Please tell us about yourself
As at home in New York as he is in Chennai, Prasanna has from the age of 10 followed his muse whichever path it chooses to go down – be it rock, metal, Carnatic or jazz. For Prasanna, there is no musical style that is not worth pursuing. Every genre has something to teach and its own value. Prasanna’s pursuit of the universal, eternal beauty of music has made him an increasingly respected master of the guitar with fans, critics and peers alike. AR Rahman has called him ‘a living hope for quality music.’
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A regular collaborator with musicians, including Steve Smith, Victor Wooten, Vijay Iyer, George Brooks and Trilok Gurtu, Prasanna leads his own bands, is an admired composer and performs throughout the world. Late one recent New York evening, Prasanna was good enough to share his thoughts on music and life with Scroll.
You obviously love all kinds of sounds in music. Hendrix, Carnatic, Afro-Brazilian, jazz and film scores. Is there some form/style of music that you really can’t relate to?
I don’t really hate any music. Sometimes if the music sounds forced to me, I may not take to it quickly but I try not to make judgements. I believe that all musicians have somewhat similar aspirations, similar needs of acknowledgement from our listeners and at the core, wanting to express ourselves through our music.
You say it wasn’t always this way? Was there a time you did make judgements about musical genres?
I embraced diverse musical genres from the beginning. Of course, I do have preferences in music like everyone. And yes, I may have my own opinions about musicians, in terms of technical skill, craft or whatever. I call that the “learning phase” or the “apprenticeship phrase” of anything. But the living phase is very different. You become open to everything and enjoy many possibilities in music. I am in the living phase now and I am learning to be less judegmental of music, musicians and everything.
How did you find your way into such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career such as music?
When I was around five years old living in a town called Ranipet near Vellore, I had a neighbour called Thyagarajan who played guitar. He used to play in the church. I fell in love with the instrument. So it was the guitar that led me to music, not the other way around. I was 10 or 11 when I got my first guitar. I was lucky in that my parents were very tolerant and non judgemental. They didn’t force anything on me and let me pursue my interest. When my sister took up Carnatic singing, I tried to copy what she was doing on the guitar. Carnatic music of course remains an important part of who I am as musician but interestingly the attraction for it came a bit later.
Did your choice of the guitar (a non-Carnatic, Western instrument) allow you to adopt a more exploring approach to music, than if you had chosen a traditional instrument such as the veena, for example?
Absolutely, yes. After we moved to Chennai my father’s colleague gave me some cassettes: The Bee Gees, the Bellamy Brothers, Toto, a collection of 70s artists like Peaches and Herb, the Pointer Sisters. I had no preconceived notions, so listened to it all and tried to play it. Of course, at the same time I was listening to Tamil film music, especially Illayaraja. He was my first big musical influence. His music was everywhere and he used lots of guitars. It was sophisticated stuff. I learned so much about Carnatic music, chord changes, counter point and harmony through his music.
Once you started to get good, did you, like most teenagers with a guitar harbour dreams of being a rock star?
By the age of 12 or 13, I was playing professionally with people much older than me all over South India. Our band was called Music Fusion and among with others, it included the now famous Tamil film director Dharani on keyboards. Around the same time MTV videos were being aired in India and “Beat It” by Michael Jackson was huge. I was so impressed by Eddie van Halen’s solo and tried it on my acoustic guitar. I then got into a Deep Purple and Rock phase. Eventually by the age of 14, I was playing covers of Dire Straits, Tears for Tears, Police songs on TV. I joined one of the best known bands in Chennai, the 11th Commandment, playing Santana, Scorpions etc and I also playing a few Carnatic concerts. All this came organically and naturally. I didn’t know at that time that I had perfect pitch. I could transcribe most pop and rock music quickly in my head but Illaiyaraja was a bit hard.
I was good in school and wanted to get into IIT, which I did. I studied Naval Architecture but ironically, it was my time in IIT that convinced me to be a musician. My friends turned me on to more blues. Suddenly I was deep into roots of American music and, at the same time, jazz fusion. I was listening to everything from the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Robert Johnson. And the next biggest influence on my music was Steely Dan, which eventually led me into Jazz.
When did you start composing your own music?
Maybe when I was 18 or so. I was still in Chennai and playing in the college music circuit. I wrote some pop songs for a TV show. In the live scene, while other bands were playing classic Rock covers, I began writing my own music for my bands mixing ideas from Carnatic, rock, blues, jazz fusion. That’s when I wrote Peaceful, which I would call my first “hit” song I guess. There are still so many fans that connect me with Peaceful! I was doing more of my originals with my bands Shakuni and the Byrds of Prey and 3 AM.
At this phase I was thinking “What am I doing? I’m playing Carnatic kritis one day, Led Zeppelin the other, writing my own stuff and still studying fluid mechanics and the likes during the day.” I was keen on studying music further. I eventually enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
How did Berklee happen?
“I finished at IIT, but I didn’t want to do what my peers were doing and get a fellowship at Cornell or MIT. I wanted to go to Berklee,” he says. “Someone told me that Donald Fagen, Al DiMeola, and others went to Berklee, and I had to go there. I needed an environment where I could play with other people and experiment with Carnatic ragas in jazz. Berklee was very welcoming and I found that there was a decent awareness of Indian music among the faculty.”
Prasanna’s focus at Berklee was jazz and classical composition, but at the same time he dug deeper into his Indian music background as he developed his musical voice. As a student, his calendar was filled with concert dates across the country. “The Carnatic scene in America opened up for me,” he says. “Sometimes the audiences were primarily Indian, but when I played at colleges there was a more diverse crowd.” He made it a practice to always surround himself with the best players possible. “After I graduated from Berklee, I had an opportunity to play at a cultural festival at IIT,” he recalls. “I got Alfonso Johnson and Kenwood Dennard to do the show with me in Chennai, India. I wanted to push myself, and it was awesome.”
Did you find Berklee’s approach to instruction a challenge after being mainly self taught?
No, it was liberating for me. I had studied with vocalist Tiruvarur Balasubramaniam for six years and for the last 25 years with renowned Carnatic violinist A. Kanyakumari. Carnatic music was deepening my core. But Berklee was an amazing place. Many of my professors had exposure to Ravi Shankar and showed great interest in my Carnatic roots. They also exposed me to Debussy, Ravel and other great Classical western masters. The challenge was not Berkelee but living in a cold winter, being broke and having to figure it out all alone. I had led a fairly sheltered life till then. And it wasn’t exactly encouraging to know that I was only one of 500 guitarists in the school and one of millions in the world trying to make it! After doing a few semesters in Berklee, I went back to India for a couple of years and began doing many of my projects alongside working regularly with AR Rahman, which was another turning point. I came back to Berklee again and graduated.
To what extent do you consider yourself a Carnatic/Indian musician who plays other sorts of music? Or are such labels irrelevant?
I like to think being a Carnatic/Indian musician has some effect but I don’t see myself as only that. These days even more than seeing myself as a musician, I feel more like a facilitator of music. I see music as a way to connect with people. So, I think less about what I play and more about what its effect on people is. When I see people are positively impacted by my music I’m happy. I’m not caught up with what style I play as I’m in the “living phase” and not in the “apprentice phase”.
How do you manage such a diverse approach
I like fluidity in my music and my approach is organic. People connect with you when you open up to them as a whole being through your music. We wear different clothes at different times of the day, so playing different kinds of music is just like that. I have a steady gig in New York at a place called Terraza 7 every month and I do everything from Metal to Carnatic for my audiences. My last concert was Bollywood meets Brazil and the next is a tribute to BB King and the Blues masters. I have always been a bit crazy, maybe…
Has technology played a role in opening up new audiences to musicians like yourself? In years past a fan in a small town had only the radio and a record store to learn about music, but now with the internet, downloading, streaming the choices are so much greater.
Technology and the internet has definitely helped give us all more access. My six year old daughter knows about Woody Guthrie, Beatles, James Brown, Illayaraja, AR Rahman and Bruno Mars and without me influencing her. Each person consumes technology in his or her own way.
There is a whole group of South Asians who seem to be at the cutting edge of American jazz and popular music at the moment: Rudresh Mahantappa, Vijay Iyer, Rez Abbassi and yourself, to name a few. Any thoughts on the significance or reasons for that?
I don’t know the reasons but I enjoy having such amazing musicians as friends! Vijay and Rudresh are on my upcoming record. And I’ve been in Vijay’s band Tirtha for seven years. But we are very different. I grew up in India and they grew up here. We all do have a distinct South Asian connection to our music.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a new CD coming out this summer called “All Terrain Guitar”. It’s a good blend of vocal and instrumental music and has some Reggae, Jazz, Progressive Rock, Carnatic, Metal, Brum n’ Bass, Funk and much more. My guitar probably acts as some connecting thread. It also features “Springtime in New York”, which is a winner at the International Song Writing Contest in Jazz. ATG has lots of great musicians including Vijay Iyer on piano, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Rudresh and David Binney on saxophone, Natalie John on vocals, Mike Pope and Bill Urmson on bass, Rodney Holmes and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. And most of all, it features my wife Shalini singing several tracks and she is an incredible talent!