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April 3, 1997


Trilok Gurtu

Off Beat

Sangeeta Bahuguna

Trilok Gurtu -- the name does immediately not ring a bell. If at all, it invites instant association with Shobha Gurtu, the queen of khayyal and thumri. For Trilok, in India, has retained sub-luminary status as her son. Unfortunate, because he is perhaps the best jazz percussionist in the world today.

With his unique "floor kit" -- which might include anything from cymbals, hihats, toms, congas, gongs, snares, dhols, cowbells, even buckets of water (into which he plunges resonating instruments to create astounding percussive effects) and more -- ranged around his standard tablas, he has created a genre of music which is truly global. He is known in jazz circles all over Europe and the United States for his progressive, often shockingly bold, fusion and experimentation.

Trilok Gurtu Fusion and experimental stuff -- there's more of it happening in the music industry of this sub-continent today than in the bowels of NASA. Of course, a lot of gimmickry and sub-standard music is being fobbed off in the name of fusion. A case in point is Shubha Mudgal's album, Ali More Angana, where she yokes her powerful, classically-trained voice to the electronically-generated, pseudo-folk sounds of Jawahar Wattal's compositions.

But the fact remains that the unbending purists of yesteryear are adjusting their sensibilities to suit the tastes of the masses. In the current boom, if the consumer demands pop icons and the demystification of classical music, then... so be it. The success of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Ustad Zakir Husain and Hariharan, who stepped out of the confines of classical music, offers ample proof of this phenomenon.

This was not the case some ten years ago, when Trilok released his album Usfret. The album saw him use his mother's voice in some amazingly intelligent compositions. Result? Both of them met with sharp criticism from the hardliners, notwithstanding the fact that the album featured some of the giants of jazz -- Don Cherry on the trumpet, Ralph Towner on the acoustic guitar and the keyboards and Jonas Hellborg (of Weather Report) playing his distinctive bass.

Trilok Gurtu "My timing was all wrong. I guess I was a bit forward for my time. 'Cause, today, everyone is doing 'global' music." But, for all the attention that he may have missed out on at home, Trilok is a name to reckon with abroad. He is the only Indian ever to have won the Down Beat Critics Poll, not once, but thrice in a row.

"It all began," he reminisces, "at the age of five when I started taking tabla lessons from Pandit Manirao Popatkar." The formal training he received was valuable; what was even more valuable was the fact that he was born into a family studded with exceptionally gifted musicians. His grandfather was a concert sitar player and musicologist, his mother, a celebrated vocalist, and both his elder brothers, Ravi and Narendra, percussionists. "I imbibed a lot just by hanging around them."

In fact, Ravi Gurtu, who in the early 1970s was known in the Bombay film industry as the "king of Bongo", was a major influence in Trilok's life. It was through him that Trilok was introduced to all kinds of percussion instruments from all over the world. Also (keeping in tune with the rest of the world's teenage population of that time), he was being slowly seduced by the rock-and-soul sounds of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, The Supremes and, ultimately, by the sonorous beauty of American jazz.

In 1969, while still in college, he put together a group of progressive musicians to form Waterfront, his first band. "But, back then in India, one couldn't make a living on my kind of music. It was seen as a hobby and the purists accepted me only when I played the tabla." So Waterfront was disbanded in 1973 and most of the members made their way to Europe.

After a brief stint there, Trilok returned to Bombay and became the in-house drummer for Jazz Yatra and, at the same time, started taking tabla lessons from Ahmed Jan Tirkhwa. However, he was finding it increasingly difficult to survive and the only option staring him in the face was that of joining the film industry -- an option, he hoped, he would never have to exercise.

So, in 1976, he left India for good and headed for New York. "I admire the Americans for their music, but that does not change the fact that I consider them loud and morally bankrupt." The fact that he was refused admission to the Berkeley College of Music is still a painful memory. Many years later, when he was an established musician, they invited him to become an honorary member of the faculty. He refused.

Trilok Gurtu His next destination was Germany, where he has been based since. As his reputation and his contribution to jazz began to grow, he forged links with prominent musicians like Don Cherry, Shankar, Jan Garbarek and Zakir Husain.

Niranjan Zaveri -- who calls himself "chief-cook-cum-bottle washer of the Jazz Yatra" but is actually its honorary general secretary -- has colourful insights into Trilok's career. Niranjan's downlist of credentials is a mile long -- he has authored several books on jazz, is a critic for Down Beat and is also on their panel of jurists. More importantly, he has been closely associated with Trilok and has witnessed his upward career graph.

Niranjan tells of the strange twists that saw Trilok becoming an invaluable member of Oregon, one of the most highly regarded, progressive jazz bands in its time. Colin Walcott, Oregon's leader, was a celebrated American percussionist. After his untimely death in a car crash, a pall of gloom descended on the three surviving members of the band. Everyone was sure that there could be no other Walcott and the band, not even considering the possibility of another percussionist, quickly renamed itself, The Oregon Trio.

A huge funeral was held for Colin where, true to the New Orleans tradition, musicians were invited to jam in honour of the dead man once the church service was over. Trilok, who was present, was also invited to play his piece. After that, one thing led to another and, before the day was up, Oregon was back to being a quartet with Trilok as its newest member!

The word about his talent began to spread internationally. Then, in 1988, while he was playing at a European jazz festival, he made a massive impression on that unparalleled fusion guitarist, John McLaughlin. This led to a dynamic partnership and several successful tours across the globe. Trilok became an integral part of the McLaughlin Trio and even cut two albums with them. Soon Trilok dethroned Nana Vasconcelos, with whom he has cut a masterful album (Living Magic), as the unquestioned king in the realm of jazz percussionists.

Trilok Gurtu "The biggest reasons for his success," says Niranjan, "are his hunger for learning, his ability to inspire other musicians who work with him and, finally, his humility. Never does he try to hog the glory or step into the limelight. He would rather let his music do all the talking."

Trilok has studied Brazilian, Euro-African, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese rhythms and has also sat at the feet of many vidwans of South Indian percussion. In fact, his recent trip to India was undertaken primarily to "study the deeper aspects of taal shastra with Pandit Suresh Talwalkar."

He has added a whole new dimension to fusion. With him, it is never one strain of music trying to accommodate another, or even the blending of two disparate sensibilities. Each artiste, in his compositions, is completely true to his/her method and complements and augments the others' abilities. The best example here is the way he has used his mother's voice along with Don Cherry's trumpet. He lit a fire under the main melody and transformed an Indian classical voice into an exciting form -- original, dynamic and compelling.

Trilok Gurtu Currently, Trilok heads a truly global band called The Glimpse -- it has a Swedish bass player, a Bulgarian flautist, a Los Angeles-based Indian singer and a South Indian veena player. And their music? Trilok would prefer to classify it as "modern Indian alternative music. Also, the band is completely acoustic. I think I have done enough electric stuff."

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda