Trilok Gurtu: All Music Is One

Trilok Gurtu

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.

Building A Tradition

“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.”

Spicing Up The Repetoire

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.”


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.