Interview: 'Guitar' Prasanna

Posted on June 11, 2006


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‘Guitar’ Prasanna talks about his new album dedicated to Jimi Hendrix.

JUNE 11, 2006 – CONCEPT ALBUMS – especially fusion concept albums – are a publicity person’s nightmare. After all these decades of sitars backed by drum sets, guitars playing alongside ghatams, just how do you convey a sense of the music anymore without resorting to East-meeting-West clichés? That’s why it helps when something like Electric Ganesha Land comes along, for the copy practically writes itself: A Carnatic and Jazz Musician Pays Tribute to a Rock-Guitar God. This is ‘Guitar’ Prasanna’s nod to Jimi Hendrix, and he says, “I wanted to do something different, something based on Carnatic music while also exploring the electric guitar in a very personal manner. And I think Jimi opened the door to all electric guitar exploration.”

So, naturally, I ask if Electric Ganesha Land came about from wanting to play Carnatic music in a style that includes distortion and feedback and all those Hendrix signatures. “That’s there in the music, definitely,” says Prasanna, whose previous album, Be the Change, had a lot of Carnatic music, but featured a completely western lineup of musicians. “Here, I wanted to showcase what I consider world-class percussion talent in Chennai. So both these ideas came together – a guitar-rock album, and using the mridangam, ghatam, thavil, and so on. The Carnatic thing is also about my roots. It’s an honest depiction of me and my playing.”

For all that talk about Carnatic music, Prasanna insists Electric Ganesha Land isn’t about ragas so much as rock-guitar sounds. “For instance, I used custom-made tube amps that I got from Auroville from an American named Roy Chvat. I recorded in big rooms designed for string orchestras, where I was just this one guy with a guitar. I didn’t compose the songs as much as I designed the sound for them.” That’s why the track titled Iguana on a Funky Trail doesn’t have a melody. “It only has a riff.” And Dark Sundae in Triplicane has seven or eight different guitar sounds. “I chose sounds that I thought were representative of the whole spectrum of rock guitaring.”

And yes, those names do mean something. Prasanna explains that Eruption in Bangalore came about because, “The city represents the contrast between what people know as India, the land of snake charmers, and what India is today, a place of C++ programmers. The song is a tribute to Bangalore, where I have a lot of fans who’ve been very supportive.” The title is also a nod in the direction of the similarly-named – and now legendary – guitar solo from Van Halen’s explosive debut album, and then Prasanna says, “I don’t want to begin explaining all the titles and make things too literal.”

But I prod a little and he admits that 4th Stone from the Sun owes a large part of its name to Hendrix’s Third Stone from the Sun. “Also, in my song, I’m using a certain harmoniser and changing intervals. So although the piece progresses from Hamsadhwani to other ragas, it’s tied together with the concept of fourths as an interval. Hence, 4th Stone from the Sun.” Then Sri Jimi, which is the closest in spirit to Hendrix, is so titled because it’s in Sri raga. And Pot Belly Blues is dedicated to ghatam players, “who proudly display their pot bellies while playing.”

As for Iguana, it got its name because the kanjeera is so funky in that song, and the kanjeera, of course, is made of iguana skin. I tell Prasanna that this number reminded me of Ilayaraja in his Tik Tik Tik days, the early eighties. The bass guitar riding along the synth bursts… things like that. Was this some sort of tribute, maybe a subconscious nod? “It wasn’t planned that way,” he says, “but yes, the wah-wah style of guitar playing I used was something that Ilayaraja used a lot in that period.”

That’s not the only reminder of Ilayaraja on this album. The maestro, in his heyday, had this near-miraculous ability to compose music that was incredibly layered, yet so much fun. There’s a number here, Snakebanger’s Ball, where there’s this bit in the raga Punnagavarali that segues to another raga, Subhapantuvarali. I tell Prasanna that perhaps for the first time in my life, I’d listened to a cheerful Subhapantuvarali. It’s usually so full of pathos when sung or played.

He first clarifies that the song was originally only in Subhapantuvarali. “The riff in the other raga just came out in the studio.” Then he gets serious about the stereotyping of ragas. “Any raga can express any emotion. Mukhari is supposed to be sad, but I jump when I listen to it. In any case, outside of my Carnatic kutcheris, I use ragas mainly as visual imagery, to paint a sonic landscape of a theme. For instance, in my album Peaceful, there’s a track Gaza, where I’ve used the raga Simhendramadhyamam to reflect on what’s happening in the Gaza Strip. So Simhendramadhyamam is a tool to get to the idea.”

Prasanna seems to have worked with a lighter set of tools in Electric Ganesha Land. He has stayed off the big, heavy ragas to a large extent, while there are unusual ones – like Revathi in Pot Belly Blues – that aren’t heard often even in kutcheris, let alone rock albums. Also, some ragas he plays with the signatures, some he barely manages to outline. He says he doesn’t consciously try to avoid any raga. “In Be the Change, there’s a really rocking song in Thodi. There’s a slamming, down-home-American, funk number based on Anandabhairavi and Sahana. So I do deal with major ragas in my non-Carnatic work.”

But the difference is that sometimes he treats a raga like a raga, sometimes like a scale, sometimes like something in between. “I like to give the impression that songs are based on a raga, but they actually aren’t.” He’s talking about Bowling for Peace, the most Carnatic-sounding piece in this album; the main melody is based on no particular raga, though the solos are in different ragas. “My work is all about camouflage. I think like a visual artist. I may paint a tree, but I don’t want to assume that you also look at it as a tree. It’s only as an afterthought that I discovered I’d used over 27 ragas in this album.” He playfully adds, “A lot of my fans are raga geeks. This gives them something to chew on.”

These fans, if they set their hearts and all their spare time to it, will have a lot to chew on. The piece titled Indra’s Necklace, for instance, is built around a bunch of ragas derived from Shankarabharanam. Also, this one and Eruption in Bangalore are the only numbers without any percussion. “But the similarity ends there,” says Prasanna. Eruption, which is based on Suddha Dhanyasi, “is very in-your-face rock and metal, while the other one is a sweet, little song.”

There’s more talk of percussion, and he narrates an amusing anecdote. I tell him that Snakebanger’s Ball comes to an end very abruptly, with a kanjeera roll that reminded me of a rattlesnake, and he laughs. “That kanjeera bit happened because the musicians didn’t know when to stop. I was thinking of fading it out in the mix. Then I thought it was so hip. The idea was to develop it to a climax, and then imagine that your string broke.” He laughs again. “I knew I had some amazing musicians with me, but I also put them through a lot of stress by not telling them what to do. So a lot of that tension, nervousness and uncertainty is captured in the recording.”

Most songs in Electric Ganesha Land have a similar backstory – say, the very psychedelic Dark Sundae in Triplicane. Triplicane, in Chennai, has this very conservative connotation, but this is the least “classical” piece in the album. It takes off with a lead, then there’s a distorted bass kind of sound. It would fit comfortably in a rock album, at least till the part it moves on to ragas. How did this number – the one Prasanna calls the most involved composition of the lot – come about? “It’s something I wrote for a classical string orchestra, and it’s been converted to this arrangement. It has influences of electronica, jazz, African elements, plus this Led Zeppelin wall of sound.” But why Triplicane? “My family grew up in Triplicane. I needed a reference to Chennai in the album, so this was it.”

The album comes to a close with the soothing Bowling for Peace. I tell Prasanna that the effect I got here is that of a mother rocking her child to sleep in a village in Tamil Nadu. I imagined a thooli on a branch, the mother humming a thalaattu… Is that something he had in mind? “That’s pretty close,” he says, “but I wanted to do something with a repetitive theme that people could sing along with – a rock bhajan, if you will.” The idea behind this song was the idea behind the album – to go away from the schooled musician approach. “Over the years, the extended guitar solo has become less prominent in popular music. I did this album because I felt it was time I went all out on my guitar. It’s about the joy of losing yourself in your playing, which is what Hendrix was all about.”

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