Life In Berlin: A Look Into Indian Carnatic Music At Maerzmuzik

Mar 27, 2017

"If I sing (sings C major scale), you would probably be able to relate yourself to a scale that moves in a major scale of C major, or which ever scale that I am in."

This is Ramesh Vinakayam. He is in Berlin from Chennai, India to participate in the annual Maerzmusik festival.

Ensemble KNM Berlin at Maerzmusik 2017. Voice and lecture: Ramesh Vinayakam, Shantala Subramanyam on bamboo flutes, Ana Maria Rodriguez on keyboard and electronics, Jeremy Woodruff on tanpura, and Anantha Krishnan on mridangam and tabla.
Credit Kai Bienert

"I’m actually singing the same notes, CDEFG or whatever. But I’m actually moving in a particular way," Vinakayam explains. "And if I ask you to repeat it, then you really do not know - you will never understand what’s going on. But a notation system gives you a window to the music you want to see."

Add inventor to Vinakayam’s already long bio — he’s a singer, composer, songwriter, and producer. Now he’s invented the Gamaka Box, which is the first system to notate gamakas, those trills and glides which make Indian classical music Indian classical music.

"Western music, as we know, is made of notes of the pitches on the piano; they're like step-wise. Indian classical music is made of floating notes, that float between these pitches," says Vinakayam. "But there is a problem because the age-old tradition does not believe in notation."

Carnatic music, South Indian classical music, is learned by rote. Without notation, it can be hard for Europeans to understand or appreciate what’s going on in Indian classical music, let alone play it. So Vinakayam is on a mission to change that.

"There’s a saying, that you cannot really cook a pumpkin written on paper. So that’s the way they look at notation."

Maerzmusik 2017: Ensemble KNM Berlin .
Credit Kai Bienert

Step one: teaching the German musicians of the KNM contemporary ensemble to play Carnatic music through his Gamaka box system. The result premiered last week at Radialsystem V as part of the Maerzmusik festival.

"People think that it’s pitted against the tradition — it's not. You have to break tradition to keep tradition. A notation system is an added tool, which doesn't ask you not to listen. It makes you listen to more music. You have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Vinakayam says.

If Vinakayam is breaking the rules, it's part of his hopeful vision that more and more people will fall in love with, and learn to play, Indian classical music.

"Something like food; your mom makes the best food, you still come back to that. It's that way with your musical ideas, you’re used to a certain sound. Why would anybody say, something is not beautiful because it’s not from my country? Would you not love a different flower, which is very beautiful, from some other place other than yours? So it's just as simple as that!"

Vinakayam describes Indian music as something like an acquired taste. If so, at least one room of Berliners is now hungry for more.