Load of Old Dholaks

Article excerpt

Goats must have a terrible time in India, if the instrument store of Pete Lockett is any indication. Quite apart from several drums strung with goat-skin (it produces a higher and more vibrant tone than the thicker buffalo hide), he has a jangly thing on a string made from a collection of goats' toenails and sounding like. . . well, rather like goats' toenails being jangled, and another item with what look like dried-up seed pods, which produce a susurrant rattling sound. "I was told these are goats' testicles," he says, as he looks at them with some suspicion. "Maybe they're not."

When a man already has frame drums, taiko drums, bongos, mrindagam, ghatam, kanjira, a collection of tablas (both Indian and Egyptian), dholak, bodhran, req, udu and all sorts of other more or less conventional instruments among his percussion collection, you may wonder why he needs goats' goolies as well. But for a multi-percussionist like Pete Lockett - whose Network of Sparks collaboration with Bill Bruford (late of Yes and King Crimson) forms one of the high points of this week's South Bank Rhythm Sticks festival - even such testicular offcuts can play a part in the creation of a musical style that seeks to integrate sounds and rhythms from different cultures - "creating new juxtapositions", as Lockett puts it, between Western classical and Indian, or even just northern and southern Indian, in a way that has scarcely been attempted before.

"When I first learnt rhythm and drumming, I split it up into bars," he explains. But that is the Western idiom. The Indian style, by contrast, more often starts with a phrase, then repeats it with its length changed by adding or subtracting syllables of sound. The same phrase then recurs out of phase with the original metre in a manner that can sound both exciting and disturbing to a Western ear. The origins of such rhythmic complexity interest Pete Lockett greatly. As he coaxes wonderful sounds from an Egyptian tabla - a deeper and more guttural sound than the Indian version - he says: "I guess if you could speak the language, you could play the drum better." He then utters a fine series of noises similar to those of an over-excited Arabic speaker while also sharing the cadences and rhythms of the sounds that have just emerged from the drum. He shows me a book of tabla rhythms that had been dictated by an Indian colleague on the phone. For such conversations, they have devised a basic rhythmic vocabulary of five drum beats: Ta, Ti, Ki, Da, Tum, each signifying a different region of one of the two drums. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Da, for example, is Na (striking the rim of the high drum) + Ge (a resonant sound on the bass). This strange language enables one man to perform some verbal drumming over the phone in a way that lets the other translate it to his tabla. "But you should hear him on the phone speaking Tamil," Pete Lockett says. "If you could sample off a bit of that, it would be amazing." The concept of innate language-based rhythms is something that has also interested psychologists. Recent research has suggested that we are all born with a propensity to listen to periodic sounds and this enables every baby to acquire the basic lilt of its mother early in the first year of life. A good deal of research has been done to see if such problems as dyslexia, stammering, or even straightforward clumsiness are correlated with a basic rhythmic inability, but no very clear conclusions have been reached. …