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Wednesday , November 16 , 2011
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Musicians meet
Bickram Ghosh, Greg Ellis and George Brooks jam on Friday. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

A day before their performance at ICCR on Saturday as part of fusion band Rhythmscape, percussionist Bickram Ghosh got chatting with fellow tunesmiths Greg Ellis and George Brooks at his Behala home. Greg is a California-born drummer and percussionist of global fame. You can hear his music in Holly biggies like The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions, Fight Club, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Chronicles of Narnia.

George is a leading American voice in Indian jazz fusion, saxophonist and composer.

Bickram: Welcome both of you to Rhythmscape. Greg had, of course, performed on the Rhythmscape album 10 years back. But this is going to be his first public concert with Rhythmscape. George and I have been planning to work with each other for quite a while now; it’s surprising we haven’t managed it yet!

George: Yes, since everybody is circling around the same circle!

Greg: (Referring to George) We are practically neighbours.

Bickram: We too (looks at Greg), because we both are married to Indian women! (Everyone laughs.)

Bickram: Around 1999, I was playing gigs with Pandit Ravi Shankar when I started feeling some kind of a weird uprising in my system. Something else was brewing that wasn’t just classical music.... Around that time I met Greg through a mutual friend and we jammed. It was almost like finding a rhythm wife. Then I decided to do Rhythmscape. A friend of mine, Sugato Guha, came up with the name. Rhythmscape is my baby and it is who I am.

We [Greg and the band] are now doing a project called Terra Groove and the album is called Dragonfly. With George, we will start off with Rhythmscape and I hope then explore other landscapes!

George: Sounds good. My association with music began 30 years ago. I am now moving into a new area, exploring a little with Kala Ramnath on the violin and a classical harpist from the Netherlands, Gwyneth Wentink. We are mixing a bit of western classical music and trying to come up with a new thing. The harp album was sort of an antidote to all the heavy drumming in my previous project!

Greg: I think instrumentalists these days are more bothered with learning the math. They hear a piece and they immediately get into the technicalities. But since I am a self-taught musician, I don’t do that. I try understanding the groove and the texture and the pattern. I feel and break the pattern and try finding out what is inside.

George: I think that’s a great approach because you don’t want to be the musician who almost made it (laughs)! And I can completely understand where this is coming from. I have lived in Delhi for 10 months and shared a love relationship with my guru, in the sense that I nursed him when he was sick and learnt about traditions and music. I knew I wasn’t going to be a singer but I knew that I had other things to bring to the discussion. I was young and was just learning about jazz, [John] Coltrane and Hariprasad Chaurasia and Ram Narayan. What every artiste wonders is what am I going to do that sounds like me? Drummers from all over the world can easily play with each other because rhythm, for me, is the universal language.

Greg: Rhythm is the true universal language. In other cases you have to agree upon the modality, the common language that you are using, and all these components form the actual harmonic theory but with rhythm, it’s right there.

George: Jazz musicians, especially, get frustrated by the harmonic limitations [of Indian music]. It makes some western musicians nervous.

Greg: I know, I know! I was into the sarangi then and had recommended it to a friend. He came back saying, ‘Yeah, the sarangi is nice and all but, dude, change the chord, already!’ (Everyone laughs.)

Bickram: When I did Rhythmscape I thought what is it that I could do that was considerably less explored? What about Indian vocals? North Indian vocals? The soulfulness and the bandishes, the aakaars, and that feel of a fixed space and a sensation where one person can inspire thousands with just an aakaar that is there in north Indian classical. My mother being from the Patiala gharana, I had that influence. So I thought, let us bring in the vocals, bring in an instrumentalist who isn’t necessarily well-versed in the Carnatic idiom. The space of Rhythmscape is a free-flowing jam and the interesting thing about the rhythm section is that we almost don’t go into rhythmic jittery.

George: But the grooves feel really good.

Bickram: That is the thing! That’s why we call it Terra Groove. The latter part, where we do the drum jam, people can go crazy and do whatever the hell they want! So here, I am actually imitating Greg as I am trying to discover my own rhythms through him. Greg is really a huge influence on me and he senses that. Whenever there is a collaboration between a foreign artiste and an Indian artiste, the foreign artiste comes and meets the Indian artiste on his ground, but I want to learn.

Greg: I did feel like I’d come home when I first came to India. I wanted to learn the tabla and all. I learnt the nagara even. These are like metal drums, big one on the right and small one on the left.

Bickram: You played the nagara in 300, didn’t you?

Greg: Yeah, I did. They were stick drums. Seventy-five per cent of it is about how you hold the sticks. I went in for my first lesson with my teacher Nathu and the sticks had conventional grips and everything but the only difference was that you play the drums backwards! I couldn’t play for nuts the way he was playing. But then I started playing it the way I generally play, straight, and he told me to play it that way.

Bickram: I have known hundreds of great drummers but I find very few who get the groove right. Some will give you calculations that’ll blow your mind but they don’t get the groove right. When they play, my heart doesn’t feel it. This intrigues me. What do you think it is? Like Ali Akbar Khan sahab... the moment you hear his first stroke, it’s almost like someone has stuck a dagger in you.

George: You say you are influenced by north Indian music. But how can it be that there is no system? What are you playing then, if there is no system? So, I say, when Hariprasad Chaurasia picks up his bansuri and plays one note, your soul opens. That is the system. How do I learn that?

Greg: There is this great Sufi story about this musician who just played one note. He kept playing that one single note for 30 years. His wife couldn’t take it any more and asked: ‘Why do you keep playing just one note? Can’t you play like the others?’ The Sufi musician replied: ‘They are all trying to find that note. I have already found it, so I am playing it!’ (Laughs heartily.)

So, the whole point of music is to arrive at a point. There is silence as well. At some point you will always have to end the music and the destination of all music is silence. There is a sublime silence where silence actually becomes a sound and the emptiness becomes full.

George: I saw a performance last week by Hugh Masekela. He is from South Africa. He blew my mind. He put out a kind of spirit that is amazing. I feel, as a musician, when you are up on stage, you have the opportunity to do a lot of things. Every day, a lot of damage is incurred upon the world, on people’s souls and on the environment... so when you are on stage, you can do some kind of healing, some repair.

At Hugh Masekela’s performance, a lot of people in the audience had tears in their eyes even though he was playing really happy music.

Greg: And he is representing his country too. So that is a gift.

George: He represents South Africa’s transformation from a place having racial hatred and aggression and animosity to a place of healing and change but with incredible humour, earthy sexuality, fantastic grooves and real stage presence!

Bickram: You cannot go on stage and feel ‘I am the creator of this music’. You are just the carrier, the vessel. If the music is flowing through you without you resisting it, it is going to hit your audience.

Greg: That reaction can only come from masterful manipulation or this element of soul.

George: Here is a guy that works in Hollywood!

Greg: Songs are written sometimes to manipulate emotions and you can master it to a point. I can then hear the music and appreciate the effort that has gone in but I can’t play with them, I feel shut down because the soul is missing. I play a beat and immediately 30,000 people or three people move to the beat. What is that power that makes them move physically to the rhythm I am playing? The intellect will always rule over the visceral and the problems of the world will be there but the holes in the fabric can be repaired through music.

George: We are not wrong in the West. We are not wrong to have come up with harmony. As did da Vinci, as did Michelangelo, as did Steve Jobs, in his way. So why is it so difficult for us to connect that way? We are the later generation. The connectivity was perhaps the withdrawing factor. They couldn’t hear music of the exotic Oriental and if they did, they couldn’t find it. They couldn’t say, ‘let’s see what is on YouTube! Burmese harp? Mongolia’s this? And Bolognese that? And Korean singing?’

This is, after all, a very young phenomenon. To us it feels like years but it is comparatively new. As Zakir [Hussain] likes to say: ‘The tabla is a very young instrument. It’s like 400 years old!’ (Laughs.)

So we are talking about an old, old culture here. Although human culture isn’t all that old either, but we are looking at a global music culture coming together from different traditions. You bring a lot of stuff from your tradition and I do the same and then create a space.

Text by Shrestha Saha

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