By Steve Rider
Prasanna is a unique and fascinating individual. A guitar virtuoso who studied Indian classical music from his youth, he pioneered the use of the guitar in that medium. Growing up in Southern India, he strongly feels his roots, but at the same time has incorporated a myriad of genres and styles into his craft. He has dedicated his life to music and to bridging the gap between performer and audience, always seeking to channel the power of music in ways that make apparent the common bonds of human experience. Just as his performances can swing from rock to jazz to folk even within the span of a single song, he has been both ambassador for his native music and intrepid explorer of western musical worlds. His newest release, All Terrain Guitar, showcases his distinctive style, all-encompassing range, and fiery passion.
Guitar Connoisseur: What is Carnatic Music? What differentiates it from other styles of music?
Prasanna: Carnatic Music refers to Indian classical music, mainly from the south of India. The instruments used in Carnatic music is the veena. It’s the most sacred of instruments in India, said to be played by Sarasvati, the Indian goddess of music. It’s a very vocal style of music sung in Sanskrit, tracing its roots back thousands of years. Over time it became highly standardized, the time signatures mathematically worked out, and so forth. Much like Jazz has developed into a sophisticated art form which involves a college education for many people today. It comes from very personal compositions from the original composers and does have a very spiritual connotation to it. The subject of the songs usually revolves around the Hindu scriptures, or sometimes a personal conversation with god.
GC: When you were coming up, the guitar was not present within Carnatic music, is that correct? You were the one who brought it to the genre.
P: Yes, that’s correct. The role of guitar in Carnatic music was pretty much nonexistent. When I was getting started, there was only one other person who was playing guitar. By the time I came to the concert platform, I was pretty much all alone. My influence for that was a Carnatic electric mandolin player, who was perhaps the greatest of a generation, U. Shrinivas. He was making a big splash as I was coming up, bringing this crazy western instrument into it. So, by the time that I was getting into Carnatic music people were a little more accepting of nontraditional instruments being used, and a little bit more open to me. The instruments were different, but the musical vocabulary was the same.
GC: What other styles of music were you interested in and how did they influence you as an artist?
P: I started learning Carnatic music when I was about twelve years old, but I was already into other styles, such as Indian film music, that’s the pop music of India. Tamil music. Tamil is the language that I speak. When I was growing up, some of my friends exposed me to rock music, and so I was also checking out Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, and Scorpions. So this was all happening at the same time as me getting into Carnatic music. It’s like when you’re a child and you get a new toy, you don’t throw away your old toys. My daughter, who is seven, still has the toys from when she was four and plays with them from time to time. So it was like Black Dog, yeah I’ll play that, and Carnatic music, I’ll play this too. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it. That was the best part.
GC: How old were you when you started getting into Rock & Roll?
P: I was about twelve when I was getting into rock and roll as well. I had friends who said that if I wanted to be a star in guitar, I needed to get into rock and roll, not Indian folk music. That’s just the way it is. So someone gave me a Deep Purple record and I was like, let’s start figuring this thing out. Before I knew it I was kind of greedy. You know, it’s just all guitar all the time, it’s not just one solo. This is what I need to do! It’s just like any high school student here who picks up the guitar. The guitar IS rock and roll. We’re talking about living in India in the ‘80s. There was no internet or any of that stuff. You had to be really passionate about this stuff. I think that’s one of the things that keep me going today. You had to really go for it. You had to work hard to find these things; they were not all around me. It’s like when I heard my sister singing Carnatic music and I decided I was going to play it on guitar. I didn’t care what anyone told me to do or not. For me it was all about the guitar, I didn’t even really care about the music. It became a voice of expression for me, and no one is going to take that away from me. I knew it when I was five.
GC: It doesn’t get any more rock and roll than that!
P: Exactly, all the studying and education came later. You gotta have that thing in your gut. That thing that says, this is for me. This is for real. I’m married to this little instrument. Nobody’s going to take this away from me. I just go on and on and on. Wherever the music takes me. Wherever the journey takes me. I have to put myself in the front seat of the vehicle and just drive. Once you’re in it, you’re in it. What matters is that your soul is connected to that instrument. To me there’s no hierarchy about it. It’s enough that you pick up the guitar and play it. You play at home, you play in Carnegie Hall, and it’s all the same. It’s so cool. Guitar does these things to you. We’re just surrounded by this thing. But, you know, you and I know it. I guess trombone players would say the same thing. I don’t know air trombone players, but I know air guitar players. This instrument is all pervading. I give all the credit to the guitar, it’s not about me.
GC: You have named Santana and Hendrix as two of the artists who influenced you, what was it about these two that really made you want to emulate their styles?
P: I started playing this band called Eleventh Commandment. I was in with a bunch of guys that were a little older than me and they said they wanted to do covers of this or that song, so I check it out. Carlos’ playing was immediately appealing to me because it was very melodic by design. Because I come from India and I come from Carnatic music, which is very melodic. It’s about beauty, how you play things. I think Santana’s language, being lyrical, as a guitar player first appealed to me. Compared to Ritchie Blackmore and other guys I was checking out at the time, it was, I don’t know…there was a soft feel to it. Not a muscular type of expression. A little more smooth. Hendrix came in my life much much later. And I had to be prepared for it. I wasn’t prepared for the rude shock!
GC: Would you say that people might say the same thing about YOU now?
P: Sure! People might say the same thing about Santana because of the way be brought in Latin music. I think I can be honest about it. I’m an outlier myself. And I think that people don’t think about innovating, they just do what feels good to them. And then, like, other people take it up and some people start calling them innovators. Can you imagine me saying I want to be an innovative guitar player, so I’m doing it? No way! I just do what feels whole to me, like Santana was so connected with his Latin roots and I was so connected with my South Indian roots. I don’t have to make an academy treatise about this; I just have to BE. Which is, maybe, why I like Hendrix. I know now that Hendrix is much more than rock. He brings R&B, he brings the fluidity of jazz, he brings the energy of jam band. Everything was there with Hendrix. At the time I didn’t know, but I knew that he was different, that he was special. And I feel that all these people that I’ve talked about, their music is as much mine as theirs. It’s for the world. With Hendrix…I didn’t have to question myself when I heard Deep Purple or Santana, but I had to question myself when I heard Hendrix. I had to rethink what this thing called the guitar is. So he opened me to that world, the world of sonic things. He opened the world of exploration. And by the time I was checking out Hendrix I was also checking out The Who, The Allman Brothers Band, Jefferson Airplane. And I realized that they were all connected, the spirit of the ‘60’s, the spirit of exploration. Everything is like a journey. Everything points to something else. That’s why I love the word continuum. Because knowledge is up in the air, you’re just tapping into it. I don’t believe that I create knowledge. I don’t believe that what I have is all mine, it’s there somewhere. You’re like a catalyst. You tap into it, and if you tap into it better than somebody else, you have a new voice, and that voice becomes part of somebody else, and then it becomes part of the norm. Santana and Hendrix and myself, you have all these people who are influenced by your playing. But when I listen to someone who is influenced by my playing, I can barely make it out. It’s so subtle, you know? So it’s beautiful. We’re all part of the continuum and transmitting knowledge that is already there up in the air.
GC: You’ve talked about your beginnings as a young man learning the guitar. You describe having a teacher for a certain time, and then they would move away. Did the fact that you had a progression of teachers instead of a single teacher influence your love of diverse musical styles?
P: Absolutely, however, the reverse is also true. A. Kanyakumari was my Carnatic teacher throughout my whole life. My western music training has been split across many teachers and institutions, whereas my Carnatic thing has always been one on one with one or two people. In western education, you learn each thing from a different person. In the Carnatic tradition, you hook up with one person as a teacher and pass that on to many other people. So, yes, all of it. I think it just shows that I was hungry. I know I had something and I had a great desire to learn and continue to do that.
GC: In India the teacher is referred to as a guru. How important is the Guru – Student relationship? Can you tell us a bit about your Gurus, Tiruvarur S. Balasubramanian and A. Kanyakumari?
P: Extremely important. At its best, it’s a lifelong training relationship. And at its worst, it’s still pretty good. Let’s put it this way…what makes it so special, your or my connection to music? You know? Because I think we are able to put us out of the picture and surrender. I think surrendering to a higher cause makes everything just feel simple. If you’re religious, surrendering to god. If you’re an artist and a really open artist, you’re surrendering to the art. You’re letting art speak, not you. So I think that I have this idea inside me that I’m a catalyst. A guru is a living, breathing human being who brings this repository of knowledge. But the coolest thing about having a guru and having the relationship is you also see the human side of that person. You see that the person can be a goofball. You also see that the person can make a mistake. It’s not sanctimonious. It’s like marriage. You’re married to someone for a long time, the faults and the quirks have become part of it. It’s like playing the guitar, the fact that it can go out of tune is part of the game.
GC: You’re a well-educated individual, engineering at Indian Technical University and a magna cum laude graduate of Berkeley School of Music, can you tell us about your schooling and its impact on your musical career?
P: Absolutely. In a very big way. When I’m learning Carnatic music, that world kind of stays in that world. But when you go into institutional learning you get exposed to multiple things. It offers you subsets of learning. It’s like going to a library and sampling books. Because I’m a hungry person, because I look at holistic knowledge, I have a great time connecting the dots. That’s what it did to me. And I went to some of the best schools. And I knew that I could diversify. I could have gone into classical conservatory, but I went to Berkeley because I could do the electric guitar and I could take my conducting course and do whatever else at the same time. I’m really lucky that I went to fantastic institutions. It’s not only shaped me that way, but it helped me establish a college for music in India.
GC: You are also a renowned Guru yourself, President of the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music at Channai until 2014. You designed curriculum and served as staff during that time, as well as teaching students in multiple countries around the world. What is your approach to transmitting your unique mastery of the guitar to the next generation?
P: We could bring the students out of the big city; they eat together, live together, and at the same time have a curriculum that is meticulously worked out. I wanted to bring a collective diverse energy to the music. When I picked faculty, I picked a metal drummer, and bebop pianist, and some Eastern European type Balkan bass player, whatever it is, and put them all together and of course Carnatic faculty, and just see the magic. It’s like think global, act local. I wanted to connect all these thoughts together and just integrate.
GC: Let’s talk about your fan base. Your music seems quite capable of speaking to people across genre boundaries. Who is following Prasanna?
P: That’s a good question. That’s a great question! I’m trying to figure that out! Every day I’m surprised. I think that you’re right, the guitar is the focal point of what I do, but my audience is not guitar players. They’re just people that listen to music. And I’m saying that because I know that sometimes guitar players can get so indulgent and “chopsy” that it’s really more for guitar players. Then there are artists like Clapton or Santana, where people who listen to all kinds of music enjoy their guitar playing, you know? What I find is that my fan base connects to the emotion of what the music is and not to whatever chord technique. So in that way we are connected. And I think that they are real. I play in a small club in Queens, in Jackson Heights the first weekend every month. People fly from every part of the country to come there. I have people driving from Chicago and Pittsburgh. I have people flying in from Dallas when I play in New York. People are coming from London. It’s unbelievable. I like to connect my fans with each other. People can come in to New York and see me play and go see the city as well and meet other fans who live there. If it wasn’t for the show, they might not make the trip, but now they can combine it. This is real. I know that my fans are real. And I believe that their vibrations help me to make the music. It’s not a one way process. At every point in time I’m constantly thinking about the effect of what I play and what I write. I’m always thinking about what the effect of the music on the listener is, and I’m so glued into that and after some time with that way of thinking, you start aligning yourself with the listener’s mind. Rather than the other way around, and there you can make a difference. If you can tell a story that they can relate to, it can be a very complex story, but they’ll get it. If you can put that into your art, a reflection of what they feel, then you have real fans. If you talk about Frank Zappa or Hendrix or any of the others we discussed, they all took their fans seriously. I’m no exception, and I see the rewards for me and for them.
GC: You have a new album coming out soon, don’t you? All Terrain Guitar, releasing August 5 on Susila Music. It’s described in your press release as a work that “features nine original songs that blend vocal and instrumental music into an album of expressive soundscapes that organically and, often imperceptibly, flow into one another.” What were you reaching for on this album?
P: I’m reaching for the oneness of expression. There’s a track called The Key Word Is Love, that’s what I’m going for. The more sophisticated the technique is the more you may forget the big picture and you may even forget what is the purpose that you even do music. And I know many artists that have gone that path, and I don’t want to do that. I think the simplest way to achieve that is to do what comes naturally to you. And do it with such passion and empathy for the people that are listening to it. And what you put into it is what you get. Which explains why this album has everything from drum and bass to reggae, to whatever it is, to whatever it is. To me it does not matter. It’s all expression. And the guitar, being such a potent connecting source helped me in tying this expression together. So that’s why it’s All Terrain Guitar. It’s giving people a chance to connect to music that is beyond simple category. That is real. I was lucky enough to come up with the vision and I was able to share that vision, and now I’m looking forward to sharing it with audiences.
GC: How would you compare or contrast it with your previous releases?
P: I would say it’s a bit wider. I would say it’s a bit more philosophical, well not philosophical…tuned in to the spirit of the world and trying to reflect the energy as I absorb it and as how I radiate it back. And this record is coming out after a significant period that has opened up my humanity to people and to myself. So I believe that it’s like a renaissance record for me, it’s pointing to the direction of a different flow. I think an artist has to reinvent himself every few years. This is one state of reimage for me.
Springtime in New York and Pinch Pennies in Monaco are two tracks that couldn’t be more different.
GC: Springtime is real classic feeling Jazz with pinches of your Carnatic style thrown in, while Pinch is a heavy grove topped by striking female vocals, replete with a sizzling, Hendrix-esque guitar solo. What were your inspirations for these numbers?
P: The fact that they were on the same record and were recorded one after the other showed that it was natural for me. With Springtime, I’d done an earlier song which had that up tempo Jazz thing. There’s a tune called Raga Bop which I had out on an earlier release. I wanted to do something that just went back to that. I love playing Jazz. I have my own way of doing Jazz. That’s just that. Pinch Pennies in Monaco was coming out of my love for Frank Zappa and my love for blasphemy. I just said, like, hey let’s think sound, let’s think picture, let’s think motion picture, let’s think a wide journey, let’s take a road trip. Let’s just take a big swash of color, just go, just go on a road trip. It’s my record, hell, what’s the big deal, right? Put it out! It’s 2016; let’s make the music that’s just crazy. And it’s all tied together in some way. I just let my instincts take over and assume that things will just connect themselves together. That’s what Pinch Pennies in Monaco is all about. The singing is moving from straight Carnatic to operatic in one stroke and the saxophone solo is like a metal solo. And the band is just killing. It’s just two relatable energies. And Springtime in New York is ferocious in its own way too. I think there’s a sense of urgency in the record that comes out in these songs. There’s a sense of pushing, because it’s a fast world, it’s an urgent world. I’m just reflecting that.
GC: What do you want people to take away from the experience of your music on All Terrain Guitar?
P: I don’t know if I can say what people should take away, but I know that the nine songs on the record create a kaleidoscope of emotions that are part of people’s everyday living. And I think they will resonate with that. I would like people to hear it as a record. I can’t control it. It has a particular effect when you hear it from start to end. I have a fan who bought the record at a show when I had just a couple copies of it on hand. He told me he just chills and listens to the whole record through his high end stereo speakers while having a glass of cognac. And he told me, “Wow, it’s just like having a conversation with you!” And that was so cool. The few people who have heard the record said that it just grabbed them. It’s a different shift in my mind, to think that people are driving the music and I’m just piggybacking on that. It grounds me in a way that I can see it’s music, it’s emotion, and it’s connecting the simple elements of life.
GC: Will you be doing a tour associated with the album? Do you have dates in the US?
P: Right now I haven’t booked a tour, but I think I’m going to start doing that. I think I’m just waiting to see how it hits people, you know? And I don’t have to replicate the album exactly. What if I do a tour and have like six guitar players? I’m just saying I can convey the same emotion in multiple ways. So I’m considering many ideas. I’m friends with a lot of great guitar players, so you never know. I think that this is the time to reflect on what’s been done already. See what the music does to people and catch the drift from there. I’m so excited about the record. I just want people to hear it.
GC: You have mastered instruments, crossed and bent genres, and combined old and new in your music, where will you go from here?
P: That’s an interesting question. I think I’m just starting to feel good. I think I’m just starting my life. I think I’m starting to understand life, and the relationship between music and my life. I’d like to stay in that state of flux a little bit more and not tell myself, “This is what I should be doing now.” I think I have invested a great deal of time and energy into my music and I think it will take care of me and the goddess of music will show me which way I should go. I just follow it.
Click here to purchase Prasanna’s latest effort: All Terrain Guitar
To learn more and keep up with Prasanna visit his website at: guitarprasanna.com