I have had the chance to listen to this individual over the years and he has grown tremendously and as many enjoy the sounds of classic tunes – he is one that I can listen to on repeat! Some things in life seem to be decreed by fate. When he was young, Shankar Tucker wanted to play the saxophone. But since his grandfather could teach him, his parents pushed him toward clarinet, not realizing that they’d start him on a path where he’d help Indian and Western cultures join souls. Along the way he’s managed to become a YouTube star, crossed back and forth between continents, and emerged with his remarkable debut album, Filament out this month!
“I had heard Indian music before, but I didn’t consider it as a musical path until I was at the New England Conservatory,” Tucker explains. “I was into jazz, but I would always struggle to be heard in an ensemble, my instrument just didn’t have enough volume. I wanted something where I could improvise and be heard, and I found Shakti.”
That ‘70s group, formed by guitarist John McLaughlin and violin player L. Shankar, offered Tucker a way into something new and different. Very quickly Indian music captured his heart as he began to learn more about it.
“Every morning at college, all of us in the orchestra would arrive 15 minutes before rehearsal to warm up our instruments,” Tucker recalls. “While the others were busy practicing their excerpts I’d be going through the Hindustani composition I was learning and dream of India.”
That dream became a reality after graduation, when a grant enabled him to go and study with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia in Mumbai. During that time abroad, Tucker’s YouTube channel, The Shrutibox was born, catapulting him to surprising Internet stardom.
“I was looking for performance opportunities while I was over there,” Tucker says. “I took my inspiration from other YouTube artists, as well as the music itself and the medium. I’d gone to India to learn classical music, but being in Mumbai, I was also surrounded by Bollywood music. I became fascinated by the parallels between Indian Classical music and the Popular music genres, and the places where they overlap. That’s what I tried to capture in my videos.”
Viewed more than 30 million times, and with over 100,000 fans, Tucker’s clarinet playing and the channel quickly became known, featured on MTV India and hitting YouTube’s front page. It was a running start, but what he needed after that was a flying leap. With Filament he’s achieved it.
“I wanted to find a balance between Indian Classical music and Western music,” Tucker states. “But not a fusion of technical compositions, or an overly intellectual approach. This is about songwriting, composition, and having fun with a jam session on a tune. Listeners don’t have to know the music to appreciate it.”
Drawing from a wide pool of accomplished musicians in India and the U.S. he’s definitely managed the remarkable feat of making Indian music that sounds absolutely natural to Western ears, the clarinet sounding as if it should always have been there. While Tucker composed most of the music on Filament, sometimes the spark would come from his musical explorations.
“I was listening to old folk songs online and came across a song from the Kerala region called “Aadiyillalo Anthamillalo,” Tucker remembers. “It fitted perfectly with an idea for a groove and arrangement I had. We went to Kerala to record it, but because it was a bit obscure, we couldn’t find the lyrics. I asked my circle of friends, everybody at the studio, we even asked around at a college, but no one knew the lyrics! Finally we went down to the backwaters and began asking the local fishermen. Every single person on the shore knew the song! While it’s a party song, it actually has very philosophical lyrics about time having no beginning or end.”
Putting Filament together took time and a great deal of thought. A Kickstarter brought the funds from fans of The Shrutibox, but even then Tucker was in no rush to release anything. He gradually refined his ideas.
“I focused on mixing jazz, Indian classical, all these elements from the alternative culture scene that exists over there,” says Tucker. “but I also love song form. I try to bring all these influences together into a four-minute recording, which is a challenge, especially when you introduce improvisation.”
There’s no shortage of ambition on Filament, as with the four-part “Suite For The Moon” or “Dhuan Dhaun,” where Tucker uses the opening sections known as alaaps for glorious short improvisations that showcase the skills of some amazing guest instrumentalists. But even there he introduces the subtle, subversive 21st century element of ambient electronic underpinning. Traditional this is certainly not.
“There’s definitely some electronic music influence,” Tucker agrees. “But it never takes center-stage… Those sounds remain textural. I wanted to create an unusual atmosphere in the music, a universe that’s expanded beyond instruments.”
Similarly, the video aspect offered by the pieces is important to him. Not solely because it initially made his name with The Shrutibox, but because it offers the chance to show different facets of the music.
“The visual angle is a huge part of things, it gives a face to the music” Tucker says.
“We’re making videos of all the songs on the album, but they’ll be performances, all the musicians together. Some were recorded outside, in locations where the music was originally created, or places where we feel it should be experienced. All 10 videos will be released online over the course of the next three or four months.”
Above all, the disc is a collaboration. Every track uses a different line-up of artists, and has a different feel and atmosphere. There’s grace and beauty in the vocals, courtesy of some very well-known Indian singers, while the playing highlights the sophistication of Tucker’s arrangements and his understanding music and song form, both East and West. Melody becomes a universal, and ultimately Filament is more than the sum of its parts.
Fate indeed. But from that curious beginning, Shankar Tucker has found his purpose. He’s created a musical world that brings together continents, and makes the experience feel like ideal neighbors.
Find Shankar’s songs on his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/TheShrutibox.