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Front (from left): Sabine Kabongo, Trilok Gurtu and Hilaire Penda; back (from left): Ravi Chary and Amit Heri


Indian-African jazz
on a world tour

Amit Heri and Trilok Gurtu, India's jazz luminaries, are touring the world with two African musicians. They've just dazzled South Africa, where jazz represents the anti-apartheid spirit, and will soon play before European and US audiences


I'm listening for the first time to a minidisc player with Amit Heri, jazz guitarist. It's playing a record he made on-stage a few weeks ago at the Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg. I'm only a little amazed by the tiny machine, the size of a Walkman, running on batteries and capable of recording and re-recording on a super-compact disc.

I reserve most of my wonderment for the human machine called Trilok Gurtu, playing drums, tabla and assorted percussion instruments (including the vocal effect of a steam engine chugging). Since Heri likes to jack up the sound of the percussion on his personal sound monitor, Gurtu is loudest and clearest; Heri comes second. Ravi Chary from Mumbai on sitar, harmonium and vocals, Hilaire Penda from Cameroon (now based in Britain) on bass, and Sabine Kabongo, Zaire-born and Belgium-based, are a little faint. So Gurtu, playing tirelessly and leading the ensemble, seems to dominate the proceedings even more than he actually does.

But this is a well-integrated performance with every musician getting a share in the solos while the Gurtu machine runs ceaselesly. The music is basically an Indian-African blend, but since most of the performers have worked in the jazz idiom and show its influence here, besides improvising extensively, it sits comfortably in a jazz festival.

It's been exhibited at several venues, including jazz and world music festivals, in May and July before South Africa. On the itinerary were Paris, Madrid, Quebec, Rome, Lugano, Austria, Cyprus, and Portugal, not to forget Germany, where Gurtu lives. The Germans seem to reserve most of their enthusiasm for American jazz musicians, although Gurtu has won Downbeat magazine's Critics Poll in the drum category for four years in a row. They're soon off for a gruelling tour of Britain, Germany and the US in October, so we'll soon see how excited American listeners are. Southern European audiences were warmer, especially in Spain, but South Africa was something else.

Music, especially jazz, was one of the major means of taking the message of the freedom movement to the world during the days of apartheid, so it's no surprise the crowds drink deep of the Joy of Jazz. Except for Gurtu's group, the others were all from Africa, especially of course South Africa.

Gurtu is unusual in having moved into jazz from Indian classical music. He says his drumming is based entirely on the tabla, Heri tells me, so it's even more unusual that it fits so comfortably into jazz (as his tabla-playing does).

Heri by contrast has started interacting with Indian music, especially Karnatak, after having first gone through a jazz education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He's been studying with the Karnataka College of Percussion here in Bangalore, and their influence shows in his debut record.

Karnatak music is also strong in a demonstration CD he recorded in his studio with Ganesh Anandan, a Canada-based percussionist. Largely a showcase for their talents, it has support from a violinist and a veena-player plus drums and bass generated by a digital keyboard.

Heri hopes to resume his own work, both recording and performing, after October. While working on the Karnatak-jazz fusion aspect of his interest, he's not forgetting modern mainstream jazz. For the mainstream work, he gets together from time to time with Ranjit Barot (drums) and Karl Peters (bass), both from Mumbai, or Roberto Narain (drums) from Bangalore and Karl's brother Keith (bass) from Chennai.

And once in a while he sits in with the band in residence at the Bangalore restaurant called A Pinch of Jazz. It's led by Frank Dubier, a veteran trumpeter from Chennai who's been performing for half a century. Dubier plays very mainstream swing/ be-bop/ hard bop material and is an accomplished soloist. When I got a taste of their music recently, I was somewhat surprised to see how comfortably Heri fits in with such music. Pleasantly surprised, of course, given my devotion to pure jazz and the repertoire of jazz standards covered that day. I haven't said enough about Dubier here, so I should get back to him in another feature!


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