Drummer and percussionist Asaf Sirkis talks to Charlie Anderson about his journey to the UK, his use of the Konnakol system and his latest projects
Can you tell us about your journey and how you ended up here in the UK?
“Growing up in Israel, it’s a very small place. There are lots of great musicians there, singers and instrumentalists, but not so many places to play. I was really drawn to Europe because, already, in my early days when I started my career, I started touring around Europe a little bit and I saw how musicians were living and how they are making a living out of playing the music that they like playing, so I felt that it was a great opportunity and somewhere that you can try and make your music and make a living out of it. Because in Israel it was not so possible at the time and nowadays a lot of musicians are not really making it in that way.”
“I went to Holland and stayed there for a while and then went to to France and stayed there for a while. When I was in Holland a friend told me about a saxophone player called Gilad Atzmon, who later I played with for many, many years. He told me about Gilad who was living in London and that it was a good place to check out. So I went to check out London and it was really amazing actually. I found it very vibrant and very welcoming, as a foreigner. Also, on a personal level, but also on a musical level, I was in London for a week and already played a gig and sat in at a couple of other gigs. I made new contacts very, very quickly. I thought ‘this is really exciting, I should try to move over’ so I did, eventually, after being in France and Holland for about six or seven months. The beginning was a bit tough because I didn’t have much work, nobody knew who I was and I didn’t even have a car so I had to carry my drums in baby trolleys and take night buses and stuff like that. But I very quickly got to know a lot of really, really nice people that helped me and good musicians. One of them was, of course Gilad Atzmon, who was already here in the UK for a year or so before. He got me into his band which was major progress for me because his band was very busy and I was getting to know a lot of venues in and outside of the UK and later on I got to meet Tim Garland who is a fantastic instrumentalist and an amazing composer as well. I’m still playing with him ten years or so later. I became friends with many, many other people that I’ve collaborated with over the years.”
“It has been a very, very welcoming experience and a very fruitful one for the creative process, since I’ve been in the UK. So that’s why I’ve stayed here and I’m happy to stay here.”
Tell us about the projects that you are involved with at the moment.
“My main project at the moment is a collaboration with a Polish singer by the name of Sylwia Bialas. We have a quartet called the Sirkis/Bialas Quartet. It features Sylwia on vocals who also sings in Polish, and wrote lyrics to some of my tunes in Polish and is also a composer in her own right, and a bandleader as well. It also features Frank Harrison, a fantastic pianist and we also have Patrick Bettison playing bass and harmonica. We’ve been touring with this band for the last year and a half and we have a CD out called Come To Me and we are preparing for an autumn tour at the moment and hopefully another album recording next year.”
“My other projects are the Asaf Sirkis Trio which is with Kevin Glasgow on electric bass and Tassos Spiliotopoulos on electric guitar. It’s a more rocky, fusion/electric jazz project.”
“I also have another band which I don’t often play with, but when we do it’s always fun. It’s called The Inner Noise and it has the slightly unusual lineup of guitar, drums and church organ.”
“So those are, basically, my solo projects. Other than that I play a lot with Tim Garland, and occasionally with Larry Coryell.. Those are the main things that I’m doing.”
“I just recently did a recording with an Indonesian piano player and working a lot for the MoonJune record label, a pioneering record company in New York and they have a very forward-looking attitude to music and they put out very advanced and forward-looking music which I really enjoy being a part of.”
Tell us how you got into Konnakol, the South Indian system of rhythm and singing.
“To be honest, it was a necessity for me at the beginning. I’ve always been fascinated by South Indian drumming and South Indian music and I’ve heard it since I was in my early twenties, back in Israel. It’s not extremely popular there but still I had a friend who gave me a few cassettes and I was just really astonished by the rhythmic complexity and the rhythmic control. I found it really fascinating. Later on, when I moved to London, I discovered that there is a very, very rich and very big community of Indian musicians in London. Not only musicians but they have organisations like the Tamil school in Wembley which I regularly go to study there and play concerts there.”
“It really was necessity. Back when I started my music career in Israel the music I was playing was very different. Somehow the rhythmic emphasis and the attitude was very different to the UK. When I came here it was almost like I had to relearn what I thought I already knew. So I had to kind of reinvent myself a little bit, which was still a very exciting process. And I got to play with the likes of Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock. These people are very, very serious musicians and what I found common between was their control of rhythm and knowledge of rhythm. And I found that I needed to ‘sharpen my rhythmic knife’ a little bit. I was looking for something that would help me, a toolbox. Since I knew a lot of South Indian music already and was appreciating the rhythmic aspect of it. I already knew that there is a rich community in London of South Indian musicians, so I started to look into that and learning by YouTube clips and then taking some Skype lessons with people from India. And I found that it really helped me with going to the next level in my rhythmic perception. And it really, really helped me in playing with people and understanding where they are coming from. Their rhythmic attitude was very different to the one that I knew back in Israel so it really helped me develop more skill in that area. Plus I really love the music and I think those rhythms are very beautiful too. After some years of learning it, I’m very honoured to be able to play in traditional Carnatic music contexts. I do some concerts with my teacher.”
“Also, the other challenge for me was that I really love playing and practicing my instrument and when I came to London I had less and less time to do that because I was touring a lot and I didn’t have much time at home. So, without a drum kit set up anywhere, you can’t really practice the drums. And I found that with Konnakol, which is an oral tradition, you can basically do it anywhere. Suddenly I could take all that travel time and make it practice time. And I immediately noticed the difference and I felt that it rally revolutionised my own playing, even though I wasn’t practicing much. It was not only because I was so enthusiastic about it because of the result I’ve seen, I’m willing to share this with people and maybe they can find the benefits. I’m very passionate about sharing this wisdom, and sharing a little bit of my journey as well. My YouTube channel also has some basic tutorials.”
How do you see yourself as a musician and where do you still want to go?
“Well, I’ve not really achieved what I really want to achieve and it’s always a process of learning more. The thing is, it’s not really about achieving and that’s it, it’s more about progress for me. If I keep learning new stuff and I keep learning new things, even if they are very little, then it makes me happy to feel that I’ve learnt something new. It’s not so much about the achievement per se, it’s more about the process of learning something new that is more exciting. You can achieve certain things and there are so many things that you can achieve, it’s just whatever you like to achieve, you know. There’s always more.”
To find out more about Asaf Sirkis
go to his website:
You can also find performance clips and tutorials on his YouTube channel:
Photo: Rachel Zhang