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Tuning Into a New Range: Naveen Kumar

How veteran flautist Naveen Kumar spent more than a decade innovating flutes, a showcase of which can be heard on his latest album, ‘Silence Is Bliss’

Anurag Tagat Nov 05, 2015
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Naveen Kumar_1 Courtesy of the artist

Kumar has collaborated with Grammy Award-winning Mohan veena player Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, ace percussionists Sivamani and Taku Hirano, Shillong Chamber Choir, pianist Stephen Devassy and more on his recently released album ‘Silence is Bliss.’ Photo courtesy of the artist.

Even though he might be comfortable being a session musician for the likes of film music composer A.R. Rahman and many more, Mumbai-based flautist Naveen Kumar likes to tread his own path. In addition to releasing music as a solo artist ”“ his latest album Silence Is Bliss released in August ”“ Kumar has been an innovator in flute technology, creating several different types of flutes.

While Kumar has been a part of Hindi and South Indian film music industries for more than two decades, his solo work spans across three previous albums, FluteTronics [2013; featuring percussionist-producer and fusion artist Karsh Kale], Café Fluid [2010], and Fluid [2006].

On Silence Is Bliss, he has collaborated with Grammy Award-winning Mohan veena player Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, ace percussionists Sivamani and Taku Hirano [the US-based Japanese musician has previously toured with Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie,] Shillong Chamber Choir, pianist Stephen Devassy, among others. “Initially, I had chosen to create a meditation album, but then I thought I’d try a different approach. I used nine different flutes on Silence Is Bliss,” Kumar says. On majority of the tracks, he unveils an innovation like no other ”“ a flute that has strings inside [mounted on a board with a tuner attached to its rear end,] with the audio being modulated into a MIDI keyboard. He calls this the Naveen Flute, something that has been a work-in-progress for more than a decade. Kumar recalls, “About 10 years ago, I was practicing in my room in Chennai and I heard some vibration ”“ turns out my flute sound was vibrating the strings on the guitar kept nearby.”

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He began manipulating the string vibrations through a MIDI keyboard, which also allowed him to add vocals and sing along. Says Kumar, “When I’m tapping flute, I’ve programmed it in such a way that I can play and sing at the same time.” This evolution from placing strings inside a flute to routing it into a MIDI setup didn’t happen overnight, though. Kumar innovated and tinkered with everything from banjo strings to a revolving plate inside the flute over more than a decade before he made the final finished Naveen Flute. Says Kumar, “Trial and error — that’s the beauty in a musician’s life.” He does add that a personal demonstration would be much easier for listeners to understand the Naveen Flute, rather than hear it on Silence Is Bliss. “When I’m triggering the strings, there are some patches underneath that sustain, along with my flute tone. It’s better understood if you hear it live.”

Album art for 'Silence is Bliss.'

Album art for Naveen Kumar’s ‘Silence is Bliss.’

Working on the instrument with encouragement from his father [a telecom engineer by profession], and music scholar P. Sambamurthy’s 1982 book The Flute, Kumar recalls his first innovation on the flute ”“ adding a layer of onion skin on a Chinese flute. Says Kumar, “When I showed it to [veteran music composer] Ilayaraja, he immediately used it on [1982 Malayalam film] My Dear Kuttichathan.” But the flautist had his own set of challenges working on the Naveen Flute. One of the reasons why he spent more than a decade on it was due to early rejection. One time when he brought the Naveen Flute to the studio to show it to his musician peers, the response from them was anything but motivating. “One guy opened his rhythm box and switched on his reverb unit and started playing. He said, ‘What is the difference between what you are doing and what I am doing?’ I couldn’t convince him and put the flute away for three years. Some other people say that I’m spoiling the flute, since it is a divine instrument used by Lord Krishna. People should really understand the beauty of improvisation.” Kumar’s innovations on the flute have also resulted in another hybrid, which he calls the Anglo-Indian Flute, featuring a bamboo body and a key flute mouthpiece. His other innovations are flute variants in glass and PVC overtone as well other reed instruments.

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Kumar solely believes that innovation is necessary in the world of music instruments, especially if they have to interest the next generation of musicians. A self-taught musician, he now plans to find a manufacturer for the Naveen Flute and sell it online, along with his other innovated flutes, and even start online tutorials for those eager to learn. Says Kumar, “I keep looking for something new. I want to give the coming generations a new level of flute-playing.”

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