A world beyond Carnatic

Students of KM Music Conservatory PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN  

The whiff of Margazhi is in the air, with sabhas around the city prepping for a marathon of performances. Artistes have their schedules sorted, and NRIs, their tickets. Even as Chennai gleams in the attention it gets from all over the world for its home-grown art this season, what many do not know is that the home of Carnatic music has also been a breeding ground for Western contemporary sound, thanks to schools such as K M Music Conservatory, Arumbakkam, and Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, ECR, — both established in 2008.

Scotland-born Adam Greig, a faculty at KMMC, explains, “While Western music has been there in the city for a long time in terms of church music, there is now a gradual explosion of people taking to it. Our aim is to introduce Western music to the new generation.” KMMC is the brainchild of AR Rahman, “who realised there is no young talent to replace the senior members of the orchestra team he works with, once they retire. He wanted a school that would provide holistic training to students, complete with the knowledge of production, composition and history of music from the 1500s — a school that would train students to write and analyse music, but, more importantly, to interact with society as artistes,” says Adam.

Besides KMMC and SAM, Chennai is also home to schools such as the Institute of Music Technology (IMT), Academy of Western Music and Musee Musical, to mention a few, which focus on Western music, and have produced musicians who are now part of music bands, playback singing and film music production. A few examples include singer Alyssa Mendonsa (who debuted in the Bollywood soundtrack of Karthik Calling Karthik) and solo guitarist Vivek Venugopal (who released his album Musings recently) — both graduates of SAM — and music composer Vishal Chandrashekhar ( Jil Jung Juk), who graduated from KMMC.

John Satya, who founded IMT in 2004, says, “When we started the school, there were hardly any Western contemporary musicians or institutes — except for Shruthi Institute of Music, which shut down for a while, but is reopening soon. But now, there is a training school in every corner,” he says.

IMT trains students in hip hop, rock, pop and jazz, focussing on music grade exams of Trinity College London. Meanwhile, institutes such as SAM and KMMC expose students to all kinds of music, and let them create their own fusion. “For example, in the Foundation course classes, I ask them: Have you heard the native music of Iceland? Or the tribal folk songs of Guatemala?” says Adam.

Curious to know what ‘Western contemporary fusion’ sounds like, I walk into a free concert by SAM students on a weekday evening at Rani Seethai Hall. The show, called Global Fusion, begins with a jazz and blues number, followed by a Latin American song and a Carnatic fusion. It’s a concoction of music from the East and the West. The diversity in the line-up of songs is a reflection of the students at SAM, 20 per cent of whom are from abroad and almost 75 per cent from across India. “Just about five per cent of our students is from Chennai,” says Siddhartha Ramanathan, an ex-student of SAM, who currently takes care of the Business Development. “We have a diverse range of students coming in — both hobby musicians and those who take it as seriously as an engineering course. Some with a base in Carnatic music join the college to explore other genres such as jazz, and then there are students from the U.S. who come to learn Carnatic music as part of their PhD programme. As a student, I was taught the guitar by four teachers from Europe, South America, the U.S. and South Africa!” he says.

Most of the trainers in these schools are professional musicians themselves, and step in for a semester or two to train the students. “SAM also follows the Gurukul system of teaching, which I think is beautiful. I just have to teach from my experience, and not follow a set syllabus,” says professor Sid Jacobs from the U.S., who is a professor at the prestigious Musicians Institute, and is at SAM for the fall semester. He says that the students and teachers stay, eat and jam together in the same campus, which is over 90 km away from the city.

While SAM runs the course in partnership with McNally Smith College of Music and an Electronic Music Production course in partnership with Garnish Music Production School, London, KMMC’s syllabus is approved by Middlesex University. It also runs long-term projects with Berklee College of Music, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland University and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Students are often given the opportunity to pursue the last few semesters of their courses abroad; most make it to institutions such as Berklee.

“Our aim is to provide education of an international level, and make students industry-ready. For example, we collaborated with Roli, a young dynamic company from London, to launch Seaboard officially in India. A bunch of our students also performed a show using the device, in London. One of our students is also interning at Roli, while pursuing studies abroad,” says Adam.

“There is no point persuading Indian parents about their children taking up music as a viable career without showing them the change. And institutes such as KMMC, SAM, Global Music Institute, Delhi, which was started by a couple of Berklee graduates, and True School of Music in Mumbai, are helping fill this hole in the education system,” he says.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 6:00:51 AM |

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