World-renowned percussionist Pete Lockett recently travelled to Rajasthan, India, to get to the heart and soul of the Indian folk music tradition. The trip led to a series of collaborative performances throughout the country, as well as across Europe. Here Pete discusses his trip and shares insight into the uniqueness of this highly percussive music.
The folk tradition in India is very strong, especially in Rajasthan. To understand it even partially, one needs to go to the source and visit the villages and homes of the people making the music. After being invited out to Rajasthan by the Jaipur Virasat Foundation to meet some of the musicians, I wanted to get right in there and understand the cultural setting and environment that gave rise to this music. So I went to Jaipur and we headed out into the desert, five hours or more into the distant Shekhawati and Marwar regions to visit the musicians in their villages.
As we wandered from village to village, each community put on an impromptu performance, sometimes in a field, under a banyan tree, or in the middle of the bustling thoroughfare. The first thing that struck me was the amazing variety from place to place. We might have travelled less than a few miles from one place to the next, but the instruments, style, and approach to the music was entirely different.
We carried on from village to village, hearing amazingly spirited performances. I was captivated and overwhelmed by the energy and earthy substance of the whole situation. Music was so much a part of their everyday lives. They weren’t playing music to be successful, rich, or famous. They were not seeking approval or trying to impress. This is just what they did—it was part of their culture, born from their sense of community. These musicians formed the backbone of my Rajasthan collaboration, and we consequently toured India and performed in Europe, including at the prestigious Royal Festival Hall in London.
The percussion breakdown is one piece from that collaboration, and it featured two of the percussionists, Gafoor Khan and Kutla Khan. Gafoor plays a handheld wooden instrument called khurtal. These are a little similar to Irish bones but are a lot more virtuosic. Kutla plays a folk drum called dholak. This is like a small, simplified version of the mridangam or phakawaj drums from North and South India. The construction of the shell and heads is a lot more basic, and there are no black spots applied to the drums to add a wider variety of tones. The drum is actually a lot closer to bata in the sense that it has treble on one end and bass on the other, and the bass head has an oily patch fitted inside the head to increase the low end.
The technique is similar to that of tabla, but being a folk drum, the wealth of compositions are much fewer than you would find on its classical counterpart. However, a lot of the folk patterns, such as laggi, and rhythmic formalities, such as tihais, do exist, and those form the basis of a lot of our cues in the piece.
The structure is very simple. It is all in 4/4, and we each take an open solo, which concludes with a unison phrase before jamming on the groove together, building to a “drum roll” climax and another unison phrase to conclude. I start out on the South Indian kanjira and develop a theme divided as 15/15/15 + tihai. This is accompanied by a jaw harp called morsing in the South and moorchang in Rajasthan.
Then I develop a few South Indian compositions before taking the unison phrase and then handing over to the khurtal player. It is amazing to listen to these incredible tones. If you listen carefully, you can hear almost a ghost note behind everything, where the sticks rattle together. Gafoor then plays the same unison phrase and hands over to Kutla on the dholak. He plays a mixture of folk-style grooves and solos, leading to the unison phrase again, and finally we all play together. This leads to the drum roll (rela) compositions and the final conclusion in unison.
The folk players of India might not have the repertoire of the classical cats, but man do they make up for it in spirit and flair!
The concert was filmed live at QEH, South Bank, London, in 2012, as part of the Alchemy festival. It was a Jodhpur RIFF production presented and coproduced by the South Bank Centre and generously supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Jaipur Heritage Trust (U.K.), and Jodhpur RIFF.