Funk from the east: Trilok Gurtu
by Larry Birnbaum
Down Beat, January 1, 1994
Musically, the world is his stage. "We're just trying to say that music
is one," says percussionist extraordinaire Trilok Gurtu. "It's not West
and East anymore; it's gone universal. It's possible to play with
anybody, if you are open and you adapt." The Bombay-born, Hamburg-based
Gurtu is best known for his tenure as the late Collin Walcott's
replacement in the group Oregon and for his supersideman stint with
John McLaughlin's electro-acoustic trio. But in the last few years he's
stepped into the solo spotlight, recently releasing his third album,
Crazy Saints, which features Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, and Gurtu's
mother, vocalist Shobha Gurtu. "For me," he says, "this record
represents a very egoless experience from all the participants.
Everybody was so giving, and that's what the record is about--the
cooperation between all the musicians."
Asked whether his style should be classified as fusion or world
music, Gurtu replies: "It's very hard to categorize not only my music
but the music of anybody who is trying to do something different. I
think it's the experience that you have gathered from everywhere. In my
experience, I gathered a lot from Africa, South India, jazz, Jimi
Hendrix, Cream. I heard everything in Bombay--Motown, Otis Redding, Sly
On Crazy Saints, Gurtu characteristically blends elements of jazz,
rock, and classical music--both Indian and European--to create a
variety of atmospheric textures and moods. "Manini," for example,
features the remarkable interplay of Metheny and Shobha Gurtu. "My
mother is singing through changes," says Trilok. "This is very rare.
Not many Indian musicians of her caliber have done this. And Pat
complements my mother in such a different way, in his own way and not
in an Indian way. I never told Pat what to do. I just said, 'I want you
to play like Pat.' And he did such an amazing job."
"The Other Tune," one of two duets between Gurtu and Zawinul, sounds
like a well-rehearsed performance by longtime musical partners. In
fact, Zawinul testifies: "It was our first soundcheck, just to get
acquainted. I had never heard him live, and I had never met him before.
We met at about five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, and around 7:30
we just sat down and played for the first time ever. And from beginning
to end, 'The Other Tune' is exactly what came out of that first
meeting. For some funny reason, when we did our little breaks and
stuff, we always came out at the same time."
The album's material is by Gurtu and pianist Daniel Goyone, with the
exception of Zawinul's improvised compositions and one traditional
tune, "Tillana." "'Tillana' is a South Indian song about a century
old," says Gurtu. "But it's quite funky for that time, and I love it
because it's so close to jazz. Daniel said we should rearrange it and
make it a little bit beboppish, so he put it together with the chords.
For me, it's like a funk rhythm, but this is classical Indian drumming.
And I put in the cello and bass clarinet, because I love Western
classical music. I like Bartok very much."
The main attraction, of course, is Gurtu's amazing arsenal of
percussion: a unique assemblage of Western drums and cymbals, Indian
tablas, and exotic small instruments that range from a gong that's
dipped into a water bucket to a pair of smooth stones gleaned from a
sushi bar. Rubbing the stones together, Gurtu mimicks the chirping of
insects; he tosses in a small shaker and a bird call, and--voila!--it's
the sound of a rice paddy. Some of his most remarkable percussive
tricks are done by mouth, a technique he learned as a teenager when he
got a job dubbing Indian movie soundtracks. "We had to do the sound
effects--horses, trains, lions, all kinds of things."
In live performance, Gurtu's body language is no less impressive.
Standing, kneeling, crouching, or sitting cross-legged on a rug, he
scurries among the precisely scattered array of instruments, switching
effortlessly from traps to tablas to temple blocks. "I was playing in
London," he recalls, "and a reviewer said he was waiting to see where
the drummer was, because I was on the floor, and no one could see me.
But my setup just came from having nothing. I never had enough money in
India to own a drum set, so I made my own. Actually, so many people
play the drum kit better than me that I thought I should find something
of my own, and that's what I did."
Now 42, Gurtu began studying tablas at five, inspired by a
percussion-playing older brother. His father's father was a sitar
player, his mother's mother a singer and dancer. His own mother is a
prominent singer of thumri music, a semi-classical North Indian style.
"It's also based on dancing," says Gurtu. "In India, a big part of
playing the drums is how to accompany the dancer. That's why I loved
James Brown, doing all those steps. But I heard James Brown later. We
never had the facilities that the younger generation has now, so it was
a struggle just to hear somebody's records. If somebody had gone abroad
and brought back a new record, I took a train to hear it.
"When I was young, I earned money backing singers, and when I was
about 16 I started working in movies. I also worked in five-star
hotels; that's when I heard [John] Coltrane and Hendrix and everything.
I came across the record Coltrane Plays The Blues, and Elvin Jones
knocked me out. At 20 or 22 I went to Paris with a progressive group,
Waterfront. I used to play Hendrix tunes on tabla, but nobody gave a
damn." Back in Bombay, Gurtu played the Jazz Yatra Festival with
Charlie Mariano. "Charlie was the first Western musican I played with."
In 1977 Gurtu traveled to New York with Indian pop singer Asha
Bhoshle. "I loved the music and the positive competition--that hunger
and enthusiasm for music --but I couldn't stand the one-upmanship, so I
left and went to Germany. I played drums and tabla with a rock group
there, but the money was very bad; so I went to Sweden and worked with
Don Cherry, and through Don Cherry I studied Ornette Coleman's music."
He went on to work with Archie Shepp, Jan Garbarek, Philip Catherine,
Shankar, Gil Evans, Airto Moreira, and Paul Bley, and recorded with
Catherine, Shankar, Mariano, Bley, and Barre Phillips.
After a year or two in Europe, Gurtu moved to Woodstock, New York, to
teach at Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio. "That's how I met Jack
DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Nana Vasconcelos, and Collin Walcott," he
says. "I met Collin, but I didn't know anything about Oregon. I didn't
even know that he played with them or what they were playing. Somehow
it never interested me." Walcott mentioned Gurtu as his possible
successor in the group, and after he was killed in a 1984 car accident,
the casual suggestion came eerily true. "People are still moved by
that," says Gurtu, "but it's tiring after a while. All these
questions--the fans and the friends coming over--it makes you feel this
paranoia. I get like, 'How long am I going to have to listen to this?"'
In 1988, John McLaughlin, having seen Gurtu perform with Charlie
Mariano at a festival in Germany, invited him to join his trio, which
at different times included bassists Jeff Berlin, Kai Eckardt, and
Dominique DiPiazza. "We started off acoustic," says Gurtu, "but we
couldn't get enough volume on stage, so after a while, John put a synth
in the guitar. I remember it was in Ft. Worth; and wow, the whole music
changed after that. With John, I could really bite into the drums. That
was good, because I could play drums and percussion and a little tabla
with John, and with Oregon more tabla and percussion and less drums. I
also did some composing with them, and [Oregon guitarist] Ralph Towner
helped me to arrange the chords. But I had to stop playing with Oregon
when I played with John, because I couldn't do two things at the same
Shortly before joining McLaughlin, Gurtu had recorded his first solo
album, Usfret, an open-ended session where only the percussion parts
were written. "I did Usfret with Don Cherry, Ralph Towner, L. Shankar,
Jonas Hellborg, my mother, and Daniel Goyone, who has been my musical
brother for six or seven years," he says. "I took Indian themes and
experimented with them." Living Magic, a more structured album, was
released in 1991, featuring Jan Garbarek on saxophone and Nana
Vasconcelos on percussion, along with an Indian veena, African kora,
and a cello.
Crazy Saints, recorded in the spring of 1993, is Gurtu's most
ambitious effort yet. "Normally, on a record you just play, play, play,
but I didn't want to do that," he says. "I wanted to say something with
the music--composing, not drumming. Drumming is one part of music;
harmony is one part of music; and I wanted to put all these elements
together. When I started composing, it was just like natural
improvisation to me, and then it started building up. I really put a
lot of effort into this record. I had to stop playing with John, so I
could focus. I was getting all these ideas, so I would take my cassette
recorder and go for a walk and sing the whole time. I would come home
and listen to it; and you know, when you play it back, you think,
'Somethign is missing there.' So I played the cassette for Daniel
[Goyone], and he said, 'Good stuff, man. Let's rearrange it.' But I
didn't put myself in the forefront; I was just trying to learn."
To flesh out the forefront, Gurtu recruited Metheny and Zawinul.
"I've known Pat for quite a while," he says, "but I never thought we
would play together. Pat invited me to his concert when he played in
Hamburg, and his manager played me his latest album, where he's playing
with Indonesian and Cambodian singers. And I said, 'Oh, man, he loves
this'; so I called him. And he said, 'Trilok, if your mother is
there....' He likes vocals. So it was a great honor for me that he
came. He's a very lovely person, and he told me he has a lot of respect
for my work."
The rest of the album was already complete when Zawinul signed on.
"We just knew each other from the telephone," says Gurtu. "We had
wanted to play together for years, but it never came about. But this
time I was supposed to do four concerts in August, and I just said, I
want to have Joe, so I called him. At first he thought I just wanted
him on the tour, but then I told him I wanted to record a duet with
him, and he got excited. I played him the other pieces we had already
recorded, and he could see what else we needed. And it was all
improvised. We just played, and it was so easy, I couldn't believe it.
He was so nice and cooperative, and he was really pushing me. I didn't
expect all that. We also got along on tour. Besides playing music, we
went out to eat and had a little schnapps; so it was fun--not just
working and sitting on an airplane."
As Zawinul tells it: "I saw a video he did with John McLaughlin; and
after that, I wanted to play with him. He had this forward drive that I
liked--it was my beat--and I liked the way he set his drums up. He is a
fantastic musician, and playing with him was really a great experience.
We did four concerts--Sardinia, Calabria, Switzerland, and Modena,
Italy--and it really clicked. We had a wonderful rapport, and next year
we're going to play in America; I'm going to do the summer festival
season with him as a duet. I want to find those master musicians who
are not just limited, and Trilok is a master musician."