Interview: Alex Pertout and Nilusha Dassenaike – Moments In Time

With a tune from Jobim, and one from James Taylor alongside originals and folk songs; guest performances by some of Australia’s finest jazz musicians and the unique musical and cultural offerings of both Chilean born percussionist Alex Pertout and Sri Lankan vocalist Nilusha Dassenaike, Moments in Time is a unique recording. Nilusha’s strong yet delicate voice holds the listener and the music brings a fusion of world music, jazz and folk to life. Alex Pertout is a member of the Australian Art Orchestra and has played with James Morrison, John Farnham, Brian Brown, Hunters & Collectors, Tina Arena, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. Nilusha Dassenaike has performed widely, including with Renee Geyer and Don Burrows

We caught Alex and Nilusha in a quiet moment during a busy round of touring and performing and asked them about Moments In Time. How did this musical partnership ‘Alex and Nilusha’ come about. What drew you together? How long have you been working together?

Moments In Time

Alex: Nilusha and I commenced our musical association when I assembled a band to promote my From The Heart release, that was back in 2002. As soon as we performed, there was a connection, a relaxed connection that inspired and continues to inspire creative outcomes. Nilusha and I work hard in the development of our artistic journeys. We both thrive on new ideas and developments and believe strongly in the search for a personal sound. Nilusha composes wonderful tunes with an advanced sense of lyric, is a natural on stage and is also blessed with a marvellous sound. Our paths crossed and it was only logical that we would take it further and produce an entire project together at some stage.

AJN: Is there anything specific that your Chilean and Sri Lankan heritage/s has brought to this? 

Nilusha: This recording includes a mixture of western and Asian musical heritages. I have studied various western vocal techniques solidly since childhood and Southern Indian carnatic singing for a number of years. Sri Lankan vocal techniques borrow tremendously from both Northern and Southern Indian singing styles, however it has its own vocal nuances that are distinctly Sri Lankan. My intention was to include the music of my cultures and learned techniques and created a multicultural soundscape of sorts.

Alex: For decades I have researched closely the percussive instruments and styles from many areas of Latin America including my country of birth Chile. Being an eclectic practitioner working professionally as a percussionist in wide ranging areas, from orchestral to jazz to pop, I have also researched and continue to research percussive instruments and styles from many parts of the world. This background has not only given me an immense appreciation but it has also presented me with unique tools to choose and embellish with.

AJN: What were the key things that brought this project Moments in Time about?

Alex:  A labour of love. The utmost love for performing, recording and producing music, the excitement of the unknown in the development of these works from scratch, all that is incredibly stimulating and rewarding. An album project in itself is a monumental event, of course there are many way of developing an album, some easier than others, but in the main it is a massive project that requires an incredible amount of focus in order to get there. For me the process has always been akin to working on a canvas, developing the painting from scratch, exploring details in every space, in every corner. It takes an enormous amount of time, lots of hours and hours spent observing every stroke, auditing every sound.

Nilusha:  A fundamental love of making music and sharing music. Being able to collaborate effectively and being on the same page when you need to be we’re one of the key things that brought the project to fruition.

AJN: Has anything opened up for you creatively, out of the process of creating the music on the CD? Any discoveries, new paths beckoning, new projects arising out of this work?

Nilusha: Absolutely, I think we have both recognised specific areas, that are present on the album, that we’d like to pursue further. Currently I am working on compositions and arrangements of traditional Sinhala Folk music that includes a mix of both of my musical heritages i.e. western and Asian harmony, rhythms, vocal techniques etc. Together, we have started working on arrangements for a vocal and percussion album and of course the next Alex & Nilusha project.

Alex: Whenever you complete a creative project like our Moments In Time album, there are all these incredible scenarios that follow through. Nilusha mentioned the vocal/percussion ensemble works we have been developing for recording and I have a percussion-only project which thus far features guests such as my friends Raul Rekow, conguero with the Santana band for the last thirty-six years, the celebrated Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy, Bill Summers from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the renowned drummer David Jones. We are also developing material for a follow-up Alex & Nilusha release.

AJN: What guided your choices of musicians to work with on this project?

Alex: I have always had an association with the most wonderful, creative musicians, players who possess skills of the highest calibre in the areas of creative contemporary music performance which of course includes improvisation. Artists such as Joe, Miroslav, David, Lenny, Craig, Tony and Dave bring an amazingly vast worldly experience in creative music making to the projects they choose to partake in, our recording was no exception. The music we recorded required an extreme form of performance finesse, so choices per song were made accordingly. As the performers also happen to be our close friends, the choices were extremely easy to arrive at. The opportunity to have Dave Valentin on the record, a Grammy winning artist and possibly the most celebrated Latin-jazz flautist of all time came through as a result of his ‘Artist In Residence’ time at VCA. On the last day he was in Melbourne I called him and said “Dave, I wanted to ask you” and before I even finished the sentence he shouted “I’ll do it!”

AJN: How did you decide on the instrumentation?

Alex: Some were dictated by the arrangements we already had in place, while with others we experimented with diverse instrumentation and also with diverse rhythmic styles. For example ‘From The Heart’ which we had been performing for some time as a trio, it continued in that fashion with just voice, piano and cajon (the Afro-Peruvian rhythmic box). Others developed further as we explore the possibilities. The title track ‘Moments In Time’ as an example, I originally composed as a jazz ballad, but over the years the instrumentation and the rhythmic feel has changed drastically from the original jazz ballad to a rhythmic style akin to the Afro-Cuban 6/8 incorporating okonkolo (from the Afro-Cuban bata drum family), congas, shekere, cowbell as part of the rhythm section as well as David’s drum kit. The use of counterpoint, with Joe on accordion and myself on vibes behind the vocal lines were the sort of areas that developed as the recording took form. ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ was also a song that we had been performing as a trio with voice, piano and berimbau (Brazilian one-string bow), in the studio I had recorded two berimbau parts tuned to C and G respectively, plus a cajon and triangle. The berimbaus were to be two diverse choices, but as we listen to them together at the mixing session, they became two distinctive parts of the song from the start. We also decided to record a duo song ‘Walk With Me’, written by Nilusha. The song contains an arrangement based on Afro-derived styles, which feature polyrhythmic parts which I perform on congas, bombo and cascara (sticks on woodblocks) and a lead vocal/choir ‘call-and-response’ style that Nilusha interprets so well. In ‘Afro Blue’ we added a chant in Spanish, which Nilusha overdubbed the large choir which sings the chant and the piano part was arranged with a particular 6/8 pattern, based on Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ pattern, which also seems to contain a distinctive Afro derived rhythmic style in my opinion. I also arranged a different set of changes for the solo sections that feature Miroslav’s wonderful improvisations.

AJN: You have included a mix of originals and ‘covers’. Why these particular tunes – the folk songs you picked, the Jobim and James Taylor – is there something specific about those pieces that made them important choices?

Nilusha: In choosing the ‘covers’, and in particular those pieces, fundamentally they have beautiful melodies, also the poetry in each is so exquisite so the potential for the vocal delivery was quite vast, lots of consonants and phrasing options, which is exciting stuff for a vocalist. An important aspect of the selection was also dependent on the arrangement of influences and colours we had gathered for the ensemble and whether the songs were pliable enough for us superimpose those sounds and colours to these pre-existing compositions.

Alex & Nilusha – ABC RN’s Music Show performing ‘Waters Of March’
Alex: There are so many wonderful songs out there and so the wider chosen repertoire can cover many areas, many genres. The main point for us was to make whatever song we chose to record, distinctively different. As creative musicians, it had to be a representation of what we have to bring forward.  It had to be part of the sound and be developed to be performed in a personal way. For a creative soul, there is no point in a recording of ‘covers’ or ‘standards’ unless it is treated personally, there needs to be that unique approach which will make it yours to present.

AJN: For each of you, what are you listening to now?

Nilusha: Chandrakanthi Shilpadhipathi (Traditional Sinhalese vocalist), Shobha Sekhar (Traditional Carnatic vocalist), Lizz Wright, Loreena McKennitt.

Alex: Richard Bona, Selvaganesh (Carnatic percussionist), Steve Reich, Gustavo Santaolalla, James Taylor, Taku Mafika (Zimbabwean nyunga nyunga mbira artist), Ralph MacDonald, Cal Tjader, Los Muñequitos De Matanzas.


Alex and Nilusha on the web

Something Fantastic