As technology and mass-media continue to shrink the globe, allowing once-disparate traditions to intermingle instantaneously, musicians are given unprecedented access to a range of influences unthinkable mere decades ago. Forging an artistic identity in the midst of this post-modern global exchange and its onslaught of possibilities is no mean feat, yet it is a challenge that Ranjit Barot welcomes. Raised at the intersection of two cultures, Barot comes from a family with deep ties to Indian classical traditions of music and dance, and yet he spent considerable time absorbing western culture in England. That palpable dichotomy inhabits his music. It is a tribute to his brilliantly inventive musicianship that these elements remain tangible, but only serve to compliment one another, elevating and enriching his compositions. “I want my playing to be the duality that I am,” he reflects. “I am an Indian, but I dream in English.”
Despite his vast experience in every element of music-making, from production to composition to performance, Bada Boom – to be released on November 16th, 2010 by Abstract Logix – is the first album to bring together every facet of Ranjit Barot’s gifts and display them simultaneously. The sum effect is staggering. As a writer, Barot honed his skills by crafting songs and scores for the thriving, prolific Indian film scene in which music is a highly-regarded, essential component. Although capable on a range of instruments, his weapon of choice as a performer remains the western drum kit, on which he has cultivated a unique voice that internalizes and refracts his musical and cultural influences. As a drummer, he has performed alongside such formidable improvising composer/instrumentalists as John McLaughlin, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Charlie Mariano and Don Cherry. Citing the pathbreaking music of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, Ranjit counts McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain as two of his biggest influences – a respect that is reciprocated as McLaughlin contributes a blistering solo to Bada Boom’s opening track, “Singularity,” and Zakir Hussain provides the driving force for “Supernova.”
With Bada Boom (“bada” being Hindi for “big,” rendering the album a bilingual pun on the “big bang”, with the song titles carrying the theme), Barot has given his ambitions free reign. “It was certainly an inspiring and liberating experience, not to be tied to any script or musical directive,” Barot explains, “except one of experiencing true ‘flight’ with the other musicians who were a part of the project. It could not really have been anything else: this album was intended as a representation of my compositional and production abilities, as well as my approach to the drum set.”
As such, the album is supremely effective, composed of four original pieces and two striking reinventions of traditional Indian themes. Rather than simply recast one culture in the guise of another – transposing tabla parts onto the drum set, playing funk guitar licks on the veena, etc. – Barot composes and arranges provocative, thoughtful dialogues from which these varied influences, textures, and techniques eventually emerge as one voice. Carefully deployed improvised passages, fired by his churning, intricate drumming, further dissolve the perceived barriers, transcending taxonomy and simply becoming music. “When I hear a great Indian classical singer, or instrumentalist blowing through some chord changes,” Barot says, “technically they may reflect different approaches, but the intensity, intent and spirit are the same. I can clearly hear this, and this makes it easier to bring these two worlds together musically.”
The son of the legendary Indian classical dancer Sitara Devi (who specialized in the Northern Indian Kathak style), Barot was raised in a musically rich environment. His home played frequent host to jam sessions, where formidable musicians would gather to stretch out, experiment, and freely explore their art. He was drawn to the drum set at age 12, and despite the fact that the trap set is a western instrument, he was nurtured and supported by those around him. “Because of my mother I got to meet all the great masters,” he recalls. “Ustad Zakir Hussain’s father Ustad Allarakha would come to the house, and great sitar players like Vilayat Khan and Rais Khan. I got to meet all these maestros and get blessed just being in the same room as them. It was great for me, I got all this exposure. Allarakhaji would sometimes…start reciting these patterns. I’d just sit there and – I was too young to really deconstruct all of it, but I knew that something magical was taking place. I knew this information was intense. I just let it wash over me.”
By the time he was seventeen, Barot was one of the leading drummers in India, equally inspired by the music around him and the fusion revolution happening in the west – all without any formal training on the instrument. He took on every opportunity with an open mind, performing in a huge range of styles and ensembles. By the mid-’80s, the proliferation of electronic drums in the Bombay scene lead Barot to reinvent himself as a studio musician and producer, playing, composing, and producing music for other artists, films, and commercial jingles. This experience proved to be invaluable in developing his compositional and production style, but after several years he was coaxed back to the drums when asked to sit in with tabla legend Zakir Hussain and prolific, eclectic violinist L. Shankar. The experience lead him to reevaluate his playing in a deeper cultural context. “I started actually going back to my Indian roots rhythmically,” he explains, “finding a meeting point for what I can do on the drum set and phrase and syncopate with some kind of Indian soul; and yet not take away from the language of the drum set.” This experimentation lead to his participation in John McLaughlin’s stunning 2008 album Floating Point, which featured McLaughlin alongside a cast of stellar Indian fusion musicians.
Bada Boom may be Barot’s debut album as a performing composer, but it has been generations in the making, with inspiration drawn from every corner of his remarkable, still-unfolding career. “The rhythmic element is a strong component of Indian classical music,” Barot says. “Since this music is my primary springboard to the compositional process, it is more apparent to the listener. The fact that I’m a drummer may have something to do with it too, though I don’t compose from a drummer’s viewpoint. I try to write songs with heart, and melodies that threaten to crush you with their lyricism. I think the time that I spent composing for film, allowed me to develop a style which is communicative and which includes the listener.” Consequently, Bada Boom is accessible as it is inventive – a deeply layered project that will appeal equally to musicians and to casual observers.
“The meeting point of all art is the same, at least to me,” Barot concludes. “When you strip away things like genre, ethnicity, art form even, then you are left with just intent and spirit.”