February 27, 2020
When Indian guitarist R. Prasanna was still a mere boy, he figured out how to adapt one of his country’s vocal traditions to electric guitar.
It had never been tried before to the best of Prasanna’s knowledge at the time. The vocal tradition is called Carnatic music and it is difficult to describe to people who don’t have degrees in music.
All Prasanna can say about it is that it is uniquely the music of South India just as the blues sounds different in Chicago than it does in Memphis.
If you’re curious about Carnatic music, Prasanna will perform some of it with his band at Purdue Fort Wayne on March 7.
And if you are curious about what Carnatic music sounds like when it is artfully mixed with rock, jazz, and other western genres, Prasanna can show that to you, too.
The song that made Prasanna want to pick up the guitar in the first place did not originate in India. It emerged from the Caribbean by way of West Germany: Boney M’s “Rasputin,” a disco hit that combined eastern and western elements in a way that Prasanna clearly took to his bosom.
There was also a mix tape that was bequeathed to Prasanna by a friend of his father. Bequeathed is meant literally here: Prasanna came into possession of it after the man’s death.
“I had a cassette tape which had music by Toto, Pointer Sisters,” he said in a phone interview. “Bellamy Brothers of all people. A weird concoction of different things.”
So Prasanna was hearing a lot of different sounds in his head when he decided not to heed them and go to college for something more practical: Engineering.
“When you play music, you don’t think about whether you want to make it your living or not.” he said. “You just play. I know millions of guitar players who have other sorts of jobs but who still play guitar.”
In fact, Prasanna wanted badly to become an engineer and to be educated in engineering at a special school.
“I was completely besotted with this particular college: the Indian Institute of Technology,” he said. “IIT is probably one of the top engineering schools in the world. It’s the MIT of India. And it’s the hardest school for anybody to get into. If you get into IIT, your life is made. That’s something we grow up knowing in India.”
After he graduated, Prasanna got a good software job in India with an American company that promised to transfer him to the States one day.
Betting on Berklee
But a musical moment of truth arrived. Prasanna had always dreamed of attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston like many of his musical idols (John Scofield and Donald Fagan, among them).
It was an either/or proposition for him: Either keep a “your life is made” sort of job or quit and go back to school.
Prasanna chose the latter.
While attending Berklee didn’t trigger culture shock, it did trigger “guitar shock.”
“I come to this school and I found that I was one of a thousand guitar players at the school,” Prasanna said. “That was a big shock to me. There were 17 trombone players and four violin players. And a thousand guitarists.”
He had to come to grips with the idea that millions of people around the world are trying to become better guitar players at any given moment and only an infinitesimal percentage of those will figure out how to make a living at it.
“And very few are able to create a signature sound of their own on this instrument,” Prasanna said.
Luckily, Prasanna was an intensely focused and driven young man.
“I left a pretty plum engineering job to come to a music school with no idea what I am going to do after that,” he said. “I was pretty clear about all those things. I had to take advantage of everything that Berklee offered in order to grow.”
Since graduating magna cum laude from Berklee, Prasanna (more widely known now as Guitar Prasanna) has created a signature of his own by performing and recording Carnatic music, straight jazz, jazz fusion, and fusions of Carnatic music with jazz fusion, Latin, rock, and reggae.
A Distinctive Style
Prasanna admits there were Carnatic purists and jazz purists early on who didn’t approve of ways he was mixing those traditions.
“The naysayers are dead and gone,” he said. “Those voices don’t mean anything in this world. We live in a very exciting world where things come together. What I was doing 20 and 30 years ago is very common. Now you see hip-hop guys using a sample of Indian sounds. The British underground is making use of tablas (Indian percussion instruments). Britney Spears’ album Toxic had all these Bollywood strings. Anything can happen today.”
Prasanna said he understands the purists, but he had to “gently brush them aside.”
“I had to go back to the core thinking which was, ‘I have to evolve something of my own,’” he said. “My thing is very simple: Why would anyone want to listen to me if I didn’t have something new to offer? Why would anyone want to listen to me and make me a part of their life if I don’t have something special?”
Like most of what Prasanna has set out to do, he has achieved and regularly achieves something special.
Even though his is not a household name in the U.S., Prasanna is as much a guitar hero as anyone who is serially described as such in the western press.
As one Indian music critic wrote of him: “He has created a distinctive and effective guitar style that is as instantly recognizable as that of Carlos Santana or Jimi Hendrix.”
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