“Singing is an inside-out learning process. It’s giving a voice to something that is already inside of you. In the 25 years I’ve been teaching. I’ve never seen two students use the same rhythms, nor the same syllables.” Asaf Sirkis explained his teaching process to Luke Franc (*):
A lesson with Asaf Sirkis is as dynamic as it is enlightening. To begin, I played a series of different grooves and tempos for him, and his initial assessment made clear that he was focused on whole-body experience of playing the drums. Like any great teacher, he referenced one of the masters, in this case Art Blakey. “The way he’s playing the set, the way his arms move, is like a dance.” With this philosophy of connecting drumming and dancing, Asaf encamps himself alongside Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, and Vinnie Colaiuta, all disciples of the legendary Freddie Gruber. Just as important to these masters as the notes themselves was the space between the notes, and the motion behind them.
This whole-body approach wasn’t just about dancing. After playing a swing groove, Asaf had me try again, only this time I had to sing a round before playing. “Singing is an inside-out learning process. It’s giving a voice to something that is already inside of you.” A bit out of my comfort zone initially, my first go-around proved a bit tepid, while Asaf was not shy about letting fly a lucid stream of scatting. He explained, “the way you sing is the way you are going to play, so give it some punch.” I sang, and I played again. We alternated the two several times, and every time I came back to the drums, Asaf’s head bobbed a little more to the beat as my playing became more “sure-handed”.
Yet, none of it was at the expense of individuality, in fact it was the opposite. “In the 25 years I’ve been teaching,” he says, “I’ve never seen two students use the same rhythms, nor the same syllables.” Imagine how this reverberated around the mind of an incipient 20-year-old musician. It was a moment of clarity, reaffirming my own worth but more importantly that of all the musicians who have come before me and gone on to success. With a grin, Asaf elaborated by likening technical exercises out of context to nothing more than a piece of raw meat. “When you transcribe solos and work on books, you have all these ingredients, but you don’t have a meal yet. Vocalising the drums is the beginning of finding your own style.”
In addition to vocalising swing improvisations, Asaf has thoroughly delved into konnakol in recent years as well. Konnakol is a systematic approach to speaking rhythm which originates in South India. “Konnakol is like geometry. You start to understand how the mind is processing rhythm”. Interestingly, it was Bob Moses, the illustrious American drummer, who first introduced Asaf to this system while Asaf was still living in the “cultural desert”, Israel. When he moved to London, his interest in Indian music continued to flourish as he encountered the large diaspora, and a practicality also emerged. Asaf joked, “All over the world in modern jazz it’s becoming like if you don’t have odd time signatures at some point on the gig, it’s not good,” then more seriously added, “I needed a method for how to feel the time signatures rather than counting them all the time.”
As my appreciation grew for how vast a system konnakol is with all its possibilities, I tried to further the cooking analogy from earlier, comparing konnakol to another raw ingredient. “It’s the scientific side of it,” Asaf responded. “In India, rhythm is geometry and cooking is chemistry”. Yet, no matter how systematic it may be, when Asaf sat down behind the kit to orchestrate some konnakol phrases, it was as grooving as anything. “There’s a lilt to it as well. There’s always gonna be a little bit of a groove, a bit of swing there.”
Luke Franc is a drummer and percussionist from the University of Miami who has just completed an exchange student year at the Royal Academy of Music. His consultation lesson with Asaf Sirkis was part of his internship at LondonJazz News.
LINK: Asaf Sirkis website