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In world music, collaboration is the new cool!

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 17-06-2020 Priya Pathiyan
a couple of people that are looking at the camera: (Left to right) Itai Disraeli, an Israeli bassist, Lili Haydn, Canadian-American violinist, Hamid Saeidi, Iranian santoor master and MB Gordy, American percussionist were recently in India (Shivangi Kulkarni) © Provided by Hindustan Times (Left to right) Itai Disraeli, an Israeli bassist, Lili Haydn, Canadian-American violinist, Hamid Saeidi, Iranian santoor master and MB Gordy, American percussionist were recently in India (Shivangi Kulkarni)

In music, there's no such thing as a comfort zone. That's what Mumbai learned at the 11th edition of TEDxGateway 2020, themed Ideas Worth Spreading, where exceptional international talent showed that musical genius is a product of collaboration.

Thumming it up

A few years ago, Australian star beatboxer Tom Thum, who uses his mouth and vocal chords to create an array of sounds from a trumpet to a turntable scratching, entered into a surprising collaboration with composer and symphony conductor Gordon Hamilton. 'Thum Prints,' this collaboration between the Brisbane boys, not only wowed audiences but has had other orchestras following suit. They make forward-looking, experimental music, inviting the audience into their imagination.

"It's our original music, which we've worked on together and taken all over the world," says Gordon. "We did an eight-minute version for the beatboxer and orchestra youth at TedX, where we collaborated with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. It's a very different way to use beatboxing. Tom is always looking for ways to take beatboxing into different landscapes."

a man sitting in front of a building © Provided by Hindustan Times

Gordon Hamilton and Tom Thum's collaboration is called Thum Prints (Shivangi Kulkarni)

This is exactly what Tom accomplished at the Jodhpur RIFF music festival in 2018, where he spent three days collaborating with folk musicians to create an hour of scintillating music. "My friend Bobby Singh is an incredible tabla player in Australia," Tom explains. "He's taught me different ragas and we've played together a few times. This project with Rajasthani folk artistes was intense and insane. They do a lot of spoken rhythms and drums and clappers. Neither of us spoke each other's language, but we spoke the language of music."

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Wide open spaces seem to inspire musicians like little else can. Gordon, 38, who has travelled the world as a music composer and conductor and in his role as artistic director of The Australian Voices, went to Antarctica last year, where he composed a symphony called Far South, in which field recordings of ice, ocean and whales interact with the orchestra. After such solitude, it's no wonder that Mumbai is a bit of a sensory overdose for him! "This giant tapestry of humans... I have never been in a city this big in terms of population density before," he says.

"My friend Bobby singh is an incredible tabla player in australia. He's taught me different ragas and we've played together." -Tom Thum, Australian star beatboxer

For Tom (34), who wrote graffiti at 14, breakdanced at 15, and beatboxed at 16, and put out his first album at 21, it was exciting to check out the local musicscape on his first visit to Mumbai. "The SacredWorx Foundation (an NGO that works to empower the underprivileged) hit me up on my FB page. Gordon and I did a workshop in exchange for a tour around Dharavi. All the local beatboxers came and we jammed. I was super impressed. The Bombay Beatbox Community, they're really, really good."

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Gordon and Tom were especially taken by the talent and enthusiasm of a young dancer who goes by the name of @bboy_prokid_09. "He is maybe like 15 years old, but there's a seven-storey high mural of him in Dharavi that Guido van Helten, my friend from Brisbane, painted," grins Tom. "He did some really sick B-boying. Everywhere we went, he was like throwing down and breaking - in the leather goods store, on the train over-bridge, in the middle of the street… His style far outweighs his age, as if he's been B-boying for 20 years or something! He reminded me of me when I was that age!"

Freedom by moonlight

Winning the 2019 Grammy for Best New Age Album certainly made them happy but didn't send them over the moon as much as performing together does. The musical foursome called Opium Moon is made up of Canadian-American violinist Lili Haydn, her husband Itai Disraeli, an innovative Israeli bassist, Iranian santoor master Hamid Saeidi, and acclaimed American percussionist MB Gordy. The Los Angeles-based ensemble's music is so eclectic, it's hard to categorise. But everyone who listens to it agrees it's bliss inducing.

a group of people posing for the camera © Provided by Hindustan Times

Lead Singer of the Grammy Award-winning band Opium Moon Lili Haydn (centre) with Tom Thumb and Gordon Hamilton in Mumbai (Shivangi Kulkarni)

Lili Haydn, who has collaborated with and opened for everyone from Roger Waters, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Sting to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his nephew Rahat, is the epitome of positive and primal energy. MB calls her their central driving force; Itai calls her the 'fearless leader.'

"Every time we get together, it's like it's the first time. We love the audience but if we played for ourselves, it'd be just as exciting." -Itai Disraeli, an Israeli bassist

"She's the love of my life, a combination of really strong and powerful and also very soft and emotional," Itai says. Lili, who hasn't let humble beginnings or even brain damage from an accident get in the way of her musical journey, maintains that the angels brought the group together. "It was pure magic the first time we played," she says.

This past year has been super intense as they won the Grammy, and are now regrouping for a new record. Independently, each of them has worked on various projects, including soundscapes for films. Hamid elaborates, "All of us are composer-producers and we each play in our own bands with 245 different projects. But whenever we get together, we start playing and we forget any outside negativity or any disagreements with each other."

"Whenever we start playing together we forget any outside negativity or any disagreements with each other" -Hamid Saeidi, Iranian santoor master

Itai explains, "This is because our music is transforming. It's very improvisational. We know the structure and the melodies, but we don't know the note we will play from show to show. Every time we get together, it's like it's the first time. We love the audience but if we played for ourselves, it'd be just as exciting."

Hamid, whom they affectionately call the Prince of Persia, says, "My entire study in music was to be able to improvise. It's not about base or percussion or violin or any other instrument, not even about music. It's about energy."

"One of my favourite records is Call of the Valley by Santoor maestro Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and classical flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia" -Lili Haydn, Canadian-American violinist

"Hamid comes from a very old culture and his roots are very deep, but he's modern too," says Itai. "He brings soul to our sound."

With MB, Itai seems to have found the perfect drum to his bass. "I've played with a lot of good drummers, but with MB, it's something special. He's like the foundation, the Earth, on which we build our music."

Lili calls the magic between MB's percussion and Itai's bass guitar 'the fire.' "Hamid and I are sort of in the heavenly realm but the way MB and Itai play makes all the elements - fire, earth, water, air - come together to create this fantastic realism. Without that fire, Opium Moon wouldn't be as interesting, sexy and compelling."

"Studying tabla in graduation changed everything for me, even the way I approach the drum set" -MB Gordy, American percussionist

The name Opium Moon is inspired by the work of Sufi poet Hafiz. In a poem, he writes, 'The bird's favourite songs / You do not hear / For their most flamboyant music takes place / When their wings are stretched / Above the trees / And they are smoking the opium of pure freedom…' The band's music is all about that.

From HT Brunch, June 7, 2020

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