A few days ago, a music lover not conversant with Marathi asked me whether the Marathi expression “kaanaa khaalee vaajveen” referred to a new body percussion technique. The expression means slapping someone literally “under the ear” to cause bodily harm. But there is no doubt that this could also be looked at as a body percussion technique – albeit using someone else’s body as the percussion instrument instead of the conventional practice of using one’s own body for the purpose.
In such cases, the result appears as music to the ears of the self-appointed percussionists and their followers, but it is evidently far from being music for the recipient whose body is used as the instrument.
In fact, this reminds me of an anecdote narrated to me by a percussionist about how he had used the same expression in a similar manner. On one occasion, when he had been invited for a performance as a member of a musical ensemble, the miserly presenter noticing the absence of a particular percussion instrument asked if that would not be played that day. Quick to put the presenter in his place, the percussionist said, “Budget hoga to kaan ke neeche bhi bajaa sakta hoon” (If there is enough of a budget, I can even “play under the ear”.)
A long tradition
But moving away from this tom-toming of one’s physical strength, it is important to note that we have had a long tradition of using our bodies as instruments. In fact, ancient texts have referred to the human body as the “gaatra veena” for its ability to produce music naturally. Even the saint-poet Kabir has mentioned the tambura as a metaphor for the human body.
Body percussion techniques using stomping, clapping, snapping fingers and striking various parts of the body have been explored widely across musical cultures for centuries. Body percussion has proved to be a very effective tool in musical pedagogy too.
Here is a rhythmic pattern demonstrated slowly by Greg Sheehan, Australia’s leading percussionist, teacher and author of The Rhythm Diaries, who is known for his pathbreaking experiments with numbers and rhythm. Listeners will note that Sheehan uses the body more for exploring rhythmic possibilities and does not focus only on variations in sound production.
Here is a link to a body percussion group led by Sheehan.
Significantly, Hindustani and Carnatic musicians have marked time by clapping and by keeping a count on their fingers. At times, a person who is not part of the music-making ensemble is also appointed to mark time.
In the context of Hindustani music, this was often seen in pakhawaj solo performances. The term “taalpaani” refers to such a person. However, this role has nothing to do with body percussion as we know it.
Some leading Hindustani percussionists have used these techniques in musical projects that fall within the category more popularly known as fusion music. Such techniques have been employed in these projects to explore sound patterns.
Trained as a tabla player, well-known djembe player and composer Taufiq Qureshi uses body percussion in his performance available here.
Popular tabla player and composer Bikram Ghosh demonstrates body percussion on the final track.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.
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