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Soundscaping using scrap: how Montry Manuel creates music with upcycled waste materials

Amoolya Rajappa
17th Mar 2018
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Montry founded Thaalavattam, a Bengaluru-based percussion project that produces music from junk items.

Ever thought discarded PVC pipes, PET bottles, metallic sheets, and bikes’ shock observers could inspire someone to create music? Well, that’s the unique opportunity that Montry Manuel cashed upon to create an offbeat project like Thaalavattam, meaning the ‘circle of rhythm’ in Malayalam.

Founded in 2011, this unique project has impressed both desi and international audiences alike. Working on the motto of ‘reduce, reuse and retune,’ Montry has collaborated with various creative artistes to invent a kind of music that he categorises as “groovy, unexpected and experimental”.

From starting out as an office boy to walking away from a flourishing career in advertising and to quitting a popular band to start afresh on his own again, Montry’s has been a “rather tough journey”, as he chooses to put it.

Passion for creating something new

Growing up as a curious kid in the port town of Kochi in Kerala, Montry always had an inkling to create something new. He owes this to his father who instilled in him the love for music very early on. Montry was also greatly influenced by his music teacher and mentor Jerry Peter, who taught him how to play drums.

I walked out of traditional schooling after my Class XII because I was keen on figuring out unconventional learning methods that are closer to one’s own roots, shares Montry.

From then on it was a series of jobs that kept Montry going. “I first started out as an office boy. However, I was quick to pick up a few skills in designing, operating systems etc., and moved on to having a prolonged career of twelve years in advertising. But my connection with art and creative ways of living never died out,” adds the 40-year-old.

Montry then quit to become a full-time musician and was one of the founding members of the renowned indie rock band ‘Swarathma’, where he essayed the role of a drummer for seven long years.

The decision to leave a big band was a tough one, but I was keen to step out of my comfort zone and experiment, he says.

Marching to the beat of his own drum

Montry then started Thaalavattam in 2011 as an experimental solo project. “I’ve always been interested in experimenting with new sounds, so I started to ideate on creating music from upcycled products,” shares Montry who has created about 40 new musical instruments with reused materials like paint cans, soda bottle crowns, PET bottles, shock absorbers, bicycle parts and PVC pipes.

“Since each one produces a unique sound, most of these instruments cannot be tuned. So, the greater challenge depends on how you play them together to create organic melodies,” he explains.

Montry’s project encourages collaboration with like-minded artistes across visual and audio entertainment.

Thaalavattam for me is not a band, it’s a project, and an experience. I might be at the centre of it, but it’s mainly about collaborative work, not just with musicians, but also with visual artistes, designers, dancers from all fields who have the passion to experiment and create.

Among Montry’s signature innovations are instruments like ‘tubela’, made of PVC pipes and floating jugs, which is made of a set of dented steel jugs picked up from a junkyard. “That’s the place I frequently visit for inspiration,” quips Montry.

Taking a bow on international stage

In 2014, Thaalavattam got its first big break to play abroad by becoming the first live act from India to have performed at the O.Z.O.R.A. Music Festival (DRAGON-NEST) in Hungary. Since, then they have played at the same festival for three years in a row and have also extensively toured across Europe.

Thaalavattam live at Ozora Festival 2015.

Last year, Montry gave solo performances in as many as 25 music festivals in 16 countries of Europe over three months. However, carrying around 60 kg of weight all around the world hasn’t been easy for this enthusiastic musician who is frequently stopped and questioned at different airports.

There have been awkward situations abroad where people have mistaken my instruments as regular bottles/ glasses and taken them away, he quips.

Though there’s a niche audience that appreciates the kind of music Montry creates from junk, he is hopeful about how the trend is picking up. “These days my audience ranges from a three-year-old to a 70-year-old,” he says.

“Most of the times, the crowd is taken by surprise when I create synchronised music using old pipes, jugs and other industrial wastes. They are initially wowed by the novel effort when I engage them and later come back and tell me how they will think twice before discarding any junk,” adds Montry.

Plans to go fully sustainable and eco-friendly

Montry is trying to spread the message of ‘cleaning the environment through music’. "If we take care of our mother earth, she will always take care of us and our future generations to come", is the advice that he wishes to give people who discard trash.

I’ve always been sensitive to these issues but did not know what I could do about it other than through my own lifestyle. With the Thaalavattam project I realised I have the opportunity to spread this message through the mediums I love- music and design, explains Montry.

Apart from his musical experimentations and performances, Montry also has a merchandise brand of his own, which sells sustainable products like bags, necklaces etc., made out of upcycled materials. He performs at a range of corporate shows, mainstream clubs, sustainability summits and festivals, and old-age homes to generate revenue.

Thaalavattam's junk hang drums

Elaborating on future plans to go fully sustainable, Montry says: “I want install solar panels and use the energy produced by them to aid my music creation”.

So, what’s next for Montry?

Some new singles, live shows, a six-month international tour and a never-ending hunger to create more new sounds to keep me going, he concludes.
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