After spending eighteen years in the vast Indian film industry, including longtime work with the Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, Ranjit Barot returned to his performing roots and fulfilled his dream to drum with the legendary fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and his band the 4th Dimension. Along with Gary Husband (keyboards, drums) and Etienne Mbappé (bass), Barot recently completed McLaughlin’s final U.S. tour. Barot also appears on the guitarist’s recordings Black Light, Now Here This, Floating Point, and the recent Live at
Ronnie Scott’s.

Drumming in the footsteps of Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, Dennis Chambers, and Mark Mondesir is no easy feat, but Barot has truly made the McLaughlin chair his own. Yet even that hasn’t quenched his thirst for all things drumming.

Barot opened the Quarter jazz club in Mumbai this past October, which will bring little-seen Western musicians to Indian audiences. Joined by drummer Jeff Sipe, Barot is also working on a joint Indo-U.S. project with the aim to bring together Indian classical and Western musicians under one roof to create a percussion-centric ensemble. A project with Shakti violinist L. Shankar is also planned, as is an online drum instruction channel where Barot will give viewers insight into his kit approach, focusing on the Western jazz and rock systems of the drumset, as well as exposure to North and South Indian drumming and the South Indian verbal rhythm delivery system known as Konnakol. Modern Drummer spoke with Barot as the 4th Dimension was on the East Coast leg of its Meeting of the Spirits tour.

MD: You’re unusual in that you’re both a renowned film composer in India and the drummer with one of the world’s greatest jazz guitarists.

Ranjit: I began as a drummer. In India, at sixteen, I played in a local rock band. Then I replaced Trilok Gurtu in a progressive band he played in, Waterfront. I thought that was my life—I’m a drummer. But in the mid-’80s all the gigs dried up, and film production became the dominant work. All the guys I used to play with were doing film scores. I got a break working in a studio and realized I could produce, and I taught myself harmony. I began composing and arranging film scores. I didn’t play drums for eighteen years. I was producing soundtracks and jingles in my own studio. Then Zakir Hussain said, “You’re wasting your talent.” He put me in different playing situations, but my chops were not up to standard.

MD: You’d played with Zakir before.

Ranjit: Informally. My first exposure to the Indian rhythmic system was through his father, [legendary tabla player] Alla Rakha. But I wanted to play drums. I met John McLaughlin in 2006 and we jammed. He said, “I didn’t know somebody in India could play drums like this. Let’s record an album.” So we did Floating Point. But I had to wait a few years before joining the band, because Mark Mondesir was his drummer then.

MD: You’re also the music director for the Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman. You’ve drummed in many different situations.

Ranjit: I don’t know what that means: “Someone is a drummer.” I want to make music, give you an idea of melody and poetry, and tell you my life story. My instrument happens to be the drums, but I don’t think of myself simply as a drummer. I want to contribute to creating a wonderful, beautiful, joyous sound. How does that happen? What part of the kit do I play? How soft? How loud? I love music and poetry. Jon Christensen’s drumming on Keith Jarrett’s My Song was such a big influence, as well as Billy Cobham and Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. Michael Walden for his intensity. But Jon Christensen is like a painter; he played My Song so beautifully.

MD: You make playing with John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension look so easy.

Ranjit: They gave me a very conducive environment in which I could grow. It’s like my life was engineered to play with them, and they looked after me musically and spiritually. My brother Gary Husband is with me on stage every day. He’s one of the drummers I’ve admired and still do. We get to play together, and we respect each other. There are not many bands like this. John always had this idea to have two drummers. When I joined we expanded and Gary got a drumkit. John is coming from John Coltrane, the idea of having two drummers, as he had Elvin and Rashied Ali. And Gary and I have similar roots in our influences, and we complement each other really well. We lay in each other’s pocket.

MD: When playing a repertoire that was established by all these great drummers before you, how do you find your voice?

Ranjit: You come to a place where you’ve absorbed so much of their music that it becomes part of your DNA. When I play “Eternity’s Breath” [from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond], I remember what Narada Michael Walden played. But that’s just the inspiration; the rest of it is that I hear the music in a certain way and I approach it with my own sensibility and sense of syncopation. That comes from India. My muscle memory steers how I’d like to play the song. What Billy and Michael played are starting points; I tip my hat to both of them when playing those songs.

Gary Husband on Ranjit Barot

The keyboardist with the 4th Dimension—a world-class drummer in his own right—is in a perfect position to describe Barot’s contributions to the music of John McLaughlin. So we asked him to do just that.

Gary: Ranjit sir, from the very beginning, invested this most personal, intense, and passionate improvisational spirit straight from his core into this band and into its music, revolutionizing it completely from that point on. And there could be no turning back! And this, in a huge way to me—particularly in a band like this—fundamentally determines the drummer’s power, his or her success or failing, so to speak. And in line with the best, most successful, and most beautiful participation, it appeared right from the outset a rather effortless, natural endeavor and achievement on his part. The day he joined, it was completely evident from the first moment to all of us that with the addition of Ranjit this could and would be a truly great band, and one that will be counted and remembered for being so.

Ranjit’s an old soul to me, like an old-time movie icon with this immense character. You get it in how he addresses you. You see it in the elegance of his dress sense, you sense it in how inspired he constantly is, and you feel it when you play with him. All connected. Plus there is how unique he is, bringing forth a discipline and theoretical aspects of rhythm rooted in India via this singular personalized voice on a Western drumkit. His Konnakol abilities, for me, far exceed the level he admits to them being. He’s a composer of uncommon breadth, a producer—and what a conceptualist. Aside from the movement revealed on his excellent Bada Boom recording, Chingari’s Bombay Makossa [the trio album featuring U. Srinivas and Etienne Mbappé] is a revolution! He’s a one-off man! There was no one like him before, I’m convinced.

And John sir [McLaughlin], in his infinite wisdom, in his greatness and via his always impeccable intuition and vision, has of course been the catalyst in bringing him to us, and bringing all of us together in the 4th Dimension.

MD: Ranjit said you sometimes have a kit next to you, as was the practice with Mark Mondesir, I believe. When do you and Ranjit double drum? What’s your language with him about?

Gary: Well, firstly, I believe we play truly as we are. And all that we reveal as we begin to play corresponds to our respective innate character, our personal convictions and values. How open we are, how benevolent we are, how loving we are, how stubborn, how disciplined, etc. You know, the whole gamut! And our respective, resulting vocabulary, to me, is transmitted perfectly in accordance with all of that. In fact, I feel it’s fundamentally governed by that. And as a direct consequence of how Ranjit and I are as individuals, I believe we found an instant, effortless conversational musical rapport, just as I believe we did with each other as people. And to me it’s that simple.

Of course, our business in this band, and our utmost priority, is the music. And in that, Ranjit goes from his heart and soul, then to his intellect. He goes from his heart and soul and then considers technique or physical methods—if at all! And that’s the way it is with him. Everything’s about the musical impulse and intent ahead of absolutely anything else. In terms of the drumkit itself, I don’t believe we’ve ever had—as two drummers—a discussion about technique or physical methods in the whole time we’ve been working together.

MD: Is there a shared 4th Dimension sense of rhythmic simpatico? How does it express itself?

Gary: I have to say, while soundchecking the two drumkits ahead of a concert, we will invariably just begin playing together and simultaneously falling upon truly intoxicating spontaneous ideas with one another. These come completely out of the blue, are totally different every time, and they’ve been regularly so eventful that we both stop and wish they’d somehow been recorded. And I think that’s the measure of the simpatico. And how that blends into the whole band participation is really joyous to me. Because we’re nothing if we’re not inspiring, nothing if we’re not permeating, meeting head on, in as many and various stimulating ways we can muster, the impulses arising and manifesting from John sir and Etienne. So in this way, it’s about the total four-way simpatico in this band ultimately.

MD: You play with a beautiful sense of flow.

Ranjit: That’s what I learned from Jon Christensen. The way he flowed was rhythmically compelling, but he wasn’t trying to define or stress any one point of the bar too much at any one time. It was a beautiful wave. That sense of flowing I got from My Song. With the human mind, when you meld anything and put it all together, you create a hybrid language. It contains the DNA of many influences, but it’s also part of your own evolution. Once you put that into your own expression, you have a unique identity as a musician. On stage, you surrender. You have to take risks, and if you make a mistake, that’s okay. In that risk-taking lies a new thought, a new sentence, a new syllable. That only comes from pushing through that fear of failing. It’s only this band and John McLaughlin that have encouraged this sort of behavior in me.

MD: You studied tabla with Alla Rakha, then switched to drums?

Ranjit: Yes, then I learned to play drumset from records. I studied Billy Cobham and developed his six-stroke roll, playing it my way. I did the same with the paradiddle. I had no books; I learned from records. We didn’t have these drum books growing up in Bombay. I created a sonic image in my mind. I knew what I wanted to sound like. I practiced what I knew and what I didn’t know. I developed a vocabulary. I played with records by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Deep Purple, Cream, Led Zeppelin.

MD: How did you learn to handle odd meters within McLaughlin’s blazing arrangements?

Ranjit: You have to make numbers your friend. It’s mathematics in its most beautiful state. My exposure to South Indian percussion music, the Carnatic system, and Konnakol enabled me to become very comfortable with odd times and angular phrasing. It’s a process you have to familiarize yourself with, the rhythms and numbers and how you approach time.

My phraseology changed when I began attending [South Indian percussion] concerts performed by the masters; it impacted the way I thought about time and rhythm. But I never let it change my drumset language—just the way I think. Like the way Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez plays behind the beat but he’s so full of intent, that’s a very cultural thing. It’s not just a studied thing—it’s cultural. If I wanted to play like Horacio I would hang with him and meet his family and eat their food and go to concerts and see what it is that makes him speak and feel the way he does.

MD: Are Western drummers improving at playing and understanding Indian-based music and drumming?

Ranjit: Americans are the most open-minded people on the planet. But I urge drummers to go to India. There’s nothing like firsthand experience. It’s cultural, like hip-hop or rap. It started on the street corner.

MD: But Indian rhythms are very complex.

Ranjit: They can be. Western musicians have built a great mental barrier and fear about Indian music. Once you get into it, it’s beautiful. Concepts like quintuplets and septuplets, Stravinsky and Zappa were exploring that. It’s not alien; it’s just that we formalized it and have it as an integral part of our music. It’s like eating something that’s good for you, though [at first] it doesn’t taste good. You have to keep doing it. Keep exposing yourself to the music and one day you will push through. Then you’re addicted, man!

MD: How do you achieve this floating feel in your drumming?

Ranjit: The way South Indian percussionists play and approach a groove, it’s all mixed up in my head. It’s partly Elvin Jones with Coltrane. Listen to them on “Impressions.” The way Elvin plays with Coltrane, he’s pushing all these accents; he’s never static. I want to groove but never settle into a pocket. It’s got to evolve. That’s what John likes. If I play 2 and 4 for more than four bars, John will look at me. You don’t want John looking at you! My mental game has to be very sharp in this band.

MD: Do you maintain a practice regimen on the road?

Ranjit: No, but I’m playing all the time in my head. MIT did a study [and concluded that] mental practice creates the same neural pathways in your brain as physical practice. I do a lot of mental playing; it really works for me. At soundcheck I will warm up, and if I have something new I work it out then. Later I’ll introduce it on the gig.

MD: What’s the status of your various projects?

Ranjit: The Quarter opened last year; we have access to a 600-seat opera house where we book international artists. We’re trying to elevate the standard of music in India. I want kids to experience a steady inflow of important musicians from around the world to play for our audiences and get local musicians informed on how things should be done. Kids have to be exposed. That’s the future.

Barot’s Setup

Drums: Sonor S Classix with birch shells
A. 5.5×14 Artist series snare
B. 16×16 floor tom
C. 7×10 tom
D. 8×12 tom
E. 9×13 tom
F. 14×14 floor tom
G. 4×12 Artist series snare
H. 17.5×22 bass drum

Hardware: Sonor, including Giant Step double bass drum pedal and 400 and 600 series cymbal booms, hi-hat stand, snare stand, and tom stands

Sticks: Vic Firth American Classic Hickory 5A wood-tip

Cymbals: Meinl
1. 16″ Byzance Extra Dry Thin hi-hats
2. 18″ Byzance Dual crash
3. 18″ Byzance Extra Dry China
4. 20″ Byzance Jazz Medium crash
5. 7″ Byzance Traditional splash on Gen X China Filter stack
6. 8″ Classics Custom Bell mounted on18″ Classics Custom Trash crash 
7. 22″ Byzance Mosaic ride
8. 10″ Byzance Dual splash mounted on 22″ Byzance Zen China ride

Heads: Remo, including Controlled Sound snare batters, Clear Ambassador tom batters, and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter