Indian classical music is handed down by the guru-shishya parampara, which is a social relationship more like that of parent and child than student and teacher. Traditionally, the student lived with the teacher, and helped around the house, and the idea of exchanging money for lessons was considered to be improper. If the student was not a blood relative of the teacher, it was often required that he marry into the family. Today the constant opportunities for travel have made this relationship the exception rather than the rule in modern India. Most Hindustani and Karnatik artists of this generation have been influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by many kinds of music, both Indian and non-Indian. But this ideal has been kept alive in many ways at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in Northern California. Most of the students see the college as the spiritual center of their lives, and would never think of studying Indian music anywhere else. Percussionist Jim Santi Owen is a partial exception to this rule in certain ways, but he made sure to keep to the spirit of the guru-shishya parampara when he expanded his studies into Karnatik music.
Owen began studying tabla in 1991 with Swapan Chaudhuri at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and soon realized that Indian percussion was his first love. He became one of only three Americans to undergo the traditional Indian ritual with Chaudhuri called gandha bandhan, which formally seals and consecrates the guru-shishya relationship. When Owen became interested in studying Karnatik percussion, he first asked permission from his guru. When this permission was granted, Owen made sure to limit himself to only one guru for each style of music that he studied. He learned mridangam, ghatam, kanjira and morsing from T.H. Subash Chandran and tavil from K. Sekar. This led him to discover that India had many different forms of drum ensembles which break free of the standard drummer’s role of keeping and ornamenting the time for melody instruments.
In 1999 Owen received a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to research these percussion ensembles in India. He spent the better part of two-and-a-half years living in India conducting this research. Although based alternately in Kolkata and Chennai, he traveled extensively in India documenting drumming traditions in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and West Bengal. When he returned to the United States, he collaborated with AACM tabla player Tim Witter (who had also had a gandha bandhan with Chaudhuri) to co-found a percussion ensemble called Tabla Rasa, which explores the integration and intersection of various Indian percussion traditions.
Tabla Rasa features several AACM students playing tabla compositions, many of which are composed by their guru Swapan Chaudhuri. There is nothing quite like the sound of a tabla ensemble thundering triumphantly in tight rhythmic unison, and Tabla Rasa has been building a loyal following with each performance. Owen and Witter also produce concerts that feature guest percussionists from a variety of different traditions, from African congas to Italian tamborine. One of these performances, which featured the Hindustani and Karnatik percussion styles of Owen’s gurus, is now available on a CD called “Sacred Drums of India.”
This CD features Swapan Chaudhuri on tabla with two great Karnatik percussionists: Subash Chandran on ghatam, and Ganesh Kumar on kanjira. Although these three instruments sound very different from each other, they share a quality that is rare among hand percussion instruments: the ability to play both very low and very high pitches, sometimes simultaneously. The ghatam is basically a clay pot. When hit with the fingertips it creates high crisp staccato sounds, like the “terikitas” of a tabla. When hit with heel of the wrist, however, it can make rich booming sounds, and when the ghatam player contracts and releases his belly these sounds produces deep sliding pitches like the bass baya of the tablas. The kanjira, a tiny tamborine with only one jingle, can also make these deep sliding sounds, because its drum head is made of monitor lizard skin. When moistened in exactly the right way, this rare skin responds dramatically to hand pressure in ways that no synthetic fiber can match. (A fact that greatly frustrates modern kanjira players, because the monitor lizard is now listed as an endangered species and kanjira heads are almost impossible to replace.)
The CD begins with solos from each of these percussionists. Although the instruments have very different histories and tone colors, and the solos are all improvised, each performance still develops in ways that are noticeably similar to the others. First there is a basic rhythmic figure played in the crisp upper notes, followed by increasingly complex variations. Then the bass notes enter, increase in volume, and then begin to sweep up and down the lower register in dramatic flourishes. Finally the high notes reappear in fast flourishes, which are over-layered and/or alternate with the low booming pitches. The music then gradually increases in intensity and rhythmic complexity until it stops with a dramatic climax. Some of these similarities are probably the result of parallel developments in the different traditions, but unquestionably many of them were inspired by the spirit of the evening. There are repeated shouts of phrases of encouragement, such as “shaabash,” “bravo,” and “great”, which set up a sense of rapport that is noticeably infectious even on CD. And Chaudhuri, who ordinarily plays fixed compositions for solos, lets himself go with completely spontaneous improvisations that incorporate both elements from his own tradition and that of the other musicians he has just heard.
Ghatam-player Subash Chandran then does a solo recitation of konnokol, the syllables that are used to name each of the tone colors of the Karnatik mridangam. Although these syllables were originally developed as learning aids for Karnatik percussion, they have now become a virtuoso performance form in their own right. Not only does Chandran use every imaginable rhythmic division and combination (3, 4, 5, 7 and 9, to name a few) he also varies his vocal pitch, volume, and expression in ways that percussively blur the line between singing and speaking, surpassing even the best African-American rappers.
The final performance of the recording features all three master musicians accompanied by Owen on the Western jazz trap set. It may seem ironic that Owen, who has traveled so far to study so many different kinds of Indian percussion, ends up performing on that prosaic instrument that most Westerners assume is sufficiently described by the ambiguous term “drums.” Perhaps this is best explained by the aphorism from postcard philosopher Ashley Brilliant, “If you want to find out who you are, find out who everyone else is, and you’re what’s left.”
Owen has played Indian drums with many well-known American musicians, including Stanley Jordan and Pharaoh Sanders. But when playing on the stage with Indian virtuosos like Chaudhuri, Chandran, and Kumar, his ability to translate their rhythms to the trap set gives him an opportunity to play a role that is both supportive and creative. Certainly this combination of players from different traditions, which will reunite again in Berkeley this month, has enabled all involved to challenge both themselves and their audiences in ways that create profound experiences for everyone involved.