Published: 26th August 2019
These indigenous musicians from Coimbatore are trying to bring back the music of the ancestors
Charumathi Muralidharan and Leon James not only create their own unique form of music but make their own musical instruments too
Have you ever listened to the earthy rhythms of the Australian didgeridoo? Well, I happened to listen to it recently and I must say that the arresting sound was so in sync with my heartbeat that all I could hear was a soft ‘booo’ instead of the ‘lubb and dubb’ that I was expecting. The sounds kept resonating in my ear long after I settled for a chat with indigenous musicians-cum-theatre artistes Leon James and Charumathi Muralidharan, who took me on a trip down the ‘ancestral’ lane of indigenous music.
As I wondered why these tunes were so soothing and why I felt like I had a ‘soul connection’ with them, Charumathi AKA Charu explained to me that it was because the didgeridoo, like other indigenous musical instruments, is not electronically amplified like modern musical instruments. “Traditional music originated from these instruments. What makes them truly unique is the fact that they are all made from natural resources like wood, leather, clay and so on. The sounds that resonate from them are so characteristically different from their modern counterparts,” said Charu, who has been an indigenous musician for more than five years now. “If you have no gadgets connected, then all you will hear are the authentic tunes of the instrument, as is. There is no room for sound checks or Auto-Tune,” she laughed.
Play Right: They use their unique instruments in theatre plays
(Pic: U Rakesh Kumar)
Talking about the history of these instruments, Leon, whose tryst with tribal music began ten years ago, said, “I prefer referring to them as ‘indigenous instruments’. I do not want to use the word ‘tribal’ because this is the music of our ancestors. This is the music that our forefathers created and it has been passed on from generation to generation. What is most significant about them is that they are an important link in the relationship between humans and nature.” He is highly critical of the fact that most millennials are not even aware of the existence of these unique instruments. “It is utterly shameful that we don’t know anything about our musical roots. If we don't do enough research and find ways of preserving them, then they will forever be erased from our collective memory," he pointed out.
Despite belonging to a generation where anybody can play any digital instrument of their choice by installing apps like GarageBand, Walk Band, etc, how did this duo find their way to these indigenous instruments? "My Melbourne-based cousin introduced me to them. At first glance, I thought it was either a weapon or a walking stick,” Leon chuckled, pointing to the didgeridoo. Leon, who is no stranger to the field of music and has been playing the guitar and keyboard for many years, was so taken with the instrument that he began looking for teachers in his city of Coimbatore, hoping to take professional lessons. “I asked my contacts and they, in turn, asked people they knew and so on. But we soon realised that all our efforts were in vain. So, I decided to try my hand at it, without anyone’s help. Everything was trial and error. But as time passed, I learnt how to master it," explained Leon. Fortunately for Charu, she found a guru in Leon.
Rare and unique: The Didgeridoo is an Australian tribal instrument usually made from eucalyptus trees (Pic: Leon James)
While listening intently to their stories, I strolled around Charu’s place to discover many different instruments, most of which I had never seen before in my life. Curiosity got the better of me and I couldn't refrain from asking them where they were imported from. Much to my surprise, Leon said, "I make most of the instruments from scratch. We import only those that we cannot make." I gaped in awe as Leon continued to tell me about the making of his very first didgeridoo. “I failed miserably the first time when I tried making it using bamboo. The second time around, I tried making it again using bamboo, but this time using a different technique and voila! It worked! But I became very impressed with it only after I started to play it. I cannot explain the euphoric feeling I got. I felt like I had scaled Mount Everest and planted a flag at its peak. I get the same feeling with all the instruments I make including the African djembe, African kalimba, kazoo, Turkish darbuka and ravanahatha," Leon explained.
At this point, I had to ask them an important and practical question — 'Where do you play these instruments?'. “In our plays, where else?” interjected Leon, who is also a theatre artiste like Charu. He added, “Especially in live performances. We play with a lot of light, sound and music. Every musical instrument we have here can mimic nature. That is their USP.” 'Mimic nature'? I had to be honest and confess that I felt he was going a bit overboard with such words. To assuage my doubts, Leon immediately took a black cylinder attached to a spring wire out of nowhere and started shaking it. I instinctively peeped out of the balcony to check if it was raining. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sound came from the cylindrical instrument called the rainmaker.
Rain, rain, come again: The rainstick is believed to have been invented by the Mapuches and was played in the belief that it could bring about rainstorms (Pic: U Rakesh Kumar)
Through their theatre performances, the duo aims to draw music enthusiasts to indigenous music. “People don't pay much attention to us, the artistes; they only look at the instruments that we play. We let the audiences come and touch the instruments, just giving them a chance to be acquainted with them. We also conduct workshops for people who are interested in these instruments. Some of my students even conduct their own workshops now," said Leon. As the duo deals with these ‘ancient’ instruments on a daily basis, they are naturally inclined to history in general and ‘historical places’ in particular. “We love going to places of historical importance and always try to perform in these places too. Recently, we were fortunate to play our instruments at the Arachalur cave in Erode. We were mesmerised by the cave inscriptions. It felt so wonderful performing there – we felt in sync with history as well as nature," Leon added.
Charu and Leon now plan to make musical instruments on a larger scale using innovative methods, so that they can reach more music enthusiasts. “Take the didgeridoo, for example. Bringing them in bulk all way from Australia is pretty difficult. To make it affordable for people, you have to be creative. You have to think of alternatives to make these instruments using materials that can be locally sourced, like bamboo or fibreglass. The tricky part is to make it look and sound authentic," Leon commented.