By Subi Shah
RENOWNED Indian virtuoso percussionist Trilok Gurtu’s earlier collaborations were with acclaimed artists Asha Bhosle, RD Burman, Don Cherry and John McLaughlin, among others.
In recent years, a new generation of musicians, including Talvin Singh, Danyal Dhondy, Fun’Da’Mental’s Aki Nawaz and Asian Dub Foundation’s Aniruddha Das have been inspired and guided by Gurtu’s genius, bringing with them new fans.
Perhaps this explains why his gigs with The Trilok Gurtu New Band at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Club earlier this month, which drew influences from the world history of jazz-classic, Bebop, Freeform and Funk, were completely sold out.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye before his final show, Gurtu spoke about his work, spirituality and journey through a world of music.
Though Gurtu, a deeply spiritual Hindu, was characteristically humble during his sets, making all efforts to showcase the new band and give space to its rising stars, the fact was all eyes were on the brightest star out that night – Gurtu himself.
This adulation is not what drives Gurtu though. He says nurturing the next generation of talent – as the late Don Cherry, to whom the Spellbound album is dedicated, did for Gurtu in the 1970s – is what he takes most pride in.
Gurtu, himself from a musical family (his late mother, Shobha Gurtu, was one of India’s most respected vocalists), says: “I don’t think coming from a musical family means any child will grow up to be musical, that is down to the parents, gurus or mentors.
“I was lucky enough to be able to use this influence, thanks to my parents. I remember, I was three or four years old and there were musical nights at the house. Understand it was not like how it is now, it was deeper than just studying music; it was absorbing music.
“Sometimes a tabla player might not turn up or he would be late, so I would be told to stand in. I was a three-year-old session player, paid for my work in Alfonso mangoes!”
Asked about today’s music industry, Gurtu is hesitant at first.
“I don’t wish to cause any upset, to hurt anyone’s feelings,” he says. “Today’s music scene is nothing to do with music, it’s too commercial. Real music is not a business, it’s a feeling.
“I just feel so agitated because I can’t do anything about it. The media, with its TV talent shows, have a small chance of discovering a real talent, but what happens once a discovery is made is that the musician becomes a commodity.
“Do you want a light to shine for just one day or to shine for a lifespan? The commercial part of the music scene is very high in the UK. So many great musicians are not heard because they are not sellable enough.
“It’s about image, not talent. The trend is for fitting into moulds and not breaking out of them, no room for virtuoso. Musicians should be encouraged to be inquisitive and to experiment, not to just copy one another. We need to separate salt from sugar; it seems few people can be bothered.”
Gurtu appears visibly upset.
It’s apparent more than ever at this point that this is not just a standard interview – it’s a conversation, an exchange of ideas. And Gurtu is not just a tabla player, he is a thinker, a feeler.
How do spirituality and religion inform his work?
“My religion informs my music completely, it is the core of me and my expression. Exploring who God is is at the heart and mind of my work. Knowledge is a problem, to know too much is a big problem for anyone, but especially for a musician!
“One should be searching of answers fearlessly. My guru, Ranjit Maharaj, taught me that once you know how to use your body and soul, you can channel it to create, to be a vehicle for greater expressions and ideas.”
It’s time to close the interview, but there’s time for one final question about his future plans. Gurtu smiles, then breaks into a most melodious laugh.
“I haven’t even begun!” he says. “I want to win the Downbeats Critic’s Poll Award a few more times, (Gurtu has won this prestigious accolade six times); I want to inspire other musicians to break out of the mould and not just try to fit into it; I want to continue my own journey to fulfillment.
“Actually, I want a bhel puri – where should we eat? Where is an Indian in London supposed to eat?”