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Drummer-Percussionist Greg Ellis: ‘I Can Move Easily Through India’

The man behind the drumkit for movies like ‘Argo’ and ‘300’ talks about last year’s viral jugalbandi video of Ganpati celebrations, his documentary and gigs in India

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Anurag Tagat Jan 28, 2020

Drummer and percussionist Greg Ellis in India. Photo: Biju Menon

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When American drummer and percussionist Greg Ellis first came to India in 1998, it was understandably a different time. “This is before internet, this was before cellphones. You really felt like you were away and somewhere else,” he says over the phone from Pune.

Ellis – a veteran sessions drummer who’s worked on the music for Hollywood blockbusters such as 300 and Iron Man, and was a part of electronica act Juno Reactor – said that back in 1998, he quickly realized it would take “another lifetime” if he wanted to learn and master Indian rhythmic sensibilities and instruments such as tabla. Two decades and many trips later, Ellis is now fluent enough in drumming cultures of the world to host his own rhythm bootcamp, which took place last week at a café in Pune.

He’s here in India until early March, setting up collaborations with the likes of tabla veteran Bickram Ghosh, performing at a tribute concert to Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji) alongside tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. Also planned are workshops, talks and festival appearances. He says with a laugh, “I’ve been coming here so long, so it’s a second home almost. I can move easily through India, which I think is difficult for a lot of Westerners sometimes, but I love it.”

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Last year, a viral video (with more than 300,000 views on Twitter and over 620,000 views on YouTube) showed India just how much Ellis loved the country. He jumped into a Ganpati street procession with a group of Maharashtrian folk drummers, armed with a snare drum and playing into a glorious jam. He recounts, “As just a pure life experience, I’d have to say that was one of my top three.” Completely unplanned and not necessarily filmed for any promotional intent, Ellis says the drummers he played with are like family now. “After you have that experience, you’re connected in a different way,” he says.

The drummer and percussionist has been keen on espousing “rhythm as a language” in his playing and teaching. He also mentions “healing rhythms” and how it ties into his practice of “sound meditation,” but is quick to say he’s cautious about the terminology he uses. “It’s more about the frequency and the vibration of the instruments, [stuff] that you don’t hear in electronic music.”

Through it all, he wants to impress upon everyone that the music is more important than the musician. With his upcoming documentary The Click, Ellis is not only trying to put emphasis on organic, non-electronic music but also lesser dependency on technology. In the works for a few years now,  Ellis says production companies in India are also interested in the project. “And it’s making sense to me that this would have to start in India as well. I go into the history of drums and the history of rhythm and the cultures of rhythm,” he says.

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After performing in different parts of India through February, Ellis returns to the U.S. to resume sessions work, including some with Iranian musicians. “I think coming to India really kind of unclogs the drain for my work, so that flow can really start happening. I’m very excited about and I hope to continue when I get back,” he adds.

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