Trilok Gurtu: Stirring the Big Old Pot
AAJ: How much of a challenge was it for both you and Zawinul to keep the musical exchange fresh and vital over the course of a year?
TG: We'd really challenge each other on stage every day, like boxers actually.
AAJ: He was a big boxing fan.
TG: Oh yeah, I said: "Don't worry; I'll box with you on stage. Don't worry about that." But it was really good. We would joke and fight and giggle. It was a really lovely experience.
AAJ: You called Zawinul a genius; his passing wasn't met with the noise that his status perhaps deserved.
TG: It happens with everybody; it happened with Bach. People only realize after he has gone. It happened to my mother. The Prime Minster sent a letter but when she was alive nobody gave a damn. But this is human nature. This is how people are. You can't do anything about it. When he's dead they can now write freely because he's not going to come and shout at them [laughs]. This is part of the music business.
AAJ: A great track given the big band treatment on 21 Spices is "Kuruk Setra," which is dedicated to guitarist/composer John McLaughlin. You spent four years in McLaughlin's acoustic trio with bassists Kai Eckhardt and Dominique di Piazza; had either the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Shakti made an impact on you while you were still living in India?
TG: I think no; I heard it, but it was not an influence on me. But John made an impact because he was the only one playing Indian music and everything, and his love for it, and he was so at ease doing this. The whole sound of his guitar, like veena, that got me more. The sound got me more than the chops. He did so much to promote Indian music. He's one of the only ones who knows Indian music so well and applies it and executes it so well.
AAJ: In the liner notes to your compilation CD Twenty Years of Talking Tabla (Manteca, 2007), you say, and I'm paraphrasing, that McLaughlin's acoustic trio wasn't an immediate success; did you mean as a cohesive unit or commercially, critically?
TG: Commercially we weren't an immediate success. It was so unusual. John took such a risk playing acoustic guitar and my percussion instead of a standard American drummer. After a couple of years it just took off and people got the message that there was something very different there.
AAJ: The album Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Polygram, 1990) is a wonderful document of that trio and you solo on "mother Tongues" is a highlight of the set; did the success of that album and the fame of your solo alter people's perception of you to any great degree?
TG: Thank you; that's what I mean when I say it took a while for people to get it but by that time we had it; John had the whole thing figured out very well. He was a very good band leader. I think that album either altered their perception or they kept their mouths shut, because what happens when you're not playing American? What happens when you're playing so unorthodox? When you're playing African and south Indian people where say: "Where is the bass drum?" I'd say: "No, I don't have a bass drum." They'd say: "No, you have this incredible bass drum." You saw me sitting on the floor. Before, I was criticized for playing on the floor and for playing without a bass drum. They said if I went to America I'd never get a job. I said, "That's ok, there are enough jobs here." When I went to America people were looking for where my bass drum was because they thought where the hell do you get the bass sound? It was a different approach and that recording probably did put more light on everything, I would say.
AAJ: That trio stayed together for four years, though the bass chair changed a couple of times; four years on one project for John McLaughlin is a very long time...
TG: We loved playing with each other.
AAJ: Was there a sense of disappointment that something so beautiful came to an end or had it run a fairly natural course?
TG: Actually I stopped because I had to stay home for a long time. I had to take care of the family and I could not travel. He understood it. He was disappointed, I was disappointed, but I had to do it. Then I started doing my own stuff, which John always encouraged and he still encourages me to compose, and that's very good. .
AAJ: You and McLaughlin seem to share a similar musical philosophy, as you both dive in to all kinds of music and all types of settings and to hell with the consequences. You are both fearless experimenters and I think that unites you in a way.
TG: Yes, of course; John is a very deep musician.
AAJ: The track "Jhulelal" is dedicated to R.D. Burnam; what's his significance for you?
TG: I started playing Bollywood with him. He wanted me to be around all the time and really encouraged me. I learned all the grooves needed for the movies. This was in the '70s. I then went to America with him in '75. I had a very good time in the studio with him.
AAJ: What do you think that Bollywood experience brought to your playing?
TG: I learned to groove; different grooves for different tunes, you see. India is huge and everyone plays different there so I learned different grooves from Nepal to Jarkhand, from Assam to Gujarat.