Pete Lockett performs Image Credit:

A docker becomes a celebrated percussionist. If this doesn’t sound astonishing enough, it will when you learn the person in question, Pete Lockett, took up music for the first time once he had turned 19. Today he is considered one of the most versatile multi-percussionists in the world, having immersed himself in percussion instruments from every part of the globe.

“All good things in my life happen by chance. While working as a docker in Portsmouth, I happened to pass by a drums shop and something in me told me that this is what I should try to do and so that was it,” says Lockett, sitting in his apartment in Belsize Park in London. “It even sounded like a weird decision to me at that point of time, but I decided to go with it and started taking drums lessons for no readily explainable reasons. Yet the whole thing made a lot of sense to me from the very start — unlike other things in life.” Soon, Lockett found himself in London, playing with various bands.

Indian music came in much later, but as always, it was hardly a conscious decision. Similarly, his decision to transform himself from punk-rock kit player to tabla player was just as sudden.

“I was playing for a punk band in the London rock scene, and I accidentally stumbled across a concert,” he recalls. “It was for the first time that I heard the tabla. When you see tabla for the first time, it’s the most amazing experience, it’s stunning. I had no clue as to what they were doing, but that made a severe impact on me. It was Ustad Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan playing, and it was a sensational experience. Later I saw tabla lessons advertised in the local adult-education magazine, and I was down there like a shot. But the actual process of learning to play took somewhat longer — several years of dedicated study.”

Lockett went on to perform at the annual concert organised by Hussain in memory of his late father Ustad Allah Rakha, which was a “great honour”. But before that, he studied tabla under the professional supervision of his guru Yousuf Ali Khan, and then south Indian drums under the guidance of Karaikudi Krishnamurthy.

Indian rhythm sets, Lockett believes, are some of the most difficult things to learn on the percussive side of music and a considerable amount of riyaz (practice) is required to master them. “It can also be pretty much frustrating,” he says. “Indian instruments, such as the tabla and the mridangam, are very different from other percussion instruments such as udu, congas or bongos. You can immediately make a sound on those; articulating a technique is different, but at least you can make a sound. But with the tabla, it will probably take at least two years before you can make a sound at all, and it just sounds terribly pedestrian at the very beginning. An individual can easily just give up. I do not know if I could learn tabla now if I had to start afresh.”

One of Lockett’s philosophies is that individuality in music is far more important than being bogged down with the technicalities of one’s instrument: “This is one of the real risks of learning something such as Indian drumming, where the convention is so well built — with dos and don’ts — that an individual might get swamped by it, thereby losing all creativity.”

Lockett’s versatility as a multi-percussionist is evident from his unique tonal blend delivering powerful cross-cultural rhythms. His session credits include Björk, Kula Shaker, Beth Orton, Ed Thigpen, Doug Wimbish, Will Calhoun, Charlie Watts, Steve Smith, A.R. Rahman and Transglobal Underground. His extensive list of instruments includes north/south Indian — tabla, mridangam, kanjira, ghatam, vocal percussion, dholak, naal, bhangra dhol; Middle Eastern — darabuka, req, bendir, frame-drums; and Latin American — congas, bongos, timbales and berimbau. The Irish bodhran, Nigerian udu, West African djembe, Japanese taiko, Western drum set and many weird and wonderful percussion effects and self-built instruments round off his résumé. He also works extensively with electronics and samplers, both live and in the studio, to create densely alternative percussion fabrics.

Percussion is all about the power you bring to play, Lockett says. “It is all about optimism,” adds the 45-year-old, flicking back his salt-and-pepper mane.

The classy drummer, who joined hands with A.R. Rahman for “Vande Mataram” and again for “Sivaji”, is very much at ease with korvai, neraval, thani and other technical nuances of Carnatic music. However, taking classical instruments such as ghatam and mridangam to a global audience is not an easy task, Lockett says.

“Traditions in classical music are very strong, and people can lose the peripheral vision. Classical music anywhere in the world is a self-referential system. Within itself it is very successful, but in terms of development in different ways, there are limitations,” he adds.

The adherence to form has on occasions failed to strike the right chord. “One of my toughest missions was in Azerbaijan when I wanted three musicians in a troupe of 20 to try things differently. It did not work,” he recalls with a sigh. “Sometimes when there is no meeting point, it is hard.” He has collaborated with musicians from Japan, Latin America, Africa and many other regions and has worked in many Hollywood films including “The Incredible Hulk 2” and “Quantum of Solace”.

Lockett records the percussion portions at his home in London, not in a studio. “It is a very quiet street,” he says. “But one of the best studios in the world is A.R. Rahman’s. It’s state-of-the-art. Like Rahman himself. He comes alive in the studio. He is totally into music and so very innovative.”

Speaking about Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Vikku Vinayakram or Selvaganesh and he joyfully replies, “thakida thakida tha”. On the city of Chennai, which he has visited and loves for its music and dosa [traditional south Indian breakfast], he turns expansive.

“It is the Barcelona of India. You have the beaches, the music and rava dosa. What more do you want? It was Palghat Mani Iyer’s music which made me stop and wonder, ‘Wow! How does he do that?’ I wanted to know the entire syntax of percussion music, and signed up for mridangam classes.” As far as global music is concerned, Lockett says, there is a feeling of brotherhood, and that positive energy is something politicians can emulate.

Lockett has played in very many formats and considers each one a great learning experience.

“Each and every experience is distinctive, unless you are working on a live album with a band. In the studio you can go back over your stuff a dozen times if you want, while for live, it passes by once and that’s it, no second chances,” he explains. “However, the audience is a very exciting component of live gigs for me. The feedback, the interaction and response of the audience is so important to how a performer feels. In truth, I love both live and studio work but I think most performers would prefer the live aspect in terms of the immediate feedback and feeling.”

Lockett has worked in a number of Hollywood and Bollywood films, including some James Bond films. “It was quite an experience to work for the 007 films,” he says. “I was asked to compose rhythm beds before the composer started working. He then used these rhythm beds to write and then added lots of stuff over the bigger picture. It is great to have that creative input.”

Lockett received the greatest praise from none other than A.R. Rahman: “When I played the tabla, he said the music was too Indian. I turned it around and it sounded like bongo. It was an incredible moment for me.

“I did a number of takes with the tabla towards the end of the session on the ‘Vande Mataram’ project and that is when it happened. It was quite ironic — that here I was in the studio with a notable Indian composer and he wanted the Englishman to sound less Indian.

“More recently, I have worked with Rahman for the Commonwealth Games theme song and also for the latest film by Danny Boyle.”

However, Lockett prefers to work for his albums more than films as he considers his albums an extension of his personality and above all, his musicality. “When you are working on your own albums, you have total control, so that is always a preferable situation,” he says.

As Lockett and I stand in his balcony looking at the London skyline and sipping coffee made by the artiste himself, I can’t resist asking what’s next for him. “The very joy of living life with music is fulfilling and I am enjoying my place under the sun,” he says with a smile.

Archisman Dinda is a journalist based in Kolkata.