Words by Mae Anthony
Photo by David de Souza
Tao Issaro is an Indian musician and composer originating from the state of Kerala. Describing himself as a hybrid Indian kid (of South and Central Indian states) with a mixture of Australian blood. Tao moved to Australia in early 2015 to complete his Bachelor of Music at WAAPA and is now researching an honours thesis on Cross-Cultural Collaborations in Music. Prior to this, he has taken part in nearly 2000 shows across 30 countries.
He has a background in Indian Classical music, Jazz Drum-set, Indian Contemporary World music, playing with commercial Indian rock bands for television, and countless cross-cultural collaborations for dance, film, theatre and music in America, Australia and extensively throughout Europe and Asia.
His influences include musicians such as Steve Reich, Edward Elgar, Radiohead, and Indian artists such as Trilok Gurtu, Nitin Soni and Talvin Singh. Influenced by genres of Trip hop, R&B, and Black American R&B reimagined with Jazz and Hip Hop, as well as his cultural Indian roots, Tao is what one might call an open suitcase. I had the monumental fortune of sitting down with him to talk about his music, culture, and upcoming projects.
When did you begin playing and composing music?
I started late, at age thirteen. My parents were hippies, letting me run free as a kid and not wanting to force anything upon me. Before my interest in music blossomed, I was a dancer from age nine. Then I went through this phase where I became interested in being a techie in sound and light design. When I was eleven, I was working on a production involving a drum-kit player and I started receiving lessons. Not long after, it became an interest, but it wasn’t until I was fourteen that I started to take it seriously and I’ve been drumming ever since. For composing, I’d say the last eight years.
To what degree would you say that you integrate the music of other cultures into your own compositions?
To a high degree. According to what culture I’m working with, I try to do as much research as I can into their culture. I’m fortunate though because any cross-cultural collaboration I have done has involved me working directly with the people of that culture, so I’ve never had to read as many books as you’d think. For me, it’s enough having that person’s perspective, to have their perception of their culture and draw inspiration from that. I think when you’re doing collaborations with other cultures, it’s important to enter the zone completely neutral, and not take in too many pre-conceived notions of what you want to achieve in the music.
Have you found many differences in the way Australian culture values music as opposed to your native Indian culture?
India is not a unified country. We call it India, but it’s essentially twenty-eight different countries sharing one piece of land. In India, the music on its own is not as popular, as in Australia which follows this Western capitalist ideology that is built around money and a live music industry. In India, the music is for religious, social, or spiritual purposes. It is very different, even Indian Classical music is mostly performed for some spiritual reason, and you often see people meditating in the audience. I can’t make mass generalisations because the country is too big and extremely diverse, but in my experience family jamming is a huge practice in a way that it is not here.
Have you done any notable performances, or have any upcoming performances, that involve showcasing your works to unfamiliar audiences?
First thing that comes to mind is the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. It’s important to mention that I don’t have any background in Western Classical music, so they called us for this show because they were featuring Indian Classical music for that particular season. Naturally, we were stoked. I was playing for this Indian folk-band and playing some heavy Indian tunes, so very percussive, rock-allusive tunes with a lot of shouting. On the first day there was an orchestra playing, us on the second day, and the third was another orchestra. I was worried that it would be this huge mismatch, but we did it and it was fantastic! People really appreciated it. In fact, Jimmy Page came to watch our show. That was amazing and he came up to me and introduced himself.
Coming up, I have written a forty-five minute long piece for the September season of Defying Gravity that features two wonderful Persian artists from Iran. It’s a major cross-cultural collaboration and I will be taking many original tunes written by them and rearranging them for Western percussion ensemble, along with my compositions as well. I’m very excited about presenting this to Australian audiences.
Is there anything you hope to communicate through your music?
I believe that people should stop being afraid of things and people that they don’t understand. If you have true understanding about where someone else is coming from and about why they might be saying something that doesn’t match up with your views, there can only be love and peace. You don’t have to talk. When you understand something you can take a complex thing like cultural diversity and turn it into two or three words. In a musical setting nobody cares if you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, because all of those barriers break down and you get a glimpse into someone else’s way of life through their music. That’s why it’s so powerful because you don’t need words to explain someone’s culture when you have music: it’s the most impactful and emotional thing you can communicate to a human without having to say any words. Hopefully by presenting music of other cultures and the immense beauty they have to offer will help people realise that maybe there is something to these ancient cultures that we don’t understand. And that that’s okay, because it’s okay to not understand.