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Music without borders

Last updated: 08 October, 2011
Debbie Rodgers 21:38 IST

Free-spirited

Karnatriix Global Ensemble, a contemporary electro acoustic band, is an amalgam of musicians with formidable talent and a rich tapestry of experience, says Debbie Rodgers

Blessed are musicians for they unite like no one else. One such group is Karnatriix Global Ensemble, a contemporary electro acoustic band. John Anthony (Johnny), who describes himself as a “freelance guitarist” intended, in 2003, for Karnatriix to be a two-man band.

He teamed up with renowned sarangi player and vocalist Sultan Faiyaz Ahmed Khan, whom he has known for 25 years. Both musicians have played extensively with other groups and have composed original scores for over 2,000 regional films. This collaboration resulted in the fulfillment of Johnny’s dream project: a 45-minute album titled Namaste that topped charts in the new-age world music genre.

Yet, despite their success, Johnny found that a crucial element “was missing in their digital back tracks.” Enter in 2010, Muthu Kumar, world-renowned tabla player and percussionist, followed shortly thereafter by international artistes Carola Grey, a jazz and fusion drummer and composer, saxophonist Oliver Fox and the UAE-born and bred Naveen Kumar on bass guitar. Karnatriix Global Ensemble captured the hearts of music lovers with their powerhouse performance at their debut concert in Chennai in December 2010.

Each musician in the group brings to it formidable talent and a rich tapestry of experience that contributes to the seamless musical cohesiveness of the group. As Fox explains,

“Muthu and Faiyaz are very important for the Indian flavour in the music, for rhythm and melody. Carola and Naveen blend together and create western rhythms, which add a lot of energy to our music, while the enriched musical dialogue between Muthu and Carola gives a deeper space to the same. John keeps the group together by adding a lot of colour and sound.” Yet, the common denominator here is the protean journey that was spiritually and emotionally rewarding for each of them.

The Kochi born and bred Johnny gave up college life and a promising hockey career for the guitar. He embarked on his musical journey with A R Rahman, Sivamani and the late Kenyan Jo Joo, with the band Roots, which, during its four years, collaborated with numerous artistes like L Shankar, T V Gopalakrishnan and Kadri Gopalnath.

Stints with various music groups and at musical schools both as pupil and teacher, performing live and recording with such hallowed names as Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram, added dimensions and layers to his musical persona. Ostensibly the most profound influences came from Roger Jhanke who, Johnny says, “laid the foundation for western classical music” and M G Radhakrishnan was “the main influence for my inclination towards Indian music.”

The highlights of Johnny’s career before Karnatriix was a live concert titled No More Bhopals in support of the Rainbow Warriors’ maiden trip to India that resulted in an album of the same name; and his performances at international music festivals in Africa, China and Dubai. His fellow band members refer to him as “a fantastic guitarist whose execution of ragas on the guitar is unique.”

Faiyaz Khan has the distinction of belonging to a family whose musical lineage — sarangi maestros of Kirana gharana — spans six generations, carried forward by his two sons, who are also musicians. Khan adds to that his own distinction: he is the sole south Indian sarangi player. Trained as a vocalist, tabla and sarangi player, Khan recalls a childhood where he spent hours listening to the greatest musicians in the company of his distinguished father, Ustad Abdul Quader Khan. No wonder then that Faiyaz Khan says, “I live for music.”

In the course of his career, Khan has traversed the country from Mumbai to Bangalore, Bhopal to Kerala, giving solo and group performances, composing music for classical ballets, penning lyrics for dance and rachanas of Tabla Bols. His vision is to restore sarangi to its previous glory and to this end he teaches his students in the traditional gurukul style. Yet, he is modern enough to experiment with contemporary music. His band mates describe him as a “great improviser with flawless rhythmic knowledge, a magical voice and an amazing cook.”

A child prodigy at the age of four, music for Muthu Kumar has always been fun. “My mother recognised the talent my brother (an excellent harmonium player) and I had and she used to challenge us to compose songs when we were barely five and seven years old,” he reminisces. A self-taught musician for 20 years before he was chiseled by great maestros like Ustad Alla Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain, Muthu enjoyed playing a variety of percussion instruments besides the tabla. Muthu has conducted world-wide workshops, played alongside musical geniuses like Alice Coltrane, Maynard Ferguson and John Barnes, and collaborated with artistes from genres as diverse as jazz, reggae and hip-hop, which he says, shaped his identity as a musician and tabla player.

A pioneer in online tabla video tutorials, Muthu’s teaching techniques were rendered more efficacious with the introduction of Skype, resulting in a 100-strong international student following. From popularising Indian music in schools and colleges in the US, establishing Layaa Productions to promote musicians of diverse genres to producing an album, Living God Series of bhajan music, there is nothing that this dynamic musician cannot do.

A chance encounter, at the age of 11, with the only jazz album that her parents possessed, was the catalyst for Carola Grey to switch from classical piano to drums. Musically-schooled in Germany, Carola “learned all about jazz the hard way,” surviving in the city of New York. Carola admits that it took a lot of inner strength and stubbornness to survive in a male bastion. “I work with people who are grown up enough to see the person and musician and not the gender,” she says.

Carola is a “big admirer of South Indian rhythmic patterns and compositions for their innovative structures and intricate arithmetic accuracy.” Her labour of love has been “to find ways to fuse Indian and Western music in a way where the beauty of both musical systems are respected and conserved. With the amazing musicians of Karnatriix, I have found perfect co-artistes as we share a common musical dream,” she says. In turn, her co-artistes admire the way this “strong, noisy, dynamic Mama translates the complexities of Indian percussion to drums so aesthetically.”

Carola currently lives in Munich. She conducts drum clinics around the world, is the author of several books on drums and guest lectures at the Institute DAYA Music in Jakarta. She composes her own songs and tours with two bands. Since 2004, she has her own recording studio and in 2007, she founded her label Noisy Mama Productions.

You don’t get more globalised than Oliver. He learnt music in Germany, forayed into Indian classical music in Chennai and is now an active member of the Shanghai jazz community. This saxophonist par excellence “who is able to adjust Indian scales on the sax in an astounding style,” has the distinction of having performed for the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.

“When I discovered Indian music, I could relate to it on an emotional level. I decided to focus on Indian classical music in order to balance the development and understanding of musical aspects like melody harmony, rhythm and sound,” he adds. This led to Oliver writing a dissertation on Carnatic music and jazz. Whilst this young musician says that he never consciously tries to play Indian-influenced music, yet he was “surprised by how much of an Indian sound” his last album Speak Silence had. “Influence isn’t on the surface. The music contains it on a deeper level,” remarks Oliver, who has shouldered the responsibility of overseeing Karnatriix’s preparation for performances.

Naveen Kumar’s is an inspiring story of survival and triumph against all odds. Born into a family of gifted musicians, Naveen is self-taught and played a variety of instruments — drums, guitar, piano/ keys — before finally falling in love with the bass guitar; influenced as he was by the likes of Paul McCartney and Flea (Red Hot Chilli Peppers). A serious motorbike accident in 2005 left him unconscious for two months; crippled and bedridden for a year.

During the two long years of rehabilitation that followed, Naveen’s only desire was “to play music again and get back to performing and recording.” Today, he is a living testimony that miracles do happen. For the past year he has been performing with top class musicians and international artists, and he considers being asked to play with the Karnatriix Global Ensemble “a real privilege and an honour.”

While the members of Karnatriix Global Ensemble have mutual admiration for each other’s talents and musical prowess, surely there must be something they would like to change in each other? Oliver tells it like it is, “Don’t try to change your wife or your band members as long as things are working out. Never change a winning team.” Amen to that.

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