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History Series: Trichy & Suba Sankaran

Published on: April 21, 2021

 

“IT’S REALLY A MATTER OF ENHANCING THE BEAUTY OF A SONG. THE DRUMMER SHOULD REMEMBER HE’S NOT PLAYING FOR THE TALA, BUT HE’S PLAYING FOR THE MUSIC.”

 

David Dacks: Good evening everybody welcome to the Music Gallery at home the April 27th edition. It’s been really a fantastic experience so far, a lot of great feedback, really interesting stories and music being played as well in response to our commissioned score, the Canadian Music Centre has totally been on point moderating things and being a fantastic partner, Kristel has been running things at the video controls from her place, it’s just a big adventure and it just keeps getting better and better every week, but before we start the show today

I’d like to acknowledge the land on which the Music Gallery operates both physically and virtually, it’s been a site of human activity for over 15,000 years, this land is the territory of the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Anishinabek Nation and the Mississaugas of the Credit, the territory is the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Covenant which is an agreement between the Anishinaabeg Confederacy and  a Confederacy of the Ojibway and Allied Nations to peacefully share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. Today the meeting place of Toronto is still home to many indigenous people from across Turtle Island and around the world and as part of this community and as individuals it is up to us to recognize our privilege in this space and also to educate ourselves further along the way.

I’d also like to thank our funders the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council, SOCAN Foundation, Department of Canadian Heritage, Ontario Creates and all of the members who have supported us through the years. This particular conversation has great historical relevance to the Music Gallery, we’re going to be talking about somebody who encompasses almost the entire history of Indian music studies at York University over the years, Professor Sankaran has bridged Eastern and Western pedagogical styles and has influenced generations of students who have become noted performers, composers, and music educators themselves, he’s made valuable contributes to many scholarly conferences across North America and has published numerous articles and textbooks. As a composer, he has to his credit, numerous pieces in the genres of gamelan, jazz, Western classical, and world music ensembles and continues to perform and write compositions for contemporary and world music ensembles.

Tonight we have the special pleasure of his daughter, musician, composer and educator Suba Sankaran, whose known for her work in Autorickshaw, in FreePlay, and very many more projects, and we last saw her at the Music Gallery as part of our Moondog celebration a couple of years ago, and she will be asking her dad about lifetime’s art and there’s going to be a little bit of performance too. So I would like to hand it over at this point to Suba, please take it away and I can’t wait to hear this story.

Image of Suba & Trichy courtesy of Tafelmusik

Suba: Alright, thanks so much David. It’s a real pleasure to be here and to be part of this series and a platform that I consider to be a kind of informal interview and conversation to discuss Canadian musicians and their music. Of course it is my great pleasure and honour of interviewing my father, Trichy Sankaran. It’s particularly special for me because he’s not just my father but also my guru of south Indian music, and we have the great pleasure of sharing the stage together: we have on many occasions and we hope to on many more occasions. Being musical colleagues and of course dear friends as well is really quite an amazing thing. So, welcome to my father, Trichy Sankaran. I’m just going to jump right in with some of our questions here: this is kind of a larger-scale question, but can you tell us a little bit about who you are inspired by?

Trichy: Okay, thank you Suba, and I also wanted to thank David for having me in this series. You are asking who I was inspired by in my musical career, right?

S: Yes.

T: Okay. I have been inspired by some of my predecessors in my own field – that is the Carnatic (South Indian classical music tradition) drumming field – my guru the legendary maestro Palani Sri Subramania Pillai, then Palghat Mani Iyer, and his disciple Palghat Raghu, just to name a few. And in the world music context here in Canada, I have been inspired by NEXUS. Steve Reich in particular, you know, Steve Reich wrote many pieces including Pieces for Wood, Clapping Music, Music for 18 Musicians and so forth. And I have been highly inspired by these people, where they highlighted the interlocking patterns and the resultant complex rhythmic counterpoints. And then, I have been inspired by the African ensembles and African drumming, particularly Abraham Adzenyah with whom I have been featured, when I performed with them, with World Drums, organized by John Wyre. It’s amazing, particularly the drum – the gankogui (African) bell – and other stuff, I really enjoy it…I was so inspired and I have collaborated with them on many, many occasions. Other drummers I have been inspired by are some of the jazz drummers,  which would include Joe Morello, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Steve Gadd, and I have some stories to tell about my connections with these people. And of course I have been greatly impressed by the Evergreen Club Gamelan Ensemble. I was a part of the ensemble for many years and I have written so many pieces for gamelan. I should say these are some of the people whose music I really enjoy thoroughly.

 

S: Great, and that kind of ties into the next question which is a lot more about your particular creative process. Now, again, this is a grand question, but I want to specifically talk a little bit about your accompaniment style in south Indian Carnatic music. Much of the accompaniment that happens in Carnatic music is improvised within larger structures. So maybe you could explain for us what your creative process is when you’re accompanying: is it something that’s specific? Does it vary from song to song? Maybe you can give us a little bit of insight into how you approach accompaniment?

T: Well that’s a great question. The art of accompaniment is quite interesting. People haven’t really talked much about it. When you say the creative process, I would say a successful accompaniment is based on these three things at the least, which I named as the IAS. It sounds like a degree! In the Indian Administrative Service, they used to call it IAS, the highest administrative service position which has subsequently been changed to ICS. So this IAS is, I would say, I stands for involvement, imagination;  A for anticipation, attitude, aesthetics; and S for superior selection of patterns.  That is the least I would say. As you know, the Carnatic music has several compositional types beginning with the etude-like composition called varnam, and then we have so many kritis handed down to us by the Trinity composers of the 18th century, namely Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. And then there are other composers, that is, the predecessors of Thyagaraja, and also the contemporary composers. So our compositional repertoire is enormous and the bulk of a concert consists of a number of kritiskriti is a type of composition which is in a rondo structure, which has a minimum of three sections: pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. So a good drummer should know: first of all, he should be aware; he should at least understand the repertoire; he should know the song form very well, whether he’s able to sing or not. So it has been suggested that vocal training is essential for a drummer, and I had gone through vocal training and I had taken up vocals for two or three years with a great singer in India. And then most of my experience comes from the stage, how I learned to accompany these songs. So it has to be accompanied in a very creative way and each section should be highlighted imaginatively. There are sections where there are some composed solfège for which the drum accompaniment will be almost note-for-note. That kind of synchronization should be there. And, so, in other words, there are certain moments where the drummer can be very active and then there are certain passages where he can be passive. It also depends upon the type of compositions: some kritis, say, like Telisi Rama, are more of a syllabic nature and then other compositions or kritis which are in the rakthi ragas (those melodic modes that bring aesthetic beauty and delight), like anandhabhairavi or reethigowla, or other ragas, they are more spaced and one can use a sparse way for playing and then really enhance the beauty of the melody. That’s important. The creative process that includes a strong hold on rhythm and at the same time knowledge of music and how supportive you can be to the main singer or the main artist, so to say, and it is not really the place to show the drummer’s technical prowess. It’s really a matter of enhancing the beauty of a song. The drummer should remember he’s not just playing for the tala (rhythm cycle), but he’s playing for the music. Maybe now I’ll talk about the sound and silence that is also a part of the creative process.

S: Yes.

T: Because there are moments where the drummer should know where he’s not supposed to play.

S: Right.

T: And even in creating compositions you all know the importance of silence, pausing for silence, within the compositional structure. It’s really amazing and in this connection I really think about John Cage and particularly his piece 4’33”.

Suba: Of course.

Trichy: I had the privilege and honour of performing this when Jim Tenney organized this at York University. It was amazing, and that kind of idea has far more reaching implications. I would say it has more philosophical and spiritual implications to that. I can go on and on and on to explain this, in my experience of performing with artists for over 60 years, I can say how I really enjoy. In this connection I want to talk about one incident where a great singer who was known for his bass voice and he used to keep a low pitch as his tonic and also his rhythms were very slow. Low and slow are not really good for a drummer! Because it [the drum] has to be really tightened to get good sound. So if you were to tune your drum to, say, B below C, you know how it would sound. But I took special effort in preparing a special drum to accompany this gentleman, M D Ramanathan was his name, and …amazing, amazing. When I accompanied him, the composition was so full of bhava, so full of emotion, and there was one particular kriti in the raga reethigowla that had many stanzas in the charanam,  and I tried to accompany him in a creative way for each of these charanams. At one point I just gave a moment of silence, and I accompanied the music through my silence. I think that should tell everything.

S: Lovely. You’re touching upon so many aspects of not just accompaniment but of course improvisation as well, when we think about sound and silence, when we think about structure and improvisation and the fluidity that we have within that, and also the fact that you’re creating some sort of arc, creating as you said different types of activity, different types of rhythmic activity for different types of melodic activity, and that’s really quite beautiful, just creating this arc of a story between beginning, middle and ending, and having some dynamic contrast in there as well. You mentioned already a few of your collaborations and I wanted to dig into that a little bit. As David mentioned at the top of this interview, in addition to your usual traditional settings of performing in a south Indian classical Carnatic context and your numerous solo performances, you’ve performed with groups like Nexus and Evergreen Gamelan Ensemble, various jazz artists, electronic musicians, African music ensembles and of course the very well-known and well-loved World Drums, and your own group Trichy’s Trio, of which I’m a part as well. What highlights do you have from these experiences or is there a standout experience or anecdote that you’d like to share?

T: Maybe a couple…I can think about that. Since we were listing the type of collaborations I’ve had, maybe I’ll start with electronic music that was my first experimental kind of music at York University with David Rosenboom. One day at their studios we were discussing and he had the – if I remember right – it was the Moog synthesizer. And then there was Richard Teitelbaum who was talking about the Tai Chi dance and I believe it was his friend who was a dancer, trained in a meditative dance called Tai Chi and so in the process we touched upon how this deep meditation really produces – the brain –  produces more alpha waves, so the dancer’s brain was connected to electrodes and connected to the synthesizer. At my suggestion, they tuned the random patterns that were coming out in the pentatonic scale called mohana raga. So my task was to really find out the undercurrent rhythm even though these patterns were really random. There was no specified tala, or rhythms were not going at a steady pace. So I was digging into it and then found a common ground of patterns that can go with the melodic random patterns that were coming out from the synthesizer. This was amazing, the kind of work that we experimented on. And actually at my suggestion this was named as Alpha Tai Chi Tala including all three cultures.

S: Lovely.

T:  That was my first kind of experiment. And then, of course, I have performed with African drumming ensemble as part of World Drums. All these collaborations gave me new perspectives to think about time and rhythm. When I was jamming with Abraham Adzenyah, we were both asked to have a dialogue – Abraham and myself throwing patterns at each other and trying to answer back and this kind of thing, call and response, which was going on. I was looking – having been trained in the Carnatic tradition – the beginning beat of a tala cycle, the rhythm cycle, is very important to us, particularly sam, the downbeat, the beginning beat of a tala cycle. So I was looking for it. “Where is sam? Where is sam?”  Then, I think my intuition told me, okay forget it, forget sam! Just go with the flow, and that won.

S: Yes.

T: I still remember that moment, how it happened and how I was able to really collaborate. This tells us how we have to evaluate and reevaluate our own situations, our own concepts, you know, even though we are traditional. I started reexamining and in what context, and particularly when it comes to collaboration or fusion, you have to really understand the nature of the music in which you are involved, and I think that was kind of a learning experience for me. Likewise, what inspired me with, say, for example, the group Nexus, in particular was Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood and the clapping rhythms. And that inspired me to write a composition using the age-old or traditional tala, the 21-beat tala, and I named it as Catch 21 and actually that was a direct inspiration from Steve Reich’s work, and how you can use the different rhythmic counterpoints and through clapping rhythms and I used that in a different way for which I also wrote the melody, and you have sung that, and that was a big part of Catch 21.

S: Yes, lovely.

T: And then the Gamelan provided another perspective about time. Particularly I was interested when I was involved with the gamelan, the hocketing and then the interlocking patterns that inspired. Not only that , but as you know, in Carnatic music once the piece starts in a particular tempo, in a particular rhythm cycle, it stays throughout that piece. But in Gamelan music it’s not like that. It begins in a certain way, of course, marking time with the gongs, and then there could be some accelerando and then some ritardando, and finally they mark the end of the piece with a big gong happening, probably on the last bar. So these things were quite amazing, quite new to me, when I first started learning about them and somehow I really started to enjoy, and particularly the interlocking patterns inspired me so much. Then I started writing pieces for Gamelan. I started with Swaralaya, my very first piece ever written in notation, and I also did their notation called the cipher notation. Again there are differences between the two traditions, Javanese and Balinese. It was quite amazing. Then finally we all decided we were all familiar with the western notation, so we ended up just putting it in western notation! I remember for that piece, Swaralaya, I used a set of mrdangams (South Indian barrel-shaped drum), which was quite unusual, tuned to the Gamelan scale, and I started playing melody on my drums. Who said the drums have to only be highlighting the rhythms? You can also play the melody.

S: Of course.

T: So that was the new idea that I came up with. And subsequently, I remember at York University I also gave a solo concert using a set of drums calling it “The Rhythmic Alapana,” (alapana is a free-form exploration of the melodic mode) so just like improvisation on the raga, it was an improvisation on the rhythm combined with some melody. I always found some new venues to express myself and understanding time and melody and harmony in all different ways through my own collaboration or from research.

S: And you’ve also – speaking of harmony and melody and rhythm all rolled in together – you’ve also composed for Western classical orchestra and chamber orchestra. Do you have anything to share about that experience for you?

T: The first-ever commissioned piece came from Winnipeg. It was Ensemble Mondetta. They asked me to perform with them and to come up with a new composition for them. That’s when I wrote this Carnatic Concerto, scored for violin, viola, some Western drumming, clarinet and saxophone and those instruments. It was an amazing experience for me to orchestrate this piece and at the same time maintaining the features of Indian music. And there I also included a good mrdangam and kendang (Indonesian drum) solo exchange between the two drums. That was a wonderful experience and afterwards has been played on many occasions, the Carnatic Concerto. That’s when I really learned how to express all of my musical ideas and how to put them all into notation so it was a revealing experience for me and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

 

Suba: That’s great and something for the viewers and listeners to note is in case you don’t know as much about south Indian music, normally it is not notated, though attempts have been made in the last several decades, but it’s an art form that is taught by rote, from the guru directly to the disciple.

Trichy: From the oral tradition.

S: From the oral tradition, exactly, so it’s really quite an amazing accomplishment to bridge that gap between east and west, to merge these musical cultures, and to find a way to disseminate that knowledge with, as you said, with the agreed-upon notation, when you find something. It goes back to your thoughts on accompaniment and improvisation and collaboration, about being able to adapt.

T: Yes exactly.

S: And I think adapting is the key there.

T: Correct, disseminating this knowledge. Probably the unique thing about my teaching at York University was to really bridge the cultures because I created a course on rhythm where I had drawn all these ideas from different traditions. And I had made the class into a composition class, encouraging people to really write compositions incorporating all these elements. Of course I gave them a strong foundation on Indian rhythm like learning to clap the tala cycles and also learn to speak the rhythms in solkattu – the drum syllables. It had a tremendous effect. I think, soon they gave up the idea of counting in numbers, like one-ee-and-ah two-ee-and-ah, and they started using ta ka di mi ta ka jo nu instead! So it was a really amazing thing, and some students produced wonderful compositions in this regard.

S: That’s beautiful. And of course so many of your students have been a part of The Music Gallery but they’ve also become composers themselves, teachers,… I’ve met teachers who still say “You have to thank your Dad for me because I still use ta ka di mi ta ka jo nu when I’m teaching young children.” It’s really permeated, it’s gone very, very far, which is a beautiful thing.

T: So gratifying.

S: Yes exactly. So speaking of your life as a musician and as a teacher, most people know you as either a performer and/or a professor having been at York University for 44 years before retiring, but also maintaining that performance career throughout this time and that included your annual trips back to Chennai to perform for the concert season. But I’m going to focus on your life here in Toronto. When you look back on those years that you’ve spent here in Toronto, what do you think when you look back on that?

T: I feel that I have come a long way and I learned to understand the mainstream culture, and at the same time, I also realized that I didn’t have to give up some of my cultural things that I carried with me and which I have passed on to my family here, in other words, not so much compromising to do, yet how we can really embrace the mainstream culture. Not only me, but I think everybody at our home had an open mind and open ears for all kinds of music. From the beginning I don’t know how I got that but somehow I learned to like it, I learned to like it and I got involved. This kind of involvement is so important. Rather than just staying at the periphery it’s better to dive deep into it. That’s the amazing part I learned, I would say. And through my collaborations, as I said, I developed different perspectives about time and my own culture. I think to even understand my own culture, you see there are people in India saying “Oh, in India we have produced wonderful rhythms, there is no other system like this” But I say, don’t think you own sankirna, which is the nine beat cycle. Have you listened to Turkish music? They have nine or eleven, you name the number, they have beautiful rhythms there, wonderful,… and I remember even at York how I encouraged the students to delve deep into the studies of Brubeck’s music, particularly “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” that was one of my favourite pieces, and of course “Take 5.” Amazing stuff. That reminds me, just to add, if I can take a minute.

S: Sure.

T: This is something I think people should hear, Dave Brubeck made a visit to India in I believe it was 1959 with Joe Morello, and they were at the All India Radio studios in Madras. At that time, my master, Palani Subramania Pillai, received a phone call from the All India Radio saying some great musicians from America have arrived here and they want to listen to you. Please bring your drum and in turn you should also listen to them. So it was an impromptu session for them to collaborate. Amazingly, my master who had never heard anything about jazz, he started playing along with the drummer Joe Morello and he was playing khanda nadai (quintuplet subdivisions) and tisra nadai (triplet subdivisions), and Joe Morello tried to follow as much as he could and the radio broadcast that program. I think it might even be available on YouTube. They titled the program “When the mrdangam played jazz.”

S: Nice!

T: Later on at one of the percussion conferences held in the USA, I don’t know exactly which place, I can’t remember now…but I went particularly to see Joe Morello, the great drummer. Amazing, he who can demonstrate multiple rhythms, that’s what I saw during the session. So I went and I introduced myself and I asked him about that incident, and if he remembers, and he said, “do I ever remember? Your master made me sit at the practicing pad and prepare for performance!” He was still remembering that event. Amazing story.

S: And there’s an early example of fusion.

T: Exactly that’s probably the first of its kind, I would say, when we talk about fusion.

S: Wow, yeah, that is amazing. And now here we are. So if we fast forward to the present day, where do you see that kind of activity going? There’s been fusion from, say, that point at least in south India to today. Do you have thoughts about where your life is going as a musician here in Toronto, as a retired professor, or the state of the arts here in Toronto and where it might be going?

T: I would say now I have more time on hand, and I’m into writing more compositions, and also more introspection about time, and I’m really enjoying looking back at my own experiences in concerts and otherwise, how time can be looked at from many angles. In my teaching also I’m able to express that, and preparing my students, when I am training my students. It’s amazing. As you know, I have always been with rhythm, rhythm has been my life, and continues to be. I always come up with new korvais (rhythmic cadential form) and new compositions and sometimes I record it, or sometimes I write it down in a notebook so that I won’t forget. I have so many korvais which I haven’t played in concerts.

S: For all the viewers out there, I’ve seen the books, there are many of them, and each page has a new gem of a composition, a beautifully elaborate rhythmic cadence that is a part of the repertoire in south India.

T: When I came to this country, to Canada, in ’71, I left India at the pinnacle of my concert career, but I have never been out of the music scene. I always make it a point to go in December to play in the concert season and maintain my professional integrity and my playing, and people are looking forward to that. I feel that it is a responsibility: music is a responsibility, and of course it’s there and should be a part of my own enjoyment as well. Not just purely entertainment because I’m looking at it from my own personal point of view, how these things can be enjoyed. What we call a rasikatvam (appreciative power), you have to be a good rasika (taste-maker/connoisseur) to be able to appreciate. And I think that’s what’s taking over me now and I’m able to really see beauty in each and every thing I do that I play.

S: That’s beautiful.

T: People always used to ask me how am I able to maintain this: it’s purely discipline, devotion, and dedication.

S: Yes. That basically sums you up right there. It’s amazing, just to turn it to me for a moment, I’m so grateful having grown up with that under my roof, to have you as my guru and to really see that kind of discipline, and dedication and devotion. It’s like none other that I’ve experienced in my life and I have to hope some of that maybe rubbed off on me as well!

T: Mom and I are very proud of you.

S: Awww that’s very sweet.

T: You are doing it in a different way. I have educated so many people who have become music educators themselves, and I remember recently that we performed with the Tafelmusik where you brought the choir, the students and they were singing Kamalajadhala with your arrangement and it was so emotional for me to see. We are so proud of what you have been doing too.

S: That’s very  kind and that’s very sweet and I really appreciate that. For those who don’t know, in early March before things started locking down, my father and I were both part of the Indigo Project with Tafelmusik, and I do know there are some clips available online, it’s a beautiful concept, a beautiful story, the merging of history and geography and music and dance and an elaborate script. We had the joy of being able to collaborate on stage together yet again. Now speaking of the stage, I’m going to move some of my questions around here…Speaking of the stage, I want to focus on The Music Gallery for a moment. I know when I was growing up, going to the Music Gallery to see my father perform, we would always come home with this rush, this kind of beautiful natural “high” feeling, and I know that it’s one of your favourite performance venues and it has been over the years. Can you talk a little bit about your interactions at the Music Gallery, maybe who you’ve performed with, how it inspired you and that energy in that space?

 

T: Definitely. The Music Gallery has been so kind and so wonderful a venue for many of my performances, be it traditional music or contemporary music. I remember featuring many of the traditional Carnatic concerts there at the Music Gallery, bringing artists like T Viswanathan from Wesleyan University, Karaikkudi Subramanian on the veena (South Indian stringed instrument), and a few others, Lalgudi G J R Krishnan on the violin, and so I had given many traditional concerts. The Music Gallery is really great for community events, they have brought the community together and anything that you want to do, it’s just one phone call away: if the date is available, say I have some great music to show, and they’re ready! I have done a lot of experimental music and I have performed there with the Gamelan group when they were celebrating their 25th year. Amazing place. The Music Gallery has done so much, and many of my concerts, I remember, draw the western crowd. On one occasion when I was playing with Viswanathan, I received a phone call from the Consulate General of India saying that he wanted to come to the concert, and I said “by all means, you should come.” So, to his amazement, he saw many people there, some of them were my students, many of them were also Casey Sokol’s students and friends and musicians, and of course Andrew Timar, so many known faces, all there keeping time, keeping tala, enjoying the music. The consulate general was so amazed, probably because he saw very few Indians, and then we started drawing more people as more and more events were happening, I think the Gallery started receiving more Indians too to their venue. I cannot overemphasize the contributions of The Music Gallery. I’ve known Music Gallery from its start in the early 70s. I know for sure Casey Sokol was part of that, in starting the Gallery. It’s amazing work they have done over the years and it has a very high place in my heart. I cannot thank them enough for all the encouragement they’ve given to all musicians of all genres.

Suba: What advice would you give for people who are pursuing music especially in a day and age now when art is business and business is art, it’s kind of a big, blurry line. Of course, in our actual circumstance now, very difficult for live music and live music venues, what advice would you give to artists who want to pursue this line of work?

Trichy: If somebody wants to pursue this as their musical career, I think they have to first of all spend more time with their music, practicing. See, there is so much distraction these days, even on YouTube, there are so many kinds of music. They need proper guided listening and they need direction – some of the younger musicians need direction – as to really choose the right ones, the good ones. I think at a very early stage they start diversifying. I would say be strong with your own tradition, be it jazz, classical, rock or pop, whatever, whichever pleases you, whichever you have been working on, be good at it, be strong, and I think this way you can have the roots somewhere, and then you can start diversifying. If I’m able to diversify it’s because of my strength in my own tradition, I would say. At the same time, having an open mind. And this is something that I would like to advise. There is no harm in keeping music just for entertainment, for casual listeners and for those who really want to be strong and become serious musicians. I think the discipline and this kind of dedication and devotion to their music is very important.

S: Beautiful.

T: And finding the right direction and also finding the right teacher is important.

S: Yes that is true. That is true. I know we’re coming dangerously close to the end of the interview and as we speak about the spirit of experimentation and improvisation, you have graciously agreed to give us a spontaneous creative offering here and now in the safety of your living room. Before we get there I’m not sure if there are any questions that have come from the viewers slash listeners of this particular interview. I’m kind of on standby here in case there are any questions. Before we get to that, is there anything else that you would like to share with us about these experiences that you’ve had as a south Indian musician who came from a very rich tradition and then you uprooted and came to Canada many, many years ago, and you’ve maintained your musical career, your performing career, your teaching career and you still teach now,  just not in the university setting. You conduct workshops, you compose, the list just goes on and on…is there anything else you wish to share with us just before we move on to this little performance at the end?

T: I think you have covered quite a bit there. And maybe I will emphasize the importance of learning rhythm through the medium of solkattu.

S: Perfect, maybe you can tell us what solkattu is as well.

T: Solkattu is the phonetic vocabulary imitating the rhythms of the instruments and it has become a great art and it’s also an excellent medium of instruction, to teach rhythm, which I opened up at York University as a course, a special course.. Everybody should learn solkattu first before they can play on a drum or something. Also eventually I produced a textbook on that, it’s called The Art of Konnakkol, and any composition you may play or any ideas you have, you can even converse in solkattu with the other person, that’s the amazing beauty of it, you can take it wherever you go. Because specializing in an instrument takes time, years of practice, whereas solkattu, anybody can learn. So this has become a wonderful medium, now this is more like scat singing in jazz, we can also compare that with other kinds, like rap or something.

S: Or like beat-boxing is a good example.

 T: Beat-boxing is a very good example, yes, thank you. I have written compositions using solkattu like “Veni Express”, one of my own compositions. For the viewers, I would like to recite a korvai, one of the compositions which is a cadential form, and play it on the kanjira (lizard-skin frame drum) so that they can see the relation.

Transcription below, excepts of the performance music can be heard via this video. 

48:16 – 48:26 – Trichy recites solkattu

This is a korvai which takes 16 beats. It’s in adi tala (8-beat rhythmic cycle), two cycles. So I will play it on the kanjira. This is a South Indian frame drum, which I have taught to many students at York. So the korvai is played on the kanjira like this.

48:46 – 48:58 – Trichy plays kanjira

Trichy: I’ll play a few more patterns and perhaps end with another korvai or something.

49:08 – 50:01 Trichy improvisation based korvai

Suba: Lovely. Well I’m going to kind of put you on the spot here for a moment. So we were talking about experimentation and improvisation so if you were to just improvise something for us with konnakol or solkattu and kanjira,  can you give us a small offering?

T: In improvisation, you can take a pattern and then develop, that’s also part of improvisation. Or there could be small segments that could be improvised within a korvai, within the composition. Maybe I’ll just take one pattern and show the improvisation on that.

S: Great, thank you.

50:56 – 51:38 Trichy improvisation

S: Lovely.

T: And then in drumming we use what one might call the pulse modulation, changing from four to three, I mainly stayed in four now, which is very commonly followed. When I talk about improvisation there are many things that are common to many traditions. These kind of flow patterns, or sarvalaghu patterns, or tekhas in north Indian tradition, some of them are specific to certain cultures. Whereas others are kind of common: the 4/4/ feel, the sarvalaghu pattern, and then in jazz…steady-going patterns, like grooving.  There are so many varieties, so many kinds. Particularly in the Carnatic tradition, changing the pulses from four to three or four to five, there’s a unique way of presenting them and this is from my tradition, from my guru, Palani Subramanai Pillai.

So I will play chatusra to tisra, then chatusra to khanda.

S: So that’s four to three, four to five.

53:10 – 54:27 Trichy Plays

Suba: Beautiful. It’s such a wonderful thing to experience that movement from one subdivision to another subdivision because you do it completely effortlessly. For you it’s like breathing. For students who are studying or drummers who are studying, that’s something that really has to be learned but it also has to become absolutely natural just as you’ve shown us here.

Trichy: It’s true, concentrating on the rhythm, on the steady beat. This is called the laya (rhythmic flow), or layagnanam (rhythmic wisdom) , and it should be deeply rooted before you learn to do the pulse modulation, moving from one set of pulses to another set of pulses, it has to be tracked right away. You cannot take a couple of beats before settling, it has to settle down right away. That’s the most amazing and challenging thing.

S: Yes, and that’s what’s so beautiful. You alluded to it earlier in your conversation as well, the fact that your life is rhythm, and there is a deep meditation that goes inside understanding time and investigating time and what that is,. You know, we’ve got all these cycles and time cycles in our lives as well, from the clocks to the seasons to the sun setting and the sun rising, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to hear your personal stories about how the drum has basically become a mantra for your life.

T: Absolutely. That’s the right way to say it, yes.

S: And I think that’s a huge takeaway from this particular interview just as we wrap up here: I think that idea of meditating in time and in rhythm, to discover what that really means to you, and being able to, as you said, understand the cultures that are around you, understand the people who are around you, go into a sense of deep communication and then you’ll really have a meaningful collaboration or a meaningful composition.

T: It’s interesting that you mention about the mantra: interestingly a long time ago, when we look at the Sanskrit meters, they paved the way for  music meters to develop because these were all based on mantras – how short and long syllables create rhythms and that’s the origin of all our Indian rhythms, coming from the Sanskrit meters, and then music meters took their own course.

S: That’s beautiful. Wonderful, well, we’ve come to the end of our hour. So before we sign off with tonight’s event, I want to firstly thank my father, Trichy Sankaran, for being the guest of honour here and sharing his insights and his artistry. I want to thank all the people who are watching and sharing this experience with us, it makes it that much more meaningful to know your energy is out there, and thanks to David Dacks and to Kristel Jax and the Music Gallery team for making all of this happen. I’m just really thrilled that we have a platform here where we can bring the artistry to you in the safety of your homes at this time. So thank you all, thank you Dad.

T: Thank you Suba and thank you David and all others who were involved in this show, thank you so much.

S: All the best everyone.

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