exclusive interview with Aref Durvesh

interview by dimmSummer
date: 7.25.03
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is EthnoTechno's interview with Aref Durvesh, world-renowned tabla player for various artists. Let's talk about music, man. What got you started? Why tablas? Why not the sarod or regular drums?

Aref: First of all I think tabla was something that I was brought up with, absolutely surrounded by. My dad was a musician himself, he is a disciple of Bismillah Khansahib, who is a world-renowned shehnai player. I had a lot of influence of Indian music around me and somehow I just fell in love with a rhythmical instrument, tabla. When I'd hear these Bollywood tablas I'd be like yeah, it's cool, sounds great, but I'm sure there's something else that can come out from it. At that time, a friend of mine, Talvin Singh, was in India and he was learning from his guru. There was a couple other people who went to India to learn the Indian classical side and them came back to England and kick ass. So I decided that I wanted to actually learn this instrument in England and I had great opportunities from people like Jayant Debosh, Davinder Singh, Bismillah Khansahib, who's almost like my grandfather, to give me the influences every time they came over. And of course my first guru is my father. So it's very difficult at times having a father and at the same time having a guru, so it's quite full on. And so basically I fell in love with the tablas and I said 'OK, I'm gonna go for it.'

ET: But why do this all in England? Why not just go to India like everybody else did?

Aref: Because that's what everyone else did. It was almost like a belt, and these people just sit on it and they go to India, they come back, they're fresh with lots of classical things-

ET: So it's almost like a revolving door...

Aref: Yeah, it was like a vibe too, and I was like, I'm sure you can create that vibe in your own household. Being the way my father was, he had serious knowledge of classical music. In India when you do become someone who's very renowned for whatever instrument or vocal or whatever it is - they tend to know a couple of instruments, not just one - so I sit down with my dad and say 'How can I take the tabla and do this?' and he wouldn't actually know, he would have to say to me, 'Well look, I can just show you the serious basics and then you take it from there.' And I did, and I started going to classical shows. A lot of people from India, it's not just that they play in India and rehearse in India and that's it, they like to share their stuff. They come to England, they do concerts, they do workshops, they break it down. So I'd be all checking out Ananda Chatterjee, Zakir Hussain, and checking loads of other people from Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael/San Francisco... The one thing that really kicked off for me was when I heard the original version of Shakti from 1975. I thought whoa, this is cool. It was basically Zakir with L.Shankar and John McLaughlin, etc. etc. and that actually kicked the whole platform off.

ET: How old were you when you heard that?

Aref: Zakir and my father, they knew each other so it was a cool thing, but when I actually looked at him as a person... he is somebody that is a sort of a commercial classical tabla player, and that sort of sums it up. When a lot of people mention tabla players, Zakir's the first one people talk about. Many of them didn't come out because they didn't know how to explain it in English, he was quite sharp about things... We're brought up in the West, we listen to Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Royal Albert Hall, London Symphony Orchestra, you hear choirs -- I'm brought up with something totally different that does exist in India, but that feeling doesn't exist in India. And then of course hip hop and fusion stuff and jazz. At that time, when I was 17 or 18, jazz was very big - it was one of the places where you could go and really push the tablas, and that was it. I hit the jazz field first.

ET: How many years did you spend honing yourself in the jazz field?

Aref: Once you're there, you've always got jazz in you. I was there for a good two years, maybe. Through that I met a very close friend of mine, we met through a jazz calypso band.

ET: You're an Indian guy playing tablas, jazz is not an Indian art form, it's an American Black art form, and then you join a band and happen to meet another Indian guy there, and it's Nitin, right?

Aref: Yeah that's right. I met Nitin Sawhney - basically the guy that was leading this show, his name was Keith Waites and he knew my father, and said 'Hey, let me take your son out, let me check him out and see what he does.' - I do lots of things that the average classical tabla player wouldn't agree with, one is put serious effects through the tablas: viruses, drum and bass beats... and second of all I stand up and play, and there's a very important reason for that. Recently when I've done a trio or a collaboration with Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Sting, John McLaughlin, all these guys, I think it's very important - because you have Western instruments around you. To be sitting on the floor sometimes, for me, I feel like I'm not going to be able to cut it as if I am standing up because it makes me feel like everybody can see what's going on from the audience's point of view and I can see everyone by standing up because they're on the same level, when they play guitars or drums it's very easy to look around. Whereas if I'm sitting on the floor my neck is totally looking up and I'm looking around at these guys, and you want to feel a part of the band.

ET: It's almost like a kid's perspective in a way.

Aref: Absolutely. So I just took it up like that. Then I had this vision and dream, there must be some people out there that think, play, and spiritually really think about where can we take these instruments, this feeling, to a different stage. When you hear tablas they're usually in a bleedin' restaurant or at a classical show, where it's very restricted and has many barriers, where I want to do the opposite, break the barriers totally.

ET: Hence your whole vibe your whole energy when you're onstage, when you get a solo, it's like, 'Hey!' You start clapping your hands, it's very energetic.

Aref: There's parts from Europe all the way to the United States, both sides of the Pacific Ocean, people who've heard the tablas but never seen it, so when they see me live they're just so connected. The other thing I try to do on the tabla is try to match and get as close as I can to Western instruments in the way they're played. If I just play [mouthes classical indians bhols] it can only last a little while, whereas if you've got a [mouthes modern drum beats], you can really create a whole new atmosphere with it, and then when you need to kick ass, you can go into that field of classical, but within what's going on around you.

ET: Do you do a lot of work on the computer with Pro Tools or Reason or Cubase. Everybody's heard your Visionary Underground tracks, with the whole VU crew, there's quite a number of you guys, did you do any programming or did you just supply the vocals and tablas and hand it off to somebody else?

Aref: I've been very very lucky in that most of the producers, songwriters and programmers that I've met have actually been fantastic because what we end up doing is, when we go into the studio, we look at who's got what skills, apart from being an artist in some form or shape. There'll be someone that can program, but won't have an idea what to do. So I might say, 'play that sample and let's break it apart, double the hats over here because it'll sound nicer with the tabla...' So it's a way of just mixing with each other. Yes I use Pro Tools and Reason but 99% of the time I work as professionally as I can in the sense that if I go into the studio and I'm going to write something with somebody, I don't want to waste my time on the computer. My whole point is to make this track vibe or make whatever's going on in that room at that time something special. When you're in a studio it's very easy to get lost in, 'let's try this sound, let's try that sound.' There's like millions of different effects, millions of different viruses, different sounds and kits, where I try to work with musicians whose sound I like so there's not too much to mess around with. Sometimes if you have too many options you could end up being there all night and you don't end up playing a lot and then you realize well actually we haven't got far because we've only been messing around with sound.

ET: Too many options like banana watermelon cantelope, or cantelope watermelon [inside joke of that day...].

Aref: You've got to be able to say, 'I'm focused about this.' Going to the studio, I've heard 3 different CDs and from each track of the CDs there's a sound that I like. I might like the bass on that sound, the piano sound on something else, the drum kit on another one, so I'll say OK, these are the sounds that I want to get as close as I can, because it's good to have a reference. If you don't, sometimes it can really go on for a long time.

ET: So with the tracks with Visionary Underground, what were you trying to say? Obviously you've got vocals, and then you do some drum and bass

Aref: Originally what we did was, I did 5 or 6 tracks with the London Arts Board, because they gave me some time in the studio, and I'd like to give them props - Felix, Overtone Studios, Leslie. They gave me a lot of time to indulge in myself, so I wrote some very mellow, original, classical tracks with my father, with some other musicians I wanted to work with, Marque Gilmore, etc. etc. And then we took that and took the parts from that and then did remixes of it, which then became a collective thing, which was great. I said look, I've done all the groundwork here, so why don't we sit down and see what we can take from each one, just blow it up.

ET: So why don't you let us in on who the whole VU crew is, what their individual roles were in producing this whole sound.

Aref: Coco does visuals, Paul is a DJ/producer/composer/everything. Paul and Coco are quite hardcore. Felix from Overtones in London, she's another producer. We got a couple of rappers on there that just come in, they look at the track, vibe it up. And myself. So it's quite tight at the moment, and there's more people getting more and more interested in things. We've been working with a guy called Ges-e, he's an amazing DJ, one of the top DJs in London at the moment, kicking ass. So we've all been working together as hard as we can. Of course I'm on tour all the time so a lot of the time the guys are putting things together and I come in at the last moment, I've got 24-48 hours to finish whatever I can. So it's been really good in that sense, they've been great, they've had a lot of patience with me because they know I can't just give one month because I'm on tour with everybody... Like I am now!

ET: Who are you on tour with right now, and where are you headed?

Aref: I'm on tour at the moment with Susheela Raman, and that's fantastic, we're in New York City. One of the last gigs we're doing is at Joe's Pub, so we're all looking forward to that - quite exciting. And then I go back, I'm going to be working with Nitin Sawhney, he's just released a new album called Human, which is brilliant, so we'll be working on the live stuff for that. Just in December I recorded with Sting for his new album which is going to be released Sept. 11.

ET: Wasn't Anoushka a part of that?

Aref: Yeah, we both played on the same track, so it'll be interesting to see what the finishing is like. It's been quite full on at the moment. I'm going to be working with Badmarsh and Shri when I go back at some point too.

ET: Are you friends with Bobby and Nihal over at BBC 1?

Aref: Yeah, Bobby Friction is a very close friend of mine, he's been playing as many tracks as he can as many times as he can, which has been really cool. Big up to Friction because he's somebody that's supported it from the beginning. You need that, if you don't have people that stick by things that they enjoy and people that create that, it's enjoying when you get to a point where you see success for everybody in all parts of the field, in the whole music industry...

[Suddenly Aref decides to interview Dimm...]
What is your role in New York City?

ET: What's MY role in New York City?

Aref: -As an American Asian

ET: As an Asian dude walking the streets? My role is just to push the scene forward. My business card is going to say "pusher of music and designs" and right now I'm just trying to help out...

Aref: What do you expect from pushing? What do you want to push, who do you want to push? Is it some sort of group, some thing you want to concentrate on, or is it everybody and everything that comes to the USA?

ET: It's not everybody and everything, obviously I'm looking for a certain aesthetic and if they're imbibing that - if you vibe, you vibe. If they come from a different angle it doesn't mean I'm not going to say hi and hang out and maybe even do an interview, but we all have to be going in a certain direction. And if they're going in a different direction, then best of luck, you can go in that direction.

Aref: So do you have a vision, or are you already in motion at the moment?

ET: Oh, we're already in motion, pushing things forward. Bobby e-mailed me saying it looks like there's this whole brotherhood between the UK and the US now, which is cool because BBC 1 wants him to come over and do a documentary on the S.Asian American movement that's going on here, New York is one of the biggest places where it's happening. So yes, definitely stuff going on, connections being made between the UK and the US.

Aref: Would you like to see more of that happen?

ET: Definitely. But I think the thing is, there's a strong hip-hop thing going on here, hop-hop is really grabbing a hold - thumbe, the dhol beats, a little bit of tabla, but mainly bhangra stuff, whereas in the UK it's just straight-on bhangra... and that's your hip-hop, so you guys have that exploding there. Here, it has to be meshed in with hip-hop for it to really go anywhere.

Aref: What would be your national anthem? What sort of mix would you like to hear between both sides? What would you like to indulge in? I mean, hip-hop to me has been done, it's ruled. Indian classical music has ruled, where do you see this going?

ET: I don't know. I just see it going wherever it will go.

Aref: But where are you pushing it? Where do you want it to go? You're pushing it, right?

ET: Yeah yeah, I'm pushing it.

Aref:...to go where?
[the gleam in Aref's eye and ear-to-ear grin on his face show that he's taken enough piss out of Dimm...]

ET: [laughing] Where do YOU want it to go?!? I'm not a musician, I'm not producing any music. You're the one who's producing music. Where do you want it to go? When you're out on tour with these people, it's fun, it's cool, but when you're doing more drum and bass and electronica, that side of it-

Aref: I'd say that drum and bass is there because it's something I enjoy for what it is. So it that sense I would like to see platinum. More gold, more platinum. Not just some regional underground crossover act selling 25-100,000 albums... Susheela's been great because I think she's been the first British act that's come out with a full album. She's come on the second album now, she's just done songs, which is great because I think you can reach so much further. Whereas lot of the stuff I've heard in the USA, your side of the town, it's like: it's great, it's got some classical flavor to it, it's got some drum and bass, it's got some hip-hop, but I don't really feel like it's got the lyrical side. Hip-hop has lyrical and it has a beat and it has a b-line and it's there, it's phat. So that's established. So I'm still like: PLATINUM, everybody has to aim for platinum. 99% of the time when you hear something on MTV it's very rarely that you hear something that's only musical.

ET: I guess that would be my answer in a way, to push it so that it reaches people, the question is how do you reach people?

Aref: -Songs.

ET: Songs. But people have to relate to it. I can relate to lyrics but I also like relating just to music because it can be whatever I want it to be.

Aref: Let me give you a perfect example, which is a one-off. This is the way I listen to things, if I hear something like the Mission Impossible theme, the remix or the original, that's a one-off that is purely musical. You name me another one that's on that sort of trip.

ET: The James Bond type stuff?

Aref: James Bond is cool, but you wouldn't hear it in a club, where you'd still hear the remix of something like Mission Impossible kicking ass in a club. Have you heard the drum and bass remix?

ET: The Orbital one?

Aref: Yeah. So it's phat, you know? The musical side is very cool, it's very good, but for those of you in the states, in London, singers, producers: what's up? give us a call.

ET: There are a lot of people going in that direction, moving away from just musical compositions of drum and bass and getting English lyrics in there because it's more relatable to people. But the question is: what kind of saturation is it going to have? If it's always going to have a South Asian musical element to it, do people look at that as just a fad, or do they understand that it's actually a viable genre of music?

Aref: Even going a bit further than that, what I feel is a lot of people that are hearing a lot of the music at the moment, it's a vibe, it's something cool, but it's only spontaneous, it's only for that 6 months.

ET: Like in hip-hop right now.

Aref: Hip-hop will always sell, it's made such an established name that it's a household thing everywhere, in every single country. Where I still feel like we are not household names at the moment. We're slowly getting there. When you listen to stuff like Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Dr. Dre, they go into the studio and listen to some sample from the 1960s, off some old Lata Mangeshkar track, they can still take that, put it into the hip-hop influence, and they kick ass! That's where I feel like we're still a little bit behind.

ET: Do you have any problem with them taking stuff like that?

Aref: I think it's brilliant. But I wish sometimes it was the other way around, in the sense of Indians going OK, we're gonna take this thing from hip-hop and put it with our stuff.

ET: I predict that within 2-3 years hip-hop is going to be huge in India, it's going to replace the whole classic rock mania going on there, and hip-hop is going to take over and you're going to see exactly what you talked about happen there. It's happening now, I know it's underground, but it's going to become mainstream sooner or later because hip-hop is everywhere in the world. There are Indian hip-hoppers but it's kind of iffy right now, there's a vibe they've got to get straight with that.

Aref: There's still a lot to be learned from the whole industry. Everybody needs to be a lot more open, I think, and be up for spending time in studios together. The more we do that, the more I think we'll come out with excellent, excellent stuff. So, thumbs up to everything at the moment.

ET: What's your most favorite and least favorite thing about the U.S.?

Aref: One of the best things I like about being here is that you can go to so many different clubs. I end up going to a club and listening to something and I want to go to the music store and buy that CD, and that's always been a great influence for me coming over here, there's always something where I can go 'Oh, that sounds great."

ET: That doesn't happen in the UK?

Aref: It happens but remember, being born and brought up over there, and being a musician over there, you usually see most of the stuff live or you meet the musicians themselves. Where over here, you don't see many of them, the only thing you see commercially is on MTV. That side of it I really like, and the way people approach us Brits as musicians is brilliant, it's a very positive vibe, and I love to be around any time, any place in New York City, it's alive and kicking. And people love to discuss things like we are now, talking about music, pushing it, so when other people hear this interview they'll be like yeah, that's cool, OK. I think it's good because it constantly keeps pushing.

ET: Would you ever want to move here?

Aref: I think I would not have a problem if I was to move over here as long as I knew that if I'm coming over here to do something, I want to give it 101% and I want to make sure something is done. Everybody's got something to put up on the wall, or they can shout themselves and say 'You know what? We made that happen!"

ET: This is New York, man, the only reason they come here is to make things happen.

Aref: Exactly. So, same here. Why do we come all the way from London to New York? We want people to hear us. The worst thing about New York is basically when it's so damn hot and smells, man! This city smells when there's no breeze! So that's about it. Otherwise it's all good.

ET: What about India? How often do you go back? You know Sam (Mills) was talking today about how this music will go back, and I think Susheela feels the same way, like, 'We're Indian but we're not in India, and we create this music that's not completely Indian but not completely Western, it's something else, and we want to take it back to India.'

Aref: I think it's a very delicate subject about going back and asking people what they think. A lot of musicians that come out of India, 80% of the time it's pure classical music. You don't really see anything else. I mean, there's some great whiz kids out there, they have a lot of ideas, they like to put things together but in India I feel they've got a lot of barriers still to overcome if they want to really jump into the ocean it's going to take a little bit more than going over there and asking 'What do you think about this?' It's going to have to really be broken down. And of course we need the pop and classical artists in India to support whatever we're doing here so the rest of them can have two different stories of what's going on. The traditional people can hear somebody who's traditional and say 'These guys have got something going on. Check these girls and boys out, man.'

ET: Is there anybody that's actually doing that right now that you know of? Like a tabla player in Bombay or Delhi who's not afraid to break down barriers?

Aref: I think there are lots of musicians out there that would love to try things but a lot of the time communication can be difficult and this is why we're lucky to be Indian Americans or British Asians where we have both sides. We can explain to the West where we're coming from in India, and we can go from West to East and explain where we're coming from on the West side. I think that's quite important, education is very very important as far as understanding. Especially music - if you want it to go further you've just got to be really open-minded and not have too many barriers. Saying that, if there weren't any barriers in Indian classical music, we wouldn't be where we are, because what we do is sometimes the absolute opposite of what they're doing but we're still taking the influence of Indian classical music and I think that's the beauty of it. If we can still do that and go platinum, we can have both legs up at the same time, not just one.

Fade into "Freedom" -original composition