Konnakol: Cycles of Time

Anyone who went to the smaller, earthier festivals of the late 1990s might remember Jabberwocky, my first proper band. We were a bit rough round the edges but the spirit was strong. One of our finest moments was playing under the Great Oak in the Stone Circle Field at Glastonbury. I have plenty of memories but few photos: here's a rare one of us playing at Oxford's Catweazle Club.

Jabberwocky playing at Oxford's Catweazle Club, c. 1998

For a little while we were joined by an extraordinary tabla player, Tom Simenauer, otherwise known as Tabla Tom. Although that collaboration lasted only a few months, it was one of the most exciting and inspiring of my musical career. Tom not only brought an extra layer of groove to our medieval, psychedelic, pixie-funk (an under-explored genre if ever there was one), he also introduced some rich rhythmic complexities from Indian classical music, pushing our music and our musicianship in the process. I was left hungry for more.

Indian rhythms are some of the most complex in the world. No matter what drum they're performed on, tabla, mridangam, ghatam, kanjira or dhol, they seem to dance about the musical timeline, playing merry havoc with our impoverished Western sense of what tempo means. Somehow Indian musicians hold it together, never getting lost and always arriving back on 'the one' to produce breathtaking moments of climax. That they do all this while improvising is remarkable enough but what seems so incredible to the outside observer is that they do so without the use of notation. Everything is learnt by ear: you sing the rhythm before you get to play it.

In South Indian Carnatic music this rhythmic singing is called konnakol and if you haven't heard it, it's truly extraordinary.

After playing with Tom I always intended to go to India to study music but it was never the right time. Something else always came up. You know how it goes. But now thanks to a couple of brilliant resources I'm able to study konnakol at home. I haven't been so excited about music practice in a long time.

I started with a DVD by John McLaughlin, the British jazz guitarist famous for his Indian collaborations, and Carnatic percussion maestro S. Ganesh Vinayakram.

It's very good and McLaughlin's enthusiasm for sharing konnakol is infectious but I found it went from basic to advanced rather quickly. I fully intend coming back to it but in the meantime I'm working my way through the much denser but more methodical Solkattu Manual by David P. Nelson.

I've always struggled when it comes to reading rhythm in Western music notation. I think I must have a kind of musical dyslexia because my brain freezes and I can't translate the symbols on the page to the beats they're supposed to represent. By contrast, konnakol makes complete sense to me. I'm only halfway through the book but I'm already doing things that I would otherwise have found impossible, for instance weaving ever-faster five-syllable patterns through a five beat cycle.

This is because in konnakol you don't actually have to do any counting. Rather, you mark time physically, clapping out the time cycle (which might be three, four, five, seven, nine or more beats long) with the palm, the fingers and the back of the hand. Watch closely in the video above and you'll see that's what the musicians, and some of the audience, are doing - that's why they never get lost.

Then, you speak out the rhythm over the cycle using special syllables. Those syllables are designed to trip easily off the tongue. Try saying one two three, one two three, one two three out loud. How fast can you go before you get tongue-tied? Now try saying ta ki ta, ta ki ta, ta ki ta. You can go much faster.

This combination of clapping and speaking makes learning rhythm a kinaesthetic experience, one reliant on body memory not reading or counting. It's a process that employs some of the first cognitive skills we learn as infants. 

Furthermore, it possesses an impeccable logic such that, like sudoku, you know when you've got it right. Every new rhythm is a riddle, baffling at first, but so obvious once you've cracked it. The more rhythms you learn, the more you feel your neural circuitry being rewired and the easier it gets. Learning konnakol is therefore deeply satisfying, though what starts as an intellectual challenge quickly becomes embodied knowledge. Konnakol writes rhythm directly into the body.

I like to think that by studying konnokal I'm also getting a tiny insight into our own lost traditions. The way you have to study directly with a master; the memorisation required; and even the playful sparring between the musicians in the first video above, all strike me as particularly bardic. Classical Indian musicians start training as children and study for at least twenty years; if Caesar is to be believed, so did our Iron Age bards. It's pure speculation, I know, but I can't help wondering if there were some connection between the two.

There is definitely a spiritual dimension to konnakol, should you choose to pursue it. As McLaughlin says, rhythm both 'governs the universe' and 'connects us all' and in konnakol there is sense in which our earthly, microcosmic rhythms connect us to the great macrocosmic cycles of time suggested by Hindu cosmology.

Certainly, back in Jabberwocky Tabla Tom used to chide us for not starting our songs at the beginning of a time cycle, something he'd always been taught to do by his guru. For while we'd be chatting or joking or working out how the song should go, he'd be keeping the cycle going, if not physically then in his mind's eye, making sure always to begin the music again at the beginning. In India the cycles of time keep turning even when we're not playing. I find that image rather beautiful.


  1. Wonderful stuff! I first heard this when I heard Sheila Chandra do a little of it, and could hear similarities with Gaelic Mouth Music. There is something deeply HUMAN about percussion and rhythm. Perhaps it all starts with our mother's heartbeat while still floating in the womb?



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