A. Sivamani takes Bhumika K. on a stream-of-consciousness kind of chat, meandering between playing rhythm on the surface of a swimming pool, the energy in playing in temples and dargahs, and memories of practising on Chennai’s beaches
There isn’t a surface that he can’t make music on. A. Sivamani, or Drums Sivamani, has made percussion more a visual treat than just an aural experience. People have come to expect him to create magical sounds just out of anything — plastic dabbas, kadhais, buckets of water, his cheeks, an upturned dustbin…and of course, drums! And Sivamani never fails to surprise you. His percussion for songs in films like Roja, Rang De Basanti or Rockstar may have set the numbers on fire, but his strength still lies in his charged live performances. He’s currently composing music for Tamil movie Arima Nambi. In Bangalore for a concert at the microbrewery U4IA-Euphoria, he says he was up all night composing a song on his laptop. “I FaceTime with A.R. Rahman every night while I’m composing and he offers me tips,” he says. And no, Rahman hasn’t sung for him in this film, as rumoured. Excerpts from an interview.
You’re working on the second part of your album Mahaleela…
Yes, it’s called Tu Hi Tu. It’s a video-based album. It’s all about sound. I’m planning to do one of the videos in a restaurant, another in a saloon. I’ve recorded a water video already. (He plays it on his phone. The number has Sivamani beating water on the surface of a swimming pool, like drums, to Runa Rizvi’s singing). I was in the water for three hours shooting this! It’s all about love. At Kochi, I was walking in the hotel after dinner, saw a beautiful blue pool, and I just thought, can’t you play in the water? So that was how the concept for the song came. I recorded there only. I put the Click Track (app) in my phone…that’s why I love Apple…we can create music on the spot. I recorded the water rhythm. Stephen Devassy, one of the greatest pianists, keyboardists, and a good programmer, Runa and me have come up with this album. One other song is going to be a street song, with spontaneous recording.
You play your drums at temples in all the cities you visit…
Whenever I’m in Mumbai, every Tuesday I play at the Siddhi Vinayak temple for the aarti at 5 ’o clock. I feel good energy. When I’m on stage, my audience are my energy. Playing in such places, somehow I feel connected with god. And I’m sharing that prasad with everybody. I have a frame drum that I have specially kept for playing in temples. I play at the Mahalakshmi temple, at the Haji Ali Baba dargah. I brought a huge drum from Rajasthan which I put in the Haji Ali dargah and it’s torn now so I’m going to substitute it with my drum, the one I use for A.R. Rahman’s recordings. That’s my seva. I never learnt music, never went to college, no gurukulam, I just got this magic, luck. Wherever I am, my hand goes like that (demonstrates playing on any surface). I tell mom that’s my property (shows his hands).
You had a percussionist for a father. What made you take to percussion in your early days? Why not other any other instrument?
My first instrument was the violin. I couldn’t keep up with the violin! Then it was the harmonium. I have to thank my father, my god, my guru S.M. Anandan (a well-known percussionist in the Tamil film industry) who initiated me into melody; not drums. That’s why today I can compose on the harmonium. But drums is my first love. When my father played the drums at home, he was dead against my playing it. He wouldn’t let me touch his drum-kit. I would go away angry to the kitchen and play on the utensils. During Pongal festival, specially on Boghee day, they sell small drums in the street. All young boys would play together – like a group drumming session. I used to play with them, and my father used to hate that. I used to hide the drum. Finally, my father realised this boy has rhythm. Again he showed the path — to my gurus Noel Grant, Billy Cobham, Trilok Gurtu, and Lewis Pragasam. These drummers are my idols in my style of playing.
How have you evolved as a musician? You’ve been playing since 1975… more than 35 years!
I’m in the ocean, I’m swimming. There’s no end and whatever I do is spontaneous; I never plan. Thanks to god I was born a musician in this life. People ask me if I’ve got any award. I’m not worried about awards. My biggest achievement is all the kids who are inspired by me, my drumming, and transferring my technique.
You were planning a gurukulam…
I am not a good teacher. I’m a good performer. My gurukulam will be with nature. I’m planning to start one in Khandivili, where I live, under the bridge. When I was in Chennai I used to practise on the beach. All the fisherman’s kids would come and watch. I would tie up my eyes so I don’t look at them. The kids would be curious. If I open my eyes, I will be disturbed. They asked me what I was doing. I told them “you also try”. I would tie up their eyes and give them my drumsticks and say I’ll count 1 to 100 and you play to the beat. Recently, I judged a talent show for a Tamil TV channel. A boy did a drum solo with his eyes tied, with fire on his drumsticks, I gave him first prize- for his creativity. That boy said “When I was young, you used to practise on the beach, you tied my eyes.” That touched my heart. I want to use the technique with street kids in Mumbai, who beg at signals. I want to train such kids and show them a good path. I want to give free education.