Some of my contacts have come about in the most random fashion: while taking a taxi ride from Chennai to Pondicherry, as I was explaining why I was in India, my driver told me that one of his closest friends was a drummer. After spending a few days in Pondi, I returned on to Chennai, and met with a thirty-something year-old drummer named, Ashok.
Fortunately, Ashok lives in Royapettah, the same neighborhood I have been living in; so it was not too difficult finding his house. Initially, I was under the impression that Ashok was trained in Indian hand drums, like the tabla or dholak; but, it turned out that he actually studies Western drum kit. I had yet to meet an Indian musician that exclusively played Western style drums.
Ashok has been playing drums for many years; but asserts that it only has been “six” full years, as that is how long he has studied under his teacher, Gopal Sivamani, one of the most respected Indian drummers. Sivamani is a very accomplished recording artist, and, like many famous Indian musicians, is from Chennai. It was unclear how often Ashok plays with Sivamani; nonetheless, the way Ashok spoke of Sivamani, it was clear that Ashok greatly respected and admired his teacher.
The guru–shishya (teacher–student) relationship is an essential aspect of Indian culture. With any sort of musical apprenticeship, there is an inherent spiritual training, as well: like all great student-teacher relationships, much more is learned than the said subject. Perhaps this why Ashok was so curious as to whom my teacher was; because in India, a drum teacher is more than a drum teacher. For the record, my first drum teacher was John Cutrone; and while at Hamilton College, it was Jim Johns.
All of that aside, for a couple of hours Ashok and I jammed on his drum kit. Ashok actually had a really large kit: it was a standard five piece (snare, bass, two rack toms and a floor tom), plus a trio of marching toms above the snare, and two timbales above the floor tom. Considering the size of his apartment, his kit was absolutely massive.
Not surprisingly, as Ashok lives in a government housing complex, he needs to muffle the drums, so that the neighbors do not complain. To minimize the sound, Ashok wraps all of the drums and cymbals with dishtowels and other clothes. It is a rather clever system; although, it makes playing the drums much, much more difficult, as your playing speed is reduced dramatically, from the resistance of the cloth.
While it was extremely refreshing to get behind a drum kit, after several months without proper practice, my chops were rather rusty. Ashok sounded very good; his stick control was outstanding. In Western drumming, the two most common strokes are the single stroke (the drum makes one sound with one stroke/hit) and double stroke (two sounds with one stroke). Ashok has been practicing triple, quadruple, quintuple and sextuple strokes; all which sound really awesome.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this fellowship is that I am always surrounded by drums and percussion; yet, I have very few opportunities to play a drum kit. Further, as expected, my research predominantly focuses on hand percussion; which is why I seldom am exposed to full drum kits. My constant desire to air drum often leaves me looking rather hyperactive, as I always am in motion…
It has worked out that in each country where I have conducted research, I have had at least one opportunity to play a drum kit: in Fiji, I gave drum lessons at a church on Kadavu; in Japan, I jammed with students on roof of the University of Kyoto of Art & Design; and in India, I was able to play on a muffled kit with Ashok.
As much as I am enjoying my experiences right now, I cannot wait to get home, and play for hours while applying my new knowledge of international percussion to my drum kit.