Trilok Gurtu: When World Cultures Collide

Rhythm fads blow across the landscape — hurricanes of beats, or gentler showers, soft as sambas. Each feeds our musical harvest and leaves something of itself behind to flourish on its own. So it is these days with the Afro-Cuban craze, and so it was in years past with salsa, or with bossa nova before that, or even further back, with a purer African strain preparing us for jazz.

Somewhere lost in this mix is the fascination with Indian music that flared in the ’60s. At first glance, our curiosity about this style seemed as ephemeral as the Summer of Love itself. George Harrison’s Raga 101 indulgences may seem hokey in retrospect, yet they left something in our collective memory — a recollection of loping rhythms with melodic inflections, punctuated by fingered flurries and trading something more complex than fours with the sitar player. Though filed away with dusty love beads and threadbare bell bottoms, these scents and sound of this music remains. All it takes is one thump of a tabla to bring it all back.

It took world music to return to Indian music the legitimacy it deserves within Western contexts. More than any other artist, Trilok Gurtu should be credited for rescuing this music from its psychedelic associations and finding ways of integrating it with less gimmickry into jazz and rock. The world-music phenomenon allowed this to happen, but it took a musician of Gurtu’s remarkable skills to take advantage of our broadened tolerance and prove that there is plenty of power to be drawn from his artistic traditions.

He did this through a series of recordings and performances with some of the pioneers of world music. After leaving his hometown of Bombay in 1973, Gurtu gigged around Europe, including solo percussion performances on the streets of Italy, and made a short visit to the States before picking up his first high-profile work back in Europe with the visionary trumpeter Don Cherry. Collaborations followed with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and fellow percussionist Zakir Hussain. With guitar giant John McLaughlin, violinist L. Shankar and ghatam and mridangam player T. K. “Vikku” Vinyakram, Gurtu formed the group Shakti in the mid-’70s. By bringing fruition to McLaughlin’s Eastern orientations and keeping up with his stratospheric execution, Gurtu and his colleagues pointed the way out of the fast-lick swamp into which fusion had sunk.

In 1985, after Oregon percussionist Collin Walcott was killed in a car crash, Gurtu took his place. As the prototypical world music ensemble, Oregon provided an ideal forum for Gurtu, whose work with the group on Ecotopia and 45th Parallel took the notion of atmospheric as well as rhythmic drumming to a new level. His success with this ensemble opened the door toward challenging voice-and-percussion work with Brazilian singer Nana Vasconcelos, additional collaborations and tours with McLaughlin in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and a string of solo albums, beginning in 1987 with Usfret and leading to his most recent release, Kathak. This disc features some of Gurtu’s most eclectic work, with guest shots including two performances with his mother, the traditional-style vocalist Shobha Gurtu; a more R&B-inflected cut with Neneh Cherry, daughter of his former mentor Don Cherry; and an unexpected rock-oriented guitar workout from Steve Lukather.

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