The seventh in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now
Learning styles and serving the story
My recent associations with Indian musicians happened in a sequence of visits I had made to India to continue my earlier study of the chenda drum. I had certainly made some progress and had moved to be under the masterful tutorage of Mattanur Shankaran Marar. He was generally recognised to be the top man in his field. Indeed, after a collaboration on an Indian film, Zakir Hussain, himself rated as the best tabla player of his generation, called Shankaran ‘a master of rhythm’. Clearly, to be studying with Shankaran was the chance of a lifetime.
I spent a lot of time, living in his house, travelling with him to performances and studying in the early morning. His masterful grasp of rhythm was more than impressive and he was also a very patient and humble individual who never tired of demonstrating and trying to share the intricacies of his art to me. Musicians take for granted the notions of doubling the speed of something, doubling again and maybe even again. It takes a sideways train of thought though to think what it might be to increase speeds by 1 ½ and 2 ½ times ! Rhythm becomes more of a science, or at least applied mathematics, in the Indian classical and related models. I was able to put my own new found knowledge directly to task in the workshop and performance projects I undertook with the Academy of Indian Dance in London. This solidified basic groundwork although I never aspired to be a great chenda player. My purpose in study was to enlarge both my concept of rhythm and my ability to incorporate new elements into my own music making.
Over the next couple of years in the UK (2006 /7), I became involved in various outdoor, site-specific events. They were always unique. The one that sticks in my mind was at Hambledon Hill in Dorset. It was the work of the Red Earth Company and involved horn players, drummers, a Butoh dancer and a lot of fire. An audience numbering many hundreds were guided up the hillside of an iron age hill fort, encountering little events on the way, until they came above the low clouds to witness a rhythmic ritual drama of movement culminating in the passing through a fire gate. I remember being very wet at the end of a rainy day but also very uplifted by the magic of the spectacle.
Throughout all these various experiences, I was regularly working with Helen in our day to day business of storytelling and music. Whether working in education or otherwise, with both children and adults, we had developed a very instinctive style of rapport. This enabled me to, musically, almost pre-empt dramatic shifts in the story as well as solidify the current narrative.
I had expanded my instrumentation in this context to include a couple of zithers that could be tuned to reflect an almost-global range of scales, modes and sounds. We famously undertook a 9 week tour of schools and educational establishments in 5 south American countries which stretched both our working repertory and our physical endurance !
I had also started to work with storyteller Hugh Lupton on his telling of the epic Beowulf. Originally, he asked me to use just metallic instruments but very quickly came around to the benefits of using a much wider range of tone colours. Although very much a fixed show, I still had room for innovative inspirations as well as a solo feature. The previously mentioned idea of almost pre-empting the narrative continues to be a dynamic feature of this performance as it can subtly guide the listener ahead of the spoken word.
I will always be trying to develop this particular skill further and further as I believe it gives a narrative another special dimension.
Spending much more time on the borders of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, I joined The Street Band, based locally. Originally conceived as a more of a large outdoor and celebratory ensemble, it encompassed mostly dance style music from Latin America, south and west Africa and the Caribbean. I had to learn a variety of different drumming styles and lock into the other rhythmic parts played by the other two percussionists. I fashioned a set up around the bass tones of the large Brazilian surdo drum with some extra bits and pieces. It was the first time that I had been in a band that, on a good gig, got the whole room dancing. That certainly felt good.