When one thinks of South African jazz, the didgeridoo and the tabla don't immediately jump to mind. Nevertheless, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and engineer Ronan Skillen
has made them vital additions to a range of South African ensembles.
While acclaimed for his work in the genre-smashing South African ensemble Babu, Skillen has engaged in a wide range of highly influential projects in South Africa and abroad, from the meditative collaboration with Dave Ledbetter, Deep South
, to the electronica-infused work of the South African/European ensemble A.Spell
. More recently, Skillen launched the new ensemble Ancient Agents
, whose debut album saw Skillen's multifaceted talents operating in seamless tandem with fellow South African artists Reza Khota
and Schalk Joubert as well as Swedish percussionist Fredrik Gille. The resulting work is a joy to hear, relentlessly melodic music that is endlessly enriching. All About Jazz
: Let's start with your earliest experiences. Though you live in Cape Town, you were born in Northern Ireland and moved to Germany when you were a toddler. You started out on French horn, correct? Ronan Skillen
: I did. I was in three different school orchestras, and I played classical music as a French horn player until I was about 17. It was a great time and a wonderful foundation for music, because it enabled a whole lot of what I still use in music today. Things like harmony, pitch, intuition and rhythm skills came from that experience, and of course playing as part of an ensemble. AAJ
: During this period of your studies, two things jump out: the encouragement you received to explore the world, and your introduction to the didgeridoo. RS
: The didgeridoo actually came first. I think it was my sixteenth birthday, and someone just gave me a didgeridoo. It was this piece of bamboo and I thought, "Okay, this could be fun." I quickly realized I had a knack for it, and it enabled this incredible world of improvisation. There wasn't much music written for it, yet there also wasn't any limitation on what I was "allowed" to play, "should" play, or "had to" play. That was the first real glimpse of realizing, "oh wow, this is about me, about my personality, and what I feel like bringing into the music," rather than just playing what's on the sheet. Essentially the didgeridoo replaced the French horn. AAJ
: That must have been one hell of an embouchure change! RS
: Actually, that French horn technique helped a lot! It is a different way of playing, and the circular breathing technique was obviously the thing I had to learn on the didgeridoo.
Coming from Europe, I was lucky to be able to move around there a lotwhich is such a privilegeso early on in my life I was exposed to a number of different cultures. My brother-in-law from Ghana influenced me a lot rhythmically. I went to Ghana twice and picked up a bunch of Northwest African instruments that also played a role. I think that meeting Aboriginal tribes, having a glimpse of that world, and making didgeridoos in Australia with people that you don't meet by chance gave me my first glimpse of mysticism in music. Initially I had never intended to stay in Cape Town, but through a series of fortunate events, I was able to stay there, and that return flight back to Europe just left without me. AAJ
: Did you also begin playing tabla at that time? RS
: That actually happened a bit later. Initially, I was always just "the didge player." I only began seriously exploring the tabla when I was about 23 or 24. I had always been interested in it, though. You know when you have a favorite instrument, or an obsession with an instrument that has a particular sound, and you listen out for that instrument wherever it is? Tabla was one of those instruments for me. Whenever I heard it, I would always try and find more of that music. My dad had introduced me to Shakti
when I was 12, and that had a massive impact on me. It was on repeat until, well, I'm still listening to it! The way that John McLaughlin
and Zakir Hussain
fused not just the East and the West but also the North and the South of India was just so unique.
I was sitting in Cape Town one day and the phone rang. It was Dave Williams from SABC [the South African Broadcasting Company], the engineer who works at Studio One. He somehow knew that I was a tabla fanatic and said, "Look, there's a tabla player in my studio and he's absolutely terrifying!" I kind of knew what he meant by that, and I said, "I'm on my way." I ended up going to the studio and met these incredible musicians from India: violinist Kala Ramnath, sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, and the astounding tabla player Akram Khan. They had been on a tour of South Africa and were looking for jazz musicians to collaborate with on a kind of a fusion project. I ended up adding a few bits and pieces of percussion to one of the songs, which was quite interesting, but that wasn't really my aim. My mission became to home in on this tabla player in order to get a taste of something authentic. I hung around and bugged him, and eventually Akram looked at me, then at my hands, and gave me a quizzical look, telling me "If you're serious and really want to do this, then I'm inviting you to come to Delhi and study with me." I went straight home, booked a flight, called him in the hotel that same evening, and told him "I'm on my way." AAJ
: This would have been around 2003 or 2004? What was the process of study like? RS
: That was the first time I went to India. I had no idea about the process and how I would even approach this kind of study. I just went in as a naive 23-year-old musician wannabe, and I ended up in the deep end of tabla boot camp! It was unbelievable, quite intense, and very hard, but immensely inspiring and life-changing.
When I got there, I remember having a conversation very early on with Akram where I asked, "How do we do this? How does this even work? You've clearly got a different way of approaching teaching and learning here." He answered, "Well, we can go the more Western route, where you arrive Wednesdays and Saturdays or something, between the hours of so-and-so and so-and-so, you pay me an amount of money, and that's it. Or, we can decide from this moment on that you have the honor of learning from me, that I have the honor of teaching you, and we base the entire experience on respect for this tradition." Obviously, I said, "Let's do that."
So that was the beginning of this experience. You learn quickly. It's not just the instrument but everything that goes with it, all the other students, the lifestyle, and the way you become a disciple. Your telepathic, intuitive communication with your teacher/guru is a strangely mystifying event. It still puzzles me and amazes me how it takes shape. You have this immense respect for a man who has just taken a part of his culture and tradition to a musical level you've never even imagined. You end up trying your best to conform to that lifestyle in some way. I was only there for three months the first time, and it was a lot for me at that age to try and really grasp it all. Thankfully, I'm a very thick-skinned sponge and I took a lot of it on the chin. There were moments where I played until I bled. It was crazy, but there was also a lot of encouragement from the other students and a lot of "you can do this."
What's also interesting about this way of learning is that it is an oral tradition. You are constantly learning to speak a rhythmic language, all these syllables that come with compositions, and you're not allowed to write them down. You have to retain this information by speaking it and actually memorizing it. With most of what I had to learn in the lessons, I would go home and immediately write everything that I could remember down! Thankfully I now have a book full of information about the compositions I learned. Lessons could go on for hours, which required an unbelievable amount of energy. It would generally start with the beginners, then intermediate students, and then the advanced guys would would go until they dropped. AAJ
: You referenced an Indian ensemble touring South Africa that got things going for you. For many people not familiar with South Africa, that might come as a surprise. Can you talk about the ties between South Africa and India? RS
: India and South Africa have had a history since Ghandi's time. For many political reasons, South Africa has the largest population of Indian people outside of India. More specifically, relating to my first encounter with Akram Khan and the Indian ensemble, this was the beginning of a visionary idea initiated by Nisaar Pangarker. He began with a series of concerts under the name "Inner Circle Entertainment" that would happen once or twice a year to educate Southern African audiences as well as the Indian population of Southern Africa. He wanted to bring Indian classical music of a very high level to South Africa and showcase it in a traditional way. I'm still extremely grateful for his vision and dedication to this world of Indian classical music he has opened. AAJ
: A number of your projects weld together many musical worlds, which seems appropriate given the range of cultures in South Africa. You've spoken about artists like John McLaughlin fusing the East and the West as well as the North and the South, and also spoken of ideas about universal rhythms. How did you begin to navigate bringing the taals [Indian musical meter] into other musical languages? RS
: McLaughlin is an amazing candidate for that kind of work. In fact, he and the kanjira player Selva Ganesh actually released a DVD called The Gateway to Rhythm
. It talks about this very thing: a universal rhythm language known as Konnakol. Konnakol is a widely-known rhythmic language that originated in Southern India. It has been applied in India-based rhythmical music right through to jazz and many other genres. For example, Babu (a band I used to play in with Kesivan Naidoo
, Shane Cooper
, and Reza Khota
) used a lot of those ideas. We also use the concept in Ancient Agents, where a rhythmical pattern would be literally rehearsed, with the band getting together to speak the rhythms before it plays them.
It is an amazing tool, a very efficient and incredibly fast way of memorizing rhythm structures. When you learn it that way, you speak the rhythm first, internalizing it in your body, and then you play it. There are all sorts of counting mechanisms that use your hand to mark beats on the nodes of your fingers. A lot of Indian music is based on 16 beats, which is divisible by two, which is eight, which is divisible by two, which is four, et cetera. If you've got a five or seven, you can quickly figure out where it sits. Your hand becomes like a graph, so you can count quickly. With that come the syllables: "Ta, Ta-ka, Ta-ki-ta, Ta-ka-di-mi" and "Da-di-gi-na-dom." Those are the five basic sound patterns used to mix any form of a rhythmical phrase in Konnakol. Then you could put a melody on top, which is really exciting. In fact, I often think of rhythm in melodic form. It's the easiest way to memorize odd meters, I reckon.