Bringing the groove from India to Norway

(29.09.2011) Musicians from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Jazz Ensemble had their wish come true when Trilok Gurtu, India's world-renowned tabla player and percussionist, agreed to be their guest artist at the opening concert for the university's October celebration of India, "India 2011".

In jazz, counting counts. The count sets the rhythm, gives urgency to a tune and creates the feeling of "groove" in the sound. So when the Grammy award-winning tabla player and percussionist Trilok Gurtu was asked by African hosts to count in his native tongue, he was happy to oblige. He then asked his French-speaking Congolese host to do the same. "Oh … one-two, beaucoup," Gurtu recalled the man's enthusiastic reply. "One, two and lots of it!" The answer provided the seed for Gurtu's African-influenced composition, "1-2 Beaucoup."

Gurtu brings "1-2 Beaucoup" and four other pieces to Trondheim, Norway on 1 October when he joins the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Jazz Ensemble in a concert to kick off the university's nine-day long celebration of all things Indian, "India 2011." The event has been organized to promote cultural and scientific cooperation between the two countries, and specifically between NTNU and India's institutions of higher education.

The concert will mainly feature pieces from Gurtu's latest CDs, Massical and 21 Spices. Gurtu and his tablas arrived in Trondheim to begin rehearsals with the Jazz Ensemble five days before the 1 October concert date. He and concert director Kristoffer Lo, a graduate of the NTNU Jazz Programme, took time from the first day's rehearsal to talk about music, jazz and finding rhythms in it all.

Trilok Gurtu and Kristoffer LoA spiritual core
Born in Bombay, India in 1951, to a musical family  – his mother Shobha Gurtu was a classical singing star – Gurtu began playing the tablas at age six. As a young musician, he applied to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts, but, he says, was "refused admission" – world music and the exotic rhythms of India were not yet accepted on the jazz music scene in the United States in the 1960s.

"It was good that it happened," he said of the experience, because it sent him off on a musical odyssey, to Europe, Africa and beyond, to play with musicians such as John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Jan Garbarek, Don Cherry, Bill Evans, Pharoah Sanders, Dave Holland, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Angelique Kidjo, Neneh Cherry, Omara Portuondo, the Tuvan throat singers and Huun Huur Tu. He has also played closer to home with such Indian greats as his mother, Shobha Gurtu, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, Shankar Mahadevan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, the Misra Brothers and Sultan Khan.

So how would he sum up his views on music and his eclectic international career? "Music is a nomad," he says. But more importantly, "music is always related to God. If it moves away from that I don't feel comfortable… Music without spirituality is lost… It's God's gift to be a musician."

Respect for the culture
Kristoffer LoFor his part, Lo, who orchestrated the Gurtu pieces for the 10-piece ensemble, says he felt it was important to leave the musical core of the songs untouched. "There's so much spirituality in this music," he explained. "I have tremendous respect for Indian music. All the different parts have a meaning. " The two musicians will work together during the rehearsal week to fine tune the music to the ensemble's strengths.

Gurtu's pieces are also a stark contrast to the ensemble's recent previous efforts, including an adaptation of works by the popular rock Norwegian musician Åge Aleksanderen. "We're going from traditional Trøndelag tunes to Indian music," Lo said, laughing. "It's quite different and quite difficult…but it is fun."  

Working the groove
The first rehearsal for any group of newly assembled musicians is always a delicate dance – how far can the musicians push each other's performance? How does one musician's interpretation of the music jibe with how everyone else thinks of the piece?  

On Tuesday, right from the start, Gurtu tells the gathered Jazz Ensemble that he will challenge them. "We drummers are always pushing," he says. "It's alright." But he also takes time to describe the thoughts and feelings he had as he wrote his pieces. He tells the ensemble the story of his Congolese host, whose "One, two and lots of it!" fed the tumult of enthusiasm in "1-2 Beaucoup".

Then there's "Kuruk Setra," a piece set in 9/8 time, where sixteenth notes dance up and down the sheet music like so many tiny ants in a conga line. This too has its religious backdrop, Gurtu tells the ensemble, and is the name of the place where the Mahabharata war was fought and where Sri Krsna spoke the Bhagavad-gita.

"You hear how at the end, it gets very frenzied?" he says to the ensemble. "That's the war."

Stocking feet and a little bit of India

The rehearsal room is nestled into a rooftop suite in the annex across from Trondheim's main performance venue, Olavshallen, and is a part of the NTNU Department of Music's downtown facilities. Its three oversized skylights look out into watery grey skies – it has been raining in Trondheim -- and the glass facade of Olavshallen.

Gurtu is clad a grey argyle-striped sweater and jeans, while the whip-thin Lo sports low-rider skinny jeans and a spangly belt. A number of the ensemble have removed their shoes, and their stocking feet tap furiously, but silently, with the exotic pulsing rhythms.NTNU Jazz Ensemble

Gurtu switches between a drum kit and his tablas. When he plays, the throaty bounce of the tablas thrums imperiously underneath the music. But much of the time, Gurtu listens, trying to find ways to help the ensemble feel the music.
"Can you hear the groove?" he asks the drummer, Tomas Jarmyr, who replies that he is still trying to find it. But find it he must, Gurtu says, because "to me the groove is very important."

Whirlwind rehearsals, and a little bit of Indian culture
Later, when the group breaks for lunch, tenor saxophonists Petter Kraft, 23, and Marthe Lea, 20, reflect on the whirlwind rehearsal. "It's quite challenging," Kraft said, eyeing the 9/8 time signature on his sheet music for Kuruk Setre. "You have to listen to everybody and listen to the rhythm, to really feel the rhythm. It's a little hard to play."

"The hardest day is today," Lea said. "We're just getting used to each other and the music." Lea, a fan of Jan Garbarek, knows Gurtu's work from his time playing with Garbarek, a Norwegian jazz saxophonist.  She's eager to explore Gurtu's world of jazz in the five days of rehearsals ahead. "In five days, we can't know everything about this music," she said. "But we will learn a little bit about his culture."

Behind the scenes

Take a peek behind the scenes at Trilok Gurtu rehearsing with the NTNU Jazz Ensemble in this YouTube video.