Gurtu Takes a Musical Trip

It's easy to read "The Way to Banganga", from percussionist Trilok Gurtu's new Broken Rhythms CD, as a literal travelogue. The path, so to speak, rises out of morning mists, here represented by shimmering strings and eerie falsetto singing; our musical travellers soon establish a steady pace as they trek across vast plains of droning cello and airy sitar, propelled by the gentle pulse of Gurtu's hand drums. But toward the end the composer switches to a western-style drum kit as violin, followed by sitar, rises to jagged peaks of emotion--mirroring, perhaps, the heights of the mystic Himalayas.

The truth, however, is both less fanciful and considerably stranger than that. Yes, "The Way to Banganga" is a journey, says Gurtu, but it's a spiritual voyage, not a physical one.

"Banganga is a very special place for me," Gurtu explains, calling from London's art-deco Strand Palace Hotel. "It is the place where my spiritual guru, Ranjit Maharaj, has a shrine, and his guru also has a shrine, and it is a very, very powerful place. Not everybody knows about it, but if you're lucky enough you get a spark inside and you go there. And I was one of those lucky ones who got that. It's in a cemetery: a burning ghat, where bodies are burned. So virtually you're seeing reality in front of you--that's what's going to happen to the body, so you better be prepared--and that means you're always aware. 'This is the way to Banganga' means 'Really value what you've got at this moment.' "

If Gurtu values what he's got at this moment, he's got good reason to. Broken Rhythms is that rare thing: a world-music fusion record that is both adventurous and conceptually coherent, and on it the 52-year-old accomplishes the remarkable feat of blending his own Indian heritage with the otherworldly throat singing of the Tuvan quartet Huun-Huur-Tu and the chamber-music sonorities of Italy's Arkí¨ String Quartet. He claims, however, that the music itself called for such outlandish forces and that he had no grand design in mind when he sat down to start making the record.

"I think the best thing is to have nothing in your mind to put a disc together, but just your underlying message. With all that's going on in the record business--and all that's going on in the world--the music is treated as a side dish, you see. Music has become like a commodity. I don't know how to put it: it's time to give something new to the people rather than just the clichés that have been heard every time. So one has to be adventurous. But ambitious? My ambition is only that the music will speak for itself and that I will learn something. My expectations are not that I'll have a hit; that's the wrong ambition for me."

Nonetheless, he notes that Broken Rhythms has already attracted the attention of several movie companies and that he hopes to land some film-scoring jobs as a result. "So it shows it's best not to have anything on your mind," he contends, "except the right stuff."

It's not that Gurtu lacks for work: this year alone, he's booked to perform in France, Italy, Morocco, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. (He'll play Sonar tonight [July 29], with a band that includes Los Angeles ­based guitarist Woody Aplanalp, French keyboardist Jerry Lipkins, and Bombay-based singer Sanchita Farruque.) Earlier collaborations include long periods spent working with such jazz musicians as the members of Oregon, guitarist John McLaughlin, and the late trumpeter Don Cherry, plus sessions with African singers Salif Keita and Angélique Kidjo.

"In England, they call me a serial collaborator," he says with a laugh. But he turns more serious when he discusses Broken Rhythms and its predecessor, Remembrance, both recorded in Bombay.

"People ask, 'Are you going back to your roots?' " he says, sounding perplexed. "But my roots are so fantastic--so modern and so powerful--that I ask, 'Why do I have to leave my roots and go somewhere else?' I don't have to do all that. I've never left my roots; I'm just simplifying what I've been brought up with, because nobody can understand the intricacies of Indian music--and that includes Indians themselves, the public."

Simplified Gurtu's music might be, but it's never simplistic. Full of the tricky beats we've come to expect from Indian percussionists but also rich in complex harmonies and evocative tunes, Broken Rhythms is one of the finest world-beat outings of the past year, and if the drummer's touring band is anywhere near as accomplished, there will be a lot of happy people exiting Sonar tonight.