The music of Ivan Tucakov is shaped by his travels and encounters. The guitarist and leader of the quintet Tambura Rasa was born in Serbia, spent eight years in south-central Turkey, and moved back to Belgrade, where he played in a rock band as a teenager. He came to Canada to study, and while an undergraduate at UBC he traded his electric axe for a nylon-string acoustic model and picked up elements of bluegrass, Indian music, and a range of other styles at jams with friends.
“I also travelled to Spain as part of that process, to learn right-hand techniques,” says Tucakov, interviewed at a Commercial Drive café. “I ended up learning a bunch of flamenco styles, and from there I thought about all the different music I’d been exposed to throughout my life. There’s something very good about stepping outside of playing just one style. It’s a bit like me moving to a country and working into that culture—which has been a big part of the story of my life, in some ways. I just jumped straight into it with music, and it seemed to really work for me.”
Tucakov created Tambura Rasa in 2004 to play his unique blend of Balkan, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Latin roots-music styles. The band’s odd name is a pun on the Latin phrase tabula rasa—which translates as “blank slate”—and the tambura, a popular Serbian stringed instrument.
“For me, it relates to the cultural influences of the places we’ve lived in and are around, and acknowledges that the people we connect with will in some way affect the way we’re going to be,” Tucakov says. “At the time, I really wanted to explore that concept, even outside of music. The idea is that I’m accepting all sorts of different input to create a new musical personality, so to speak.”
Tambura Rasa put out Sunrise on a New World in 2004, and followed up in 2006 with Viaje. The band soon replaced Indian tablas with drum kit and Latin percussion to give it more appeal for dancers. The current lineup has been together for three years. In addition to having Tucakov on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, it features multi-instrumentalist Pepe Danza, Trevor Grant on drums, John Bews on electric bass, and Michael Fraser on violin.
“It took a while for me to get a sense of which direction I wanted to take it in,” says Tucakov. “But a violin was always going to be there. Michael played Gypsy swing and his training was by ear, so he was very good at improvising and working around what I was doing on guitar. We’ve become adept at weaving on top of whatever John, Trevor, and Pepe are doing. Once that was established, we had a clear direction.”
The current formation put out Kamanala in 2008, and according to Tucakov is really hitting its stride, with enough material for a new album in the fall. “We’d like to do it just by walking into the studio and record things just as we sound now—we’re just back from a tour of Central Canada, playing in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and London, and we’re feeling really well-settled as a group. I can’t wait to get back on the road.”
To add extra colour to shows, Tambura Rasa likes to work with movement artists, and is currently performing with flamenco dancer Karen Pitkethly and sambista Andrea Monteiro. “I’m in the process of exploring different kinds of dances,” says Tucakov. “I’ve discovered that samba works really well for us—also, Russian Gypsy dance. There are so many traditions and interpretations and combinations that are possible.”
Tucakov sees what he and Tambura Rasa are doing as more than creating new music from elements of the old. “I’ve just written a book about ways of communicating. I started to realize that while music is a huge passion of mine, it’s really all a matter of social dynamics and linking up with people, finding ways of coexisting with different cultures, listening, and understanding.
“There are ways of approaching life in general that can get you feeling as good as you do when, for example, listening to a great song,” Tucakov continues. “And as a band, if we’re really connecting well among ourselves, then when we perform it’s that much more powerful, meaningful, and simply better—for ourselves and for the people listening. Tambura Rasa is about more than music—it’s about sharing space.”
Tambura Rasa plays West Vancouver’s John Lawson Park on Sunday (August 8). The band also appears the same day at Under the Volcano in North Vancouver’s Cates Park.