Trilok Gurtu Believes All Music Is One

Path To Independence

Gurtu was born in Mumbai (then Bombay), in 1951, and has been going his own way since he started tabla studies with Pandit Manirao Popatkar at the age of five. “My next teacher was Abdul Karim, who played dhol for Bollywood films. He was teaching my brother Ravi, but when he saw the power in my hands, he taught me how to harness it.”

Ravi Gurtu became an arranger and music producer for Bollywood films, but wouldn’t let Trilok touch the Rodgers drum kit he’d acquired. “Maybe he thought I’d break it,” Gurtu says. “I had heard Bach and Mozart and the soundtrack of Hatari and John Coltrane on the BBC. I wanted to master the American drum kit. My father told me to play tabla, which we had at home. I had to find my own way to learn the drum kit.”

Gurtu played on the street and at weddings to raise money to buy a kit. “One day, I passed a house and heard someone playing [a drum kit]. I asked if I could play and the guy invited me in.” Although he’d never played before, Gurtu impressed the man, a neighborhood impresario. He got Gurtu gigs and took 30 percent of the money. Meanwhile, Gutru got to practice on his new boss’ drum kit.

A job playing tabla in a rock band called Waterfront led to a European tour. When he returned to India, Gurtu got soundtrack work in the thriving Bollywood movie scene. R.D. Burman, one of Bollywood’s most successful music directors, made Gurtu a featured drummer in his films and touring troupe. “I didn’t feel I’d realize my full potential if I stayed in India, so I moved to Woodstock, New York, to teach at Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio.” (CMS is a school/performance space founded by Ornette Coleman, Karl Berger, and Ingrid Sertso.)

At CMS, he met Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, Abdullah Ibrihim, and Pat Metheny, who were inventing the style now known as world jazz, blending the music of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean with jazz. Gurtu played duets with Cherry and started developing his hybrid Indian/American drum kit. This led to eight years as percussionist with the world/chamber jazz band Oregon and gigs with Brazilian superstars like Gilberto Gil and Carlinhos Brown. When he joined the John McLaughlin Trio, in 1988, McLaughlin encouraged Gurtu to compose his own music.

Gurtu’s first album, Usfret (Hindu for spontaneous), featured vocals by his mother, Shobha Gurtu, as well as Ralph Towner, Don Cherry, and L. Shankar. The record has become a favorite source of rhythm samples in the years since, but in 1988 the album’s blend of jazz, Indian, and classical elements puzzled many listeners. “We played traditional Indian songs harmonized the way John McLaughlin or Bartók would have done. It was shocking to everyone.” By the time Gurtu made Crazy Saints, in 1993, world jazz was a known quantity. The album featured Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, and Shobha Gurtu and led DownBeat to call him the best percussionist in the world in 1994, 1995, and 1996.

The Afro-Indian albums African Fantasy and The Beat Of Love took Gurtu’s world-fusion ideas to the Motherland and earned rave reviews for his seamless blend of timeless beats. Guests included Sabine Kabongo (Zap Mama), Salif Keita, Wasis Diop, Omou Sangare, and Bollywood singer Roop Kumar. African Fantasy featured traditional songs that Grutu recorded in villages far from the studios of Bamako. “When I was in Mali, Béla Fleck was there making his movie about African banjos, but I was out in the bush recording the hunters singing and playing traditional music. Omou Sangare told me she was surprised that an Indian guy would dare to go out there and record them, but I don’t only want to play with name musicians. As my ideas get more elaborate, I have to go back to the root. I came back covered with mud, but you have to find the source if you want to sound authentic.”

Playing Between The Spaces

As his work over the years has shown, Gurtu has a restless musical spirit and a boundless imagination that allow for no limitations. He says he owes much of his curiosity to mridangam (double-headed drum) player Palghat Raghuji, the man he considers his mentor and guru. “I owe my style and approach to him. At CMS, they’d ask me to play an Indian rhythm and they could follow it for only two measures, because I practiced what Sri Raghuji taught me. He said, ‘When you play, always make the simple sound complex and the complex, simple.’ I took his advice. Musicians often tell me, ‘It sounds simple when you’re listening, but when you try to play it, it’s bloody tough.’” Gurtu chuckles. “In music, space is important. Just as important as the notes you play. John McLaughlin had that idea, too, to play less, let the note ring a little longer. Bach’s compositions are classic examples of this. Every phrase is the right length, every note has the right value, and he lets the notes ring.

“You can’t touch music — it has no colors and it makes you forget yourself. It can grasp you by the hand and take you to inner space. With all the negativity in the world, music is still positive and beautiful. You can meditate all you like, but God won’t fall in your lap. He’s already in you. You just have to let him out with a good meal or by playing music. This is the spiritual teaching I got from Palghat Raghuji. He made my music more relaxed and opened up everything in my life.”

Trilok Gurtu

1 18" x 16" Brady Bass Drum
2 14" x 5" Snare Drum (brand varies)
3 6", 8", 10" Remo Custom Toms
4 12" Remo Custom Tom
5 14" Remo Custom Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 14" Hats
B 20" K Dark Medium Ride
C 10" K Custom Dark Splash
D 13" K Custom Hybrid Trash Splash
E 15" K Custom Dark Crash
F 20" K Constantinople Medium Ride

G Traditional Indian Tablas
H Remo Mechanically Tuned Djembe

Trilok Gurtu also uses Zildjian sticks, an occasional conga, and assorted toys including shells and buckets of water.

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