When Yehudi Menuhin collaborated with musicians from different cultures, he remained the European classical maestro, playing exactly what was written for him with impeccable symphonic tone. This artistic decision was motivated by humility, not arrogance. He knew that he could never master the techniques of musicians like Ravi Shankar or jazz violinist Stephen Grapelli, so he stuck with what he did best. This is why he was uniquely capable of appreciating Gilles Apap, whom he referred to as “the violinist for the twenty-first century.”
Like Menuhin, Apap received rigorous training in European classical violin from an early age. But Apap was not willing to settle for “vibrato on every note, almost in tune” as the only standard of correctness. He was determined to master every nuance of tone and expression that the violin was capable of making. So, at the age of 26, he approached other musicians who played the same instrument, but called it a fiddle. He began by asking old-time fiddler and luthier Jim Wimmer to teach him how to play “dirty.”
“He was like the monster that ate my brain,” says Wimmer affectionately. “He absorbed my techniques almost immediately, and then went around learning every other style he could find.” Listening to Apap today, you would swear he must be playing five different instruments to get such a range of colors and expressions. His group the Transylvanian Mountain Boys plays bluegrass, jazz, cajun, and Rumanian music, sometimes all in the same tune. His revolutionary interpretations of Bartok use Balkan fiddle techniques to enunciate the sophisticated rhythms and tonal modulations, giving Bartok’s music a rough fiery power it has always deserved but never before received. And he not only revived the practice of improvising the cadenzas of Mozart concerti, but also incorporates all of his different styles into his improvisations.
Apap’s playing inspires strong feelings, both negative and positive. When I praised his interpretations of Bartok to the classical cellist who was sitting next to me at the concert, her only response was “his tone is terrible!” My repeated attempts to explain the difference between violin and fiddle tone had no impact. Apap takes the controversy in stride: his website has one page of bad reviews and one page of good, each equally vehement. His main concern is his musical quest, which has taken him all over the world, most importantly to India.
During their return trip from the Himalayas, Jim Wimmer introduced Apap to the Ramanujan family, which has three living generations of Karnatik violinists. Apap realized that he had discovered a tradition that would stretch his chameleonic abilities to their limit. He established a relationship with the Ramanujan family that lasted for years, as Venkata, the family patriarch, aged into retirement, and his grandson Anand grew into adulthood.
Despite these years of study, the usually confident Apap never felt he had captured the essence of this tradition. Consequently, when he was asked to make a documentary about his experiences with Indian music, Apap was taken aback at first. He had suggested several other topics, and was surprised that Indian music got the best response. “I was very excited, but a bit reluctant, because I really didn’t feel I knew enough about it,” he said. “But I had made the commitment, so I went for it.” The resulting film, Renegade Fiddler was shown on French television, and is now available on the DVD Apap Masala. This DVD also features another priceless treasure: a concert at the Maharaja’s palace in Varanasi, in which Apap shares the stage with several of India’s greatest musicians.
Having heard Apap perform Indian music in concert, I was a bit disappointed that he so frequently yielded the stage to his teachers. I doubt if anyone else will feel that way, however. There is as much artistry per minute in this film as anyone could possibly want. It begins in California, where we see Apap playing with many different kinds of musicians. The first encounter with Indian music is on the porch of his cabin in Santa Barbara, where he is learning a raga from Angusamala Tamang, a student of Hindustani violinist N. Rajam. As Apap shows us his favorite tape of Rajam, which he wore out years ago, it becomes clear that India is calling him back again, and that we will follow him there.
Apap apparently felt he should justify his presence in India (and help pay for the trip) by teaching Indians what he knew best. We see Apap the student learning Karnatik music from Balaji and Venkata Ramanujan. But we also see him delighting Karnatik violinists with Mozart and Irish Jigs. An especially memorable encounter occurs with the Madras String Quartet, an ensemble of filmi musicians who perform original compositions that combine Karnatik sruti with harmonized arrangements. The film captures the warm rapport that develops in their first meeting, as everyone introduces musical ideas that delight the others.
The Renegade Fiddler film shows Apap studying with Indian musicians. The concert film shows the fruit of that study. Apap begins the concert with brilliant solo performances of Bach, jazz, bluegrass, and Celtic music. Gradually, Indian elements are introduced—tabla and mridangam accompany a Celtic tune, and Apap appears as a featured soloist with the Madras String Quartet. Then Balaji and Anand Ramanujan perform Karnatik music with Apap, who rarely solos but plays the melody with them in faultless unison. Then Apap steps back, and we get superb Indian classical music from the Ramanujans and from the great N. Rajam herself.
At the end of the film, Apap says he loves Indian music because “you come face to face with people who forget themselves when playing, and lose any sense of ego.” But Apap himself shows heroic humility by submitting so completely to Indian tradition, even after having mastered so many other styles.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the touchstyle fretboard.