Next year the Karnataka College of Percussion is 50 years old. Founded by the great Mridangam player T.A.S.Mani in 1964, it was, and is, a unique institution in that it organized lessons in a school format in a music that was traditionally always taught on a one-to-one basis in a guru system. Mr. Mani's forward thinking, desire to spread the knowledge of his instrument, and Carnatic music in general, and his generosity in sharing his skill and genius, has meant that hundreds of people have had a chance to study and perform this amazing music and appreciate its subtleties and intricacies.
In undertaking this groundbreaking work in India Mr. Mani was ably assisted by his wife, the brilliant vocalist R.A. Ramamani, and the two of them together have been a major force in spreading this incredible music, not only in India, but also abroad, particularly in their collaborations with jazz musicians.
My own experience with these great musicians began through another musician who had himself studied with Mr. Mani and went on to become one of their closest collaborators, the great percussionist Ramesh Shotham. Ramesh and I first met during a trio project with the pianist Simon Nabatov and became fast friends. At that time I was beginning my immersion in the world of rhythm and had become fascinated with the rhythmic techniques of Carnatic music - Ramesh was a mine of information on this subject, having studied with, and later performed extensively with Mr. Mani and Ramamani.
At this point I was already aware of KCP and the Manis through their ECM recording Jyothi, with the legendary saxophonist Charlie Mariano. As well as making Carnartic music more accessible to a bigger audience, this recording introduced the wider jazz world to the composition of Ramamani - a unique body of work.
These compositions were crucial in increasing the possibilities for jazz musicians to work with Indian classical musicians and find a common ground in which both can contribute while maintaining their own identity.
Carnatic music uses structures that are unique to it, and the responses of the musicians while they improvise are governed by a set of rules (ragas, talas, jatis, tihais, korvais etc) which take a very long time to learn, and for the western musician, are difficult to relate to unless you've done a lot of study. The same could be said of Carnatic musicians - they often don't understand the structures of jazz performances, and the result of this mutual incomprehension is that many collaborations between jazz musicians and Indian classical musicians are often stiff and directionless.
Ramamani's compositions provided a bridge between these traditions - they use Indian ragas and talas for the melodic and rhythmic material, but simplify the song form structures, which provide space for the jazz guys to improvise in and to grasp the overall structure of the piece. Here is one of Ramamani's tunes, 'Varshini', (wrongly titled in the video as 'Mr Mani'), played in Germany in 1995
It was on this tour that I finally got to meet and play with the Manis, and what a thrill it was! The band included Ramesh on percussion. We did about 20 concerts and were joined on some by Charlie Mariano, who had a long relationship with KCP, and by the Dutch pianist Jasper Van't Hof. The material was mostly Ramamani's compositions, and a few traditional Indian pieces. Working with the Manis was wonderful - they were both really nice people, easy to travel with, very patient with the inevitable delays and hanging around that touring involves.
And then of course there was the playing…… both are supreme masters of their art, technically flawless and can play with the kind of intensity that only the finest musicians can access. I remember several alaps (non-metered introductions) that Ramamani did that were stunning, and I also remember one particular night in Vienna when Mr. Mani's end of concert Mridangam solo went beyond even his extraordinary level, driven no doubt by Mani's knowledge that there was a tabla player in the front row of the audience who needed to be shown who was the boss!
We concluded the tour in Turkey where we were joined by the Irish guitarist Mike Nielsen and the legendary Turkish percussionist Okay Temiz and there we made a really nice album called 'Mishram' for a small Turkish label. I always regretted that this had such a limited release, because I think it really achieved a convincing blending of the Indian and jazz elements in the music, producing something quite unique. Here's one of Ramamani's compositions from that recording, dedicated to her husband, 'Mr. Mani'
After that tour I played with the Manis several more times, and it was always a pleasure, their adaptability to other musicians outside their own tradition is extraordinary and very unusual in Indian classical musicians. This was demonstrated again in the biggest thing we did together - a project called '5 Cities'. This was a unique event that brought together jazz musicians, Irish traditional musicians, and Indian classical musicians. For this project I wrote an extensive suite that featured everyone at various times, and since we toured it in five cities in India, it was given the '5 Cities' title.
It was a challenge to write a piece in which each tradition could be discerned and yet work as a whole, but having such great musicians in this project, from all of the various traditions, made it a lot easier. It was quite a big undertaking to make it work musically and logistically, but work it did and we toured India with it as well as playing it in Ireland. A fly-on-the-wall documentary was made of our Indian tour and the final concert in Dublin was filmed too. Here's the last movement of the suite, with a great demonstration at the end of the Mani's amazing rhythmic dexterity, along with Ramesh, and also how much fun this project was!
Playing with the Mani's and KCP has immeasurably enriched my musical life - they are great people, and great musicians and they have done so much both to promote the amazing music from their country, and to foster ways in which people from different cultures can callaborate. Fifty years of doing anything is amazing, but fifty years of musical invention, innovation and skill at the highest level is something we should all be thankful for. Here's to the lots more great music from the Manis - I hope I get a chance to play music with them again!