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The orchestra of multi-instrumentalists

Musicians playing more than one instrument is increasingly becoming the norm. And India's burgeoning indie music scene stands to benefit from it

Published: Feb 24, 2016 07:36:37 AM IST
Updated: Feb 24, 2016 09:04:47 PM IST
The orchestra of multi-instrumentalists
All-in-one: Steve Winwood’s chartbusting album Arc of a Diver was not an example of egotism, but master craftsmanship

By all appearances we live in an era of super-specialisation. Experts are not just experts in one thing anymore. There’s an increasing microscoping of skill sets, zoning down on a specific thing of a specific thing of a specific thing. It’s not enough that you’re a brain surgeon. You’ve got to be an expert in a subset of a subdivision: Vascular neurosurgery, oncological neurosurgery, neuropsychiatric surgery. Remember how you wanted to be a rocket scientist? You’d better narrow your love, dreams and training to the component that suits you more. At best, you’ll be a micro-cog in a vast wheel, but a highly valuable one.
The world of music, as ever, turns that notion on its head. It used to be that you just wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Or drums like John Bonham. Or take Level 42’s bass-playing singer Mark King’s otherworldly abilities to the next level. You picked your instrument and you practised until your capillaries and your tendons threatened to leap out of your body. These days, though, it is becoming less a world of singular skills than of multifarious proficiencies. Welcome to the age of the multi-instrumentalist.
The multi-instrumentalist is not a new species. There have been some pretty famous ones. Paul McCartney, who had already been exploring his versatility with The Beatles, played every instrument on his debut solo album, McCartney, which was released soon after the Fab Four’s dissolution. Ten years later, in 1980, British band Traffic’s frontman Steve Winwood released his critically and commercially successful one-man-band solo record Arc of a Diver. Eschewing all session musicians, Winwood played acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, bass, drums, percussion and keyboards, and sang all the vocal parts—lead and backing. The chartbusting album was no exercise in egotism. Winwood was a master craftsman, scoring high as writer, composer and performer.

The impossible talent that is Stevie Wonder goes well beyond being an amazing singer equally adept at playing funky keyboard parts as he is at tooting out sweet harmonica lines. On his mammoth hit ‘Superstition’, Wonder is credited with playing all instruments apart from guitar and horns. Rock-and-soul wonder Lenny Kravitz is no slouch either, renowned for playing a multitude of instruments on his self-produced work, including guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, harmonica and sitar. Equalling Kravitz’s palette of talents is punk poet PJ Harvey, who plays guitar, piano, bass, autoharp and saxophone as she continues to gather acclaim and accolades.

But no one wears the multi-instrumentalist crown like Prince. While his repertoire may pale in number next to American alt-pop singer-songwriter Sufjan Steven’s (who plays guitar, bass, drums, banjo, piano, vibraphone and a swathe of wind and brass instruments), no one plays them like the Purple One. Prince’s virtuosity as a guitar player, keyboardist, drummer and dancer (okay, that’s not an instrument, but the way he dances, it deserves mention every time) is outstanding at the very least. I wouldn’t be surprised if he added master confectioner and ikebana exponent to his credits.

The orchestra of multi-instrumentalists
Image: Clockwise from left: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images; Shirin Sriram; Getty Images; Bobin James; Getty Images
One-man bands: (Clockwise from top left) Prince, Shrikanth Sriram, Paul McCartney, Sankarshan Kini and Drew Goddard

What were once anomalies, or at least unusual occurrences, seem increasingly to be becoming the norm. In the early ’90s, when I first met Shrikanth Sriram, the jazz-electronica musician who goes by the single-monikered Shri, I was duly impressed by his ability to play three unrelated instruments: Tabla, bass and bansuri. But more recently, I’ve seen an increasing number of bands in different parts of the world that boasts musicians who switch roles as easily as a guitar player would change tones. Mutemath, the American pop-rock band that’s performed in India a number of times in the last couple of years, features a moment in its live set where the bandmembers swap instruments. While it may border on gimmickry, especially after you’ve seen the act once, it never sounds forced—their abilities transcend the novelty.

Australia-New Zealand find representation too. On Aussie post-prog band Karnivool’s debut album, Themata, their guitar player Drew Goddard played drums on all but one song in such a staggering display of virtuosity that you would struggle to name his main instrument. Kiwi lush-pop band The Map Room recently toured India, mostly through the NH7 Weekender festivals, as a four-piece band. But their self-titled debut album was created entirely with the combined talents of just two of them: Brendan Morrow and Simon Gooding wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, sang all the parts, and recorded and mixed the album.

In recent years, I’ve been encountering, and often collaborating with, more and more musicians adept at an impressively diverse range of instruments. When I started my acoustic band Whirling Kalapas, I was thrilled to meet (and quickly recruited) Sankarshan ‘Shanks’ Kini, who played guitar, mandolin, violin and cajón, a Peruvian box drum. Not content with small artillery, Shanky went on to add flute, harmonica, recorder and trumpet to his arsenal. Multifaceted fella and third member of the Kalapas, Ashwin Andrew is remarkably adroit as a drummer, keyboardist, guitarist and bass player. When Shanky left Kailasa, with whom he played guitar, violin and percussion, he was replaced with the guitar-, violin- and melodica-playing Neil Gomes.

This trend is incredibly good news for India’s burgeoning indie music scene. It’s less difficult to find a substitute player should your bandmate have another commitment. I’m looking forward to calling on Jehangir Jehangir, who plays guitar and synth with Nicholson and Dirty Jays, and handles drummer duties with a number of acts, including Madboy/Mink, Mauj Maharaja and Tejas Menon. While JJ doesn’t play bass for anyone yet, I’ve heard him work that instrument—it’s just a matter of time before he puts a third label on his sleeve.

The author is the lead singer of Indus Creed

(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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