A Carnatic Approach To (Jazz) Improvisation

Sankaran 先生

While undertaking monastic training as a Zen Buddhist in Japan, I spent countless hours studying or chanting scripture as part of my study regimen. And thanks to my ability to organize the words rhythmically, I was able to memorize large amounts of text quite rapidly. But this was no coincidence, for I had previously engaged in reciting solkattu as a part of my study of South Indian Karnatak music (Carnatic) with saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, later studying with mridangam drum master Trichy Sankaran. 

Solkattu (a part of the technique known as konnakkol) are syllables that function as vocalized representations of the various rhythmic groupings, and as organizations of the musical/temporal structures. They are different from syllables used in North Indian music (bols) in that bols are onomatopoeia of the actual sound of the tabla drums, while solkattu syllables are rhythmic mnemonics only. Solkattu is not only a pedagogical aid, but is also considered an art unto itself. And though we don’t practice this particular art in jazz, the ability to sing rhythmic patterns is an important ability to have, and a basic look at syllabic rhythm and counting may help you advance your own understanding of rhythm as an improvising musician, create your own set of written exercises to help you memorize and internalize long cycles, and help you com- pose or transcribe cyclic structures with greater ease.

The principles of rhythmic theory in Carnatic music are called the Dasa Prana, the 10 vital elements of rhythm. Among the ideas discussed are the various modes of indicating rhythm, subdivision, tempo, classification, and the idea of “time” in general. The beat cycles in South Indian music (talam or talams) are considered to have developed over time from Sanskrit poetry, and out of this system five basic lengths of time (jati) developed: chaturasra (4), tisra (3), misra (7), khanda (5), and sankirna (9). The groupings (anga) of beats (akshara) can be arranged quite creatively, and thus I will discuss them in terms of how you can begin to use these particular groupings to your advantage in jazz improvisation.

Among the many ways to articulate these beat groupings, the Carnatic music (and dance) terms ta-ka, ta-ki-ta, and ta-ka-di-mi work very well, although I tend to use the word “ta-ki-da” instead as I find it easier to pronounce at fast tempos. Logically, “taka” is used as a grouping of two, “takida” of three, and “takadimi” of four. Having these groupings as a basic set of building blocks helps one create longer structures without having to count in one’s head, and prevents thought in general from interfering with your music making. The idea is to become comfortable with a rhythmic cycle by repeating the syllabic version of it until the rhythm feels completely embodied, you can feel it “naturally,” like it is part of your body.


Update (September 2017)

What I did not mention at the time I wrote this post though is how syllabic accent(s) from Sanskrit poetry, for example, play into such musical acclimation. Verse rhythm, I believe, feels embodied when it returns to what we sense as the “natural” flow of syllables and words; what becomes natural to us in the ebb and flow of our mother tongue. This is measured in syllabic (literary) meters; anywhere from classical poetry to common street language.

Literary ‘meter,’ like musical meters or time signatures, exists in writing and speech, and such meter(s) (poetic foot) are a rhythmic system. Thus, though we may not have had musical training on percussion or drums, we are unconsciously and/or naturally using the ‘beats’ of speech, as the ‘beats’ of Sanskrit provided the foundation for solkattu. 

Words such as embark and relate start with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable; thus we say “re-LATE,” or “em-BARK.” This part of a sentence or set of words has a set of accents, which are used very consciously in poetry to create “rhythm” or a sense of flow. Relate and embark and/or defer are each an Iambus/Iambic (set in Iambic “foot”). Words which are set in a series of unaccented-unaccented-accented syllables (classic examples include: cigarette, interrupt, and engineer) are known as Anapest/Anapestic (like the boom boom BAP! of the Queen anthem “We Will Rock You“). Putting these words together in poetry using a combination of sets of feet is known as scansion, and in essence, solkattu is the (genius) method of improvised and composed temporal scansion that evolved out of literary devices.

Thus, a fun way to familiarize oneself with syllables or words as time flow is to make up your own phrase with set syllable counts (5, 7, 10, etc) that will help you familiarize yourself with this concept before studying Carnatic music. For example, to get a feel for a 5 beat talam, one can say a phrase like “winter is coming” over and over to feel how five syllables create their own sense of flow. Another one might be ” I don’t wanna eat a pie” for a seven syllable/beat cycle. It is a fun, creative way to prepare for solkattu studies, and I suggest to try it for a bit before continuing on (favorites of mine include: “elephant boogie” and “dancing in a motorboat”). 


So, in order to create a cycle of five beats for example, we can say “ta-ka-ta-ki-da” (takatakida). (We could also say “ta-ki-ta” when we use a group of three syllables, but most people seem to prefer saying it with “da,” which seems to flow off the tongue easier). Now that we have chosen a five-syllable phrase, we can add notes to each syllable and experiment with musical phrases and ideas. “Takadimi-takida” is a good seven-syllable structure, as is “taka-taka-takida.” Of course, the big fun begins when you start working out long cycles, and begin to memorize/internalize their syllabic flow. You will also notice that if you accent the first syllable in each grouping, it creates a secondary rhythm within or along side the main rhythm.  If you clap this secondary rhythm it gives you a clave, a repeated rhythmic pattern (also called an ostinato) you can use as a basic formula for writing melody and bass parts that can accompany the improvisations you make using the full talam.

For example, if we use a 13 beat cycle: takadimi – takida – takadimi – jonu (pronounced “joe-new”), we create a set of syllables of [4 – 3 – 4 – 2]. This means we are accenting beats 1, 5, 8, and 12… the red syllables in the talam above. This gives the talam a lilting flow (like an aqsak rhythm in Turkish music). This aqsaq rhtyhm is a great clave, thus by studying solkattu you are subconsciously learning many great aqsaq rhtyhms!

Beginning again with 13 beats: [takadimi – takida – takadimi – jonu] we can then repeat the phrase a second time, adding an extra “ta-ka” on the end, thus creating a 28-beat cycle. Suddenly, the idea of memorizing/internalizing a 32, 45, or 63 beat cycle now doesn’t seem so insurmountable. Then, you can take the next step and write out a simple melody utilizing that rhythm either as a further memory aid (or as a full-blown composition) to improvise over. In fact, many of my cycles have now become practical tools for teaching or performing in one way or another.

An effective practice (and composing) device is to create several rhythmic cycles and then turn them into concurrent bars of music by adding notes. It is a great way to train the fingers and mind, practice difficult shifts in rhythm and tempo, and also guarantee you don’t fall into the habit of creating only single chains of rhythm exclusively. One exercise is to write out and sing additive bars in a sequence: 9/4 then 10/4 then 11/4, etc. They are fun to sing and play, and create an exciting, “complicated” sound without actually being very complicated at all.

In terms of improvisation, I have found that the occasional odd numbered cycle (3, 5, or 9) cycle over a standard time signature (4/4), played on a percussion or melody instrument, is a nice cross-rhythmic effect, and the ability to feel long cycles helps one organize melodic material even in traditional formats much more effectively. Cycles are also fun to use in both traditional and more contemporary compositional forms, and introducing a cycle section into one of your pieces is a nice way of expanding your music into creative, unexplored territory. Variety is the key, and the more you experiment with this system the more enriched and creative you will become as a musician.

Be careful you don’t overdo it, though. Like such activities as circular breathing or playing multi-phonics, playing and improvising on cycles should be done with taste. But if practiced and performed with care, there is no limit to what you can achieve musically with hard work, ingenuity, and as always, a metronome. And just think … you could be the first person in your town to successfully play a few choruses of a slow blues … in the time signature of 89/4!

And if you are interested in studying more principles of solkattu on your own, then Master Trichy Sankaran’s book The Art of Konnakol is for you!




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