Tune in to Guitarist Prasanna

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By MATHURES PAUL
  • Published 28.11.13
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Renowned bass player Victor Wooten on one side and A.R. Rahman on the other. That’s guitarist Prasanna’s range. And Smile Pinki, the best documentary (short subject) Academy Award winner of 2009, had music composed by him.

The 43-year-old behind Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music near Chennai will be in Calcutta to play at the Congo Square JazzFest 2013 –– supported by the American Center, Goethe Institut, Fonds Podium Kunsten Performing Arts Fund NL and The Embassy of Netherlands –– at DI.

What can we expect from you at the Congo Square JazzFest?

Some fun music! I have a great band in Arco (Arcoiris Sandoval), Steve (Zerlin) and Karina (Colis). I plan to play a mix of some of my well-known compositions and some new ones. Last time, I had a quartet with voice but this time it’s a quartet with a piano. So it’s a different energy, different sound.

You have collaborated with Victor Wooten, Larry Coryell, Trilok Gurtu, Esperanza Spalding, Ilayaraja…. How much of this collaborative process gets driven by a desire to learn something new?

I believe music is a communal sport and the more I play with people from all walks of musical life, the more enriched I become. I seek out musicians from every part of the globe to work with, in a bid to open my world. And the reverse also happens where different musicians from everywhere ask me to work with them. It’s a two-way process. The desire to learn something new for me in the process is the biggest motivator.

How do you usually go about composing pieces? Is there a process involved?

Everyday observation of common people’s fascinating lives –– their triumphs and problems, seeing my child (Katyayini) grow, chess, mathematics, impressionist and expressionist paintings, conversations with my wife (Shalini Lakshmi) and a lot more fuel my compositional thinking. I compose music intuitively but structure and form come with it alongside!

To succeed in India, do you think musicians need to straddle two worlds like A.R. Rahman –– music that he likes and commercial Bollywood music?

I connect with A.R. Rahman in many ways that go beyond music. We both see our music as a reflection of the larger love and fascination for humanity and strive to connect deeply with people in our own way. When you develop the ability to see the ‘big picture’, you find yourself at peace and see music as a connecting thread to reach out to people –– the distinction between what’s commercial and what’s not, etc. are not things that at least I concern myself with. In effect, you open out to the whole world of music.

Has there been any album or performance that made you feel: “I have to do something like this”?

Of course, all the time. I set high standards for myself as an artiste and I owe that inspiration to the work of many of my heroes, colleagues, peers and even my students.

You were a student of IIT Madras. What turned you to music and jazz?

I probably wouldn’t have become a professional musician if not for studying at IIT, strange as it may sound. Graduating from both IIT and Berklee College of Music one after the other has been truly inspiring and I am lucky. I’ll just summarise that quality education from a great institution can transform the ability for a person to truly grow. This is the premise with which I founded (in 2009) Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music and this is exactly what we do at SAM –– inspire people to grow!

When did you feel the need to make the transition from playing like musicians you admired to playing your own special way?

When I was 19, I composed a song called Peaceful one morning when I woke up in Bhopal… at a train station while on a journey to Delhi. That one song has endeared me to more fans than anything else. It was this traditional sounding Carnatic composition in ragas Mohanam and Kiravani that sounded somewhere in between Santana, Joe Satriani and The Allman Brothers Band — I was starting to sound like myself in my writing and playing. From then on, it was just pushing myself to discover myself in a deep and heartfelt way.

Indian musicians continue to play an important role in world music. How does your Swarnabhoomi reflect this?

The Indian musicians that come out of SAM are poised to develop a large contribution internationally in the music scene. SAM also makes it possible for top musicians from around the world to study here and take a personalised academic experience that will reflect in their work. Last semester, we had Sullivan Fortner Jr., a world-class pianist and member of Roy Hargrove Quintet come and study at SAM even after getting a Master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music. This semester, Alex Pinto, again a Master’s degree holder in jazz from California Institute of the Arts, is studying at SAM on the prestigious Fulbright grant. The case he made for Fulbright to give him the grant for study at SAM is that there is no other institution in the world that commands the unique expertise of SAM to further high-end research in the integration of Carnatic music and jazz leading to hybrid music forms.

Finally, do you still regret that Smile Pinki got overshadowed by Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars in 2009?

Not really! I think it is beautiful that two Indian musicians from Chennai composed for two different films which both won Oscars in the same year! How often does that happen? The two films have a different functionality and reach –– one is a documentary film and the other is a big motion picture. So, their success can’t be compared. I am happy for both!

Prasanna will perform at DI on November 30 from 8.30pm