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Just beat it

music Updated: Nov 11, 2008 18:39 IST
Rochelle Pinto
Rochelle Pinto
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Indian percussionists are experimenting with exotic instruments to add flavour to their melodies.

Rochelle Pinto


You’d be forgiven for thinking that the calabash was just a fancy vegetable.. and for not knowing what a tarabuka is. But musicians like Vivek Rajagopalan and Franco Vaz are quickly rectifying that.

Not satisfied with conventional sounds, Indian percussionists are experimenting with exotic instruments to add flavour to their melodies.

Different beats
Rajagopalan has been creating his own beats for 14 years, collaborating with the likes of Indus Creed and Lucky Ali. Though a classically trained carnatic musician, Rajagopalan thinks nothing of using mridangam beats to complement electronic music.

This mix of sounds and influences is not restricted to an Indian audience alone. Having represented India in the Common Wealth games some years ago, he found himself amidst a musical mélange of bass guitars, saxophones and African congas.

“In the south of India, mridangam is a commonly used instrument, though it is usually restricted to classical setups. But I use it depending on what that particular song requires.”

He also plays the ganjira, which is a drum made from the skin of monitor lizards. “ These traditional instruments can bring an earthy tone to a synthetic genre like electronic music.

Mix and match
“I think the music needs to be blended in such a way that without the instrument, it would feel like something’s missing.”
Vaz is a music producer who has worked on movies like Johnny Gadar and Chandni Chowk to China. He has also worked with the late RD Burman, honing his skills on eclectic instruments like the djembe (African drum).

“Today many people play these instruments, but only a few are experts. There are specific techniques that you must master to get the authentic sound.”

Spreading knowledge
Franco has passed on his talent to his son Joshua, who learnt to play the piano before graduating to traditional drums. But Joshua’s curiosity and heritage (he has three generations of drummers on both sides of his family) would not allow him to restrict himself to the conventional.

“I first had to practise on a wooden block so that my fingers would get accustomed to the force required to play these instruments. Now I play the djembe and the tarabuka.”

Joshua believes that his audience enjoys the variety that these instruments bring to a commercial setup. “People are always interested in seeing something new brought to the stage. Once the gig is done, they often come up to me to find out what it is and where it’s from.”

New elements
According to Vaz, each instrument adds the elements of its origin to the soundtrack. “The tarabuka has a distinct Arabian sound while the djembe is very noticeably African. When these individual sounds are brought together, they make a whole new melody.”

While Rajagopalan also agrees that audiences appreciate innovation, he says, “It has more to do with the music you play than with the specific instrument. People are going to go strictly by the quality of your music."