Asian Music and Dance

Carnatic Beatbox

The concert debut of Carnatic Beatbox began with two first-half appetisers for the second set’s main course with the two principal musicians – Jyotsna Srikanth and her violinistics and Shlomo and his beatboxing – laying out their tables before the main course. Foodie images figured with Shlomo rhapsodising about discovering desi cuisine, revealed by such giveaway titles as ‘Dosa Beats’ and ‘Paneer 65’.

Jyotsna Srikanth opened with an Indian miniature of a set to marvel at. Accompanying her were two superb UK-based percussionists: R.N. Prakash on mridangam (barrel drum) and konnakol and R.R. Prathap on ghatam (clay pot) and konnakol. (Konnakol and bols are the mnemonic syllable building-blocks of vocal percussion composition in, respectively, the Carnatic and Hindustani art music systems.) Srikanth’s forty-minute, five-piece introductory set followed the trajectory of a full Carnatic recital. It began with a splash, a full-tilt varnam (in rāgam Mohana) and then continued sparkling with three compositions from the saint-composer Tyagaraja. The final piece was a thillana composition – often associated with the bharatanatyam style of classical dance and here an 8-beat exercise in rhythmicality set in rāgam Sindhubhairavi by the violinist Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. It gave space for the percussionists to shine.

Slowly out of Shlomo’s massively entertaining crash course in beatbox a tale reminiscing about his childhood took shape – one framed by his Nana Julie and Granpa Josh throwing a party somewhere in North London. Permit a grandfatherly voice to intrude. What beatboxing definitely isn’t is konnakol or bols. What beatboxing is is mouth- and breath-made vocal percussive beats and sundry vocalisations. Voice, mouth, lips, tongue, throat and sometimes torso combine with amplification, electronics and layered tracks. What he revealed was an extraordinary ability to engage with an audience. With lashings of humour, including imitating his 3-year-old self belly-dancing for the aunties and uncles, he got the entire audience (as far as one could tell) on its feet. That’s no mean feat for the Purcell Room.

Conceived by the BBC Radio 3 presenter Lopa Kothari and presented by the East London-based South Asian organisation Dhruv Arts, it was pre-announced that Carnatic Beatbox would be mixing Indian art music strands, beatbox and jazz elements. Completing the line-up were Shanti Paul Jayasimha, their main purveyor of jazz tones on trumpet, flugelhorn and slumpet (a slide trumpet, one of the fantastical brass creations from George Schlub of Schlub Brassworks of Singapore), N.S. Manjunath on kit drums and percussion, Viktor Obsust on double-bass (whose Balkan bloodlines surfaced on ‘Sprint’) and Shadrach Solomon on piano and keyboards. The undertaking was going to be ambitious and audacious – audacious in, let’s say, a do-or-die way, given the shock of seeing ‘Carnatic’ and ‘Beatbox’ side by side.

The opening ‘Raghuvamsha’ set in rāgam Kadanakutuhalam introduced only part of their musical palette with violin, beatboxing, piano and kit drum and, as the concert handbill in screwy fashion put it, ‘ethnic percussion’. N.S. Manjunath’s ethnic percussion included morsing (Jew’s harp) on ‘Raghuvamsha’, bols on ‘Dark Skies’ and kanjira mini-frame drum on ‘Dosa Beats’. For the record, Jayasimha’s slumpet made its entrance on ‘Dosa Beats’. The mélange of different styles exceeded all expectations. Shlomo wove in all manner of drum parts, beats and breaks – even visually enhanced snatches of scratching and turn-tabling. In quartering such unfamiliar territory, the participants took risks and sometimes made mischief. On the strength of its Purcell Room première, Carnatic Beatbox is an antidote to comfort-zone listening and an exuberant riposte to pigeonholed music. Given the chance, a project destined for festivals.



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox