Tight as a drum: Guilfoyle’s Irish-Indian supergroup
Ronan Guilfoyle’s Khanda bring together jazz with Irish trad and the complex rhythms of south Indian drumming
Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham
Ronan Guilfoyle: ‘One of the biggest problems with these world-music collaborations is that the non-western musicians are kind of exoticised’
Back in 2001, I travelled to India with Irish trad-meets-jazz supergroup Khanda, to make a television documentary for RTÉ on their collaboration with musicians from the Karnataka College of Percussion in Bangalore.
It was a revelatory experience, a lesson not only in the transformative power of music but also in the bonds of friendship and co-operation that can develop between musicians from radically different traditions as they melt into one.
At the heart of this daring musical fusion – the spoon in the melting pot, so to speak – was the Dublin jazz musician Ronan Guilfoyle and his composition Five Cities, a suite of music that combined the complex rhythms of south Indian drumming with the delicately ornate melodies of Irish traditional music.
This weekend, Khanda will reform for the first time since that tour to perform Five Cities in its entirety at the Down with Jazz festival in Dublin’s Temple Bar. For Guilfoyle, a bassist with an international reputation, and the founder of the Newpark Music Centre jazz programme, jazz was the catalyst that made this meeting of two ancient musical cultures possible.
“The tradition of jazz is a tradition of absorption. From the earliest times, it was a music that was an amalgam of several different styles, so that omnivorous nature has been there since the very beginning.”
Guilfoyle looks east
It was back in the early 1990s, when Guilfoyle was looking to expand his own range of influences, that he first began to study Indian music in earnest. He made contact with Cologne-based Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham, and the two began to collaborate on an early version of Khanda, featuring the piper Liam O’Flynn.
Those early attempts at Irish-Indian fusion taught the composer a lot about what not to do when it came to writing the music for the Five Cities tour.
“I think one of the things Five Cities did well,” says Guilfoyle, “was that it was as seamless as it could be. I was very careful not to have, you know, the Irish traditional chunk, and then the Indian guys do their thing, and then there’s a jazz section.
“One of the biggest problems with these world-music collaborations is that the non-western musicians are kind of ‘exoticised’. They’re just pointed at and told to play, and then pointed at again and told not to play.
“I was trying to keep us all playing all the time. What I tried to do was produce a piece of music that represented all of us, at that time, in that place.”
As a musician who had operated in both western and Indian music, Shotham became a key member of the ensemble, acting as a conduit between the two traditions. Shotham, a native of Chennai, rose to fame in India as the drummer in the 1970s rock band Human Bondage; it was only later that he turned his attention to the rich tradition of south Indian Carnatic music that surrounded him.
He went on to study at the Karnataka College of Percussion and become a master of south Indian drumming, but it was that early experience of western blues-based music that would prove vital in bringing Khanda and their Indian counterparts together.
“I was the guy in the middle,” says Shotham, remembering the challenging process of teaching Guilfoyle’s suite to his Indian colleagues. “I was always trying to find a balance between the western and the Indian.”
One tune in particular came to represent that balancing act. Jibberish featured piper Martin Nolan lilting an Irish traditional air while Shotham accompanied him using konnakol, the syllabic drum language of south India.
Shotham laughs as he remembers the way he used to introduce the tune on stage. “I said: ‘I guess we Irish and Indians all get along so well because we had the same colonial masters.’”
Down with Jazz
Khanda are among the headliners at this weekend’s Down with Jazz festival. The name recalls conservative Ireland’s reaction when the “devil’s music” first reached these shores in the 1930s. Jazz was seen not merely as a threat to public morals, but also to the survival of Irish traditional music. Instead, through musicians such as Guilfoyle, it has become the means by which Irish traditional music can engage with a wider musical world.
As Shotham’s brother Naresh told me in the documentary, after witnessing Khanda’s triumphant concert in his hometown, “there were times when it all got blurred and you couldn’t tell which was Indian and which was Irish.
“I only wish that in other spheres, whether it’s political or economic, people had such visions of how we could seamlessly come together.”
Khanda play the Down with Jazz festival on Sunday in Dublin’s Meeting House Square. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday.