Tucker tapes

American-born clarinetist and music composer Shankar Tucker on his upcoming debut album Filament, his love for Indian classical music and more.

June 19, 2015 07:51 pm | Updated 07:51 pm IST

Shankar Tucker

Shankar Tucker

In 2007, when Shankar Tucker was attempting to play Indian classical music on his clarinet on a beach in Kerala, he was stung when a passer-by asked him if he’d just started playing. In fact, at that point, he had been playing for many years and was doing well back home. Now, he’s famous world over for fusing styles and giving Indian music a spin like no other clarinetist has done before.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, he got the name Shankar from spiritual guru Mata Amritanandamayi when he was in the third grade. “I just asked my teachers and friends to start calling me Shankar, and I’ve been going by it ever since. Nobody there even looked twice, but people in India were more surprised about my name!” he states.

Indian music was a growing interest when he was in university, especially after listening to ‘Remember Shakti’. “I was in the orchestra music programme and felt like that I didn’t belong there. I wanted to improvise and do different things. I would get Indian music CDs out of the library, listen to them and play along with them,” he says. His dreams of India came true when he received a grant to study with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. His friends didn’t understand what was going on, but his family was supportive. “But I didn’t really give them a choice. It was more like ‘Hey, I got this grant, I’m going to India… see you!’” he laughs.

It wasn’t easy though. As the clarinet is traditionally seen as an instrument unsuited for Indian music, he initially had trouble getting in playing some notes. “It was like starting all over again. That hurts, because you want to get that over with when you’re a kid. You start making music that sounds good, and then to go back and do it again…ugh! But it was really satisfying,” he amends.

The ShrutiBox, his YouTube channel that shot him to popularity, happened when he was in Mumbai. “I was a foreigner in India, practising Indian music, and I didn’t know where to go from there. I had to find a way to showcase my music to people,” he says. After having recently shifted base back to the USA, he plans to return to India soon. “I love the country. I spend a lot of time in Mumbai; the music community there is really positive and energetic. It’s a wonderful place to create and practise music. I also visit Chennai on every trip,” he says.

Filament, his debut album , marks his shift from covers and mashups to original compositions. With over ten tracks featuring various artists like Vijay Prakash, Shakthisree Gopalan, Devendra Pal Singh, HN Bhaskar and Nirali Kartik, the album is the result of two years of hard work. “After getting funded, things changed. I started again from scratch and recomposed everything, and the album has turned out completely different from how I first envisioned it,” he says. “I’m not complaining, it’s a good thing. Going back and refining things and doing whatever was necessary to take the album to the next level was a long and arduous creative process but I’m happy to see it finally reaching people.”

So, what’s filament about? “What’s the common thread you can take from the culture I grew up with in the west and what I later studied in India? What can you create with that thread? Connecting cultures and traditions – that’s the idea behind this album,” he says. The songs are mostly in Hindi, with a couple of exceptions. Shakthisree’s song is called ‘Amaidhi Thaedi’ and has lyrics by Madhan Karky. “I sent him (Karky) this crazy tune that was too long for standard song writing and he went wild with it; it’s beautiful,” says Shankar. There’s also a Malayalam boat song called ‘Aadiyillalo Anthamillalo’, for which the lyrics came from local fishermen from the backwaters of Kerala. Shankar himself has sung a track called ‘Dhuan Dhuan’ in the album that will be fully out towards the end of July.

Talking about some of his favourite songs, he says, “I really like A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack in films like Jodhaa Akbar and Lagaan .I’ve been listening to a lot of Oh Kadhal Kanmani songs of late.” Ask him for one of his favourite Tamil songs and he gladly sings a bit of ‘Yennoda Nee Irundhal’ from I . “I can speak a couple of sentences in Hindi, but Tamil is a little difficult. I can pronounce some words, but if I have a week, I can get most pronunciations in a song right,” he declares. Ask him about his avid female fan following and he chuckles, saying, “People are very nice and supportive. It’s heart-warming to know that my music is reaching out to many.”

Post this album, Shankar plans to concentrate on production work for other singers and continue doing collaborations. There are no commercial music plans for now.

“I make music that I’m excited by and people are excited to listen to, and that’s all that matters. I think I’m going to stay in the independent music scene for a little longer,” he says.

Find Shankar’s songs on his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/TheShrutibox.

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