Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The king of bass

Jayen Varma, the fastest percussive bassist in the world, has big plans for his new band, Indian Epics

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1981, there was an open-air rock show being held at the Rajendra Maidan in Kochi. Jayen Varma was standing near the stage and watching his friend, Antony Isaacs (a member of Usha Uthup’s troupe) perform.

During the interval, one of Jayen’s friends urged him to go and play on the drums. “I had never stepped on a stage before and so I was scared,” he says. But another friend pushed him forward.

“I saw this large crowd and thought I am about to faint now,” he says. “But when I sat down behind the drums, I immediately started playing. Soon, I began to relax.”

Jayen played for fifteen minutes and in a daze he saw the others come back to the stage, excluding the drummer, and the group launched into Bob Marley’s, ‘Buffalo Soldier’.

Jayen experienced an excitement and joy he had never felt before. Unlike most people, he came to music late. One day, when Jayen was 21, Antony was practicing on the rhythm guitar, while he sat on a nearby chair and knocked out drumbeats on his thighs with his fingers. “Jayen, you have a natural talent,” said Antony. “You should become a musician.”

At that moment, Jayen decided to take up music seriously and immediately passed up a chance to study for an engineering degree. “Two of my brothers were already engineers and my family was upset by my decision,” he says.

Jayen went to Goa and spent six months there playing with several bands. But feeling homesick, he returned home and started learning the guitar on his own and the mridangam under Parassala Ravi, who was the former principal of the Palakkad Music College. He trained for five years, but in 1986, Jayen secured a job with the Devaswom Board.

Thereafter, he became a part-time bass guitarist for the group, Firefly, which did gigs all over south India. “We played all types of music: rock and roll, funk, jazz rock and jazz,” he says.

In the meantime, 22 years passed, and because of numerous problems in his job, including court cases, Jayen finally quit the Devaswom Board in March. In April, he started a new band, Indian Epics, which comprises Ashwin Sivadas on the drums, Firefly colleague, Sumesh Parameshwar, on the lead guitar, himself on bass guitar, and guest vocalist, Karoline Greenacre.

She is a South African who lives in Spain, and has come to Kochi for a few months to work as a volunteer music teacher. “Indian Epics is a raga-funk-rock band,” says Jayen.

On a Wednesday morning, the group is rehearsing in Jayen’s family tharavadu at Tripunithara. There is Ashwin, who plays a thumping beat, Karoline taps her shoulders and arms and makes sounds with her mouth, as Sumesh conjures up some brilliant riffs, while Jayen provides low-key bass sounds. The music is rich, loud and elevating. In no time, the group has forgotten the presence of the visitor and has moved smoothly into a zone of their own.

Meanwhile, as the band makes its way – it played its first gig on April 17 for the Rotary Club – Jayen has set a world record. Today, he is known as the fastest percussive bassist in the world: he can play 36 notes per second.

This feat has been ratified by the Registry of Official World Records of the Record Holders Republic, U.K., and will soon be featured on ‘Believe The Unbelievable’ on AXN TV.

Asked how he set the record, Jayan says he practised for more than seven hours a day for six months. At that time, he was working as a liaison officer in the Devaswom Board at Thrissur and, every morning, he would travel on the Bokaro Express from Ernakulam. “Throughout the two-hour journey, I would hit the mobile phone with my fingers,” he says. “The speed increased and helped me in setting the record.”

Jayen says that he is also the first musician to play the mridangam on the guitar. Recently, he gave an online class to a Mexican musician. “It is becoming a new trend among bass guitarists,” he says.

Karoline confirms that she has never seen anyone play the guitar like that. “Jayen’s playing is different and sounds very exotic,” she says. Firefly founder, Sriram Iyer, says that Jayen is one of the best bass guitarists in India. “He creates a hypnotic sound when he plays the mridangam on the guitar,” he says.

Meanwhile, the future plans of the band include touring abroad. “We want to make a worldwide impact,” says Jeyan, 47, whose mother Thankamani, wife Kala and daughters, Athira, 20, and Ashwathi, 15, are the pillars of support in this new venture.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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