Early last year, Sanil Nambiar had gone to a second hand guitar store in Singapore to buy himself yet another guitar. That’s where he met a Rav Drum for the first time, placed at a corner in that shop. He’d later say it beckoned him to take it and play it. And that when he did, he fell in love with the sound and the instrument, the name of which he didn’t know then. But the guy at the counter quoted a huge price — 2000 Singapore Dollars. So Sanil came back home, but only after taking a video of him playing it and posting it on Instagram.
His cousin, doing her Masters in filmmaking at the Reading University, saw the video and said she wanted to use ‘that drum’ to provide the soundtrack for her final course short film, Eye Test. So then Sanil had to research more, beginning with finding out the name of this beautiful instrument. Rav Drum, he read from social media, made in a place called Perm, in Russia.
“The Rav Drum is special because it is a melodic percussion instrument. The artiste needs to be adept at percussion and music scales. I’ve been a multi-instrumentalist for a long time, and this instrument was perfect for me,” says Sanil, a Malayali who grew up in Mangaluru and then moved to Singapore for his job. He bought his first Rav Drum last May, learning the nuances, teaching himself. For there was very little written on the internet and Sanil developed techniques and methods, which he says are very personal, based on one’s exposure to multiple percussion influences and knowledge of western music scales. And Sanil knew to play quite a few instruments.
It began back home when he was 12 or 13 and began playing the basic keyboard without any training. It must have beckoned him the way the Rav Drum would years later. For this was a dear friend’s that he borrowed, and which remained more at Sanil’s home than the friend’s. Another friend’s Bulbul Tarang, ‘a fascinating stringed instrument’, also spent a lot of time with Sanil.
Next came the Ghatam, and here’s how it did, in Sanil’s words. “By the time I was in my high school, I was representing my school in NCC camps all over the country, and the school principal felt I had to present skills that were unique rather than playing keyboards at cultural events in these camps. He asked me which instrument I would like to play that would make me stand out in the NCC crowd, and without batting an eyelid I said Ghatam. Percussion came naturally to me – I had no problems picking up complex rhythms early on in my life and I was confident I could learn the Ghatam quickly. I still have that Ghatam with me and use it occasionally with the Rav and have produced music with it. By the way, The Handpan family of instruments is inspired by the humble Ghatam.”
The guitar came along when he finished his class X and borrowed — no surprises here — a friend’s guitar to learn to play on his own. “This was the time I discovered the pleasure of singing, especially loved the harmony of the guitar tones and singing. It was magical. I used to visit internet cafes, write down chords and notations of songs, come home and sing it heartily with the guitar. It gave me immense happiness to sing and play and I still do it to this day.”
And today when he does, a little girl joins him, sitting on what looks like a cardboard box. That’s the Cajon, Sanil will tell you, another percussion instrument. Neelanjana, now nine years old, began jamming with him since she was two. The daughter has got the natural flair for percussion from her dad and together, they won the first place in an online completion for Rav Drum players in the world, organised by the company that produces the instrument. They performed Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here with the Rav Drum providing the main melody. Neelanjana played the Cajon, Sanil the Rav, the guitar and also added his vocals. You can hear both dad and daughter sing AR Rahman’s Adiye in a YouTube video.
And the mother – journalist and recent author Savitha – produces the videos. “She has keen interest in Indian classical music and other genres, and is single-handedly responsible for inspiring me to take up music seriously after we moved to Singapore. She is the first one to review all my music work obviously and I take her feedback seriously. She even egged me to take Hindustani classical training in Singapore, which I am thoroughly enjoying at the moment.”
Poor Sanil has to pack away his instruments when he goes for his hectic day job, but he loves that too. There is a lot of ‘incessant travel in South east Asia’. He’s at IBM, Singapore, moving there from IBM, India. And IBM lets him go off on personal projects, like playing the Rav Drum at different places in Singapore.
Sanil explains, “The Rav is a very outdoor instrument, and gels well with the elements of nature. This project aims to bring the Rav to the sea, the river, to the natural forest reserves of Singapore, where I record the sounds of the Rav set to nature and come back with music pieces inspired by the elements and the moment in time.” He is also planning to play his Rav on weekends at hospitals and old age homes in Singapore, where he believes it can have positive therapeutic effects on patients young and old. Sanil also wants to introduce it in Kerala, continue his project of playing the Rav with the elements of nature in Kerala, and perform, some day, for an audience there.