The Drum is Not Just to Pound

Trichy Sankaran in conversation
By Salvador Ferreras

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In Vancouver during Simon Fraser University's World Percussion Intensive June 8, 1993

Salvador: It's a pleasure to have a moment to speak with you. Many of us who have known of your activities in Canada for some years may not be as familiar with your training prior to your arrival in this country, can you tell us something about your ranking and any other academic training you've received?

Trichy: I left India at age 29 with the ranking of Vidwan or master. We follow a ranking system in India, according to the number of public performances the artist has presented as well as how the musician is ranked by senior musicians and peers. I got my top rank evaluated by a panel of well known artists assembled by All India Radio in the year 1964, a ranking which also determines fee structure and the like. I had my debut at the age of 13 performing with the Alathoor brothers, as well as performing very early in my career with my master Guru Sri Palani Subramania Pilai, consequently I come from a very traditional background and that tradition is very important to me. I also completed a BA and Master's degree at Madras University, in Economics. My master didn't really like me getting involved in an education, but this was like any other situation around the world, especially in the West where a musician is looked upon as what are they going to do for a living. This uncertainty prevailed even within my own family, particularly my father felt that I should get an education. In those days there was no real degree available in music, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise when I came here, to be able to do research, to write and lecture in English which was the language we were educated in. We never spoke English in conversation because there was no need to but the subjects were all taught in English.

Salvador: How did your eventual arrival at York University in Toronto come about?

Trichy: I came at the invitation of York University...the invitation came from Professor John Higgins, a Carnatic music specialist and the newly appointed director of anew World Music program. They wanted Indian music to be a part of it. When John, an accomplished Carnatic singer, who happened to be in India doing some research, came to see me at one of my concerts he suggested I consider the invitation. I had no idea where Toronto was, I didn't know what this country was like and I hesitantly said I might try it for six months or a year. That is how I came, I was the founding member of the India music program at York University. In the beginning I was teaching one on one, in the traditional way, performance teaching, I did no lecturing. Due to the growing popularity of the department and my own teaching I agreed to stay for one more year and at that time began to lecture. My first assignment from my director was to talk to the students about Mridangam solos. Can you imagine that? I said to him, "John what are you talking about? People seldom talk about it this, I can play any number of solos for you but to talk about it? Well, I'll try to do it." It was there and then that someone said that 'the Vidwan was lured into being a Professor.' I was eventually to become a one man Indian music department.

Salvador: What kind of interest was there in Toronto in the early '70s for the type of Indian music you wished to present?

Trichy: I was the founder of the Tyagaraja Festival in Toronto in 1972, longing for this tradition and really homesick. As a 14 year old boy I had performed in front of my Guru at that festival held in Tiruvairu, Tanjore district in South India. It is a great festival held in honour of this composer. Musicians really throng to this tiny village to pay homage to this great composer. I had played at that festival almost every year until I came here. I had been teaching some Indian friends. We would gather for long sessions on Sundays at one of their homes. I casually mentioned that we could do this same thing (hold a festival) on a small scale, and that I would take the leadership and give some advice on how to run this festival. It didn't, I stressed, have to be very big, it could be really small—that was 1972. We then pulled out some recordings and selected some possible performers. We eventually invited John Higgins and some local amateur musicians to play some Tyagaraja compositions in the afternoon (of the festival) and in the evening I performed a concert with John Higgins was probably attended by something over 50 people. We prepared some food and it was a fantastic event on a dreary winter day.

The very next year I proposed it to the music department at York University. The new chairman, who had no idea what I was talking about, said 'OK'! The first year the entire audience was Indian and when we decided to make it larger even more Indian residents came. I encouraged many of the semi professional amateur musicians who had studied back home in India and who had other professions in Canada, to participate as well—that was in 1973. The community response was very warm and encouraging most of the time. After 1973, the local Indian Association was interested in taking over this thing. I was getting quite busy at the University during this period, and to me it didn't really matter who took over from me all I wanted was to keep the spirit of the festival alive. I gave it to them and to this day we hold this festival at York. I'm in charge of giving them space and inviting people. I was also interested in seeing that my Indian music students got an opportunity to see the spirit of this festival and to see the people, the Indian community coming to the University.

Salvador: When Indian audiences see Vidwan Sankaran come back to perform, are you able to perceive their expectations of you?

Trichy: I always carry that in my consciousness. I know what the tradition is and I respect my tradition. I believe that tradition should be something very strong yet at the same time an artist should be creative and should establish his own individual style. I am highly convinced of that. I know it is a very competitive field but I live up to my mark and more than up to their expectations. The best compliment I have recently received was by an Indian newspaper reviewing a performance a couple of years. The critic said, "we miss him in his absence but even though he only comes once a year he really reminds us of his illustrious Guru Palani Subramania Pilai." To me tradition remains very important but I do introduce new things in a very subtle way.

Salvador: Are a Classical Indian musician's interpretations of classical repertoire affected by prolonged exposure to Western musical concepts?

Trichy: I would say that in a positive way if at all. My exposure to other musical cultures in the West has greatly broadened my own perception of Indian music. Honestly I didn't even know much about Tabla drumming principles when I was in India, even though I had played with Tabla players.

Salvador: There is a perception among some Westerners that our 'classical' music has become irrelevant to many of our aspiring artists, that it shares little with our common lives and aspirations, and that it is not a contemporary expression of 'our' culture. Is this the case with Indian Classical music too?

Trichy: In India when we talk about the classical tradition, it is a highly respected and revered tradition by musicologists, educators, students and performing artists, yet it is not the most popular music, let's face that. The percentage of people that go to classical concerts is in fact very small relative to that of Rock, Pop and of course Film music. In fact I see that people here do not view Indian Classical music as non-relevant, at least in my teaching I've come across a wide variety of students with diverse backgrounds who have come to study with me for a better understanding of music or rhythm in order to better their own musical skills. But I can also see how classical music suffers with the emergence of the contemporary schools. Things have a way of going wrong when musicians try to attempt sophisticated or experimental music forms without a solid base or foundation.

Salvador: Were you composing new works before your arrival here or was that a development following your university appointment?

Trichy: Well, I introduce a number of drum compositions in my drum playing but there it goes largely unnoticed, it's part of the performance. I was very interested in compositional ideas as early as 1974, after coming here I became aware of a big difference in how composition is viewed in India. Because I've always taken my drumming to new heights and different dimensions I didn't like the way even in India some reviewers referred to the 'pounding' of the drums, the 'rhythm' of the drums. Drumming is not something just to pound, it's music, not just only rhythm and it is lyrical, this is what I have brought in my playing. Some of these more subtle aspects started showing up in my playing and I tried to take them to higher degrees. As early as 1975 I gave a totally solo concert which is seldom done even in India, even tuning the drum to several scales, a device I used in a Gamelan piece I wrote much later on.

Salvador: You have a reputation for innovation in both technique and composition, what other concepts have you experimented with?

Trichy: Another concept I experimented with which is also rare in India was that of free improvisation. In Carnatic drumming you don't play out of time so this was another one of my bold gestures. The audience reaction to these 'new' elements was very favourable and these are elements of my playing that I have experienced from living in this culture.

Salvador: I'm looking at a programme of new Gamelan compositions you recently performed in Toronto. Is this a new stream we can expect to see more from?

Trichy: I've been encouraged to write compositions for Gamelan, even my first piece was quite successful, that one and my more recent two others will in fact be broadcast by the CBC in September 7 on Arts National. I have great interest in several other idioms such as Buka [a Toronto based multinational drum ensemble]. As a performer it was a tremendous experience for me to share my traditions with say African drummers or musicians from many countries in the various World Drum Festivals. Another new development will be that of performing with the Winnipeg Chamber Orchestra who has commissioned a work for me by James Tenney to be premiered next year.

Salvador: How did Gamelan music come to fascinate you?

Trichy: Well, actually it came about out of a completely different research. I had for some time been very interested in studying Buddhism in Bali. My visit there revealed a very different practice than that I had grown up with but one that nevertheless fascinated me. In musical terms I became very interested in the Balinese approach to rhythmic interpretation and organization but did not pursue it until much later in Toronto. I was asked by John Siddall, one of the founders of the Evergreen Gamelan club, to write a work for the group that the group hoped to realize through a composition grant from the Canada Council. That was the beginning of my explorations in Gamelan.

Salvador: Your bio describes collaborations with some very well known, highly respected and somewhat bold jazz performers, how did these come to be?

Trichy: The collaborations came about through some contemporary music performances I was involved with at Mills College in San Francisco. I had been involved in some electroacoustic projects that led to work with David Rosenboom and later Anthony Braxton, Charlie Haden and Vinny Golia. Most of those performers have very unique approaches to improvisation which I enjoyed interacting with both from a players point of view and also as an extension of the many musical experiences I seek to share with musicians of all cultures.

Salvador: What about your teaching, are you forging frontiers as you are in performance?

Trichy: My interest in rhythm pedagogy has led me to develop a course combining jazz traditions and my own Indian techniques and their relationship to improvisation. I'm happy that I am able to help my students at both the graduate and undergraduate level, glad that performers such as John Wyre [director of World Drums] have brought together such a vast array of talent to share in a wonderful learning environment. All these experiences feed into my teaching. During the drum festivals I shared the stage with Pakistani drummers, Hindustani musicians, improvised with Sri Lankan drummers, performers leaving aside all political differences. Only Fine Arts can bring people together, I think we have practically proven that though I don't know how many people have actually perceived it. There are common goals for universal education.

Salvador: You're just putting the final touches to your new book The Rhythmic Principles and Practice of South Indian Drumming in which you put forth yet another innovation of yours, a notational system of South Indian drumming.

Trichy: Yes, even back in India I was interested in ways of relating the 'solkattu' [rhythmic syllable singing] to drum performance. It was here that I really developed it and later used it in the teaching of my students. Yes, this is unique, yet I had questions in my mind as to how this would be received in India where our music is an oral culture. Within the many Mridangam drumming styles in South India there are a number of different approaches to playing, I want my students to understand the difference between these various styles and I think my book is going to take care of that.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Sal Fererras
Dr. Sal Ferreras is a percussionist, administrator, and an artist dedicated to the pursuit of connections and the bringing together of diverse minds towards common goals.
Trichy Sankaran
Trichy Sankaran is an Indian percussionist, composer, scholar, and educator.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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