Trilok Gurtu is one of the best-known Indian musicians in the world — a master drummer and percussionist, as celebrated for his inventive collaborations as he is for his stellar sense of time and rhythm. He’s one of the progenitors of world jazz and a world music pioneer, although he finds the term “world music” constricting. “All music is one, just like God is one,” he says simply, speaking from his home in Hamburg, Germany. “I’ve been quoted as saying. ‘I don’t want to sound Western,’ but I’ve never been a purist. I like doing things that have never been done. I play with Bulgarian musicians, American jazz musicians, and Japanese musicians. If you’re open, you build bridges and bring people closer together, musicians and the audience as well. Music always comes down to the rhythm, the one.”
In his wide-ranging career, Gurtu has performed with Don Cherry, Gilberto Gil, Salif Keita, Bill Laswell, Bollywood legend R. D. Burman, and John McLaughlin, to name a few. In order to fit into any situation, Gurtu developed his own percussion setup, a hybrid tabla/drum kit that he plays sitting down. “The story behind the hybrid set is the story of my life,” he says. “India doesn’t have a percussion tradition. We have hand drummers, but not like Africa or Brazil. I learned the language of tabla, its long history and logic, but, like African music, it’s an oral tradition. It is not written down.
“I grew up in a musical family. My grandfather played sitar and was a music scholar. My mother was Shobha Gurtu, a famous singer, and my brothers were drummers. I was playing rhythms on the kitchen table when I was young. If a tabla player didn’t show up [for a jam session], my father would let me sit in. I was destined to become a musician. I loved composition and melody, and I can play solo if needed, but I like playing with others as an accompanist.
“When I became aware of rock music, I was 14 years old. The Woodstock movie came to Mumbai and I went every day to see it, for maybe two weeks. Sly And The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, the music was amazing. I had a friend who had all the records. I listened, then tried to copy what I’d heard.”
Gurtu was not aware of overdubbing: he taught himself to play intricate patterns on a borrowed drum kit by himself. “I wondered how it was possible to play like that and where the patterns came from. When I listened to African music in the ’70s, I could trace the rhythms I was hearing in jazz and rock back to Africa, but when I was learning, I didn’t know the rudiments. I read Accents And Rebounds and Stick Control by George Lawrence Stone, but I had no idea about proper technique. I held the sticks upside down, like I later saw Tony Williams do. I was hungry to learn. I’d take any gig I could get, playing every kind of music.”
Gurtu met Don Cherry after he arrived in the U.S., in ’73. “He was interested in music from all over the world and knew my mother’s songs,” Gurtu remembers. “This was before Google and YouTube. He listened to The Voice Of America. I played with him in bands and duet settings on tabla, but I wanted to play jazz.”
After Berklee School Of Music turned down his application, Gurtu moved to Munich and created his hybrid kit. “I decided the next time I came to America, I’d come with my own music. I wasn’t going to sound like anyone but myself. I’m thankful to the dean who refused me admission. He motivated me to do something different.”
Gurtu had to improvise to put his dream kit together. “For the bass drum, I used a 10" tom tom, cut down, so I could play while sitting on the floor. I tuned it to sound like tabla and got a big, fat sound. Colin Walcot [from Oregon] gave me a hi-hat and Chris Brady, an Australian drum maker, made me a snare that didn’t need a mike or any EQ. Then I added congas, tabla, bass drum, and percussion. I used tuned gongs to make harmonies.”
Gurtu also dipped cymbals and strings of shells into a bucket of water. “When I played with a German percussion group, they used little bells in water. I use a bucket these days, when I play solo. I use my hands and sticks on it and do effects with the handle, too.”
Gurtu is always on the lookout for ways to stretch himself and the limits of his technique, so when Wolf Kerschek of Germany’s NDR Big Band (a group known for creating charts that explore the outer limits of what a jazz orchestra can do) asked him to collaborate with the group for a performance at the Drums ’N’ Percussion Festival in Paderborn last year, he was ready. “[NDR’s] Joachim Keller is a talented conductor and plays drums himself,” Gurtu explains. “Wolf [NDR’s arranger] helped me select soloists for the project. I composed music that would make the players stretch.”
Drummer Simon Phillips (Toto, PSP) and guitarist Roland Cabezas, both long-time associates, came to the rehearsals to work on the compositions with Kerscheck and their boss. “Wolf knows me and my style of writing,” Gurtu says. “The input was a 50/50 collaboration. When we work together, Simon and I listen closely to each other. We combine composed and improvised parts.” Gurtu called the project 21 Spices, a salute to the 21 musicians on the album. “We recorded most of the music live, in concert, to have several possibilities for the final takes. I write in an open style, leaving the musicians room to shift harmonies. I wanted to use classical Indian elements in the style of Duke Ellington.”
The music on 21 Spices combines the Indian, African, Latin, and jazz elements Gurtu loves in unexpected ways. “Pieces Of Five,” played in 5/4, features an extended tabla improvisation complemented by Cabezas, who adds sitar-like notes on the guitar, and Lutz Büchner’s lyrical sax. “1-2 Beaucoup” combines Gurtu’s Indian scat singing with blaring jazz-rock horns and frenetic electric bass. “Broken Rhythms” suggests samba, funk, free-jazz, and Japanese music in its ever-shifting rhythms while Phillips accents “Kuruk Setra” with a slow, asymmetrical backbeat that leaves Gurtu room to embroider the rhythm with his percolating tablas. The complex horn charts slowly build in power and intensity before the tune’s abrupt climax.
Gurtu is hoping to perform the music from 21 Spices again, during the summer of 2011, but he’s not standing still. “I’m working on a classical project that will mix the ideas of Bach, Bartók, [Japanese composer Toru] Takamitsu, and Philip Glass with the sonorities in my music. I’m also developing concert productions that will give me the opportunity to play with unique combinations of musicians from around the world.”