Monday, March 31, 2014

She's a Noisy Mama all right!

Carola Grey, who is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world, plays Indian jazz rock with her 'Noisy Mama' band

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1996, legendary Carnatic musician TV Gopalakrishnan was performing in Frankfurt, Germany. One day, a friend presented him with a CD of the 'Noisy Mama' band. When he listened to it, there was one drum solo section which sounded a lot like Indian music. Gopalakrishnan met the band's founder, Carola Grey, and invited her to his music school in Chennai.

So Carola went to Chennai and, after some training, she joined Gopalakrishnan's troupe. “I found Carnatic music fascinating,” she says. “The rhythms, the calculations, and the mathematical construction behind it. And yet, it is so musical.”

But just as Carola was getting the hang of it, one day, just before a concert, Gopalakrishnan said, “I have a good idea. Why don't you do the beats in khanda gati (quintuplets).” Carola felt panicky. “In western music we play with sixteen notes and triplets and that's it,” she says. “As for quintuplets, only crazy people do it.” Seeing her stricken face, Gopalakrishnan said, “Don't worry, to a great artist, it will come by itself.”

On stage Carola was performing beside Kadri Gopalnath, the pioneer of Carnatic music on the saxophone. She started hitting the drums and, somewhere along the way, the magic happened. “I realised that I was playing quintuplets effortlessly,” she says. “This happened because I put my ego to one side. Great art occurs when you step out of yourself and allow the universal energy to flow through you. You tap into something that is higher than yourself. It gave me goosebumps.”

Today, Carola is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world. And there was no doubt about that during a recent performance, with her 'Noisy Mama' band, at the JT Pac, Kochi. She did a mesmerising solo that remained in the minds of the listeners for a few days. Says audience member Dr. Sunil Mathew: “The solo was unforgettable. Carola blended the western and the Indian styles of percussion seamlessly. The music was a treat.”

Of course, what helped was that Carola was accompanied by a talented group, which included John Anthony on lead guitar, Palaghat Sreeram on vocals and flute, Naveen Kumar on bass guitar, and Biju Poulose on the keyboards.

At the concert Carola sang a song called 'Mad Chicks Fly', from her album 'Drum Attack'. “Whenever people think you are mad, you can do anything you want,” Carola told the audience. And it seemed like an autobiographical statement. The song has a catchy, infectious sound.

And Carola herself exudes a charismatic stage presence. Brimming with energy, her hands move with intense speed on the drums, while her facial expressions keep changing: sometimes, she is smiling or grimacing or looking with narrowed eyes or nodding her head rhythmically. At other times, her eyes are closed. Then suddenly she places one stick across her mouth as she adjust the mike and belts out a song.

They love the music in Europe,” she says. “They have some things they can hold on to, like the familiar jazz sounds, and then there is this strange thing that they don't know anything about.” And in India too, the band has received a positive response. “The people told me it is a fusion that works out,” says Carola. “It took me years to combine it in a way that makes sense.”

Meanwhile, when asked why her band is called 'Noisy Mama', Carola smiles and says, “It is a nickname that was given to me when I was playing music in New York many years ago and I liked it.”

Yes, indeed, this Mama will not go silently into the night. 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)  

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