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Polyrhythmic Wizard

Delhi-based percussionist Suchet Malhotra is tuned into an astonishing variety of beats

Samar Grewal Jun 10, 2008
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Anshika Verma

Though he’d been learning various forms of music, almost without pause, since the age of six, it took two decades and a chance meeting with a bunch of Turkish musicians in Switzerland to convince Suchet Malhotra that music was indeed his calling. “I was travelling around that country, and when I came across these guys I realised that despite having never heard their music, I could play with them. That gave me the confidence that I could do this as a career,” the maverick percussionist told Rolling Stone.

Well-known among musicians as a beat-keeper of note – he’s played with Abida Parveen at the Jahan-e-Khusrau festival in 2002 and recorded for Remo Fernandes’ last album, Muchacha Latina – Malhotra has come further into the public eye in Delhi with two unusual and proficient performances of the oriental jazz-fusion outfit Mystique. Using a wild variety of exotic ambient percussions backed by a deep understanding of his stock favourites (tabla, tabla tarang, def, darabouka, djembe, pandeiro, didgeridoo, cajon and udu along with some elements of the traditional kit), he cut a confident figure on stage, equally at ease in supporting with standard meters as he was in paving the way with rock-solid grooves in 17 or 19 matras.

Having worked as radio jockey, music label exec and a sports presenter on TV after a five year hiatus from music – during which period he amassed an Economics degree, an MBA and a diploma in French – Malhotra believes he’s always had a feel for rhythm. One of his earliest memories from school is of accompanying the music teacher on the triangle while the rest of the class sang. “My sis tells me I could do this cool thing with a fork and a spoon when I was a kid… get a rhythm out of both ends while holding them in the middle. Probably got spanked for that!” he recalled. Besides cutlery, Malhotra also has a background in Hindustani vocal and the tabla, which he learnt formally for close to ten years, till the demise of his guru Ustad Chhamma Khan in 1998. During this time he picked up the guitar as well. For the rest, he pretty much taught himself by emulating his idols: Zakir Hussain, Pink Floyd, BB King, Nikhil Banerjee, CSNY and Led Zeppelin among them.

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Today, apart from his work with Mystique, Malhotra has put himself in an enviable position from the point of view of exploring the many facets of his musical sensibilities. As a solo artist, he performs live using a looper and effect pedals to create soundscapes (rainforests etc) in a show titled ‘Stories Through Sound.’ Besides the usual ad assignments, he has also composed music for the documentary Jashn-e-Azadi and the musical Pink Balloon. Among other collaborations, he counts the Wanny-Angerer Latin jazz trio and, in Europe, numerous ethno-orchestras (a week-long camp in Sweden is on the cards this summer), the Afro-Indian Swing Syndicate (Belgium) and Global Hullabaloo, a trauma therapy group that organises sit-down concerts in abandoned mills. The most fruitful collaboration of all for Malhotra presently, though, is proving to be the Delhi-based electro-acoustic sufiana outfit, Da-Saz. Co-founded with programmer-multi-instrumentalist Lionel Dentan in 1999, the quartet has recently cut their debut disc, Jet Lag chockfull of modern arrangements of traditional poetry and instrumentations.

Having recently instated Trippercussion (a trio of percussionists that includes a drummer and a tabla player) and recorded a double-disc with Gonga Sain (a mute dhol player from Lahore), Malhotra hopes one day to play with Senegalese griot Baaba Maal. “[That] would be sheer delight… he has a great voice and is very groovy,” he said, adding, “Besides, he needs me!” Confidence? Overconfidence? Time will perhaps tell. In the meantime, Jet Lag is out on Phat Phish, with the lead single’s squiggly, fuzzy video notching up hits on the band’s YouTube page.

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Suchet’s offbeat

The pride of the percussionist’s collection:

Cajon: Originally improvised from box crates in Peru, cajons are played while sitting on them. When struck, they produce a dull thump from the hole in the back, a sound that’s often also accompanied by the clanky rustle of a snare that may’ve been attached on the inside of the playing surface.

Didgeridoo: Native to the Australian aborigines, Malhotra’s prized possession is a dark brown, bell-shaped piece from Bali, filled, on every square inch of surface area, with deep, carved ridges.

Nga: Shaped like a large flat lollipop, this ornately painted and decorated Tibetan ritual drum is played with a stick shaped like a question mark. “The answers come out when you play it,” says Malhotra.

Ocean Drum: Native American in make. Amazing for an uncanny simulation of the sounds of a vast seashore.

Overtone Pipes: The odd gem of the lot. Improvised from red washing-machine pipes. Produce haunting overtones when swung in the air at different speeds.

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