Two percussion masters, one from India and the other with Lebanese roots, are performing in free concerts at The Paper Mill (紙場1918) in Taipei tomorrow and Sunday.
The shows are part of a world music series that coincides with the World Press Photo Exhibition, which features acclaimed press and documentary photography from last year. The exhibition takes place around the world, with the Taipei portion concluding this weekend.
The guest percussionists, Poovalur Sriji and Jamal Mohamed, will perform with Taipei-based jazz musicians as The Bridge Ensemble tomorrow and with local Indian music troupe Coromandel Express on Sunday.
Sriji, a native of Pondicherry, is an accomplished musician and teacher versed in South Indian classical music and a veteran of cross-cultural musical projects. He was one of the principal backing musicians on a Grammy-nominated album by American banjoist Bela Fleck, Indian guitarist V.M Bhatt and Chinese erhu player Chen Jiebing (陳潔冰) called Tabula Rasa (1996).
Sriji’s main instrument is the mridangam, a large barrel-shaped hand drum with a sound similar to the tabla.
Though the instruments might share a similar tone, Sriji hesitates to take the comparison any further. Whereas the tabla serves to provide “strict” rhythm patterns that singers of Indian music rely upon, the mridangam is “more free in terms of accompaniment,” he said in an interview in Taipei earlier this week.
Another difference is how the drums are played. The tabla is smaller and sits upright, and like bongos, is struck only on the top. The mridangam lays on its side and is struck on both sides. “It’s like jazz drumming, or rock, pop drumming,” Sriji said of his approach to the mridangam. “[You have] a lot of places to improvise, a lot of things you can do with it so it gives you a lot of room for creativity while you are accompanying.”
Playing with musicians from different cultures has become one specialty of Sriji. The 50-year-old grew up immersed in Carnatic music, a form of South Indian classical music, studying under his father, P.A. Venkataraman. Moving to the US in 1986 expanded his view of his instrument and musical tradition.
Invited to teach at San Diego State University by the late ethnomusicologist Robert Brown (who is largely credited for coining the term “world music”), Sriji found himself exposed to musicians coming from a different world: rock and jazz.
He spent time in Los Angeles, where he met Frank Zappa, studied at the California Institute of the Arts with percussionist John Bergamo, and played with renowned studio musician Emil Richards and the late violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin.
“I got to play with so many different people, so all these occasions really kind of forced me to learn many different systems, to know how I’d fit in with them,” he said.
Sriji says he has applied his experiences to his classes at the University of North Texas, where he has taught percussion and ethnomusicology for the past 15 years.
Sriji leads a student group there called the South Indian Cross Cultural Ensemble, teaching “Indian ideas and idioms” on whatever instrument students choose. “One semester I had a girl [DJ] who scratched records in my ensemble,” he said, adding that the variety “keeps my mind fresh.”
Two of Sriji’s past students from the University of North Texas, flautist Paige Su (蘇珮卿) and drummer Cody Byassee, will be performing with him tomorrow as part of the Bridge Ensemble, which also includes expat jazz bassist Martijn Vanbuel of the jazz and world music group Orbit Folks. Su and Byassee are also members of Coromandel Express, which performs with Sriji on Sunday.
Also joining the musicians this weekend is the Lebanon-born, Chicago-raised Jamal Mohamed, a teacher and percussionist based in Texas and a bandmate of Sriji’s — the two work together in a quartet called Brahma. Mohamed plays the doumbek, a goblet-shaped hand drum used in the Middle East and North Africa, and has a wide-ranging resume that includes performances with Sting and violinist Mark O’Connor.