Pierre Flasse: International Endeavours Part 1 – India the land of hopes, expectations and music
ISM member Pierre Flasse talks about his musical travels in India.
At the beginning of June, I made my transition from Mumbai to the scorching desert heat of Bikaner in Rajasthan. Here, I met Gopal Singh – my contact through the Sound Travels organisation in the UK. At this point, I was unsure how the workshops would go ahead, who I was meeting and actually how many days we would do this for. Despite this, I had started doing preparation for them with some original solo trombone music so that I had something to bounce off the musicians. Gopal arranged a variety of folk and classical musicians to meet, however, most of the interaction, musicality, and learning came from the workshops with the folk musicians so I will only comment on these.
On the first day, I met Gopal and we drove to outer Bikaner to Omprakash Nayak’s house. He played the tambura, which is a stringed mandolin instrument with 5 metallic strings (3 tonic, 1 dominant and 1 semi-tone below the tonic) and is played with a metallic plectrum ring on the finger. The tambura functioned as an accompaniment to Omprakash’s wonderfully earthy singing voice, as he performed a range of local mystic and folk songs. For me, the difference was not as apparent between the two as the vast amount of meaning that came from the words. After a while, we began to engage in a musical conversation – myself engaging with my trombone – listening and responding to one another. It worked quite well (I think due to my own experience in improvisation), and Omprakash commented that I understood the music well. For me, I felt like I was in a place where I could imitate the music well, but not play the music genuinely. The session continued in this fashion and as we tried doing faster music with added percussion (khartal), we drew it to a close.
After each workshop, I would be left in the hotel room to my own devices. Outside it was between 43-50°C and therefore roaming around Bikaner was largely out of the question. This meant I had a lot of time to reflect on the workshops, my role here and the music to create with these musicians. I learned a lot from this first workshop – namely exploring aspects of cultural tourism. Initially, the musician in me was analysing the sounds I was hearing and trying to categorise different aspects of the music when I realised the value comes from the words, the spirituality and sentiment behind the music. Omprakash felt like I understood the music, and in a sense I did feel like I understood the sentiment, but the engagement felt artificial from an aspect of not understanding the culture and then “claiming” to play it as an equal. One thing that I was definitely seeking to avoid was an unfulfilling imitation between our cultures. It was more than possible to spend a week analysing the music, listening and imitating and then stealing musical functions, ideas and textures for my own music, but this was fundamentally against everything I wanted to do. Instead, I felt that real learning and fusion would happen when we had an understanding of each other’s cultures but then performed within our own cultural understanding in a way that created real fusion. Of course, you need to pick two “understandings” or genres that can coexist and react to each other for the real magic to happen.
The next day we had a consolidatory workshop to build upon the previous day’s work and to explore this new area. We began in a similar way to warm up together, and using Gopal as a translator I started trying to play my own music to form some interaction. Some elements were more successful than others – as the tambura is a drone instrument, which meant we were reasonably limited harmonically. I was bridging this by interacting in a style not dissimilar to the way Ibrahim Maalouf plays over drones, but it meant that after a while I wanted to try and explore “set” compositional pieces, like intentionally moving tempo or style on cues. Whilst possible at points, the biggest challenge here was the musician’s own lack of experience in doing anything outside of folk and mystic music, and so the idea of changing the music midway was baffling. I had learned a lot from Omprakash, but realised for the fusion to be successful I would need a musician with the spiritual and musical knowledge, but also some tact when it came to western techniques of playing.
I used the following sessions for a point of learning, engaging with the cultural heritage behind the music. First, we met a harmonium player and sufi singer, with the most extraordinary voice: Mir Basu Barhat Khan. He sang Mirasi music, which in his style was a rare gem of the folk tradition – very poetic with a lot of grace. His voice had a fascinating quality of slightly nasal and rough whilst remaining incredibly pure, and it really helped carry the music. In this environment Gopal helped translate many of the songs and poems as he sang and recited them, portraying the spiritual depth with which they explore. The session ended and that afternoon we went driving to try and find a nomadic musician by the name of Bhanwar Bhoga. After 30 minutes of driving, we stopped in the desert by some tents on the side of the highway – he had been found! Bhanwar sang and played the rawan hawtha, which translates to “devil’s hand”, a small stringed instrument ornamented with flowers, strings and fabric and played with a bow. The sound was bizarre – that of a violin put through bizarre reverb choices and low-pass filters – but it was also my favourite to listen to as he had such vivacity in the way he played. His wife came and sung next to us keeping her face covered at all times, and his children joined in with drums. After an hour of pure joy listening to the music, a sandstorm started and we had to leave.
My final workshop was with Kasam Khan at his village in Bap, near Phalodi. Gopal wasn’t able to join us but I was armed with the Google Translate app on my phone to cover any problems. After greeting his family we sat down to play together. Kasam plays many instruments: khartal (long rectangular castanets), he sings, sarangi (another bowed instrument with a fuller sound to the hawtha) and the harmonium. We began in a similar way to the other workshops, listening and playing, but from this, we had a chance to really explore elements of fusion between some spiritual jazz and the folk music he was so well versed in. Kasam has done some fusion projects before and so he had a wider understanding of compositional procedures. At the end of the session, all of his children joined in and we almost had a whole band together! He gifted me some practice khartal as a gift and said he was interested in maybe working together too. This was the end of the formal workshops, however, Gopal further helped me in Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur for some more contacts.
As I arrived in Jaisalmer I met Gopal’s friend Ali Ashraf, who owned a hotel but absolutely loved folk and sufi music – he was something of an informal patron for the musicians. He helped introduce me to some musicians around the city, namely Mohan Lal Lohar with whom we had a workshop in the hotel lounge playing together. Mohan fabricates all sorts of instruments with a speciality in khartal, morchang (jew harp) and algoza (double flute/recorder). We played the morchang and flutes together, which gave an interesting and different element to the workshops as morchang is much more percussive and the flutes play wonderful Irish-sounding melodies with one flute as bass and one treble playing the melody. I then visited Mohan’s home to play the morchang and learn from him in an intense four-hour lesson!
In Jodhpur I met the owner of a local music and folk museum who had collected through his father’s and his own work, thousands of hours of recordings across decades of folk music in Rajasthan. We spoke intensely for a few hours about the state of music, music learning and funding in Rajasthan, which was very interesting as he took a very learned musicologist’s approach to the conversation. However, we clashed on a few issues like accessibility of the music to the public and only using them for academic research. He pointed me in the way of a local langa (traditionally a musician’s caste) school, which was trying to reinvigorate a musical education for the youth, and I sat in on one of their lessons. This was fascinating to understand how the music got taught, and humbling to see so many talented children after just eight months of learning. I even got to join in at certain points!
Finally, this part of my journey came to a close in Jaipur with something very close to home. I joined the team at RRAP (Rajasthan Rural Arts Practice) for a special project that was happening with long-term collaborator/beatboxer/composer, Jason Singh – who incidentally lived five minutes away from me in Manchester. I joined to witness the final day of recording of a jazz/folk fusion album with the internationally renowned folk Momasar Group. Jason facilitated the entire project and recording in Jaipur, would create the entire jazz element around this in England, and then tour with the full band. We spoke a lot about the process, his history and his journey to arrive where he had, and this really made me think realistically to consolidate all the learning I had just done over the preceding weeks. Whilst wonderful to meet someone doing something so close to what I was interested in, it made me realise how early on in this process I was. Jason had been doing these collaborations for over a decade and was at a point where he felt comfortable enough to do what he wanted.
I learned a huge amount from a vast range of people in respect to the workshops. I learned how to respect the music, how to respect the cultural interactions and realistically where my place was in this journey. I could see the path ahead in terms of meeting musicians, conducting workshops and exploring musical styles, but it was still a long winding path to come. In the final blog, I’ll talk about some developments with these collaborations, other aspects of fusion and feeling at home with these new partnerships, so tune in soon!
ISM member Pierre Flasse talks about his musical travels in India.