American percussionist Mark Stone tells Esther Elias about his journey through world percussion systems and the common ground between them

Could African and American percussion instruments back a Carnatic kutcheri? American percussionist and educator Mark Stone is in Coimbatore with the Carnatica Brothers, Shashikiran and Ganesh, to prove it can.

“I had only listened to Hindustani and Carnatic classical music as part of academic work until 2009, when a student of the Brothers’ introduced them to me after their concert in Michigan,” says Mark. “One listen and I knew they were world-class musicians.”

The Brothers had also brought with them mridangam exponent Guruvayur Dorai. “It was his genius that really sparked my interest in Carnatic percussion,” he says.

Mutual admiration soon led to collaboration and the Carnatica Brothers were in Michigan twice over the next two years to perform with Mark at the Sarovar festival hosted by Oakland University, where Mark coordinates the World Music and Percussion Programmes. “We’ve been planning performances in India for the last three years but things finally clicked this year and here we are!” says Mark, in Coimbatore at the close of his two-week debut tour of India.

Mark’s concert at Sarojini Nataraj Auditorium in Kikani Higher Secondary School featured two compositions by the Carnatica Brothers, two originals written by him and two by his Ghanaian tutor Bernard Woma, among others.

“The process of collaborating across diverse musical traditions is one of alternatively teaching and learning. I bring a musical idea to the table and they improvise it in their musical language and vice versa. Eventually we begin speaking and understanding each other’s language,” says Mark.

Despite the differences in the musical roots, there’s much common ground between Carnatic music and American jazz, both theoretically and practically, explains Mark.

“To begin with, both follow similar song structures in that they open with a bare musical skeleton and through the piece, each musician takes turns to improvise on it. The differences however appear where the Western canon prioritises harmony while Carnatic music is rhythm and melody driven.”

Equivalent systems

On a larger scale though, Mark believes music traditions worldwide are interlinked because every human has the same hearing mechanisms and therefore recognises naturally occurring overtones. “What’s Sa and Pa in Carnatic music is the first and fifth equivalent in Western classical music. So it’s essentially what we do with these overtones that differs from culture to culture,” he says.

As a professor and performer of world percussion, Mark has spent the last 20 years playing a thousand-year-old instrument from Ghana named gyil. It is part of the xylophone family and features bars of wood placed over hollowed gourds, the holes in which produce a buzz when the bars are struck. “African and Carnatic musical traditions are equally old. Hence, the gyil blends particularly well with Ganesh’s chitravina,” observes Mark.

During his travels in Africa, he also picked up the karimba, a South African wooden instrument about two palms wide with metal keys called tines that are plucked with the thumbs to produce notes over two octaves. Mark also plays the array mbira which is a more versatile version of the karimba. “It has over 120 keys and it approximates the variations in most ragas,” he says.

Also in his repertoire for Coimbatore is the kalangu, an hourglass shaped ‘talking drum’. It can change pitch when the strings that connect its two skins are compressed, somewhat like the pressure one puts on the sides of the kanjira and mridangam, explains Mark, who’s learnt both instruments from Guruvayur Dorai.

Mark’s journey through the percussion world began as a six-year-old when his neighbour taught him the marimba. “He had multiple sclerosis. So when I stood beside his wheelchair and played with him, we’d both be the same height!” Those beginnings led to degrees in world percussion and an exploration of American, European, African, Caribbean and most recently, Asian percussion systems. These interests came together in Jumbie Records, a label he co-founded to support and publicise unusual artistic ventures in the above genres.

Says Mark, “Music is an extension of our expression. While African music may articulate the African experience and Indian music, the Indian experience, ultimately we reflect human emotion and express a common humanity.”

Music is an extension of our expression. While African music may articulate the African experience and Indian music, the Indian experience, ultimately we reflect human emotion and express a common humanity