|Mendi and Luiz at SWC Birmingham 2011, from a video later in this post|
By the 80s, Birmingham was a centre for UK reggae, and that still goes on now, with all sorts of urban styles spinning off the Roots base.
But I think we’re seeing something else right now, something new, and it's hugely exciting: boundary-free musical experimentation, driven by savvy skilled musicians of all stripes and cultures, who simply work together on new projects. It's exciting and inspiring.
I don’t know how it works for you, but I get a dizzy thrill from watching and listening to outstanding musicians live. For all the buzz from online music, disks and mp3 players – and I wouldn’t change any of that – it’s always topped when a musician does something magical, right in front of me. That's getting into sacred territory.
I had a moment like that last year watching the performers above; you can see the full YouTube clip, shot on a smartphone at Songwriters Café last year.Tabla and Guitar. It's after the jump.
This is a live collaboration between Brazilian Luiz Gabriel Lopes and Birmingham’s Mendi Mohinder Singh. It’s not perfect: there’s camera wobble and audience noises; the music (and stability) only kicks in at 35 seconds, so scoot forward to that point if you like. From then on, it’s brilliant.
And the crowd goes bonkers at the end. I was sitting pretty close to the person who shot this – in the Songwriters Café, everyone sits pretty close – and the surprise and intensity of that performance knocked me out. There's more from Mendi and Luiz, further down this post.
Mendi Singh is 40; he’s been playing for 36 years. His first public performances, at 6, were in the local temple, round the corner from where he still lives, in Moseley; he still plays there. He's an outstanding classical tabla player, and also one of the most open musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching play. He collaborates and experiments across more genres than most people even listen to.
It’s one thing to show an aptitude, which your priest spotted. But how did you learn and develop – how were you brought along….?
"Once we started playing in the temple, the priest said that we must find a teacher. My brother and I studied with Hajinder Matharu; then we went to another teacher, Kuldip Matharu. Then his older brother, Ajit Singh Mutlashi, arrived from Kenya. He’s been my teacher for the past 20 years."So you’re learning – still - from the master of your masters?
"Yes. We were very lucky to have the same line of teachers, with the same concepts and ideas. We stayed in one line, one style of music and playing technique."Was there any question within your family of your not being a professional musician?
"No, they just let me be free. No compulsion. No ‘you must’ or ‘you must not’. They saw me involved, and were happy for me to do what I wanted to do."Mendi was touring at 18, after he was spotted by Birmingham-based bhangra star Malkit Singh.
"Malkit Singh auditioned me once, and then said ’We’re going to America, would you like to come?’ We used to do ten states of America and Canada, in April, and we went for five, six years, for a spring festival (Vaisakhi). We played three or four thousand capacity auditoriums, always sold out."So when you were out on tour in the States, did you get to work with other music styles then?
"Not at that time. I was so busy and the pay was great, travel was great. It took a lot of my time up. We went all over the world – Australia, Europe, the Philippines, Dubai, Muscat… but alongside I was always practising my classical technique, along with the commercial bhangra side."But you eventually left.
"Yes, after about ten years. I got to a point where my need to practise for the classical side was clashing with the bhangra side. I had to decide whether to carry on further with my classical side, to develop my technique, or to carry on with the pop bhangra side, which doesn’t. If I stayed as a percussionist in a big band, then the ideas I was developing wouldn’t be able to manifest themselves."So tell me: we’ve seen how sampling and drum sequencers have become ubiquitous in western pop. Sometimes that’s a good thing… sometimes definitely not. Did that happen with Bhangra too?
"It became remixed, starting about fifteen years ago. And once that happened, with samplers and tracks, rhythms became much more… fixed."
Spot Mendi playing with Malkit Singh in the video clip from 1991.
"When I left bhangra music, I didn’t have anything in place. I needed to develop my playing, to get into the classical scene. So for some years, I went totally into practise, to get to the point where wanted to be."Was your technique being degraded or damaged?
"It just wasn’t growing. The technique you use to play bhangra music… it’s limited, you could say. If you want to play with diverse cultures, or with classical Indian music, with sitar players, then your technique has to be at another point. I kind of realised that time was moving on, I was getting older, and I needed to do other things."But now you’re working at a ferocious pace, with all sorts of different collaborative cross-cultural projects. When did that start?
"After leaving Malkit Singh, my first world music collaboration with was with Pandit Ravi Shankar's nephew, Ananda Shankar - one of the pioneers of Indian fushion music. I recorded the tabla on his album at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. It was a fantastic opportunity. Both Ananda Shankar and Peter Gabriel had a great influence on my life; I was honoured to work with them."
"I started working with friends from other cultures pretty soon after that. Irish music was one of the first, with Sid Peacock and Ruth Angell. But at the same time I got in touch with Mr Shankar (Pandit Shalil Shankar). My brother used to play with him, he’s a friend of our teacher’s. One day, I said to him ‘I’d like to record a piece of music with you’, and he very kindly agreed. And I took him to the studio (Rich Bitch in Selly Oak), not realising what would be required. And we recorded something. I had an idea in my mind that I wanted to have one piece of sitar classical music, one Irish piece, one African piece… so I was trying to get bits and pieces together. After he heard me play, he very kindly invited me to Switzerland, where he lives, and taught me so many things about the technique of tabla playing. That was twelve years ago."
Shalil Shankar with Mendi, Mexico, 2006
And you’re still playing together.
"Yes. And with Mr Shankar we toured Argentina, America, Mexico, playing on another level. It gave me great confidence – understanding the music rather than just playing the tabla. From there, I got the confidence to play with other musicians and recognise their music, through the music itself. For that, I had to, again, re-do my playing and my technique, over about four years."Since then the range of collaborations Mendi has joined in with is breathtaking. This month, there’s been work with Deborah Rose. He also runs his own band, Global Folk, due to record soon, with a concert planned for the Town Hall in September. There’s a Jazz ensemble, too, and talk of a tabla/tap collaboration.
Mendi was one of the early guest collaborators with Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, and shone with them for much of 2011. A recent 2012 project was Culture Shock Moseley: eight musicians from eight different cultures rehearsing for a week, followed by a live performance. It’s too early to post the results – they’re still being edited – but as soon as they are to hand, I will add them here.
It’s a three-track career – classical work, his own personal music projects, and explosive experimental collaborative work here and abroad. And he still plays in his local temple.
How easy is it for you to get hold of instruments of the quality you need? Are there good instrument makers in the UK, or do you have get them in from the old country?
"I’ve got some friends who import tabla skins… They’ll get in touch when they get a new batch in, so I can re-skin my tablas. I did go to India a couple of times, and went to the tabla makers, and got involved in tabla construction with the makers. But you need to spend some time in India if you’re going to do this."How sensitive are instruments like tablas to humidity and heat?
"Very sensitive. We have to cover them up. Rain and heat all affect the tone."So when you fly to, say Brazil, and you put your instruments in the hold, which may or may not be pressurised, and may or may not be kept at the same temperature as the cabin, does that not affect them?
"I loosen my tablas, and take all the pegs out so there’s no chance of stretching or damage. Then I slowly and gently tune them all up when I get to my destination, after they’ve come back up to room temperature. Instruments like sitars have to have the same treatment. When you go to see Ravi Shankar, or Anoushka or Mr Shankar, and they’ve just come back from a flight, they’re always tuning their instrument throughout the concert. These instruments are so sensitive, and travel turns it all upside down."
Mendi and Luiz - Brasil 2012
Tell me about Brazil….?
"Last September, some Brazilian musicians came to England (organised by Espirito Brum). I was invited to meet them: there was Gilberto, a pianist, and Luiz Gabriel, a singer-songwriter. After meeting up and chatting, we went straight on stage and played together. I was very pleased, and so was Luiz. It worked very well. So then I was invited to Brazil, in April this year. We did some concerts together, and some talks and workshops at Universities. I went two weeks early before the planned visit, and did more concerts with Luiz… and that led to more collaborations and concerts… I was swept off my feet."After lifelong playing and learning, are you now in a position to be a teacher?
"I don’t teach, no, but I do like to share, to show how it works. In Brazil a lot of people have tablas, so I was able to show them some approaches."
Mendi - solo improvisation, Brazil, 2012
"My latest work is writing the worlds first Tabla and Tarang Tabla concerto for full orchestra. I've worked on this with Gareth Jones, and we are planning to premiere the concerto in Birmingham very soon."
Wow. As I said at the start, there's something new going on. Inspiring works from inspiring people are emerging everywhere. The results are starting to show up on record, with albums that national – sadly, not local - radio is praising to the skies.
It’s my hunch that in ten year’s time we’ll look back on a new music era in this town. It feels like a new golden age to me. I have no idea how we’ll wind up describing it all, because it’s so diverse. But it’s going to wrap Jazz, Rock, Folk, World, Dance, Urban and Asian grooves up in new and wondrous forms. It’s happening right now. Mendi - and many others - are part of it.
Get it while it's hot.
Tabla Music Entertainment: Mendi's website
There's some very detailed and technical tabla stuff at Pete Lockett's tabla page..
July 13th: Pandit Shalil Shankar and Mendi Singh, Birmingham Buddhist Centre
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We're damn lucky. There's an unending variety of great music on our doorstep. I'm covering as much as I can get to. And I would love to hear from you... tell me what you might like to see covered, or feed back on what's already here using the comments link at the top of the post.