My love affair with Indian music started when I was 16 in 1977, I found an album of tabla recitals that was using Western song melodies as the raga cycle to accompany the tabla soloist. I guess this album was created to introduce tabla to a Western audience, and it was strictly by chance that I happened upon it. It was a deeply moving and new experience for me as a Western drummer coming in touch with an Eastern musical tradition focusing in this instance on its percussive elements. It touched me profoundly with the abundance of feeling, nuance, beauty and depth that this music embodied.
However it was five years later, disillusioned with the music industry due to some bad experiences with a greedy manager and publishing company, that I traded in my drum kit for a set of tabla drums. I came across a very proficient Western student of Chauti Lal in Paddington Sydney. His name was Peter Slattury, I spent 18 months learning from him, developing well. I had sold my Western drum kit and during this couple of years hiatus from the music industry I focused exclusively on studying tabla, happy not to have to carry a big drum kit around since tabla drums are so portable.
I learned quite a few tabla compositions and through this study was introduced to the konnokol (rhythmic language) of the north Indian classical tradition, the oral tradition of learning the syllables associated with each sound on the tabla.
This is the power of oral rhythmic traditions, enabling the practitioner to internalise a vast repertoire, with each syllable associated with playing a sound with one's hands on the drums. The internal and external soon become a seamless whole, an internal song based in heart feeling expressed via physical memory of motion and movement, creating a kind of bio feedback loop or mechanism, each side enhancing the other. Off course for a 21 year old Westerner this is slow going since tabla is a technically difficult instrument, demanding a lot of effort and application in order to make the most basic sound.
Beginning with these most rudimentary compositions, I also encountered a new way of understanding musical time and pulse. The Indian way does not deal in time signatures like 4/4 or 7/4, made up by concepts of linear time moving from point 'A' to point 'B' divided into little boxes, each defined by a number of pulses of a certain length; but rather, views musical time and pulse as one great repeating cycle made up of varying number of pulses.
It is a vastly different perspective. That cycle can be navigated in many different ways, to complex to elaborate on here, but this great journey and cyclical musical exploration expressed in each and every classical tradition of the Indian musical pantheon always leads back at some point to a great resolution on the 'Sum', or beat one of the cycle.
The Western tradition of drumming I had been educated in also encompasses an aural component, though not as its central tenet which tends towards the visual and conceptual, expressed via written musical transcriptions using sheet music. I must admit I have always struggled with this medium, though I do fluently understand and read music, I am not wired that way and have never been able to become a proficient sight reader.
However, the aural dimension of counting I started with in order to learn subdivisions when first beginning to play the drums made real sense. My teacher Barry Woods would always say: "count aloud, if you can count it you can play it". This is because one's voice is directly linked to one's internal clock, and once the rhythmic structure is internalised, with practice the body is able to follow.
That tradition of counting quarter, eights, triplets and sixteenth notes is quite rudimentary compared to the Indian systems. It is rather a conceptual way of counting relating to the above subdivisions, that is then applied to the drums, but does not relate to the actual 'sound' of the drums themselves as do the Indian traditions. It is a counting system enabling all instrumentalist and singers alike to learn subdivisions.
It is not systematic or holistic with an agreed upon format however, and only encompasses 4 of the 7 most widely used subdivisions within Western music. Its ambiguity would lead me three decades later to develop a whole naming and counting system to encompass subdivisions from 8th to 36th notes in my Masters thesis "Quornnokol a pedagogical instrument and musical work".
Though I did not realise its implications at the time, this exposure to another way of feeling and perceiving musical time as circular motions, would have profound ramifications on my musical journey and the aesthetic experiences in terms of how I would receive and perceive the auditory world of music in decades to come.
At that time in my musical journey I had been deeply touched by two great traditions, Western Jazz and Jazz Jusion and North Indian classical or Kyal as it is also referred to. Though they are underpinned by vastly different departure points, outlooks, perceptions and investigations, the medium through which they express their journey is based on a great commonality, "improvisation".
What is improvisation? Much could be written about such a vast topic, but for me the core of what I feel defines it is:
"The mystery of the Source process of life speaking through us, as if that mystery has an intentional desire to express itself as its primary impulse, to come into creation, and secondarily to be received by us, as though emanating out of the great silent deep of the ocean making great waves and ripples on the surface, before returning to its source".
A little poetic maybe, so to elaborate. Every musician has internalised a repertoire of musical phrases relating to their instrument. Some of these phrases have been learned by studying and exploring music theory such as different ways of running scales, or studying written works by composers disseminated by ones teacher or teachers. Some of these phrases have been copied from other musicians that one has heard either live or through recordings. That study of replicating what is or has come before encompasses technique, nuance, feeling and emotion, and this learned repertoire then becomes internalised in the vast depository of ones psyche and heart to be drawn upon later.
No doubt when improvising one will draw on all that stored knowledge; however, great improvisers bring something more to the equation, like Miles Davis said "it's in the air". In other words, improvisation is not just being spontaneous in a musical context, it is allowing something, that some might even refer to as transcendental, to move through that repository of musical phrases and outcries and rearrange them and express them in a new way.
When Miles Davis asked John Coltrane why he took such long solos? Coltrane responded that once he started he did not know how to turn it off! This would seem to imply that once that improvisation switch was turned on in his case, he was no longer in control, but some other process was in charge, it could even be inferred that when he started soloing, 'he was no longer doing the playing', 'he instead was being played'.
By what? one may ask. I would allude to that mysterious connection to Source I mentioned earlier.
In the Indian context, within a classical tradition that is framed by so many parameters, limits or rules one might say, great improvisers are recognised for breaking through the limits of those parameters or rules; expressing something completely spontaneous and free 'outside' the confines of that framework while remaining 'inside' somehow.
This is also recognised within Jazz, where playing outside can be understood to mean using tonalities that should not work within a particular harmonic framework, would normally sound completely dissonant and out of tune, yet somehow express an intangible and fit beautifully within that framework. Great improvisers can do this because they are so connected to the music, it lives through them. This can also be done rhythmically in Jazz, by stretching time past the point of where the change or resolution should have occurred to a new place in time beyond that point.
Maybe the improvisational aesthetic in both these traditions is what drew me to them, because even if I did not know it at the time in the most fully conscious sense; the underlying possibility of having this mysterious relationship to an artistic process embodied by improvisation was what I was yearning for in life as a whole. A sense of being connected to, and in conversation with something beyond myself. A greater process that was full of beauty and that communicated through the feeling dimension, took me to places beyond my imagination, and allowed me to return and speak in a fathomless language beyond words. Indeed if the transcendental can be found in art, then surely it is embodied in the Jazz tradition of the West and the classical Indian traditions of India. In that sense I had come home.
While studying tabla and learning a repertoire of these Kyal rhythmic compositions, I did not however have an opportunity to play with other musicians within that tradition, so at some point I returned to my roots and focused once again on playing Western drum kit. However, I was from that point fully introduced to the North Indian classical tradition and slowly developed a collection of albums of various singers and instrumentalists.
It must also be said that the Kyal tradition for me coming from the West did not introduce me simply to a music tradition in abstract or merely theoretical terms, but to the instruments which makes that tradition possible with its use of ragas; embodying melodically what the West refers to as microtones, expressed through bends, slides and slurs that Western instruments cannot replicate. Therefore I encountered a whole new palette of sounds and timbres through these new instruments that exploded my boundaries. The seductive breathy warmth of the bansuri wooden flute, the intimate control and expression of the human voice used as a solo instrument, the amazing sounds of the tabla with its bending bass and high harmonics, its round open and even watery sounds.
Another feature of this tradition exploding my boundaries was to realise that its percussive instrument, the tabla which functions as the comping instrument for melodic soloist, is utterly equal to the melodic instruments in terms of also being viewed as a solo instrument. The melodic player in that context functions as the comping instrument by playing a repetitive melody over the rhythmic cycle while the tabla player explores at length rhythmic compositions in the same way as a melodic instrumentalist would explore a raga.
Of course harmonic players in the West also comp for drummers to take solos, especially in Jazz and Jazz Fusion genres. There are other ways the drummer is featured called 'trading bars', of four or eight bars lengths, where a soloist plays with the band for four bars lets say at the end of a chorus, then the drummer solos for four bars by himself, and the band starts up again and the process repeats. It's a kind of a way for a conversation to take place between a harmonic player and drummer in call and answer fashion. However, featuring the drummer in this way within Jazz and Fusion genres is a far cry from attending a tabla 'recital' where the whole program focuses on the tabla player and the melodic instrumentalists is there just to function as a comping instrument for the entire length of the recital which could be an hour or more.
Apart from showing up at a drum festival, where numerous high profile drummers are featured over the day, usually as part of an industry expo and the audience is made up of 99% drummers, this is unheard off in the West. It's not like Classical and Jazz music enthusiast are going to show up at Carnegie hall and listen to Billy Cobham solo for ninety minutes while Chick Corea is off to the side comping for him on the piano. Yet within the Kyal tradition in India that is exactly the sort of thing which happens, where an enthusiastic audience will show up at a concert hall to attend a tabla recital by a famous tabla player like Zakir Hussain for instance.
Therefore any trained classical player in India requires an arduous apprenticeship, usually starting at a very young age in order to attain the level of mastery required to be taken seriously as a classical musician. The tabla being such a demanding instrument it became obvious to me that I could only pursue this so far, and having no access to other Indian instrumentalist, it was an easy decision to return to my Western drum set. Though I was very grateful for what my tabla hiatus taught me.
In the following two decades I was busy raising a family and meeting those responsibilities, so my music career was relegated to just week end work and my practice time was limited. In 2000, I went back to university and completed a Bachelors of Contemporary Music. I began to explore and be lead to ideas relative to rhythmic phrasing which are common place in the Indian tradition, but not so well defined as a system in the West.
By 2004 my children had left home, so I began to travel internationally and while doing some work for a retreat sanctuary in Fiji, I got the opportunity to play with John Wubbenhorst, a very long time accomplished Western student of world renowned bansuri flute player Hari Prasad Claurasia. The drummers in his band “Facing East” were Subash Chandran (now deceased Konnokol, Mridagam and Ghatam master) and Ganesh Kumar (Kanjira).
They resided in Chennai South India, they had played on three of John’s albums. John introduced me to the Konnokol of South India, which is so systematic and from my point of view the most integrated, complete rhythmic language phrasing system in the world. Like the tabla's oral language of syllables used in the Northern Indian tradition, the Indian konnokol of the South also relates to sounds on the southern India's three most popular drums 'the ghatam, the mridagam and the kanjira'. However the sung konnokol of the South stands up as its own rhythmic art form and also as a means to learn and understand conceptually the rhythmic structures of South India's Carnatic classical musical tradition.
Subash and Ganesh also came to Fiji later in 2004 and I met them there. In 2005 I travelled to India and spent four months studying with them in Chennai. My interest was primarily to learn the Konnokol language to augment, formalise and create a bridge in terms of the rhythmic theory I had started to develop during my Bachelor studies, so that I could also apply it to my drumming.
However, as well as learning Carnatic Konnokol compositions with Subash, I also took many kanjira lessons from Ganesh, and Subash also suggested I take some mridagam lessons from his son Krishna.
From these studies, I was not only able to create and integrate the mechanisms and concepts that formulate the rhythmic compositions of the South Indian Carnatic tradition into methodologies to serve a framework for Western drummers, but also to augment the rhythmic phrasing repertoire of any other Western instrumentalist or singer. As well as that due to the specific rhythmic theoretical basis of the South Indian system, and the inspiration I garnered from it, I was able to expand conceptually what I had learned in my Western studies to greater heights and catalogued all the note groupings in subdivisions from 8th to 36th notes.
This enabled me to create a unique system which is a synthesis of both Western and Eastern approaches that gets at the root or source of the fundamental building blocks of the rhythmic structure of musical traditions. As a methodology this was fully explored, defined and expressed as a pedagogical tool in my Masters thesis "Quornnokol a pedagogical instrument and musical work".
As an educator my focus is not so much to teach traditions of music, but to give students the framework to technically develop and understand the rhythmic building blocks that underpin musical traditions, as a means to develop a rhythmic facility and repertoire on their instrument that will enable them to navigate rhythmically any genres or tradition of music East or West. I invite you to investigate and expand your rhythmic repertoire as it applies to the 16th note subdivision by making use of another post on my blog:
"Rhythmic phrasing two fundamental approaches".
Because I am a western kit drummer, in some of my writings I have focused very specifically on how that would be utilised when approached with the ability to play four different sounds at once, as one does when playing Western drums using both feet and hands. I plan to explore this fully in my Doctoral thesis, which will use the tools developed in my Masters thesis as a foundation. My Masters thesis was a 'broad' harnessing and investigation into the rhythmic structures underpinning musical traditions yielding a rhythmic methodology usable by all musicians, singers and instrumentalist alike.
In comparison my doctorate will focus in on how the rhythmic research acquired through my Masters relative to all the building blocks and source codes that underpin subdivisions and musical traditions, will relate 'very specifically' to methodologies applicable to the Western drum set. In that investigation, I will also thoroughly research and catalogue the most relevant polyrhythm's as I did with the source codes in subdivisions from 8th to 36th notes in my Masters thesis.
It has taken me 35 years to get to this point and I myself am still working on all the music theory I have developed for my instrument. As an instrumentalist I will never stop integrating the knowledge I have harnessed about rhythm and the rhythmic musical universe over my lifetime. I hope to publish many books in the future, as well as develop some pedagogical software, as well as software for a revolutionary sequencer based on a drag and drop method using all the source codes underpinning subdivisions and polyrhythm's.
It still amazes me that the system and methodology I created in my Masters thesis was not created previously by so many of the incredibly great Western drummers I grew up listening to, since this seems like an incredibly obvious and desirable investigation to make. But then again getting to this point has been a 35 year journey.
In 2009 I saw Pete Lockett perform at the Australian Ultimate Drummers Weekend held by Drumtek in Melbourne and was inspired by what he has achieved as a Western practitioner within both the Kyal and Carnatic traditions of India, playing so very proficiently and beautifully both tabla and kanjira. Some other celebrated Western drummers like Steve Smith have more recently incorporated more of the rhythmic systems and methodologies of North and South India into their repertoires. Still from the reaction of the crowd at the Australian Ultimate Drummers Weekend it seemed to me that Western drummers are only recently becoming aware and scratching the surface of the rich drumming traditions of India and therefore can look forward to much learning and inspiration from them.
I will be forever grateful to Mother India for enriching my life with such boundless beauty and knowledge in imparting to me such abundant gifts from Her great musical traditions.