Saturday, 7 April 2012

Shankar Tucker and his Exquisite Fusions

It’s difficult to get your head around the package that is Shankar Tucker.  The eyes aren’t blurry, the invisible pores on his face don’t spew out whiskey fumes and the index fingers aren’t jaundiced by smoke of any kind as you would find with jazz musicians.  And he’s not adorned with a plethora of trinkets or encumbered with the esoteric vibe – not to mention breathtakingly bad hairdo – of the typical Indian classical musician.
In fact – having been enthralled by his music – I’m slightly disappointed to find him so strait laced; the boy-next-door hair cut, the New England style and the shy, youthful demeanour giving nothing away about the musical genius whirring away behind the preppy façade.
Appearances though – as is always the case – are deceiving.
Shankar Tucker is fast becoming a cross over sensation in a country whose musical traditions have inspired countless generations of musicians to attempt to marry East and West.
Born and raised in tony Boston, Massachusetts to an artistically inclined and spiritually left-field family, the 24-year-old is an accomplished clarinettist who’s been playing the instrument since his early teens.  
When he was 15, Tucker came across a CD of Remember Shakti, which featured Zakir Hussain and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and a love for Eastern classical music was born.
After training in Western classical music at the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston, Tucker won a scholarship to study music under his idol Chaurasia in 2010.
After his year-long apprenticeship with Chaurasia, Tucker set up his own YouTube channel – the Shrutibox – where he began showcasing his creations; a mind-numbing array of compositions of eastern and western music as well as covers of popular Indian songs.
One composition – O Re Piya – features vocals from a relatively unknown New York-based singer called Rohan Kymal and is a seamless fusion of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s seminal anthem and Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’; an exquisite marriage of two seemingly irreconcilable melodies.
His ability to imagine such amalgamations has led to Shrutibox becoming hugely popular, with more than 3 million views and downloads around the world enabling this independent artist to keep on carrying on.
And the singers he has used in his videos – such as Rohan Kymal, Shweta Subram, Indian American classical musicians the Iyer sisters and Aditya Rao – have started to make a name for themselves as well with fan pages on social media sites and invitations to collaborate with other musicians.
I caught up with Shankar on a flying visit to his native USA to talk music, India, the Bansuri and cheese sandwiches.
Poonam Joshi:’s an interesting choice for a name.
Shankar Tucker: My family have been devotees of Mata Amrtanandamayi Devi – who we all refer to as ‘Amma’ or mother – for a long time.  She gave me the name when I was pretty small and I’ve gone by it ever since.
PJ: So how did a boy from Massachusetts end up doing Indian fusion music in Mumbai?
ST: I’ve been interested in Indian music for a long time.  I was already into jazz when I was in school but then I discovered John McLaughlin and his work with Shakti and I thought it was extraordinary.  McLaughlin on guitar and Zakir Hussain on Tabla; I found it inspiring.  It was just an extension of jazz.  At about the same time I discovered Hari Prasad Chaurasia who pretty quickly became my favourite instrumentalist.  The amazing thing was that after I graduated from college I was lucky enough to earn a scholarship and study in India with Chaurasia, which was the most amazing experience.
PJ: Your family were also artistically inclined...?
ST: My family’s always been very involved with the arts.  My grandfather was a composer and musician and played a whole lot of different instruments.  My parents are visual artists; my mother’s a painter and dad makes sculptures so my sister and I were always were surrounded by the arts.  My parents always made sure there was loads of different music to listen to at home so I’ve had an amazing array of inspirations.
PJ: What was your parent’s response when you told them you were moving to India?
ST: They had known it was a dream of mine for a while, especially when I was in college.  I always wanted to study Indian classical music at its source and they were very encouraging.  I had applied to study under Hariprasad Chaurasia so they knew that I was going to go.  They started to get a bit nervous as the day approached and they dealt with it by making sure I got all the vaccinations I needed!
PJ: What were your first impressions when you landed in Mumbai?
ST: Mumbai was pretty intense, definitely not what I expected.  People had told me beforehand how modern and metropolitan Mumbai was.  After I had got out of the airport and gone up to the upper suburbs of Mumbai to stay with a friend, it wasn’t exactly what I associated with the words ‘modern’ and ‘metropolitan’.  Sure there are modern, metropolitan areas in the city but I wasn’t prepared for most of it, even coming from Boston!  I love the city though.  I love India.
PJ: Ever had Delhi Belly?  
ST: I did have Delhi Belly a couple of months ago and it was terrible.  It was the first time I had been sick in India after almost two years of living there.  The amazing thing is I got ill after eating a cheese sandwich!  It was a moment of weakness because I really miss cheese.  I’ve learnt my lesson and I shall stick to Indian street food instead!
PJ: Has the Indian experience been what you expected?
ST: It’s been a really immersive experience as all experiences in India are.  Studying with Hari Prasad Chaurasia was amazing because it was a traditional Gurukul environment which I found fascinating.  It was just me and a couple of other students and we would have music lessons for a few hours a day and the rest of the time was spent practising and experimenting.  I also had the chance to go out and make music with friends who lived close by and it was great.  It’s exactly how I dreamt a classical music experience in India would be.  I was already interested in Eastern music and I had been trying to play it before I went to India, listening to recordings and stuff.  But it had never got to the point where I had really imbibed the voice of Indian music and incorporated it into my own playing to the degree I wanted which India and the experience of India kind of allowed me to do.  The only reprove that Guruji would give us was: ‘tuning, tuning’. Things are different in America where musical training is rather job-oriented.
PJ: What was it about Pandit Chaurasia that drew you to him?
ST: I think he’s one of the most brilliant improvisers on any instrument anywhere in the world.  I’ve always been a massive fan of his work.  Also his pet instrument is the Indian flute – the Bansuri – which has a very similar sonic quality to the clarinet although the more obvious Indian counterpart to the clarinet would be the Shehnai.  I had been hooked on Pandit Chaurasia’s recordings for a long time and it was really a no brainer to go study under him.
PJ: Why do you think jazz and Indian classical music make such good bedfellows?
ST: Jazz has been my first love and I think it’s mostly because of how it allows for improvisation.  I think a lot of people who discover jazz discover freedom in music.  When you play Western classical music, everything is notated and everything is prearranged and composed but with jazz you just have the freedom to kind of compose things in the spur of the moment.  That’s a liberating experience.  It’s the same with Indian classical music; improvisation takes up probably 90% of it but there is also a very specific science to it.  For instance, you have a raga and a taal and even if you do improvise you have to stay within those components.  Even then a composition could last for hours.  So you’ve got the improvisational elements in both forms of music but also the fact that jazz isn’t as structured as Eastern classical music.  I think the two forms complement each other very well because of that.  Jazz is all about harmonies and improvising with those harmonies whereas Indian classical music is about set boundaries and improvising within those boundaries.  It’s a perfect combination.
PJ: In your videos you play a vast array of instruments...or so it seems.
ST: Apart from the clarinet, I can play the Tabla a little bit and the piano only because I took a few lessons on both a long, long time ago.  I play a few chords on the guitar and that’s about it really.  The thing is, modern software allows you to do amazing things with sounds and instruments so that helps obviously.  And of course, necessity; it’s difficult to call up musicians to record when you’re travelling and when you’re recording on a shoestring budget so I’ve kind of dabbled in all the instruments.  At the moment at least I can’t afford to hire proper musicians so I’ve had to do it myself!
PJ: In an age when online downloads and YouTube have been derided and acclaimed by the music industry, the internet has helped give you to the world.  Is it as easy as it looks, being an YouTube artist?
ST: Well, obviously recording and promoting all by yourself is an expense and the returns can take a while to trickle in.  But then even if you’re signed by a major record label – in the western sense – there’s no guarantee that you’re going to make much money.  I’m definitely not the only independent musician who kind of works online, making videos through YouTube.  I’ve been lucky enough to make a living that way and a lot of people are doing the same thing.  So the internet has allowed independent musicians to flourish.  But I think it works particularly well in a country like India where you have so many amazingly talented artists but no structured music production and distribution system in place.  Of course you have companies like Saregama and Times Music but they concentrate mostly on Bollywood.  There aren’t the kinds of record labels you have in the West where it’s all-inclusive and an artist can be helped with producing and marketing his music.
PJ: Do you then still have to depend on your parents for occasional handouts?
ST: (Laughs uproariously).  At the moment, I’m surviving by selling MP3’s of my videos online through iTunes and other online music services.  That’s the first way, and there’s also Google ads which play on YouTube and I get a percentage of the revenue from the ads shown on my YouTube channel.  I work on and off as a session musician and I’m starting to do music for a film so I’m working on bits and pieces that bring in enough to survive.  It’s an adventure.
PJ: So how important is it to you to get into the mainstream and have the money rolling in?
ST: Well, money can make things happen, least of all, hiring the people to make music and of course travelling to have my music heard.  Money is obviously important no matter what independent musicians will say.  And of course I need to survive!  Having said that, a lot can be done on a minimal budget which is what I’ve kind of been doing.  It’s not easy but it’s becoming less difficult with YouTube and Facebook and social media there to help raise awareness.  I imagine I’ll keep that up for as long as I have to.
PJ: There’s obviously this debate at the moment about illegal downloads and plummeting CD sales and companies going bust and musicians losing out.  Where do you see yourself in that debate?
ST: I’ve been incredibly lucky to have built up a fan base through YouTube.  To be honest, I don’t think a lot of them are from India but Indians living abroad who I think are in a better position to appreciate the kind of crossover music that I do.  Either way, they have been fantastically supportive and have basically provided me with a living.  I know that anybody can rip the tracks from YouTube illegally, but there are a lot of people who don’t and contrary to what the media says, the number of people who legitimately download music and pay for it far outweigh those who don’t.  They’ll buy the tracks because they know that it supports me and every time they buy a track it goes directly towards funding the next track and video that I make.  They are essentially there to support the music.
On the other hand, I don’t really blame those people – particularly in India – who will find it necessary to illegally download the tracks.  It’s extremely prevalent and I suppose people don’t give it much thought because there’s no social stigma attached to it.  It’s so socially accepted that people don’t even think about it.  So, in a context like that, it’s difficult to blame someone who downloads a song.
PJ: Obviously the lack of laws doesn’t help either.
ST: Absolutely.  And of course, there’s no real distribution structure for music in India.  iTunes doesn’t work in India nor do most things that use PayPal.  Whenever it does, PayPal isn’t very friendly towards Indian credit cards.  And then there’s the price of course.  Sure, 99 cents sounds cheap in America but in India it’s not competitive to price a single song at 50 Rupees.  So the whole music production and distribution system needs to be reconfigured to suit India and its’ circumstances.
PJ: You are also starting to dabble in Bollywood.  Is that a direction that you see your career heading?
ST: I’ve done a couple of sessions for composers so I wouldn’t call it my work as such.  I’m just trying to take it one step at a time and seeing where it goes.  I don’t ever expect to be a totally mainstream Bollywood artist.  On the other hand, I don’t want to jinx any opportunities by saying that I don’t expect it to happen!  So we’ll see.
PJ: What type of music do you prefer performing?  North or South Indian?
ST: They are both great traditions.  To be fair, I haven’t spent a great deal of time studying South Indian music as I have done North Indian.  I still wouldn’t call myself a North Indian classical performer.  I draw inspiration from it but I wouldn’t go so far as to label myself as such.
PJ: One of my personal favourites is ‘O Re Piya’ featuring Rohan Kymal.  Tell me about the creative process.  Is it spontaneous or is a carefully planned process?
ST: Most of the videos are actually much more spur of the moment than most people realize.  I had an opportunity to record with (singer) Rohan Kymal when I was in New York; we didn’t have too long – I think it was just a day in a studio – and we decided to put something together.  So we just basically had to find songs that he and I both knew and try and record.  It was really fortunate that he was comfortable enough singing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Adele and I adore both musicians.  We were incredibly fortunate that it turned out the way it did.

PJ: So what’s coming up for Shankar Tucker then...?
ST: I haven’t been as prolific with new videos as I’d like to be recently but I do want to take it to the next level and upload videos more frequently.  I might be working with MTV India sometime this year.  Nothing’s been confirmed yet but we are exploring the possibility of perhaps turning the making of the videos on Shrutibox into a show.  I do have a small tour set up for India next September.  I might also try and do some concerts in America but before that I need to figure out how I’m going to make a live concert work.  With the videos, it’s very different because each one has a different singer for example, singing in a different language often.  It’s obviously not practical to take such an enormous number of people on stage! So at the moment it’s about translating what I have on YouTube into a live performance.  Hopefully I’ll have it all figured out by this summer!
-    Interviewed by Poonam Joshi

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