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Trilok Gurtu: Where East Meets West

Adriana Carcu By

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Percussionist Trilok Gurtu belongs to that elevated group of musicians who, along their careers, have not only acquired a uniqueness of sound, but have also contributed to the widening of the notion of contemporary music. By crossing genre boundaries, and by mingling styles and ethnic influences, Gurtu has created and performed within the generous sound space he today defines as world music. Throughout his career, Gurtu has played with some of the most remarkable jazz musicians in the world, enhancing their music with his stunning capacity of emulation and response. Between 1974 and 2011 he has appeared on more than 175 albums, either alongside other musicians or on projects of his own. Trilok Gurtu is known amongst his peers as the percussionist who can make the Indian instrument called tabla talk.

All About Jazz: You are coming from a family with an illustrious musical tradition. Were you exposed to jazz along you early musical education?

Trilok Gurtu: I just went with the flow, because we were listening to all kinds of music. Jazz was something new. An Indian listening to [trumpeter] Don Cherry was like an American jazz musician listening to [sitarist] Ravi Shankar. In those times, Catholics had the monopoly of playing jazz in Bombay. To them, we were outcast if we played differently, because they did not know much about Indian music. Most of it came from rich influent people who heard jazz and also classical [music], so I was exposed to both at the same time.

AAJ: Do you remember the first time you heard jazz?

TG: It must have been in the radio when I was about 16. The tune I first heard must have been [pianist] Dave Brubeck,or something of the kind. At that time I was more interested in pop and rock. I was a rock drummer.

AAJ: You lived, for some time, in America. How was the experience?

TG: I decided to go to the Berklee College of Music. I wasn't a studied musician, you know, and I wanted to learn about composing and harmony more than about rhythm. And thank God I did not get admitted, because I wouldn't have been myself. I would have probably become a jobless, hardcore jazz musician. I think that I had a few cultural disconnects in those days. The main thing I was missing there was humility. I was very angry then, but now when I look back, America was a very good experience. I made many friends there and I played with many very good musicians like [drummer] Jack DeJohnette, [bassist] Dave Holland and Don Cherry.

AAJ: Where is the point of fusion between the Indian and the Western heritage in your music? Where do they separate?

TG: Long ago, I would have said that they are two separate things, but not today. Was it Rudyard Kipling who said that East and West would never meet? He was completely wrong. They may not meet politically, but they certainly meet musically. Because music, like God, is one entity that contains us all. It is separated by mind, the different concepts and rules everybody has. If we were humble enough we would recognize it as an entity. If you are open to it, it is easy. For me it is easy. I keep my mind open. Why close the door? I have always enjoyed all music.

Trilok Gurtu-21 SpicesAAJ: Has the Western experience influenced your relationship to your instrument in any way?

TG: I only got better. I always knew what was good for me, so I didn't pick up everything [laughs]. If the basics are strong they don't need to change.

AAJ: Do you play differently, when you are in Europe?

TG: No. Why should I do it? Do you change your language? This is what people do to please the audience. I am here to play my music.

AAJ: Which phase of your formation proved most significant for your ulterior development?

TG: In the eighties I already had a musical personality, but it really came out when I met [guitarist] John McLaughlin, because, with him I really could play like myself. We met and he said immediately that we had to play together. He squeezed me in a really good way. That's when I found my identity as a musician. And I also squeezed him [laughs]. Meeting John was providential.

AAJ: Talking about meeting the right people, you have a long history of playing together with saxophonist Jan Garbarek. What brought you two together?

TG: We are very good friends. We've played together since the eighties, too, like with Ravi Shankar and [percussionist] Nana Vasconcelos. It is natural for me to play with him. If he starts something, I just play along. It all comes naturally. I don't have to think or struggle. I had the same thing with [keyboardist] Joe Zawinul or, as I said, with John McLaughlin. Now I start missing all these good musicians. There are so few left.

AAJ: Jan Garbarek, The African Project, pianist Tigran Hamasyan and trumpeter Paolo Fresu: so many different worlds and styles. What is the common denominator of your stylistic diversity?

TG: It is not so much a matter of style as a matter of a similar way of thinking. People who think alike get along well together. Sometimes it does not work and I have to stop it. I will not give names, but that happens too. So, I would say that it is a matter of personal and musical chemistry.

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