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Creating Fusion Notes - Chennai to New York
Into the Life of the Global Musical Paradox – Guitar Prasanna
Interviewed and Written by Anu Gopalakrishnan
Exclusive 2019

The first time I watched him perform with the band 11th Commandment, I did not know that our paths would cross again after several decades. At that time, I knew one thing – the young guy was perceiving and transforming the landscape of the way we look at Indian Music. Several years later, gets to interview the much endearing, talented, intelligent musician and awesome guitarist (the music world is mad about him!) Prasanna, better known as Guitar Prasanna – an artist who passionately teaches and performs on several platforms. Every show that features Prasanna has a unique charm and character and blows your mind away.

Before you read further, please watch a couple of Prasanna’s works as he connects and transforms the listeners with ease, through the powerful medium of music – whether it is New York or Chennai. - Live Gig Performance of Ilayaraja’s composition from the film “ Salangai Oli”. - Live performance from Chembai Guruvayur (2011). - A tribute to Jimi Hendrix from the album Electric Ganesha Land (2006).

Anu Gopalakrishnan, interviews the master fusion expert Prasanna, who pioneered the art of playing Carnatic music on the guitar.

Q: From IIT Madras to being a professional musician in New York City, your adventure in music has been commendable. What’s the story behind this?
I first fell in love with the guitar at the age of 5, but started playing when I was 11. I started playing with many film music bands right away. I’ve been playing in Rock bands since I was 13 or so. My first guitar teacher was C.G. Shanmugaraj. I also studied with classical guitar teacher Samuel Thangadurai. My training in Carnatic music was with vocalist Tiruvarur Balasubramaniam for around 6 years and then with Violin Maestro A. Kanyakumari for over 20 years. I attribute my success and growth as a musician to my gurus and my parents. Academics was also a priority and I was determined to go to IIT to study Engineering, but my love for the guitar and music never stopped. After my IIT degree, I worked as a Software Engineer for a while but the passion for music was so strong that I quit my job and went to Berklee College of Music to study Jazz and Classical music and now, here I am. Interestingly the job that I gave ‘up’ to become full time musician was at the Chennai office of Complete Business Solutions, a Farmington Hills, Michigan based company! Ah, bringing back the Michigan motif in a very different way now!

Q: How did you get into Carnatic Music while growing up?
As a young boy growing up in Chennai, I was listening to a lot of Tamil film songs as they were played on the radio and was everywhere. I guess my first exposure to Carnatic music came from listening to those film songs which had a strong Carnatic base to it. Also, you just can’t escape the sounds of Carnatic music in the air, given its strong connection with the community etc. I started playing those film songs first and eventually playing traditional Kritis on the guitar on my own before my formal study began.

Q: I understand this is a calling - how do you singularly determine that you were born to do this?
By the time I became a teenager I was playing a Carnatic concert one day, playing with a Metal band the other day and playing Jazz Fusion with another band and was composing so much music combining all of these with my Carnatic knowledge. I just felt like a child playing with many different toys and having fun. I didn’t know anyone else who was playing such a diversity of music at that time. And I thought maybe this is my calling and I could make a much larger contribution to the world with my ability to integrate various musical genres into a unique signature of my own. I knew I had to devote all my time to music at some point in my life.

Q: And the signature is unique. Tell us more about it.
Finding my own sound and playing style is the most rewarding aspect of my journey. There are millions of guitarists around the world and to be recognized by fans and critics instantly for my playing is a true blessing. My Carnatic guitar playing and how I integrate that into everything else I do, has helped create that signature.


Q: Carnatic music comes with a lot of rules. Did you face any challenges, especially when you start integrating the same into a western instrument?
Yes, of course. I had to pretty much chart my own path. Technically, I had to figure out how to make the guitar play in an authentic Carnatic style all by myself as I couldn’t find anyone to help me with that. It wasn’t easy but it was a joyful challenge and I enjoyed making that connection between myself, the guitar and Carnatic music. I kept my focus by staying away from the unnecessary baggage that comes with the Carnatic mindset sometimes. I didn’t pay much attention to what the skeptics said and kept going at it.

Q: How do you track your growth as a musician?
By making sure I am making enriching people’s lives with my music. By making sure I am having fun with music. By constantly learning from everyone around me. By pushing myself to give myself and my fans an unforgettable Guitar Prasanna experience every time. By being in the moment each time I play and let something beautiful always emerge. I am not obsessive about music and look at music as my friend. So, I have a happy and healthy relationship with my friend.

Q: How do you feel coming back to Michigan to perform for GLAC?
I met my good friends Roger and Jaya Natarajan from Michigan, last year at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival. They have been actively promoting Carnatic music in the US for so many years. They probably sowed the seeds for this concert. Since then, Sriram Ganapathy from GLAC has been so wonderfully planning this with my agent Sarayu to bring me here. I am glad to be back in the Detroit area after a long time.

I would like to credit GLAC for choosing to present many sides of my music at the concert on Saturday May 11th. I will be playing two sets – one set with Mark Stone trio and Oakland University guitar ensemble led by Brett Hoag. I have arranged some of my well- known songs specially for this ensemble to play that evening. The second set will be a traditional Carnatic set with Vinod Seetharaman on mridangam and Samyuktha Sreeram on ghatam. I will also have my student and well-known Detroit guitarist Ashwin Asokan guest with me on a couple of Illayaraja songs we would do as a guitar duo. So, a lot of music for everyone to enjoy!

Jazz - Carnatic Guitarist and Composer Prasanna started playing the guitar when he was very young. One of the most innovative minds in the US-India music industry, he has gained fame across the world with his teachings, lectures and performance. A very humble being, he exhibits a kind of charm that comes with experience and repute. He has mastered the style of fusing elements of Jazz with Indian music, adding so much pizzazz and variety for the fusion enthusiasts. Learn more about GLAC here.

Michigan is looking forward to an enjoyable feast offered by GLAC on Saturday, May 11th at 3:00 PM- Varner Hall, Oakland University.

Click here for tickets.

Interviewed and written by: Anu Gopalakrishnan (Rockin’ Raaga WCXI 1160 AM – Saturday 1- 3 PM)
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