowned Carnatic percussionist Palaghat Raghu Iyer called him from Chennai with an invitation to play a duet with him. "His desire is a blessing for me. A million-dollar award doesn't compare with it." His pride is telling. For all that attitude, he knows acceptance is a wonderful thing. Somehow giving up cricket for mother wasn't such a bad move after all.

 

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