Caribbean Beat Magazine

Mungal Patasar: millennium music

When Mungal Patasar performed in Paris last year, 500 record producers and scholars went quiet. His band, Pantar (pan + sitar), had unveiled an entirely new kind of music. Someone called it the Millennium Beat. Niala Maharaj investigates

  • Mungal with wife Roshni and children Prashant (from left), Amrita and Sharda. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
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  • Mungal Patasar
  • Harold Headley. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Earl Carnavon. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Dawud Orr. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Wayne Tobitt. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Prashant Patasar. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Mungal Patasar and Pantar in concert. Photograph by Jeffrey Chock
  • Travelling Man:  Mungal with his sitar, scootering to university in India. Photograph courtesy Ravi Ji
  • Mungal Patasar and Pantar in concert. Photograph by Jeffrey Chock

“I am a musician of the world. India is my memory, Trinidad the ground under my feet, Europe my door to the world. My music is a gift that belongs to everyone.” Mungal Patasar

 

If Trinidad has a soul, the place to hear it is in Mungal Patasar’s music.

I can hear the uproar already.

What? Are you crazy? Not in the steelband? Not in calypso? Soca? Chutney?

Notice, I said soul. Not heart. Not that wild unreliable organ that leads us down paths where lesser organs take over. Not even spirit, for spirits have a way of cutting loose from the earth. I said soul. That reflective, quiet, vulnerable part of is that larger forces vie for. That part of us that contains traces of the heart, the spirit, the steelband, reggae, calypso, rap, rhythm and blues, subconscious, tradition, history, nature and nurture.

“I have a kind of schizophrenia,” says a tubby, goateed, middle-aged man in a white cotton singlet, sitting on a modest porch of a modest house in central Trinidad. “It’s something between the musical traditions of my youth and the urge to be creative.”

This makes it multiple schizophrenia. The musical traditions Mungal’s youth are a conglomeration of every kind of popular music that ever seeped into or out of the Caribbean. His formal training is as a classical Indian sitarist.

But Mungal has found comfort in schizophrenia. He is essentially a home-boy, a family man, who sits amid a collection of growing offspring and their friends, a wife and her mother — and invites everybody else in.

“Come for dinner,” is his reply to a request for an interview. “This is the real sitarist in the family,” he begins when I arrive, introducing his daughter. The young woman remains sitting with us. Mungal gives me her CV before talking about himself. She is interested in writing, so he hopes the company of a journalist will be of some use to her. Then he talks about his son, the gifted tabla-player of Pantar. Mungal has already insisted the interview be scheduled to accommodate his wife’s studies for her Bachelor’s in Education.

It is this tendency to absorb, to incorporate, that has led to the peculiar Millennium Beat. Pantar comprises steelpans, a sitar, a tabla and keyboards. The variations worked by these instruments resemble jazz — and Indian classical music.

“It’s a distillation process,” says Mungal. “The philosophy of Pantar is to create fora where people of any persuasion will experience love through the music. Every musician takes on part of the other musician’s identity. We aim to create a kind of cohesion. Not an imitation, but individuality based on each person’s own grounding and training.

“For example, when the pannist plays a piece, he plays according to the nuances that he absorbed in his early life. The sitarist will then do something with that piece that makes it peculiarly Indian.”

Peculiarly Caribbean, in fact. It is as though all the suppressed hopes and yearnings that lie under the surface of these islands are trapped in those musical arrangements. Old calypsos are a major theme of the music. Reggae has crept in. But the restrained sweetness of the classical sitar imbue them with a spiritual nostalgia. Then the tenor pan reaches over and adds a lonely, searching sound.

It is a sound Mungal has been searching for for over half a century.

“I was never a bright person,” he observes. “My wife was always brighter than me.”

A strange statement for someone who rattles on in the most erudite fashion about musicology and ethnology, someone with a Master’s in Music, someone who is currently acting Director of Culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

“I have devised ways and means of learning and remembering things,” he explains. “But, from young, I coulda never remember nothing. So I never learn nobody song.”

He therefore had to make up his own songs — out of the snatches of melody that stayed in his head, pushed in there by the peculiar Caribbean ethos. The pieces on his first CD, Nirvana, were composed way back in his early days as the teenage leader of a “combo side”.

“The first music I used to play was western music,” he says. “When I was 15, I taught myself to play the clarinet.”

Mungal was born in the depths of Indian Trinidad, in Avocat Village, Fyzabad. As a child, the music he heard all the time was Hindu religious music. “There was Ramayan every Saturday night,” he says.

So, with his instinctive gifts, he was able to play Indian music as well. In addition to the combo, he started an Indian music band, which evolved into the National Indian Orchestra.

“We used to play at cooking nights and things,” he chuckles, remembering the days of entertaining crowds that gathered to prepare food for Indian weddings.

That was in the sixties. Mungal was a primary school teacher, from a modest Hindu home with modest aspirations. He married a modest Muslim girl, Roshni, also a primary school teacher. He was respectful, soft-spoken, agreeable to all.

But his appetite for musical experience was anything but modest.

“I heard Ravi Shankar,” he says. “I saved up my money, two hundred dollars, went to Port of Spain, and bought a sitar. But I didn’t have a clue how to play it.”

He was twenty-six years old at the time. He approached a teacher who had come from India and was instructing Trinidadian children in the rudiments of Indian music. He began learning the scales, the first steps in handling the sitar, this ancient classical instrument.

Within a couple of lessons he had outgrown the teacher. He continued studying sitar on his own. “I just used to imitate Ravi Shankar.”

In 1978, he won first place in Mastana Bahar, Trinidad’s annual competition in popular Indian culture, and received a car as his prize. At 32 years of age, he had reached the highest achievement levels for an Indian musician in Trinidad. Where to go next?

Port of Spain was the answer. Mungal’s quiet, dedicated manner appealed to serious musicians experimenting with jazz.

“This was the Gayap group,” he remembers. “Boogsie Sharpe, the pannist; Clive Alexander, Toby Tobias and Angus Nunes were doing something called crossover and fusion.”

Mungal was on the concert circuit, on the list of experimental musicians outside the mainstream steelband movement. “Jazz is very akin to classical Indian music,” he says.

By day he was a public health inspector. By evening he was a musician. He became something of a beloved personage in Trinidad, the short unassuming Indian with the sitar who performed gratis wherever he was asked.

He was 40. He had three children. He had bought a modest house in a quiet part of Central Trinidad. He went to the decaying temple in the sea every evening, cleaned out a little space, and performed meditations. He began studying for the first academic qualifications in his life — law.

But it was not quite enough.

He applied for a Government of India scholarship to study classical music in Benares. And got it. In a flash, the whole family was uprooted. His school-age children were transferred to the banks of the Ganges, to that glorious mess that is everyday India. Their first language became Hindi. And they loved it.

“During my stay in India, I discovered what the expression to work yourself to the bone meant. After eight hours of daily sitar exercises, the toughest skin gives in.”

But, for Mungal, trouble was now starting. Listening to Ravi Shankar is no preparation for entering a degree programme in the rigorous art of classical sitar performance.

“I had to unlearn everything I had learned in Trinidad,” he says. “I had to pass two exams before even entering the master’s programme in music.”

He registered for a different degree, but studied sitar with a private tutor in the evenings. And eventually, he qualified to enter the music programme. He chucked the other degree.

“I used to practice for eight to ten hours a day,” he says. “All the muscles in my leg were hard and stiff from sitting in the playing posture.”

At the end of the degree programme he received the Praya Sangeet Sangiti Gold Medal. He was the best student of sitar world-wide, the second non-Indian to have achieved this distinction in the 60 years these exams have been held.

At the end of the degree program he also bumped into me. In Delhi. He was on his way home, I was on my way somewhere or other. He took me under his protection for a day, he and Roshni, escorting me to all kinds of grubby food-shops. He never mentioned his gold medal, never mentioned he had come first in the world.

Then he returned to Trinidad. To a mess. His sparkling new house had been rented out and was now in a sad state. His children had difficulty adjusting. He had no money, had to borrow from his brothers.

But he set out to fulfill his dream. To establish a school for classical music training.

No-one was interested. Trinidad had changed. It was 1990.

“It was a new society in terms of music,” Mungal recalls. “The Indian music that was being played was more robust than before.”

Trinidad had discovered chutney, that particular mix of Indian folk melody and calypso that can only be described as a good accompaniment to rum. Indian women were leaping on tables, “wining and grinding” and putting calypsonians to shame. Modesty was no longer in vogue.

“I went cap in hand to people to try and get them to back my idea of a school of classical music,” Mungal says. “No dice.”

But he had his children. And the indomitable Roshni who would smile through a hurricane.

“As long as we’re together, we’re okay,” says Mungal. “It doesn’t matter if we have a room two feet square.”

He went back to work in the civil service. He went back to the marginal crossover and fusion circles.

“I understood that once I returned home I had to regenerate the ancient art of the raga by exposing it to Caribbean rhythms. My music is holistic in its essence, but pluralistic in form.

“Black Trinidad has always been good to me,” he says. “I get respect from the panmen; from the roughest people. I got so entrenched in the lives of non-Indians that I was able to start my own band.”

Pantar. A trio at the beginning, with his son on the tabla, and a pannist.

“At the age of 45, I decided to go commercial,” he says. “Before that I had never played for money.”

Soon, he was in demand for performances at select events. When multinational companies had international functions in Trinidad, it was Pantar that was asked to perform.

In 1997, Pantar issued the CD Nirvana. It was not a hit. Indians in Trinidad were still swept up in chutney. Soca absorbed the rest of attention.

But to the international ear, Mungal’s music fitted in with the ethos of the end of the 20th century. It reflected the sense of new possibilities based on globalized access to myriad cultural traditions. Two years later, therefore, Pantar got thunderous appease in Paris at the music industry’s biggest fair.

And, as a new century dawned, even in Trinidad, the need for a new sound began to be felt.

“The public shows are now asking for us,” says Mungal. “After so many years the music is now getting general appreciation. Vendors off the street are coming to the shows, staying quiet, applauding like crazy.”

Pantar has begun playing at prestigious jazz festivals around the world.

In July, he performed at the legendary Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland. The reception he and his group received was “tremendous.” At Montreux, each act was scheduled to perform for 30 minutes; Pantar performed for 40 minutes, to a full house, after which the crowd demanded yet another encore, an unusual request at a jazz festival. Then it was on to Montpellier, in the south of France, and New York, before returning home at the end of July… and the Super Concert at Carifesta in August.

Mungal’s second single, Dreadlocks, will be included on a soon-to-be-released album and CD from Virgin EMI (France). Mungal is only the second Caribbean artist to have secured a recording contract with Virgin France; the other is Beenie Man from Jamaica.

“Dreadlocks,” one commentator has noted, “is a deep and yet playful homage to man in general and to the African man in particular. A homage to brilliant colours, to infinite nuances. An instrumental where the notes come together in the cascade of the sitar and the irresistible reggae beat.”

Mungal, of course, wants to do more.

“The music is getting better and better, but I have almost no time to practise,” he says. “I wish I could give up my job and just do music full-time.”

You have the feeling that, with his history, saying that he wants to do this is saying that it’s going to happen. The children are growing up.

“The thing I’m most proud of,” Mungal says, “is that I’ve raised a family.”