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- Posted on Jan 27th 2009 3:00PM by Steve Hochman
Odds are good that you've spoken with someone in Bangalore more recently than you have with some of your closest relatives and friends, thanks to it having become the call center for the world - which is to blame for the rapidly growing city having gained a somewhat accurate reputation as having an ultra-modern tech-world heartbeat. But if the catalog agent or IT consultant on the other end could have strolled outside while chatting, you might well have heard something as described above in the background. It's amid this distinctive, perhaps contradictory combination of cultures in which Prakash Sontakke, introduced to Around the World by Canadian musician Jonathan Bernard of the Orchid Ensemble, has been developing a fittingly singular approach to music that arguably reflects the surroundings.
In the spartan ground-floor music room of his house in the Basavanagudi neighborhood -- several sitars, a harmonium, some percussion tools, cabinets with awards and memorabilia -- he pulls out the instrument with which he's evolved his music: an acoustic slide guitar with grafted on drone strings, called a dev veena.
"This is still one of my favorite guitars," he says of the custom contraption, playing a few warm-up licks.
And then, with a pause to switch his cell phone to "silent," he launches into 'Raag Bhimpalasi,' starting with an atmospheric, establishing alaap and then moving to the heartier body of the piece, improvising on the proscribed scale in Indian tradition but stretching the form with some surprisingly effective and emotionally invigorating bluesy chords, some Hawaiian-style legatos and some jazz-tinged passing notes and connecting phrases. With ease, and with some construction next door as percussive punctuation, he coaxes haunting harmonics utilizing some remarkable sustain with the high strings, balancing it with sturdy counterpoint from the low strings. In places it's comparable, or perhaps complementary, to some playing associated with late guitar stretchers John Fahey and Robbie Basho and such current young Turks as English player James Blackshaw. (A recording of Sontakke's performance from this day is below.)
A native of the holy city of Veranasi who, at 36, has lived his adult life in Bangalore, he's a lighthearted fellow with an easy laugh and an engaging conversational manner. On the drive to his house, he's already discussed a wide range of influences and heroes, citing everyone from his parents (violinist/vocalist Dr. R.B. Sontakke and multi-instrumentalist Dr. Mimi Sontakke, both noted music scholars, teachers and performers) to jazz innovator Pat Metheny to Sting to Steve Vai to Ben Harper to several country-music sidemen. One he keeps coming back to is American guitarist Bob Brozman, who has taken the Hawaiian guitar around the world with a vast range of projects, capturing the whole spectrum on his own 2007 "one-man orchestra" album 'Lumiere.'
It's abundantly evident that Sontakke has seamlessly integrated his inspirations into a fully realized, involvingly personal and deftly virtuosic fabric that he's been applying in contexts ranging from very traditional Indian classical music to fusions with percussionist Karthik Subramanya and Vancouver guitarist/flutist/vocalist Prashant John in the trio Lehera and projects with such European jazz figures as German pianist Mike Herting. It's served him well whether performing with his wife, Indian classical singer Chaitra Sontakke (who had been a disciple of his parents), or opening for Jethro Tull a few years ago or jamming with Ozomatli when the eclectic Los Angeles band invited him to collaborate in a Bangalore concert.
'Devi' (by Lehera)
Brijbhusan Kabra (a particular inspiration to Sontakke) and V.M. Bhatt pioneered the use of slide guitar in the music here in southern India's Carnatic region (the latter with his Mohan Veena, so named because the tone and timbre of the slide guitar bears some resemblance to the veena, a smaller cousin to the northern India sitar). Others, including Debashish Bhattacharya, have further developed the approach. But Sontakke has brought his own modifications both to the instrument itself and to the music played on it. The one he's playing at the moment, he shows, has eight strings across the fretboard, flanked on the side closest to him by a set of drone strings -- "sort of like a sitar."
But on the other side of the fretboard are two more drone strings that he strums with a little twang. "Slightly banjo-ish," he says, with a mischievous grin. And, in fact, another major influence he names is banjo boundaries-breaker Béla Fleck.
"When an instrument has so many sounds, why not use them?" he says when finished with the piece. And yet he accomplished that with no sense of gratuitous eclecticism or showiness. "Some want to sound like a sitar or sarod, but I'm not interested in that."
The same attitude extends to his whole approach to music, whatever context -- even if it can be frustrating at times. Indian classical music provides him the most work, with two or three gigs a week at events such as corporate parties and conventions that have been on the upswing with the Bangalore tech boom. The modern presence, though, has not translated into much local interest for the explorations of new forms and fusions. Many Indians, he says, are entrenched in traditions and question any playing that deviates.
"Three or four years ago back I tried something with country, starting a band that was totally Indian but with country elements," he cites as one example. "But while we were still in rehearsals, some thought it was childish."
And the influx of young workers in recent years has also not brought much curiosity for his wide-ranging passions.
"You don't find that change happening," he says with a sigh. "It's just bringing in more commercial music. So many people coming to Bangalore, but we don't find so much musical styles coming in. The parallel market in the U.S. exists, the alternative underground that can have an audience. Here it doesn't exist."
A little later, having switched to a different slide guitar variation, an electric-acoustic trapezoid called a swarveena, he casually offers a two-chord glissando that is strikingly familiar.
"'Dark Side of the Moon,'" he says, with a sly grin.
And that contrast, somehow, is for Bangalore, too.
'Hari Kunida Reprise' (Prakash Sontakke studio recording)