This mysterious instrument

This Saturday night at Garage Bar, PRERNA, an Indian fusion duo of Thomas Hommeyer on sitar and Pervez Gulzar on tablas will alternate sets with Clay George’s acoustic country.  Thomas Hommeyer sat down with Leng Pleng this week to talk about his love affair with the sitar.

“I played guitar professionally in the US in the 80s and 90s, that was my thing, and also did film and TV work to earn real money.  In my mid-30s I got married, and things took a different turn.”  The introduction to the sitar came five years ago when he was living in Singapore.  “I met an older guy who taught sitar at the university, he was well revered, and we started talking.  He said: you like this?  you want to learn?  I said, yes, sure, what do I need?  You need a sitar, I can sell you one.  So there’s the sales pitch.”

This conversation unlocked a long-held curiosity.  “Sitar is one of those things – this mysterious instrument.  My aunt gave me the Revolver album when I was six, she was an actress in California who would send me Beatles albums to try and work her way into my mind, which worked wonderfully.  I thought that’s a funny sounding thing.  And as I got older – you’re always aware of a sitar, and there’s Ravi Shankar and more of George Harrison, but you never really actually think of playing it.”

“But the teacher was strict – and this is apparently the Indian way – they have reverence for their teachers, and it’s a different way of learning than we’re used to in the west.  And then he left to go back to India, I met a guy who plays in a local Indian fusion band.  He’s a Chinese Singaporean dude, shoulder length hair, and his father had studied with Ravi Shankar for 16 years.  He said: I’m not going to teach you like that Indian guy taught you, I’m going to teach you some tricks so you can jump ahead of where you would have been.  So now I don’t know a lot of the things maybe I should have learned in the real classical tradition, but I can make some cool sounds.”

After relocating to Phnom Penh, the next step was finding opportunities for a sitar-for-hire.  “I tried jamming with some other guitarists, even with my electric sitar, but for that I might as well have just got out my guitar.  So to meet Pervez was a real gift.  He’s been playing tablas since he was a kid, he just hadn’t much in the last 15 years.  This is the music he grew up with.  We even got together with his brother and other Pakistani friends last weekend, and I brought my sitar, he brought his tablas, everybody’s very musical, there were singers and a keyboard player, and we sat around playing Pakistani Christmas songs.”

Indian fusion as a style takes the classical Indian tradition into a more modern western sound, often adding bass, electric guitars and saxophones, perhaps veering into jazz.  For now, PRERNA (the name is a Hindi word meaning inspiration) are concentrating on getting enough material to play a few longer shows.  “Our music isn’t improvised at all.  It’s based on certain scales or ragas from Indian music that I’ve learned, and initially I wasn’t good enough even to learn somebody else’s songs.  So I’m using the format and the structure of the Indian songs and making up my own, and having a ball with it.  It’ll take a couple of weeks to make up a song, but we bring in the tablas and we change some things – so we’ve got more original songs right now.”

For a little taste of the sound, here’s a clip from their first gig at Cloud in August.   Plans are in the background to expand the outfit by bringing in guests – a singer here, an instrumentalist there – to broaden the sound and extend the length of the sets, somewhat in the direction of Prem Joshua.  “We’ve had a great reception whenever we’ve played, and we look forward seeing new faces at our next gig.”

“I’ve been reading Ravi Shankar’s autobiography, and he said if you really want to do well at this instrument you need to practice for 10 to 20 years, ideally 30 years, eight hours a day.  But that’s not going to happen.  However, I’m surprised, being a lifelong guitar player, that given the choice, I’d now sell the guitar and keep the sitar.  There’s something about it that has really got me deep down inside, and I don’t know what it is, I’m just going to play it for all its worth, as long as I can, hopefully the rest of my life.  Maybe it’s just a new challenge, but there’s something about that music that really resonates with me.  I’ve got a friend from Dehli who says, oh, you were Indian in your last life.”

It’s got me reexaming music for the first time in ages at its core level. With guitar I can simply go on autopilot and play with just about anyone. The sitar has me questioning what and why I am playing. It may sound corny, but it’s changing me at ways I never expected. It keeps me centered and adds a different texture to life. Ideally that’s what music is supposed to do. For me, perhaps that’s where India enters the picture.

Garage Party XXI on Saturday 14th from 7 pm, featuring PRERNA and Clay George.

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