The new noisemakers

Jan 06, 2013, 10:23 IST | Anjana Vaswani

Amid artistes' quest to find the right chord, unusual traditional as well as modern musical instruments have suddenly landed in the spotlight. And that's not all � technology is making it possible to stir up melodies with the same tools you'd use to make a meal. In time, your mixer may well be able to mash-up melodies as well as masalas

At his humble home somewhere in pre-Ilaiyaraaja South India, a young percussionist picked up an empty clay pot. Usually filled with the family’s drinking water or buttermilk, today the earthen vessel would find a new destiny. Fifty six year- old S Jayachandran cannot imagine what may have prompted his father to seal the lid of that pot and start tap-tapping on it, but this much he knows: his father Singaram invented the Gadasingari, a Gadam, or drum which therefore came to be suffixed with the inventor’s name.

During veteran dancer Daksha Sheth’s recent performance at NCPA, for which her son, Tao, crafted drums that could be lit from the inside, and whose sound varied according to the player’s choice of sticks.  Pic Courtesy/ David De Souza 

“It has a completely unique sound,” Jayachandran tells us, sharing that the instrument has since been amply used in musical compositions for Southern films, “even in songs composed by the famed film music composer Ilaiyaraaja, with whom my father worked on many occasions.” A chip off the old block, Jayachandran too nurtures a passion for percussion.

Canadian Nadaka, who made Auroville his home three decades ago, has created an instrument which can be held like the guitar and sounds like the sitar. Four years of crafting and designing after decades of conceptualising was what went into the creation of the ‘Geet-taar’, which allows Nadaka to play his pet instrument, the guitar, yet enjoy creating the innately Indian svar of a sarod or sitar

Explaining that he plays 50 percussion instruments and, like his father, mainly contributes his efforts to film music, Jayachandran tells us, “Though I’d like to, I don’t have enough time to pass the skill down to others, so I have created DVDs in association with Geethanjali, a Chennai-based company, so that anyone who’d like to learn how to play unique Indian instruments such as the one my father fashioned or traditional and folk instruments such as Nagara, Udukai, Dhukki Tarang, Jamuku, Pambai, Dhup, may be able to do so at their convenience.”

Beat it
These DVDs are available online and even at local music store Rhythm House, we found, so enthusiasts can learn how to play up to three such instruments by shelling out a reasonable Rs 350.

Goa-born French-American Neptune Chapotin is the organiser of the World Harp Festival on February 7 and 8 at Arambol, Goa. He visits remote areas of Rajasthan to place large orders with the makers of traditional mouth harps which he then distributes to buyers around the world. Pic Courtesy/Miriam Groener

In Mumbai, in the meantime, percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, son of legendary tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, is also doing his part to drum up enthusiasm for percussion instruments. Not only does he teach music enthusiasts how to play the tabla, but also teaches them how to interpret Indian rhythm and sound on the Arabian goblet drum or Darbuka and its close cousin, the African Djembe. Aanchal Gupta of Arts in Motion, the Sion-based studio that hosts Qureshi’s classes, says, “Initially people familiar with these instruments signed up to perfect their skill; now, however, a lot of people have taken it up as a hobby. We even have children signing up for classes.” The response, says Gupta, has been so encouraging that the studio plans to focus on developing its music division in 2013.

So while most of Mumbai is now familiar with the Darbuka and Djembe and the rest of the city is keen to get acquainted with them, native instruments such as the Morchang (mouth harp), Khartal (clapper) and Bhapang (a sort of drum) have receded to the background. So when we hear that Shahid Datawala, head of design at premium furniture store Pallate, plays the Morchang, our curiosity is piqued. We’re keen to trace the root of his fascination for the traditional wind instrument sometimes referred to as the Jew’s harp.

Shahid Datawala, head of design at premium furniture store, Pallate, is learning to play the Morchang (mouth harp)

A return to tradition
Not surprisingly, it was a foreigner — possibly as intrigued with Indian musical instruments as Indian musicians are with foreign ones — who first introduced a very young Datawala to the instrument that’s an integral element of Carnatic music. “Must have been around ’92 or ’94,” estimates the furniture designer, flipping through his mental diary, “I was in my twenties and I was holidaying with friends in Goa when a friend invited this Swiss gentleman over for dinner. He used to play the Morchang and I was fascinated by the sound so I asked if I could learn how to use it. He taught me a few basic techniques and lent me his Morchang for a few days so I may practice. At the end of that period I had to return the instrument of course, but a couple of months later, when I was back home, I received a package from him with three different varieties of mouth harps from Hungary.”

That’s how Datawala’s hobby blossomed, but, says he, “No one really knows where the instrument originates — it’s played all over the world really and while it has a key role in Carnatic and Rajasthani music, it’s also frequently used in Assamese music.”

Almost every part of the world, in fact, boasts some variation of the mouth harp, and while Datawala has a little collection of these, Goa-born French-American 28 year old, Neptune Chapotin, has a collection that’s large enough to form a small exhibition. Describing himself as, “a man who does many things,” Chapotin takes us through his photographs, showing us stalls he set up at various locations as he travelled around India, “to show off my mouth harp collection, and also to teach anyone who wanted to learn how to use the instrument.”

You can play too
The organiser of the World Harp Festival which he has scheduled for February 7 and 8 this year (in Arambol, Goa), Chapotin even visits remote areas of Rajasthan, placing large orders with the makers of traditional mouth harps which he then distributes to buyers around the world. While his photographs give away his own affliction — life in Goa has clearly not immunised him against that stereotypical foreigner fascination for cattle and large moustaches — they also reveal the wonderful bond he shares with these artisans. On one of his trips, Chapotin tells us, when a late delivery meant hastened packing and a quick sprint to hop on the train, a la Bollywood, he was sitting in the cabin and preparing the packages he’d mail to clients, when this sari-clad lady asked him if she might give the harp a go. “I taught her to play a little,” Chapotin recalls with a merry glint in his eye, “Of course she didn’t master it, but she did enjoy it.”

That’s the thing with music one imagines — it awakens that curious child within. That’s probably why watching his friends, a bunch of Delhi-based musicians play the Bhapang about a decade ago, once again inspired Datawala to experiment. “Once I broke that drum though, I just stopped playing,” he admits. Right now he’s more interested in the Khartal, a clapper commonly used in folk music. “I want to learn how to play that,” he tells us, “just to see what sort of music one can create with it.”

Others are similarly curious about the Ukulele (typically priced onwards from Rs 1,400) and the Mandolin (about Rs 4,400), says Santosh Vora of Furtados at Dhobi Talao telling us about a spurt in the demand for these. “We don’t teach these in our music classes,” admits the showroom manager, “but they’re fairly easy to learn and so we do stock chord books and instruction books for these. Most people find that’s all they need.”

Find your own sound
While amateurs may be satisfied thus, professional musicians rarely tire of experiments that may enrich their musical lexis. Veteran dancer Daksha Sheth who performed at the NCPA just weeks ago, understands this all too well. For the past 25 years, her husband Davissro has been crafting and creating musical instruments which serve as impressive props for her performance and also create an entirely unique sound. “Yet, now the performance generates much more interest than ever before,” she tells us.

Offering us a glimpse of how it works, Sheth explains, “In a production that centred on Vedic chanting, we wanted sounds that would endorse the theme, so we used conches and while that may sound simple enough, each conch has a different svar so it took us almost a full year just to put the right assortment together so as to hit the perfect notes.” On another occasion, the family experimented with different bamboo shapes, striking these with mallets to create a sound that would match the theme of the dance performance.

“We didn’t use bamboo to fashion wind instruments as may have been expected,” Sheth points out. For the recent Mumbai show though Sheth’s son Tao had crafted drums that could be lit from the inside, and whose sound varied according to the player’s choice of sticks. “We’re still experimenting,” offers Kerala-based Sheth, explaining that it’s a continuous process that’s fuelled, “by our passion and love for music.”

Change is constant
It was necessity that led Canada-born Nadaka, who made Auroville his home almost three decades ago, to create an instrument which can be held like the guitar yet which sounds like the sitar. Four years of crafting and designing after decades of conceptualising was what went into the creation of the instrument which allows Nadaka to stay in his comfort zone — the guitar being his pet instrument — yet enjoy creating the innately Indian svar of a Sarod or Sitar. “Although I’m a westerner, I’ve always nurtured a passion for Indian music,” says Nadaka.

Modifying instruments, in Nadaka’s view, “is only natural.” He believes, “Every individual is different and as people get more and more involved with their own discipline they’re bound to start looking for ways to modify their tools so as to best express themselves.” In fact, Nadaka says it would be hard to find any musical instrument that hasn’t been transformed thus over the years. “The Sitar, as we know it today, is completely transformed; the Sarod didn’t have steel strings before the 20s. These experiments, often born of necessity and sometimes inspired by an artist’s curiosity, will persist,” Nadaka says.

Mumbai watched wide-eyed as British singer-song writer Imogen Heap conjured her “magic” with the data gloves she invented as she performed at Blue Frog in November 2011. Will we see anything to top that this year? It seems entirely possible. 

The sound of music — in an egg whisk
For France resident Frédéric Bevilacqua, and his colleagues, the process of experimenting has only just begun. Winners of the 2011 Georgia Tech Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, Bevilacqua was part of a team that has created the yet-to-be-launched-commercially MO, an ensemble of hardware and software modules, that makes it possible for anyone to invent a unique digital musical instrument, or at least, as the Interlude Project team puts it, “Although electronic music has made the manipulation of sound and rhythm ubiquitous, the interaction between physical movement and sonic elements remains mostly untapped. MO musical objects respond to physical gestures with aural feedback. The bowtie shaped central module contains motion sensors; other parts can be linked to everyday objects or musical instruments, allowing users to configure an orchestra out of any objects they like.”
In other words, your egg-beater, hairbrush or pretty much anything you can gesture with, can be used to create your own, absolutely individual sound. MO wasn’t built in a day, of course, and just briefly touching upon the labour that went into it, Bevilacqua shares, “We have been pursuing research for several years on how to use gesture and motion to control digital sound and music, instead of using standard ‘piano-like’ digital interface. Several concepts and ideas emerged from sustained collaborations with artists.” 

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