It’s 20 years since Carola Grey’s band Noisy Mama cut its first album. Ahead of its anniversary concert, she shares with the writer notes of her unique musical recipe
“Fusion music shouldn’t be like pouring curry over pasta.” That’s a statement German drummer Carola Grey loves to tell everyone. “It’s about respecting each individual style of music.” After two decades of blending Indian classical music with rock and jazz, through her band Noisy Mama, nuance has become Carola’s forte. Ahead of the band’s 20th anniversary celebration concert at the Gasteig Cultural Centre in Munich, she rewinds on a musical journey that started with a fight with her mother.
“I began studying music when I was four, jazz when I was 11 and I was a rebellious little girl who didn’t want to practice the piano for six hours a day,” she says. So Carola struck a bargain with her mother: “She said I could learn any other instrument I liked, as long as I kept at the piano alongside. So I picked up the drums; mostly because they were loud.” At the time Carola was also in a ‘jazz-fusion’ band that played a lot of Miles Davis-like music. After school, she received a degree in jazz drums and arrangement from Germany, followed it up with six years in New York, freelancing and studying music. “Those years were just about surviving as a musician. I’d play anything. That laid a good foundation.”
It was in 1991 that Carola first floated Noisy Mama as an acoustic jazz quintet. By 1994, it had released its first album and veered toward jazz-rock, a sound that Padma Bhushan T.V. Gopalakrishnan loved enough to invite Carola to India for a collaborative Carnatic-jazz project. And thus began her crash course in Indian classical music. “It took me a while to understand what was going on, and adjust to it. These rhythm patterns are created to be played with just the hands. So transcribing it for the drum set, to be played with an entire body, is a whole other experience.”
The Indian influence in Noisy Mama, though, remained unheard through their first two albums — The Age of Illusions (1994) and Girls Can’t Hit (1998). It made itself loud and clear in Road to Goa (2012) featuring 20 artistes from India and Germany. The album spans 11 tracks, stretching from some of Carola’s earliest material to her more recent compositions. “The making of it was insane. It was mostly me and my equipment travelling between these two countries recording individual artistes and finally mixing the whole album in Chennai. I was never quite sure it would all come together, until it did.”
The sheer variety of compositions on the album is testimony to Carola’s diverse creative impulses. Inspiration could come from a peaceful evening by the beach, an interesting beat structure overheard at a wedding procession, or stray sounds at a concert. “I’m always writing new music. Because I still play the piano, a song usually starts with a melodic or harmonic progression either from the Western system or a raga structure. A set of chords will come together and then it’s a process that at some point just does it by itself.”
Carola’s key though has always been accessibility, especially when it comes to playing her Indian music before a Western audience. “Indian classical music can be strange to the western ear. At first it could be impressive because of its speed or complexity, but if they don’t feel the music, you’ve lost them.” Her answer has often been to open with a beat that’s familiar to Western traditions and gradually build Indian rhythm patterns, konnakol for instance, over it so that the listener can understand the depth of percussion calculations.
Besides drumming, Carola is also a music director and producer. “That’s mostly because I’m stubborn. I hate being dependant on anyone. So I slowly built my own studio and now I record others as well.” She began moonlighting as a singer too 10 years ago and now writes short lyrical portions into her instrumental compositions.
Carola has also enjoyed a long-standing collaboration with guitarist John Anthony at his band Karnatriix. At her core though, she remains a drummer, performing regularly at solo drummers-only events world over. In speech too, she’s widely animated, her fingers tap beats out constantly and you know she’s calculating rhythm patterns in her head. For now, her energies are concentrated on the Munich concert where the Indian members of Noisy Mama will meet their German counterparts. “It’s going to be interesting!”