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Sumith and his strings
Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

If you hear a symphony of strings being plucked individually to create magic on a fretboard, chances are you’re listening to Sumith Ramachandran, the 41-year-old Malayali finger stylist who came here to live his rock and roll dreams and emerged as a “monster guitarist”. Now an Indian endorser for the French-Canadian Godin Guitars, used by John McLaughlin to Roger Waters, Sumith tells t2 about his musical journey from the Kerala backwaters to the Calcutta lakes...

What prompted you to agree to your first major interview?

I’ve never been media savvy.... Before sitting down for this interview I thought about it a hundred times, ‘Sumith are you ready to do this?’ but more than talking about myself I wanted to share my experience of getting a Godin guitar endorsement deal in the morning and spending the evening with Alan Holdsworth!

You were one of the lucky few to attend Holdsworth’s concert in Mumbai last month...

Yes, I got a call from my friend in Bombay, Sandeep (Chowta) who brought Holdsworth down to India. I’m a very fidgety guy. I don’t go to watch concerts. After two or three songs I get bored, very very selfish of me because I’m also into this entertainment business! Somehow Sandeep knew I’m a big Alan Holdsworth fan and when he told me, I said to him, ‘book my tickets no matter how expensive!’ It was going to be my only opportunity to see him, I had to go. I got introduced to his music after I came to Calcutta in 1995. He’s a hard-core British jazz player and his craftsmanship is completely unearthly to me. Even now when I go for my walks I listen to him. When people ask me who my influence is I say Alan Holdsworth. Little did I know I was going to be hugged by him!

What did you tell Holdsworth?

Nothing! I froze. Sandeep introduced me to him at an after-party when he put his hand over my head. Oh god, it was like seeing god! I started weeping. My friends pushed me to go ask him something but I couldn’t say a word! I used to wonder what Beatlemania or people shrieking and crying on seeing their idol was all about. Now I know! I don’t drink but I had tequila that evening so that I could say later, ‘I drank with Alan Holdsworth!’

Do you have musical roots?

Not really. My entire family is in the railways. My father was a railway guard and my mother, a housewife. I started playing on a small, crude instrument called bulbul-tara when I was three. It had seven numbered keys in black and white. I could listen to any tune and play it on that.

A ‘monster guitarist’ (that’s what Ehsaan Noorani calls Sumith) from the Palakkad district in Kerala...how did that happen?

I don’t know whether I’m a monster but unfortunately, in Palghat where I was growing up, you don’t hear western music. I didn’t even have a proper guitar with six strings to play on. I would practise on a four-string guitar and if it tore, one would have to travel overnight to Cochin or Bangalore to buy a string.

I was a complete misfit physically to get into the railways. They saw my body and laughed! I started contributing to the family playing on an acoustic guitar when I was in Class V. Since I couldn’t afford guitars and pedals when I was growing up, I have this disease now of buying guitars, pedals, effect processors in blue, green and all shapes and colours. I don’t have a count of how many I have in my cupboard now!

So how did you learn the craft?

No training. What I had were my ears and an ability to recognise musical notes. Back in Kerala the buses weren’t numbered. They had names like Jesus, Mother Mary, St. Thomas and I could recognise them by its horn… ‘oh Mother Mary is coming, Jesus is coming!’ I was only six but I never went wrong. Also, my house was like a jukebox. From my father’s room you’d only hear classical Carnatic music, one brother would listen to ghazals and another brother would play Voice of America on radio and that was my doorway to the western world.

And how did you end up as a Cal boy?

I came here to do music in 1993. P.C. Mukherjee of Shiva was the guy who imported me to join them. Then later I was with Usha Uthup for a long time. Most of her guitar players wouldn’t show up at the last minute because they were either sleeping or drunk! So she called me one day and without rehearsals I was right on stage. She’s taken me around the world. At that time I used to play the guitar and keyboard together.

I know Calcutta is a lazy place and moneywise it’s less compared to Bombay, but I love my life here. In Bombay I’d be laughing once a year.... Music is a creative thing and I can’t work under pressure. I’d get very homesick. Many have called me to Bombay, asked me to break away from my comfort zone and make more money, but I love Calcutta. It is very much like my hometown. People are way better than anywhere else. Even better than Keralites! I’ve been here for 18 years. I’m a Cal boy now.

I love my evening walks at the Lakes and my band Hip Pocket, which is a very nice bunch of people. Plus, I get to do my own project with Rila (his wife) on Plan B. Technology too has changed. The same people who wanted me in Mumbai now tell me ‘okay, you can sit in your favourite place in Calcutta and mail us files’. So I will very soon be working with Sandeep Chowta on a Bollywood film, January onwards.

You’ve worked in films...

Yes, many years ago I worked with playback singers like K.J. Yesudas and S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, then I left the (Tamil and Malayalam) film industry. My format of doing music was somewhat different. Some like to go solo and be right up in front. I like being in a band set up and create music together. Later, I’ve worked on soundtracks for Rituparno Ghosh or Debojyoti Mishra. Every now and then when they want something special such as western or jazz elements or some keyboard programming I do it.

What is your forte when it comes to playing the guitar?

I’m a finger-style player. I don’t use a plectrum. I have five plectrums (flashes his palm)… It helps produce a completely different sound on the guitar in contrast to the conventional playing. I also do a lot of electronic convoluted experiments via midi and laptop.

What about your original work?

I have material for a full album for Plan B now. It’s going to tread jazz and jazz-rock but I want to perform them well before releasing it. Also, Rila has been approached to do a Bengali album, which I’m presently working on. Both of us are composing tunes. Don’t want to do the same run-of-the mill guitar distortions and solo. It’s quite spaced out and atmospheric. Work is in progress for both and by early 2012, it should be ready.

Sumith gets a hug from his idol Alan Holdsworth

How does the musical partnership of Rila and you work?

Both of us belong to two different genres of music. I have a strong jazz influence while she’s into country and folk. So I’m trying to find a right balance because I cannot mix both up. We collaborate well. After I met Rila is when I started writing a lot of tunes. We’re both untrained but she’s a natural musician. She can write lyrics, put it to tune and chalk out chords.

What about teaching?

I used to, more than 10 years ago. Then I got bored. I started six months back, again. I’m still so lazy that I put my charges up so that people won’t want to learn from me but when they still do, I know that they’re serious about it. My only condition is that the student must be talented so we don’t waste each other’s time. I teach in modules through Skype... 12 one-on-one sessions with students in Chennai, Bangalore and the Middle East.

Your advice for aspiring musicians?

Don’t stick to only one kind of music. Listen to every type. My iPod has Tamil and Malayalam songs, classical pieces, movie soundtracks, ghazals. And don’t listen to something just because you have to learn it. Let the music player play and you’ll naturally soak in what you like or have a ear for.

A change you want to see in Calcutta’s music scene?

I wish there were more venues. There are so many musicians coming up thanks to YouTube and the Internet. I’m hunting them down and trying to create a talent pool. It’s important to make way for these younger musicians who need more places to showcase their music.

QUICK 10

Birthday: April 20, 1970 First gig: Kathaprasangam, a storytelling event in Kerala. I was nine and earned Rs 15 for it Guitar influence: Mark Knopfler and Alan Holdsworth

Currently listening to: Holdsworth Live in Poland and Brad Paisley

You’d die to share the stage with: Ghulam Ali

Most embarrassing moment on stage: My zip was open during a gig at Someplace Else and a girl pointed it out to me

Favourite composers: Salil Chowdhury from Bengal and Ilaiyaraaja from the south

Favourite Indian band: 13 AD from Cochin

Stressbuster: Cooking Bengali food… mangshor jhol-bhaat and aloo posto

Favourite Bong words: Jinish and chhelegulo