Composer Paul Jacob draws inspiration from sources as disparate as Tamil folk and Sufi. He tells GOWRI RAMNARAYAN that the challenge lies in bridging the distance between classical and folk artistes
“Iniya Tamil kalaignargalukku vanakkam!” This perfect welcome speech came from a Chinese girl, the translator for the 44-member group of artistes from Tamil Nadu. Team leader Paul Jacob recalls, “Didn’t trust my Tamil after that. Stuck to English.”
The group introduced a new kind of music to Chinese audiences — arranged by composer Paul Jacob from sources as disparate as Tamil folk, Carnatic, Hindustani, jazz, Baul, Jharkhandi, Mangniyar, Mir, Nagore Sufi songs, Indonesian, Burmese, Thai folk, African drums, Tibetan Buddhist chant…
The major challenge is to bridge the distance between classical and folk artistes, who inhabit different worlds. But offstage bonding on tours leads to spur-of-the-moment exchanges in performances. Carnatic musicians accompany Buddhist chants, Indonesians meld with Langas. Sometimes their 90-minute schedule expands to 4 hours of jamming. Together, they electrify listeners from Tel Aviv and Nanjing to Colombo.
Paul mentions music producer Sam Mills who helped him understand methods of integrating different cultures; quality control he learnt from French producer Francois Breant and sound engineer Didier Weiss. Moved by ongoing efforts in Europe to bring music education to survivors of communal violence, he hopes to start similar projects in Chennai.
The learning is constant and multi-directional. “I didn’t even know about the French Union Islands with their African-Indian population, until they supported our music,” laughs Paul. He discovered that south Asian and African artistes were drifting towards each other, and Europe has a fantastic support system for top quality presentations.
Launching the Laya Project to raise funds to help artistes in the tsunami affected countries was to identify little known genres. They flowed into a DVD winning awards in Sydney and New York. “We mixed motifs — Carnatic musicians playing Indonesian, Thai musicians picking up a Sufi strain…” Around this time Paul’s involvement with Chennai Sangamam meant that the results could be heard live in the city, as they were in Berlin and Paris.
Belief in a great future cannot erase present hassles, starting with folk artistes without passport and permanent address. “We faced extreme suspicion right through our Israel tour with our Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian musicians. The Buddhist from a Mysore monastery with refugee status in India spent a week in airports in Turkey, Ethiopia and London, before he was allowed to return to India!”
Paul’s passion for world music began in childhood when he heard Shakti and the Uriah Heep Band. He ran away from his conservative Catholic family and tried to become a musician, starting with guitar and bass, then moving on to other instruments. “Not a respectable profession then!”
To continue evening college at Loyola, Paul taught underprivileged children in the morning and took care of a video library in the afternoon. “In the quiet library, I listened, practised, thought about the kind of music I wanted to make.” Playing in five-star hotels for Viji Cheyyur and Keith Peters developed insight into jazz.
Nemesis Avenue (1989-1994) was the turning point. Dilip, now (A.R) Rahman, with whom Paul had been competing since schooldays, was a member of the new band. “He was outstanding! Little chance did anyone have with his one man band of two levels of keyboard, and bass managed with his foot! I’m not surprised he became the most intelligent music producer in this country. And in surroundings littered with nonsense.”
At this time Paul began to haunt Carnatic concerts and learnt percussion from T.H. Subhash Chandran. Applause for “Brahma” with violinists Ganesh and Kumaresh increased confidence.
At Chennai’s Other Festival “Funki Bodhi music” (with Maarten Visser, Donald Murray, Bonny Chakraborty, Neil Mukherji and Carnatic singers Palghat Sriram and Pushpa Sriram) proved a hit. Paul’s Bodhi Records studio — and its commercial work for ads and documentaries — support the ventures of team members. “Joint Family Production,” consisting of artistes from cinema, theatre and music and to be launched on June 22, actualises Paul’s conviction that the future for experimental music lies in the networking of independent music producers and labels.
Today Paul plays with the group, never centre stages himself. His missionary zeal for taking the arts of this country to other parts of the world — in live shows and albums — is a task of several lifetimes.
But has Paul the composer and producer, forgotten Paul the performer? “No. What we create together is far more powerful than what I or any single musician can achieve on his own. We live in dark, difficult times of ethnic violence and power struggles. Music can do much to educate us, bring people together, make us feel our common humanity.”