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Nadaka, Contemporary Indian and World Music

Nadaka, My Story

A journey from strumming guitar in north America to the ragas of the ancient South Indian Veena.

Nadaka as a childI was born on 4 January 1958, in Quebec City, into a fairly well-off family. My father was what I would call a conservative liberal, who had great faith in the Capitalist world. My mother was dedicated to family life, always active and cheerful and, with a somewhat rebellious nature, she subtly fostered disobedience. Each in their way encouraged us to see beyond the scope of our provincial borders, south to the States and across the ocean to Europe - in short, what most North Americans considered to be the civilized world, but no further. The youngest of five brothers, I enjoyed a life of relative freedom and happiness; however, my early annoyance with dictated structures made me a rather poor candidate for the establishment in which I lived.

NadakaWith a natural inclination towards all things musical, I played various instruments from an early age and eventually, at the age of eleven, settled on guitar, touching Nadakaupon different styles including classical. The popular music of late 60s and the early 70s, the progressive English groups, kindled my imagination both musically and as regards the challenge they seemed to pose for our society. Nothing new, really, but nevertheless it seemed as if the world was going through radical changes with Music as a privileged messenger of a new age. It was through the Beatles that I first heard the twangs of a Sitar, which opened a small window onto India. Soon after, Eastern philosophies and esoteric thoughts captivated me.

It was at the age of fifteen, when my dream of joining the music conservatory came to naught, that a yearning for a deeper meaning in my life led to my decision to travel alone and experience the world. A pilgrimage of sorts, hitching rides or simply walking across borders, this adventure-filled journey brought me from Europe to the gates of the Sahara, through the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally to India, where I have been living for the past thirty years.

In India, travelling from north to south, I reached Madras in October 74 and stayed at the Theosophical Society with the legendary Bharata Natyam dancer Rukmini Devi. She introduced me to some of the traditional aspects of Indian culture and, although she encouraged me to stay as her guest and learn classical Indian music at Kalakshetra, the famed dance and music campus she had founded, my heart and mind were set on a place a little farther south, near the French town of Pondicherry, called Auroville.

Inspired by the ideals of India's great sage, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), the international settlement of Auroville was founded in 1968 by Mira Alfassa, also known as the Mother (1880-1973). Auroville's call for human unity and its founding charter held great promise for the future. They still do today, and this unique endeavour has attracted the attention of societies and people from all walks of life, both as an alternative community and as a developing international township.

The first years in Auroville, during which, without thought of personal gain, we gave all we had to make this dream come true, are often described as the pioneering years. From transforming this largely barren land into a forested oasis, to constructing our primitive dwellings, all had to be done and all seemed possible.

Sharing a large part of our life with the rural population, I soon became enthralled by all things Indian, naturally also by Indian music. In this remote area far from any city; recorded music, apart from Tamil film songs blaring from the surrounding villages, was quite rare, but the sounds of the local drums playing through the night or the temple clarinets filled the void.

I learned Tamil and spoke the local dialect. I studied the Veena and Indian vocal and became familiar with the language of Ragas, and also discovered the Tambura, a string instrument that serves as a drone while chanting. I could sing the Om endlessly and… endlessly I did. Life was hard, beautiful, and years passed.

I learned my first scales and short songs in the South Indian vocal style with Krishna Kumar. Krishna was born into a family of musicians and dancers who wandered the South from village to village. As a child he had followed the caravans along with his father and his innate artistic sense made him decide to pursue a career in dance and music. He joined Kalakshetra for a formal training in Classical Dance and later started teaching and performing in Germany and India, along with his wife Geeta. Krishna had a most cheerful nature and, although my lessons with him were brief, I was pleased when years later he invited me to record with him.

Nemat Darman, Santoor and precussion playerI was initiated into the more metaphysical aspects of Indian music by Nemat Darman, a great Santoor and percussion player, who stayed as a guest in my house for some months in 1980. Nemat was originally from a tradition of Iranian musicians. After having lived in Germany for some years, where he was a percussionist in the Munich Orchestra, his love of traditional music and Ragas brought him to India, which he considered to be the source of Middle-Eastern music.

He had what seemed to me then an extremely unusual approach to music and some of the experiences I shared with him seemed almost magical. I once asked how he had developed such perfect timing, to which, with his usual humour, he answered: "It comes from the patience you acquire when your job in an orchestra means waiting an hour or more just to give a few precise hits of the triangle".

These months of intense musical training gave me a deeper understanding of music and of sound itself. This exposure to Ragas and traditional music made me put the guitar aside and take up the Sarod (a fretless Indian string instrument), although soon enough I was inevitably drawn back to my guitar, devising ways of playing in an Indian manner.

Ramji, RamanathanAnother great source of inspiration came from my visits to Trichy, where I would meet a philosophical and rather saintly Brahmin by the name of Ramanathan. Ramji, as we called him, had dedicated his life to music, musicology and the craft of building outstanding instruments. Musicians from across India would come to this music sanctuary, right at the steps of the Rockfort temple, to procure a Tambura, or simply to hear this great man speak. His research into the perfect tonalities of Ragas and other related topics made him a sought-out source of knowledge. I would listen to his ancient tales of music and descriptions of his life in the early part of the last century, which were made all the more delightful as they were accompanied with songs in ancient Tamil and the occasional verses from Shakespeare. I always felt fortunate to be in his peaceful presence.

Ramji, RamanathanThis was only a part of my regular and often amazing trips through the south of India, where Tamil culture still prevails. I would often stop along the way and spend some hours or a night in small temples remote from what we call civilization. Indescribable sights and experiences made me dream and realize in awe the great power that ancient India has carried
down to us through the ages.

Vikku VinayakramApart from the occasional scoring for documentaries and concerts, my life as a musician took a different direction in 1990, when I was commissioned to compose and direct the music for a children's feature film. In an unusual turn of events, this film featured the renowned percussionist Vikku Vinayakram.

Vikku had been touring for years with guitar icon John McLaughlin and his Indian jazz-fusion group Shakti. After our time together in the studios, he spontaneously offered to join me in an upcoming concert at IIT Madras. I learned a lot just being around this famous yet most humble person, and the support he offered me over the years is more than any musician could ask for.

Nadaka, Ganesh and KumareshAt that time, he introduced me to Ganesh and Kumaresh, two young violin prodigies who were happy to work with me on the fusion side. I spent many years in close relationship with the two brothers, especially Ganesh. Their unique mode and flawless technique have been a major influence on my guitar style. Our association has been very creative, their house in Mylapore becoming my second home.

A.R. Rahman and NadakaWe worked on our first demos with A.R. Rahman in his Panchatan studios. This was before he became perhaps the most famous Indian musician. The long hours in the studio were spent in a relaxed way with Rahman, who would add a few keyboard tracks or doctor the mix. Years later Rahman invited me to play in one of his songs, Kamosh Raat, for a Hindi film, my only contribution to the Indian film industry.

In 1992, we started work on Straight to your Heart. Vikku and his son, Selvaganesh, joined us for some memorable recording sessions. I completed the final tracks and the mix in Paris with "Sound Wizard" Didier Weiss, who later engineered most of my projects.

Some time later we were joined by drummer extraordinaire Shivamani. We would spend days on end rehearsing at my home: Ganesh and Kumaresh, Selvaganesh, Shivamani and myself, with numerous others in tow, like old buddies under the wing of uncle Vikku (maaman). For a show at the all night Vasantahaba Festival near Bangalore, we did the sound check at 3 a.m. in front of an expectant audience. Once we got going, it clicked.Protima Bedi, India's matinee film idol turned patron of the arts who was the person behind this whole event, was thrilled and wrote me a moving letter of appreciation. As a sort of conclusion to this phase of my life, I recorded Celebration with Ganesh and Shivamani.

Trilogy Studio1999. In an evident move away from fusion, I began working on a musical exploration in which the deeper, more meditative aspects of Indian (also Tibetan) music took me over. Having once started, I became immersed in this musical adventure, my whole life revolving around what eventually became a musical trilogy. Months on end were spent on research and experimentation - Sanskrit or Tamil pronunciations, subtle ways of striking or stroking different instruments, nature recordings, exact microphone placements, etc. It seemed at times like a sort of microscopic search for the inner soul of each instrument -be it a gong, a voice, even a drop of water.

I retreated into my home studio and, with a conscious effort to keep silence as the foundation; sounds gradually emerged, grew and eventually found their perfect place in this creation. Musicians contributed their parts in this common spirit. The project was complete with graphics and texts which fitted precisely as they revealed themselves on the way. This became the Lotus Trilogy.

2001. The need to resurface and the simple joy of playing my Raga-Guitar brought me back to Madras. A meeting with the violinist Raghavendra Rao led to my collaboration with the Basavaraj brothers. These brothers between themselves harbour a great musical discipline that bring together the two great classical Indian traditions, Hindustani and Carnatic. At every rehearsal, there was a clear sense of joy and a great will to create without a specific goal aside for the love of indian music we all shared.

We soon ended up in the studio recording some tracks. With a certain aim towards perfection and little space for compromise, one day's recordings would easily be scrapped the next.

Balamuralikrishna, Vikku and Basavaraj BrothersI was also very clear on the direction and not to fall in the usual trappings of today's Indian fusions where virtuosity, mathematics and gimmickry too often replace quality, simplicity and good taste. After over a year all the musicians were happy with the final tracks the album was released. Though the event was a little hyped up for publicity, I did feel proud to that both Balamuralikrishna (who is, to me, the greatest living Karnatic vocalist) and Vikku were present to receive the first copies of our album Living Colours.

After a couple of years gap I have started performing again live with the Basavaraj Brothers; Sharing the stage with these outstanding musicians is always an uplifting experience.

I have composed pieces for solo guitar and I love the purity of single instruments played alone. On the other hand, the life pulse brought by an added percussion is gratifying. Of all the percussion instruments I know, Tabla, (played by a master) has to be one of the most complete in itself.

In a stroke of good luck, or fate, I met Somnath Nandi, who had moved from his native Bengal to Pondicherry. Together we work on the more improvised aspects of Indian Music within ragas and talas, often without the limitation of fixed time. I find the balance between my guitar along with vocal together with the tabla gratifying and I can freely adapt my style to both Hindustani and Carnatic. And…so it goes.

This short description of my musical world would have been incomplete without those here mentioned and these images remain as some of my most memorable experiences. Though I often wish I had more time to go deeper into each of these great musicians specific discipline, I have followed the current for my own musical entity, moving on towards new musical and life experiences.