The title of Asaf Sirkis' latest CD, the sixth album in his own name, is "Letting Go," (Stonedbird). Which, Sirkis says, means "forgetting who you think you are, and being what you really are."
Look for clues to what Asaf Sirkis really is in the tracks of this very personal CD, and there are quite a few. The last track, for example, "Waltz for Rehovot," gives an insight into the town where he grew up.
Rehovot is a city in Israel of 115,000 people, some 20km to the South of Tel Aviv. It is a place which proudly displays its associations with Western culture, science and commerce in the three unlikely emblems on its municipal crest: a microscope, a book...and an orange. Israel's "City of Science and Culture" also happens to be its citrus capital.
But there is another, equally long-standing heritage in this city. Some of the earliest settlers in Rehovot in the 1890's were from Yemen. Asaf Sirkis grew up in the part of the town inhabited by the town's substantial Yemenite community, surrounded by the sounds of Middle Eastern drumming.
"Waltz for Rehovot" is a quiet tune which dwells on precisely this East/West duality. As a waltz, it draws its inspiration from West. But it is also constantly infused with the middle eastern rhythms among which form an integral part of Sirkis' musical language.
The track starts with delicate work on the snare drum, with brushes. Then the tune is restated. And then comes some of the quietest drumming you will ever hear, still on brushes. Sirkis has not just an alertness to different timbres but a very wide dynamic range, and here he is testing the very boundaries of silence. He then takes the tune out, with a completely different sound, a prouder, more extrovert voice. I asked Sirkis about this: this time it's a western instrument, straight from the classical orchestra: "They're timpani mallets," he tells me.
One of Asaf Sirkis' early drum idols, and a key influence was Stewart Copeland, who grew up in Cairo and Beirut, and who shares this dual heritage. " A lot of people think his rhythms come from reggae and ska. But what his druming really is, is a rocky assimilaton of strong, powerful Arabic rhythms. I like his energy."
Like Copeland, Sirkis considers the drum kit the place at which he feels most at home. Yes, Sirkis is happy to play a wide range of percussion in other contexts, such as Tim Garland's band. "If Tim Garland were to ask me, I'd play anything. Cardboard coffee cup, no problem. But in my own band it's strictly drums. I've always felt I'm a drummer. It's my 110% vocation.."
The Asaf Sirkis Trio on the CD consists of electric guitar, electric bass and drums. This is a format which Asaf Sirkis has been thinking about, and working in, for most of his musical life. Allan Holdsworth has been a major influence, as has Larry Coryell, with whom Sirkis has toured extensively. "This is a sound I can hear," he says.
The other members of the trio are guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos, originally from Athens, and Israeli bassist Yaron Stavi. This band has been together for four years, ever since Spiliotopoulos first depped for Mike Outram in another unit which Sirkis leads, Inner Noise, the trio with church organist Steve Lodder. Sirkis has known Yaron Stavi via Gilad Atzmon's bands ever since he came to London in April 1999. Sirkis is happy to be looking forward to around thirty-five gigs with this unit, promoting the album, wich will give the opportunity to take their collective sound further.
There are other strong personal associations in this CD, which come through in the song titles. "Other Stars and Planets" and "Full Moon," lead the listener in the direction of Sirkis' interest in astrology. Drumming has so much to do with balance and weight and counterweight, it somehow comes as no surprise to hear Sirkis talk of his interest in Vedic astrology, according to which there are times of day when people do better to work in conjunction with, rather than against the natural pattern of events.
Sirkis is also pursuing, intently and seriously, an interest on Indian music. "I have been listening for years to South Indian Temple music, a complete genre in Karnatic music. Temple music is sonically much rawer than the better known Indian music wih sitar, tabla and voice. It's beautiful. In last couple of years I've started to get into the amazing rhythmic system . It's an old system. It's challenging. It really works your brain out .It's real hard core maths."
The opening track "Chennai Dream," is where Sirkis explores this."Have you been to Chennai?" I ask. "No. That's why it's a dream." But rather than looking to East or to West, Sirkis keeps looking forward.
In fact, he spells out his objectives as a musician thus: "Developing language and technique is a means of communicating better what you want to say, of getting in to the core of what you want to say, and to say it simply..."
After making this serious point, I notice that he suddenly breaks into one of those powerfully infectious laughs for which he is known in the profession. Sirkis, who is capable of playing unbelievably fast and volcanically loud, relishes the irony:
"And quietly. And slowly."