In the market of Jodhpur, India, among all the overwhelming sights and sounds spread out below Mehrangarh Fort, sellers display textiles with their brilliant colors and designs, often so perfect in their imperfections. They caught the eye of Anita Katakkar, the tabla-playing leader of Rakkatak, as she visited, and the beauty of the fragments of cloth she saw gave her the title of the band’s third album. Small Pieces (released April 14, 2017) is, she says, a collection of the stories they’ve absorbed along the way.
“Like the fabrics, nothing is ever quite perfect when you make an album, and everything is stitched together with different threads,” Katakkar explains. “It felt like it summed up everything we’d been doing so well.”
Based in Toronto, Canada, Rakkatak began as a solo project in 2009 for Katakkar, working with her tabla, a laptop, and a sequencer to create a highly personal mix of classical Indian music and electronica. But with the addition of bassist Oriana Barbato and sitar player Rex Van der Spuy, Rakkatak’s focus shifted a little, making music whose heart remains grounded in the Indian tradition, but whose head is firmly fixed in the 21st century.
“My ancestry is Indian and Scottish,” Katakkar says, “and I heard plenty of Indian music growing up from my grandmother; that’s what started me. I began studying tabla here in Canada, then spent time in India learning more. Then I spent 10 years as a member of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble. But once musicians like Talvin Singh and Tabla Beat Science started changing the way people heard Indian music, I began to explore the possibilities they opened up. I saw where I wanted to take the music. We had stories to tell.”
And with Small Pieces, Rakkatak tells some surprising, often gorgeous and heartbreaking tales. “Eesha’s Song” was written as an elegy to a friend’s daughter who passed away before she was two years old. The tabla solos, Katakkar notes, “were inspired by running up a big hill and barely being able to keep up, sort of like Eesha’s heart.” “Rain After The Fire” came from watching coverage of the terrible fires that devastated Western Canada during the Summer of 2015, while “Thoughts Of You” was composed with vocalist Samidha Joglekar.
“It’s a love song to Lord Krishna,” Katakkar says. “We envisioned Krishna with ebony skin and a comforting presence that weaves in and out of one’s dream and awakened state.”
The album closes with “Riffing On 9,” a solo piece that harks back to Katakkar’s early recording days, working with just tabla and laptop, her nod to the Asian Underground movement that helped inspire her on this path.
But it’s one of the two covers on Small Pieces that comes as a huge surprise – the band’s version of Rush’s “YYZ.”
“Rush is iconic in Canada,” Katakkar says. “You wouldn’t think their style would merge with Indian classical music, but because of the rhythmic component and the odd time signatures, it works quite naturally. Since it’s a very drum-oriented piece, full of little explosions, it jibes perfectly with what we do. And as YYZ is the abbreviation for the Toronto airport, it also has a local connection to us.” It has a groove, and for Katakkar, the music is all about the groove. That’s at the core of everything she plays and writes.
“When I compose, I start with the taal, or time cycle. I’ll think about the mood and the melodic aspects, then figure out the mode and make a rough recording using a keyboard.” From there, the band works on the arrangements, building each track before going into the studio. Recording Small Pieces took over a year, bringing in a number of guests to achieve the sound Katakkar heard in her mind. Even then, there were surprises.
“The solos – the features – were all recorded live,” Katakkar recalls, “so I never knew quite what to expect. But that’s the beauty of music. It’s Indian classical music refracted through a Western prism, a synthesis of ideas that capture the best of both worlds with the kind of deep, open emotion and warmth that’s removed from the austere edge of most classical music.
“What we see, what we experience, this is what’s reflected in the music,” Katakkar says. “It’s an outlet for feelings.”
In the market at Jodhpur, they display the cloth, exactly the way they have for centuries. And in Toronto, Rakkatak have their Small Pieces, every one of them a gem.
~ written by Chris Nickson for Flipswitch PR