Everything is music
Nicolas Mortelmans, one of the few sitar players in Belgium talked to ZOTEYE about dreams, the Universe and how everything is connected with each other. Dream your future, believe in yourself, don’t give up. Repeat this cycle.
Who is Nicolas?
(thinking a long time)
Somebody asked me this question when I was 15 and I started philosophising very hard about it. When somebody asked me this again, I responded: I am you. (big smile) I grew up in Berlaar, a small town 25 minutes away from Antwerp. Raised in a rather conservative way which was not easy when I was in high school. I was obsessed by music from a very young age. From the moment I could talk I wanted to play music. Loved The Beatles and I listened to a lot of albums my parents had. In high school I moved into rock and metal and after that I landed in electronic and psychedelic music. I was a DJ at a point but then I started travelling, World Music became very important to me. There is really no music style that I don’t like. In every genre I can find something that I like. And at a point I discovered the sitar.
And when was that?
In 2010 I bought my first sitar, when I was 21. In high school I wanted to do art but my parents wanted to see me do a ‘normal’ type of school. That wasn’t easy for me but I managed to get through it. Looking back at my childhood now, I can really understand their way of looking at the World and life and am grateful for the path I've walked because it made me the person that I am today. I was expected to grow up in a way that was ‘normal’ to my parents but which was very ‘abnormal’ to me. And sometimes my instrument was being used against me to become ‘normal’. It was taken from me when I was walking to far away from what was being expected. Of course it made me love music even more. In the end a child is looking for confirmation of its parents in anything it accomplishes. It wants to be loved. So I did everything that I had in my possibilities to be the kid that my parents wanted me to be. I landed at a college which was very hard to get through because I’m not made to study and music was my only love. But I still managed to get a degree in Educational Psychology in Antwerp and had that paper in my hands one day that showed black on white that I had a degree at a college. And from that moment on, the learning process to be who I am today really started. I started working for a half year here in Belgium and left the country and continent shortly after that. I started travelling to India, USA and Africa. Worked a lot as volunteer, accompanied trekkings in the Himalaya’s, followed a lot of meditation courses but my main purpose was to find a sitar guru. A teacher.
When did you know that sitar was the One instrument for you?
Towards the end of the University I started to feel that sitar was The instrument for me. I played some drum, bass, guitar, some percussion but I always came back to the sitar. I knew that there was an instrument out there that was made for me but I just didn’t find it yet. I was seeking it all the time and then one day I saw a video of Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and I knew: this is it. I watched it 10 times because I never heard something like that before. I had no idea what classic Indian music was. I took the last money I had on my account and went to Milestones in Antwerp, a music instrument store that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. They had 1 sitar and that’s how it all started. I first took classes in Ghent from a sitar player to teach me the basics but I knew very quickly that I would have to go to India to really learn how to play this instrument. Step by step, with meeting other people, discovering the World and playing the sitar, I was breaking down the square I was living in. I started to believe that everything is possible in ones life as long as you believe in it yourself and work very hard. The only thing that keeps us from our dreams is ourselves. Our own thoughts are our limitations and that was also the case for me. Because of my upbringing I didn’t dare to look further than the World I was living in. With travelling, meeting people in so many different cultures I opened my World view and the way I saw myself. Friends and people I have met on my travelling kept inspiring me and challenging me to take the jump in the unknown. I was working at that point for a social organisation in Belgium and doing gigs at a side to earn as much money as I could to support my travelling. I really thought that my dream was impossible to come true. Be a musician and do nothing else. Just my instrument and me, and make money with that to live from. Every winter I went to India to study and at a certain moment I felt that I had to choose. The social work or music. And I jumped into music. That’s now 3,5 years ago. It’s hard work but I never ever want to do anything else in my life.
Amazing story. How does an average day as a sitar player look like?
The work is very diverse. A lot of things are important to be able to survive as a musician. First, the music I am playing is classic Indian music and some fusion and its very important to keep studying this rich music. And this will be a lifelong process. I will study untill I die. That’s my main focus and it asks a lot of my time. Next are the concerts. It’s important as a musician to perform as much as you can. Classic, fusion, rock, jazz, open style, solo concerts, and so on. This requires an ‘always on’ focus otherwise they won’t happen. I don’t have a manager doing this for me so I’m the one who is calling around, mailing around and networking. Trying to figure out what door to push more and what door to keep closed for now. It started with a very clear focus and once the successes were coming, they multiplied with the same strategy that I was using. But it’s a constant battle. Then of course it’s important to prepare for the performances or concerts. Rehearsals, practicing in my own studio, organise with a band if that’s the case. 1 concert is sometimes already so much more work than I would expect. The months where I have 10 gigs I know that I will spend 2-3 days in total in front of the computer just to plan and reach out to everybody. sitar is still an underground instrument and it will probably stay like that, so having a manager is not an option and that’s ok. I just have to make time for this part of the job and be aware that this work will take time away from really playing the instrument. I work together with T-Heater which is a branch of T-Interim for a lot of the gigs I do. It’s helping me a lot because the majority of the paperwork is done by them. They send the contract to the customer or venue, T-Heater gets paid for my performance and take the taxes and social security from it and pay me the remaining part. I also teach because only relying on gigs is hard. It fluctuates a lot so having a stable income is a challenge. Teaching helps me to fill in the gaps. I’m mainly giving African - Arabic percussion workshops in schools and organisations and private sitar classes. Every Thursday evening I also teach private African djembe classes.
And you also take care of the promotion of these classes?
Indeed, when the school year starts here in Belgium I always go to a lot of schools to spread the word. Flyers, presentations in classrooms about what the kids can learn during my workshops. It’s fair to say from all the things I do, that the final ‘product’ that you can hear or experience is 5% of all the work I do everyday. Sometimes I hear the comment from people around me what a lucky man I am to be able to live from playing the sitar but then I think to myself: yes, true, but it is a lot of hard work. It’s 7 by 7 almost 24h a day because my mind also keeps going when I’m not ‘working’. And by the way you could do this too. It’s up to you. Perhaps not with music. Everybody has a passion that they can pursuit and jump for.
And why the sitar? What pulled you so hard to this instrument?
It was love at first sight, hard to describe but it’s comparable to falling in love with another person. It’s pure instinct. When I saw the instrument for the first time, it spoke to me like no other instrument ever spoke to me before. And the love only kept growing. When I also dived deeper in the culture from where the instrument comes and with playing it more and more, the connection between me and the sitar became unbreakable. The culture is completely one with the sound of the instrument, its both a different way of thinking and feeling compared to music from the Western World. Not that I don’t like other music, its just very different and I find the classic Indian way of making music more intense.
What is the big difference between classic Indian music and Western music?
A lot of things are very different. A very important aspect of classic Indian music is that the music is played based on ragas which are thousands of years old and you have to study for years to be able to play them. A raga is a combination of tones, in a specific order and they need to be played on a specific moment of the day. There are structures in which the music needs to be played but within that structure you can improvise as deep and as long as you want. The ragas have never been written down and are being transferred from father to son. Every time it will sound different even if it is the same raga and its dependant of the mood you are in as musician, the atmosphere of the venue and the environment that you are playing in and also the reaction of the audience. This music is extremely connected to the here and now. It’s impossible to hide behind a song structure or lyrics. You really strip down all your barriers and fears every time you play and that’s very scary because it can also go horribly wrong. But when everything falls into place, and the chemistry is there, then for me it really is the most intense emotional experience I can imagine. In Western music everything is written down into small details which is ok but it’s very strict. There’s almost no room for improvisation and thus feelings of the moment we are all sharing, musician and audience all together. Another big difference is that the Western music finds its origin in entertainment while classic Indian music originated 3000 years ago. This music originally was only played in temples to worship the Gods. It was a spiritual matter and was not intended for humans to listen to. It’s only since a few hundred years that it started being played for humans to listening to. And you can really feel this when you listen to it, the intent of this music is so much deeper than entertainment. This is so in line with how I also see my own life and the World that we live in.
Do you play the sitar in a different way compared to the snare instruments of the Western World?
Totally! You bend the snares much more. That’s not possible with normal guitars for example. The bending of the snares is necessary to make waves in the sound. Its a more natural way of making music. Rhythm is the source of all music. In everything there is a rhythm. Life is a pulse. Planet Earth has a groove, the whole Universe has a rhythm. Classic Indian music is a combination of rhythm and melody. There are no chords. There’s only 1 base tone. In the beginning of a concert there is no rhythm, only tones which helps to bring you easily in a trance. Really explore that one tone to the fullest, that’s what it is about. In Western music we skip to quickly to other tones so we are not able to reach that moment of trance.
Do you still enjoy western music?
Oh yes. Absolutely. Hard rock, electronic, of course jazz. Honestly there’s no music style that I don’t like. If the musician is able to touch the deepest core of who I am, then I will love his or her work, no matter what music style it is. And I know it’s a bit exceptional because I never met somebody who listens to the same diversity of music like I do. When it comes from the heart, whatever the creation is, I’m open to loving it.
An emotional connection through music. That’s what it is about.
Correct. That’s crucial to me. A transfer of feelings through vibrations. 50% of a concert is the music itself and the other half is the musician’s passion, devotion to the sound, the intention with which the music is being played. The emotions the artist shows on stage. Sometimes I can completely loose myself in a concert seeing a guitar player strike the same snare the whole song but doing it with so much passion and emotion that it becomes so vulnerable to watch. With very little technical skills you can bring a lot of emotions to a stage. Music is energy. What you put into it is energy, and humans feel that. Classic Indian music is the most complete music style because it is so much focused on listening. It can have very peaceful meditative parts but also excelerate suddenly to then explode towards metal. It can sound so hard that you would never believe it is classic Indian music. It’s so diverse and that’s mainly because of being thousands of years old. It keeps amazing me how much depth it has. The raga’s are linked to parts of the day, seasons, planets, etc… Indian people already felt long time ago that when they put specific tones together and play that in the mornings and play other tones in the evening that what is being created would be more in sync with nature and the Universe.
India is a red line throughout your life. Have you ever considered moving there?
I’m in love with India and it’s my second home but I would never be able to move there. It’s the country of the biggest contradictions. I’ve seen in India the most beautiful things so far in my life but also the most horrible things. The reason why I would not be able to live there is mainly because my roots are still here. My friends and family are all here. I can stay there for some years but really ground myself there is something you don’t do that easily once you know how the country works. You have to participate in the system that is created and it’s a very corrupt beast. We can be really happy here in Belgium but we don’t realise it. When something happens to you in a random street in India, you can’t assume that a police agent will help you. Changes are high that he’ll make it even worse by ripping you of or given you incorrect information of what to do next. It’s a very extreme way of living. It’s also a very confusing country. Extremely rich people and an enormous amount of poor people live there very close to each other.
And what about religion in India?
Religion is extremely important in India and this music is connected with it in many ways. Religion can be something beautiful and it helps a lot of people in India. It brings a connection that we don’t know anymore here in the Western World. We look at it in a very negative way but it’s not necessary to do that. We all have to make our own religion and we are all looking for a truth. There’s a lot in each religion that can help us in the way we look at life. The only thing that each of us can use to build ‘our’ own religion are experiences that we each have. If we all take for example buddha his experiences as the truth without going through any of them ourselves, then it’s not useful for us. We have to feel ‘life’ ourselves. Deal with consequences of specific decisions that we make, feel pain and happiness that flows out of a variety of moments in our lives. Unfortunately this is a problem with religions. Buddha was no doubt a fantastic ‘dude’, a man who was enlightened to say it like that. When he was dead, people wrote down how he lived and in no time a lot of others started living exactly how he lived, with the idea that we would all be able to live like him and be eternally happy. While I’m convinced that the life he was living before he became the person that is being described, was more exciting and very focused on pushing boundaries. Otherwise you don’t become a man who is so enlightened. We have to live, transcendent and create our own religion out of the whole experience and rollercoaster called life.
What are things that you learned or saw that you took with you from India to the Western World?
A lot! It became such a part of my personality that it’s hard to see the differences anymore. (thinking hard) Certainly everything around how I see religion, the way I play music and experience all music. Everywhere in India you can feel an energy that you don’t feel here. People really look you in the eyes. But really really look. Down to your soul. There’s a kind of purity everywhere that can be very confronting for Western people. I try to take that with me when I walk here in the streets. Buddhism and hinduism thought me so much too. What I also miss here compared to India is respect. Teachers are very important in India and the respect for them goes deep. I had to morph into their traditions to be able to be a student. In India the teacher his feet are touched by his pupils at the beginning of each session. It’s a sign of respect that you are open to the teacher’s wisdom. In the Western World this is not a thing. How I look at life and death is something else that has been influenced by my time in India. I studied a lot in Varanasi where 50 to 60 bodies are being burned every day in the Ganges. In total I was there for 1 year spread over 4-5 years and I saw thousands of bodies passing by on the streets and floating on the Ganges that were lit on fire. I sat for hours next to the river and watched the bodies being burned, one after the other. Day and night. After sitting there for hours, days, it does something to you. Indian people are much more connected with life and death while in the Western World, dying is still taboo. The cycle of life is part there of something bigger. They are not afraid to die which is a very weird feeling when you’re around others. You can really feel that in every day life, situations and conversations
There are 2 different worlds in your life, the day to day that we all experience, filled with administration, connecting with others, marketing yourself versus the World that is connected to the Universe, to Mother nature through the music that you play. How easy is it to go from one to the other World?
I never really thought about this but it feels like a constant battle. A few years ago when I was working semi-professional, it was easier to switch from one to the other. Today it is harder. I did a lot more mediation and yoga, it was me and my sitar, sometimes for months. Every day. I was also spending more time in India which helped of course. The further I went into the life of a sitar player, the more I have to really make time for all of the above. I have to consciously integrate it in my daily routine. During everything I do I try to integrate meditation in it. Sometimes my life is so hectic that the moment when I walk on stage is THE moment when the meditation starts. It’s a moment when I really let go of everything, close my eyes, breathe in, breathe out and dive in the Universe to become one with my sitar. Sometimes they are the only moments I have, because of how hectic it can be. But when it’s the only meditational moment I had for a long time it also feels so ridiculously good, goes so deep and it makes me put so much energy in the performance that it becomes a real emotional rollercoaster. Walking also helps me when I don’t have a gig, and from time to time I plan a long meditation session. I also try to meditate during short power walks. I watch the movement of my feet, focus on my breathing and listen to the birds. I’m unfortunately forced to do this more and find ways to integrate meditation in my daily life activities. In the end that’s also what the goal should be. Have a meditational way of living and intentional way of doing anything in your life.
Another big contrast in your life is between the life your parents wanted you to live, and the life you started to live once you graduated. How do you feel about the change you went through?
When I arrived the first time in India I felt like I was on another Planet. It didn’t feel real and completely different from anything I knew so far. The change happened step by step and took quite some time. I had a friend, also musician who had a similar life path. He left to India a few years before he broke with the ’system’ that we created and are all living in and when he came back, he talked to me about this adventures and it was like a wake up call for me. I left and that first time I went for a month but the second time I stayed for 6 months. And from that moment on I was half living there.
Why do you make music?
For happiness. That’s the ultimate purpose we all have. We are all seeking happiness and one day we are closer to it compared to another one. Some of us know what makes them happy, others don’t. Music is the language of my soul. I can better express myself with music than with words. I process feelings and moments in my life by making music. It’s my path that I walk every day. Everything that I am intended to encounter on that path will have to be processed through music. The language of the Universe is music. That’s quantum physics. the whole Universe is energy, everything is constantly moving, changing. For example this table in front of us, the way it looks today will not be the same how it will look next week. Particles will have changed. And over 50 years it will be visible to the human eye what the influence from the Universe was on this table. Like that, everything we see around us is constantly changing. Morphing. Including us. All this changing has a frequency, a pulse. Our human ears can not hear that because it’s out of the frequency range that is built in to our system. Earth that is moving around the Sun has a pulse. If we speed up all the pulses of the Planet we are living on, you can come to a frequency that we can hear and then we can hear the sound of Planet Earth moving around the Sun. So given that fact, we can conclude that everything has a sound. And when we ourselves make sound, we are influencing ourselves, our surroundings, and the people who listen to the sound that you created. From a quantum physics level this has already been proven in our lifetime but in India they already knew all of this thousands of years ago. They wanted to find the frequency of the planet, what is the general ground tone? 50 years ago they did the test again with very professional, high end, complex machines and measurement tools and BAM, they landed on exact the same outcome as the Indian people thousands of years ago. And what we are talking about is this. (shows his arm and tattoo of the Ohm symbol) When I play music I really try as much as I can to tune my instrument to that frequency because it is more in harmony with nature and that increases the healing factor it has on human beings. We are used in the Western World to tune instruments to 440 because it is easier but it sounds to my opinion way less harmonious. Ohm is 432. It’s the frequency of the planet.
Who are the musicians that inspire you?
A lot of musician inspire me. I believe that every human on the planet is able to inspire me in one or another way. Books, films, paintings, any art form can inspire me. When I meet another artist or musician I am always nervous. I realise that they are just human beings like me and you, but still, I can get so excited about the energy that this human, this artist can create that can influence my energy field. Anoushka Shankar is my biggest inspiration as sitar player. She is my teacher right now, daughter of Ravi Shankar and sister of Norah Jones. She is the most popular sitar player today, she lives in London and is touring the World already from the age of 13 with her father. She knows classic Indian music very well but plays a large amount of fusion too as a result of living in the States and London. I find that extremely interesting because that’s comparable to who I am. She is also very young and open minded so electronic, pop, world music are all different kind of genres that she plays sitar in. When we talk we are always on the same frequency and that’s an amazing feeling. She’s my dream teacher, for sure. The experience that she brings to the table is amazing, she worked with George Harrison, Sting, Eric Clapton and Herbie Hancock to name some artist from the Western music world.
How did Anoushka Shankar become your teacher?
I tried for 2 years to convince her. Tried to contact her through many different people in her entourage and even through her mother from who I found her email address one day. (starts laughing) But nobody answered me. At a point I got a few replies but that was very disappointing as well. People were always telling me that she never gave classes, that she is touring all the time and has no time for whatsoever I was asking for. Some people were very straightforward with me and told me that I was aiming too high. That I had to forget about it and bury my dream. But I couldn’t give up. After 2 years I bumped into a musician in the street who just played a gig with her that I also went too and I started talking to him, did my explanation how much she means to me as a sitar player and why I feel that having her as my teacher just makes sense. He was convinced of my intentions and he promised me to talk to her directly. And yes, shortly after that I received a mail from her asking me to come over to London for a talk. So off I went and she welcomed me in her house which felt to me as if I was going to meet Santa Claus. After a while it felt like I knew her already all my life. She is very down to Earth, a beautiful person. We had a class for 7 hours that first day and after the class I went to get money from an ATM to be able to pay her. I got a few hundreds of pounds ready but she gave me a shy smile to tell me that she didn’t want any money for it. She was going to train me for free. This all started in 2017 and I went several times in the meantime to London for classes. I’m staying in her house every time and we work very hard. It’s amazing, a dream coming true. She asked me also to tour with her in the near future, mainly to prepare her sitar for every gig and play as a background artist.
What a story. A beautiful example about believing in your dreams.
Totally. Believe in who you are and work hard. Know where you want to go and focus. Focus on that goal. It can take a while, and the road won’t always be easy but when you plant a seed it will grow and become something big one day. And when you reach your goal, it will give you such a boost of energy that you’ll set a new goal and start all over again.
And what does a sitar player listen to nowadays?
The Belgian band STUFF is very refreshing for me and the best band Belgium ever had. I love what they do. It has soul, not like a lot of ‘new’ music that sounds very clean and over produced. It has funk, jazz, psychedelic, hiphop, techno influences in it. It’s a NEW wall of sound, extremely good musicians who bring a story to the stage. A trip.
In what concert did you play sitar that was a real trip for you?
Not easy to pinpoint one immediately. (thinks hard for a while) There were so many moments that pop up in my head and it’s not easy to highlight one. On artist level, someone I played with, which again is hard for me because there are so many musicians that I had such a fantastic experience with on stage, is Leki. She’s such an extremely interesting musician. She’s not making music for the moment but I toured with her for her last album. She has Congolese-Belgian roots and she makes very accessible mainstream music. At a point she didn’t feel good anymore with how the music industry works and stepped out of the system for a while now. It’s just amazing to see her performing. She is wearing no mask and becomes a beautiful and vulnerable human being on stage. Very true. Very honest. She also speeches a lot in between songs and talks openly about politics, abuse and so many other things that are happening in the World today. When we play together something spiritually happened. She really goes in a state of trance and the last concert we played together she made me think of Bob Marley. The open minded way of thinking that he had is similar to the way she looks at life. Another aspect that I really liked about touring with her is that the sitar could reach a bigger audience while still doing my thing with a lot of room for improvisation.
What is the most positive thing that ever happened with playing sitar?
Every time I play a concert or play together with other musicians, there’s always a chance that you’ll become ‘one’ with the sound that you are creating together with the band, that you just forget that you’re even on a stage performing. Sometimes the audience also feels what we are feeling on stage and joins the trip. When that happens, it’s really crazy. No more phones in the air trying to take a picture or film but really just pure feelings swarming through the venue. Emotions going crazy, a real rollercoaster. Every time this happens and that I can experience it again, I feel like the most luckiest person alive. It is also in line with my belief of living in the here and now. The only truth is in the here and now. Yesterday and tomorrow hold no truth. And when this musical trip happens, it brings you to the now, it pulls you and keeps you there to help you forget tomorrow and yesterday.
And is there a way to walk the same path again and again to try to land in this trip?
Kind of, there’s a lot of different factors that influence it. What I do see as something consistent is that it is important not to think about what the audience wants or expects from you when you’re on stage. You have to be yourself and you have to play your instrument as if you are alone in a room. Good sleep and good food are also important to make sure the body is happy, then the mind will follow. And in the end, all souls are seeking this. To be catapulted in space and flung back to Earth with a ‘trip of music’. Forget who you are and where you are and become one with everything else around you.
After the interview Nicolas asked if he could add a topic that was not covered to the interview. It’s a message that he would like to be shared and it’s a vision, a way of thinking that he strongly believes in.
When I wake up sometimes in the night I start thinking about things that happen in the lifetime we are living in today. There are some things that don’t frustrate me but that pull my focus towards them. I also spread a specific message with the music I play and that is very much about a strong belief that I have about living in a conscious way. I believe that it is the only solution for so many problems that we have to deal with on so many levels in the society that we created. I feel that many people expect solutions from others for so many problems that they are facing in this lifetime. We tend to look at politicians, multinationals, and other humans to fix problems or move ‘solutions’ forward but the only way to move our kind forward is by seeing how much our own decisions influence the World we created. The real revolution starts from within. Self reflection and seeing what our own influence is on the problems that we are facing today on so many levels is crucial to our existence. You can only control yourself, you have no control over anyone else. Not the politician you just elected or the multinational that you support by buying their products. Find your core values within yourself, live by them and have the hope that it inspires others. That’s all we can do. It became so easy for us to handle our lives far away from harmony with nature because we have completely lost our contact with nature. We hurt our surroundings and nature constantly because it became foreign to us. We have to start seeing the connection between everything, again. Because every-thing is connected. So when we hurt anything or anyone else around us, we hurt ourselves. If we start seeing all of this we are going to be forced to keep moving in the opposite direction of where we are going now. And if we all change our minds, the whole World could look different just like that. (and snaps his fingers) From one day to the other. We are living way too much above the standard than a human needs. Live humble, think positive and make decisions that you can stand behind.
X This conversation had place in the late summer of 2017
X Interview and photography by Johan Bockstaele
X Images captured with a Hasselblad 501c, Carl Zeiss optics and Kodak film
X Interview conducted in Dutch, translated and edited by the clever ZOTEYE minions