"In a nutshell - Experiment the living hell out of your instrument and I believe in this - Space is extremely important in your music."
Guru Somayaji: Blues Rock Cat
Guru Somayaji, is drummer in various bands like Ministry of Blues, Parachute XVI, His Girl Friday, also he’s programmer and producer at CounterCulture, a resto-bar and live events venue in Bangalore, India.
CounterCulture is organizing a nine-day festival titled An Ode to the Blues. The Blues festival was started last year in Bangalore to mark the centenary of Robert Johnson.
‘The Ode to the blues’ festival is marking his 101st birth anniversary this year with busking sessions, film screenings and live performances by some of the biggest names in the blues scene.
Guru Somayaji, the head programmer of the fest talks about his own way in blues, local blues and rock scene and the “Ode to the Blues” festival
Guru, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?
Music kind of hit me late in life. As a kid, all I was bothered was playing with tools and electrics and roller skating. My parents tried their level best to get me to learn Carnatic classical music. I chose to go on a hunger strike till they allowed me to do what I was best at – climbing trees, electrocuting myself with all the weird electrical experiments. When I was 11, I finally discovered the idea of learning Ghatam [Is a classical Indian percussion instrument. It is basically a clay pot]. Just as I was making progress, I was forced to drop out when my Math grades in school were just utter rubbish – so it was either school or Ghatam. I was quite distraught by this experience, but somehow, yeah I survived! I was around 14 when I happened to chance on MTV at a friends place [My house didn’t have cable TV!] and SoundGarden’s Black Hole Sun rang in my head. It wasn’t until 18 I decided to take proper drum classes. You could say my first idols were Soundgarden and Metallica.
How do you characterize the music philosophy of Guru Somayaji?
In a nutshell – Experiment the living hell out of your instrument and I believe in this – Space is extremely important in your music.
How do you describe Guru’s sound and progress?
I began as an all out rock drummer wanting to feel like that rockstar, but how wrong could it get. The very first time I ever played on stage was a disaster. With butterflies in my stomach I decided to play really hard. By the third song I had destroyed the kit pretty badly. To this day I am a hard hitting drummer, but age and understanding the instrument better means I am not as crazy as I used to be. In terms of my sound, I have a fairly straightforward approach to playing. I am not into the whole I can play faster than a motor and I want to take the craziest drum solos, etc. However, I do believe in experimenting with the pure acoustic sound that you can produce with your kit, with this in mind I experiment with combining different cymbals, playing it with different sticks, etc etc.
In terms of progress, I am trying my hand at playing traditional grip – it is extremely hard, but hopefully I get somewhere. I am also experimenting with the whole idea of 80’s disco beats in my playing style, and its really awesome. Somewhere the blues and disco have something in common, at least some of the drum bits, which is cool.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I think as a musician your entire life is a learning curve and there is so much more to learn. It is almost impossible for me to highlight what a moment is because it is invariably temporary. The worst moment for me was in 2006 when I had to stop drumming for 6 months due to a back injury. Back injuries are the worst. Not only could I not play drums, I couldn’t function as a normal human being.
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does music offered you?
Blues music as a format was a very late discovery for me. My first tryst with the blues when a good friend gifted me a Robert Johnson CD as a leaving Bangalore gift. The simplicity in the music style and the emotion behind it drew me to keep this CD on repeat for many month. Then for some reason, my rock music roots shifted into modern forms of music including drum n bass, ambient, orchestral music and live electronics. When I first spotted Parachute XVI jamming was when the Blues came back. In 2009 I replaced Sachin, the original drummer of Parachute XVI. In a span of 10 days I had to learn a repertoire of over 15 blues songs to showcase at The Himalayan Blues Festival. I am sure most true blues musicians would’ve figured that I definitely didn’t know my blues very well. I did somehow managed to pull it off. Since then I have come a long way and if the Blues wasn’t close to me I wouldn’t be the mad man that is part of An Ode To The Blues festival that is in it’s second year now.
Why did you think that the Blues continued to generate such a devoted following?
Bangalore has had it’s love for the Blues for a long time. I believe a lot of this following is also due to the fact that the city has a fairly open drinking culture, and man who cannot love the blues?
What do you learn about yourself from the music?
I learn that music is a lifelong education like life is.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
I believe I am far away from GOOD. But to me the whole world is a curious place and the only way to get your brain cells rolling is for you to be inquisitive. It is this ‘Curious as a cat’ nature that shows with my generally outlook as a musician.
What do you think of Indian folk music & how close are to the BLUES?
True folk music is so good, and the most common relation with it and the blues is the real emotion out of it – people singing out their common life experiences. However modern ‘pop-folk’ music is the latest boom and honestly it is rubbish. People love it because it some city guy with modern instruments trying to tell you a story which is rather shallow and I really don’t see any emotion cutting through with it. A lot of these bands are really good at what they are doing, but it is definitely not for me. Rea; Folk music is pure and honest and it should remain at that.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your work with the local blues rock bands like Ministry of Blues & Parachute XVI?
I find airports extremely stressful, but at the same time amusing. Being a drummer, I always have to struggle with allowances. I amuse myself by generally scamming those check-in desk women with the real weight of equipment I am carrying. The trick is to distract them so they don’t look properly at the weighing scale.
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Ode to the Blues?
Ode To The Blues originally came about when Vinoo Matthew, the bass player of Ministry of Blues casually mentioned to us that May 08 was Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday. This got Vishwaraj Mohan and my brains ticking and we just wanted to do a small gig at CounterCulture. What was meant to be a small gig just turned out to become a festival. As a programmer and producer, I rarely to get to experience the festival as work pressure is immense during show time. Despite this, I think the smile on each one’s faces after this festival gives us the drive to make this happen everytime.
When it all began for the blues rock in India, who is considered the local "godfather" of the blues rock?
I believe Peter Isaac from Chronic Blues Circus is the man. A lot of people don’t really understand him and his brutal honesty, but, really he is probably the coolest blues musician and great person around in the blues music scene.
What are the most popular local bands of blues rock, do the media help the blues rock?
I happen to come from the Media background, and we try our level best to get the maximum mileage out of the blues. You do realize that most blues musicians according the media aren’t “hot looking, don’t wear hot pants and don’t those sexy legs and breasts,” and hence rarely qualify for the media coverage they should be getting.
Are there any memories from CounterCulture, which you’d like to share with us?
As a programmer and producer at CounterCulture, the joy that we have kids as young as two come with their grandparents and next thing you see both of them grooving to the gigs gives me utmost joy that I am probably doing something right. You have to remember the age disconnect and possibly the cultural disconnect, but music unites people – age, religion, education, culture - no bar.
Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in India …and the CounterCulture
Blues as a music format is here to stay. Something that was written in 1932 is still being belted out today. The 12 bar Blues is one of the foundation when you are learning an instrument. True that rubbish music is out there and the television channels are flogging it like a dead horse. The Blues has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.
Bangalore, among other things has a fair number of Blues musicians, and maybe I might be wrong, but I think Bangalore does have a serious amount of Blues listeners. Why would a massive festival like Mahindra Blues happen, if there weren’t an audience for it. With Ode To The Blues, the true idea is to spread The Blues as a music form, and with this in mind, this year, it is a 9 day festival across various venues in Bangalore and the finale at CounterCulture on May 12. It should be a ripper
What mistake of the local blues rock scene you want to correct?
Where do you see CounterCulture in ten years? What are your plans for the future?
CounterCulture was set up by Vishwa and I conceptualised and executed the live music aspect of it. The idea that both of us wanted to do something alternative made it a perfect ground for us to experiment with stuff. We believe every event has to be special, something different – from production styles to the varied programming, I believe no two gigs should look the same. We get excited very easily about doing something different and the Do It Yourself ethic is the reason we are able to pull off what we have.
Part of what we want to do is encourage musicians to explore beyond their comfort zones. At an Ode To The Blues 2012, By2 Blues and producer Nikhil Narendra will be fusing Blues and Live Electronic music for the first time here. We are tripping on the idea of calling it Blues & Bass. The thought of combining two completely different music forms had been running in our head for ages and finally to get musicians who are excited as much as we are is wonderful. Here is a sample of their work in progress . I believe that these initiatives will keep us excited doing what we do and what set’s us apart from others.
How do you see the future of the Indian blues rock music? What characterize the sound of local blues rock scene?
Today I believe most music will be devoid of genre in future. Almost all music borrows of various influences and this melting pot is only set to become even bigger. As I write this interview, am watching and listening to a live webcert where-in the participants are in different places and jamming in real time using a broadband connection.
Give one wish for the Indian blues rock scene
Wish for them to bring out more awesome music.
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