By Lise McKean
Lise McKean: This is your first trip to the US. Musicians from all over the US and beyond consider NAMM a huge event for the music industry. Since it’s a trade show, it’s not open to the public. Musicians attend only by invitation. Tell me how it all came together for your first visit to the US and to NAMM?
Jayen Varma: From Jaco Pastorius to Chuck Rainey and Victor Wooten, everyone in music knows you find phenomenal bass guitarists in the US. Over the years I’ve learned so much from listening to them. So I knew if I came to NAMM I would have the chance to meet some of them. Lots of great bass players from outside US come to NAMM too. Jean Davoisine, my friend and the French drummer I play with, has been coming to NAMM for the past six years. He kept encouraging me to come and talked about the fantastic bass guitarists and other musicians I would meet.
In 2014 and 2015 GruvGear invited to come to NAMM. Even though it wasn’t possible to come those years, I was determined to make it happen. So finally the time came and in 2016 I made it to the US and to NAMM!
Jay Baldemor, the CEO of GruvGear is a generous supporter of my music. When he found out I was coming this year to NAMM, he included Jean and me in the line-up of musicians playing in his booth.
NAMM is huge—thousands of exhibitors and a few hundred thousand visitors over the four days. What was it like to attend for the first time?
NAMM’s website says, “Music begins here.” All the new products are launched here. Musicians are eager to try out instruments and equipment. Everywhere you go on the exhibition floor you see great musicians playing instruments so you can learn from watching and hearing them.
Watching and listening to bass players at NAMM taught me that their playing is even better than I could imagine from just hearing recordings. Not just the famous musicians. I can truthfully say that the bass playing I heard at NAMM was consistently incredible. Not to mention the playing I heard in the featured bands that played on stages outside the convention center and in the nearby hotels and clubs.
What kind of comments did you hear about your playing?
Everywhere musicians were talking, playing, and listening to each other. Even when I tried out instruments, musicians stopped to watch, listen, and ask me about my style of playing. I was excited that my playing grabbed the attention of all sorts of musicians—guitarists, keyboardists, sax players, and drummers.
Some people told me they wanted to learn my technique. A few young bass players asked me to accept them as my student. I gave them mini-lessons when we were sitting together, trying out different bass guitars and amps.
Were there any comments about you coming all the way from India?
Musicians I met at NAMM were excited to learn I was from India. They’re familiar with Indians playing sitar, tabla, and other Indian instruments. They were very curious to know what I was going to do with the bass guitar. I told them that the bass is getting more attention India and that means there are more outstanding Indian bass guitarists.
How would you describe your style of playing?
I combine a traditional bass style of finger-picking with a percussive style that’s similar to playing tabla or mridangam.
What is distinctive about the sound that results from combining those techniques?
My percussive style gives a totally different sound from the usual slap bass technique. I often accompany it with Indian beatboxing, the vocal sounding of the rhythm with the traditional syllables used to count the beat. I also use Indian odd-timings, such as 5, 9, 11, 13, and 23. A few American musicians who are familiar with Indian music asked me about these timings after they heard me play.
Besides playing on the first day at NAMM in the Gruv Gear booth with your drummer Jean Davosine, tell me about the second and third time the two of you played during NAMM for the Museum of Making Music?
Right, on the first day of NAMM we had a demo performance at Gruv Gear. Musician friends I knew from Facebook came by to hear me. I was thrilled to finally meet musicians that I had only known online and from watching their videos.
Jean and I got two more chances to play thanks to Paul Mitchell, a music promoter based in New York. He recommended me to Gillian Harrington of the Museum of Making Music in Huntington Beach, California. The museum is part of the NAMM Foundation.
Because the museum had just opened a special exhibition on the bass guitar, it featured bassists during this year’s NAMM. There were 30-minute slots throughout the show. Jean and I played twice on Saturday, the day NAMM has its biggest crowd. Being selected to play at the Museum of Making Music booth is an honor I’ll never forget.
Jean and I have been playing together in Khayal Groove with vocalist Aparna Panshikar since 2010. Since our music blends western scales and ragas with the Indian styles of slap bass and beatboxing, we’re always looking for musicians who are into experimentation. At NAMM were met musicians want to collaborate with us. Going to NAMM opened my eyes to how huge the musical world is, and how many great bass players are in it. I learned more than I can say in words. I’m going to put what I learned into my music.
How do ragas combine with beatboxing?
I don’t find much difference between ragas and scales, it’s a difference in feeling. A raga is based on one key and scale. In Western music there can be multiple scales in one song. So I usually go on a groove-based performance, working with a particular scale and rhythm. I mix the ragas with scales and Indian beatboxing to give the audience a different sonic experience.
People who listen to Indian style slap bass and beatboxing tell me that it sounds like rap music. Rap musicians I met in NY said they’d like to collaborate with me and explore combining rap and Indian beatbox.
I heard that you were the first Indian bass guitarist to play at NAMM. How does it feel coming all the way from Kerala and finding yourself playing in front of top musicians?
There are moments when I still can’t believe I had this chance. I really feel honored to have played at NAMM. I knew I was playing in front of musicians who are known all over the world. I believed that I couldn’t do more than what I can do. So I decided to be myself. To play how I usually play, to do what I know best. It was a great moment when the audience showed their acceptance and appreciation of my bass playing.
From feedback online to my videos I knew there were people who liked my technique and others who criticized it. But when musicians at NAMM noticed my playing, told me they liked it, and wanted to know more about my technique, it confirmed my belief in my playing. So I decided I don’t need to pay any more attention to those who say my technique isn’t correct.
More than that, it was like getting a Grammy Award when legendary bass player Victor Wooten said to me, “You’re a fantastic bassist. Your technique is excellent. I like it.” When he heard what Victor said, drummer John Martinez smiled and told me, “You’ve got your cat card now!”
Lise McKean is an anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. She first heard Jayen Varma play at the Carnival of e-Creativity near Nainital in 2010 and in Kochi in 2013.
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