Dressed in a plaid shirt, trousers, and comfortable-looking suede shoes, Shankar Tucker could easily be mistaken for an Ivy League university debater. You’d almost expect him to regale you with his take on contemporary political issues, but appearances are deceptive. As many know, Tucker is not a debater but a young musician who has burst onto the scene with some very unique fusion work, seamlessly blending Indian and Western classical music with prominent jazz influences.
Tucker toured India to perform at the sixth edition of The Park’s New Festival, a celebration of emerging and new works by local and international talent, curated by Prakriti Foundation and hosted by the Park Hotels. Also featuring compelling acts by dancer Akram Khan and comedian D’Lo, the multi-city festival kicked off in Chennai, travelling to Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata, and culminated in New Delhi.
“Each city’s performance was different,” Tucker says. “For instance, in Hyderabad, my team and I brought in a strong electronica sound. Similarly, each city responded differently too — Chennai’s appreciation was subtle and understated, yet Kolkata responded to us with glorious abandon.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Tucker discovered Indian classical music when he was young, and developed the knowledge over time. “I heard Remember Shakti by John McLaughlin when I was much younger,” he says, “And I grew up listening to a lot of Zakir Hussain.” While his grandfather helped him master the piano and clarinet, Tucker soaked up as much of the basics as he could. As a student of the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he studied orchestral clarinet performance, he took music lessons from sitarist Peter Row and percussionist Jerry Leake. Eventually, the Frank Huntington Beebe Fund to study music under flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia brought Tucker to India. Today, he is not just a clarinetist and pianist par excellence, but is also a proficient guitarist, and can play the tabla and the kanjira with ease.
A large part of Tucker’s appeal seems to lie in the effective harnessing of social media to spread his music. The Shrutibox, containing mostly re-recordings of popular Indian songs, was released on platforms like Soundcloud and YouTube early last year, and the YouTube channel alone amassed an impressive three million views in six months. Music lovers quickly took to the jazzy Indo-Western music, and while Tucker acknowledges the Shrutibox’s role in putting his name on the map, he admits the effort would not have gone anywhere without the collaborations. “The whole point of Shrutibox was that it harmoniously combines the music of Carnatic and Hindustani vocalists and instrumentalists with a Western feel,” he says. “Working with artistes like Vidya and Vandana Iyer, Rohini Ravada, Nirali Kartik, and Rohan Kymal was a great experience,” he says, adding that sharing “a similar musical vision and enthusiasm” is essential to any successful collaboration.
As the Shrutibox songs caught on, the invitations to perform on stage came pouring in, and the transition from YouTube recordings to stage shows was a challenging one, the 25 year old musician says. “We constantly had to adapt and include new material. And, of course, performing live is a whole new ball game!” Audiences have not complained, though, and today Tucker is known as much for his self-shot and self-directed music videos as for his live renditions of Night Monsoon and Moments And Centers, without excluding the O Saya composition, a cover of the original by A R Rahman.
Recently, the prolific musician has been composing the soundtrack for a Tamil film, a commercial venture directed by debutant Vignarajan. “The songs have a pop feel to them; there’s extensive piano use, but the structures are mostly akin to other Tamil tracks,” he says. Tucker says he’s had to put in a lot of hard work for the research, listening to albums by Harris Jayaraj and Yuvan Shankar Raja,” he says. The Chennai project marks his first proper venture into film soundtrack composition, but not many know that Tucker had worked alongside Pritam for the music of Mausam. However, it was not included in the film. Nevertheless, Tucker has no regrets, counting everything as “part of the learning curve”.
Tucker mentions the music of Coldplay, Radiohead, and Kill The Noise among his favourites, but his influences are more wide-ranging, as is evinced by his almost profound interest in the music of Chaurasia and Rahman. His skillful handling of the clarinet and his mastery of the piano notwithstanding, Tucker gains brownie points for using prominent social media platforms to distribute and sell his music. In his words, “Social media is the future, it’s the best way to spread our music to those who will appreciate it.”
The child who was christened ‘Shankar’ as suggested by Mata Amritanandamayi has certainly come a long way, and the connection with Indian classical music almost seems serendipitous!
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