Musicians Delved into Classic South Indian Music with International Percussionist

By Brigitte Petras

Last Thursday and Friday, an unfamiliar drumming could be heard resonating from Bliss Hall’s band room on the second floor.

Rajna Swaminathan, an international percussionist, performed and spoke with percussion majors and any other musicians interested in her foreign instrument and rhythm. As Swaminathan’s event title suggests — “South Indian Rhythm in the Global Contemporary Context” — she informed the public and the percussion studio about unfamiliar rhythm theories with a double-sided Indian drum called a mridangam.

Swaminathan explained the difference between classic North Indian and South Indian music.

“Hindustani [North Indian Music] was influenced by the Mongol invasion,” she said. “[South Indian music] isn’t necessarily meditative, although it can be. It’s very dense and complicated, but it’s also uplifting and very elevating. There are many different levels to appreciate this kind of music.”

She continued by describing that the Beatles were influenced by the Northern Hindustani music, while Southern Indian music receives much less exposure to the Western world.

Swaminathan suggested keeping an open mind about classic Indian music.

“Let the melodies and sounds take over and elevate you,” she said.

Swaminathan began learning piano, Indian dance and the mridangam drum through her parents’ connections at age eight. By the age of 14, she had the opportunity to perform internationally in India. These international and traditional Indian exposures lead to her lifetime career in music.

“There was a time when I wanted a normal job. I wanted to do physics, but I didn’t want to be in the same situation my dad was in. He has to balance his job with his own [musical] practice time,” Swaminathan said.

Swaminathan collaborates with jazz musicians such as Steve Coleman and Vijay Iyer. She explained that jazz has a similar fast pace and element of improvisation to South Indian music.

“It’s all about being beyond labels,” she said.

Glenn Schaft, the director of percussion studies and associate professor at YSU, met Swaminathan in Austin, Texas at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention three years ago.

Although he has seen and heard classical Indian music before, Schaft concluded that Swaminathan explained the complicated system to the West exceptionally well.

Swaminathan spent four extra hours within two days with the percussion studio exclusively, explaining the Indian rhythm theories.

“I wanted to expose [the students] to this fascinating different approach that will make them want to investigate. It’s one of the top two rhythmic systems in the world, and this system is applicable to what [percussionists] do,” Schaft said.

Aaron Graneto, a junior within the percussion studio, expressed his opinion on the South Indian rhythmic system and music.

“She displayed so much musicality with the raw instrument that I was inspired to delve deeper into South Indian music from that point forward,” Graneto said. “I came to understand the powerful simplicity of this rhythmic system and the ease with which a musician can vocalize an idea without having to explain out every single note.”