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Victoria-based percussionist’s passion for Indian music has driven him for 40 years

Niel Golden has been studying a range of classical Indian instruments, from the tabla to the sitar, for close to 40 years. By this point, the Toronto-born, Victoria-based percussionist can literally do it all, yet his search continues.
Toronto-born, Victoria-based percussionist Neil Golden plays on a set of Hangs at his home.

Niel Golden has been studying a range of classical Indian instruments, from the tabla to the sitar, for close to 40 years.

By this point, the Toronto-born, Victoria-based percussionist can literally do it all, yet his search continues. He’s a member of three groups — Saffron (with Ken Hall, Wynn Gogol, and Enrique Rivas), DNA (with David Kaetz and Alex Olson), and Three Worlds (with Brad Prevedoros and Greg Joy) — and has collaborated with everyone from folk-pop favourite Xavier Rudd to blues belter Harry Manx.

It’s all easier than it looks, Golden said. He taught himself decades ago how to pair the abilities of another with his own playing.

“I could show up and meet a sitar player for the first time and all he has to do is tell me what rhythm he’s going to play in. As long as you understand the form, you can just play.”

Golden, 59, was heavily influenced by the Beatles; their 1965 song Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) introduced Golden to Indian music. “I became a snob about Indian classical music,” he said. “I didn’t listen to a lot of other music for quite a while after that.”

His passion for the form did not wane. Golden headed for India immediately after graduating high school. In 1973, upon his return, he enrolled in York University’s music program, with plans to become an ethno-musicologist.

He eventually studied sitar with Shambhu Das, the percussion instrument mridangam with Trichy Sankara, and tabla with Bob Becker of percussion ensemble Nexus. Years later, Golden entered into a “guru-disciple” relationship with Pandit Sharda Sahai, with whom he did “intensive tabla training” over a six-year period.

“It was an amazing experience. It was like learning from the source.”

He has played pop, blues and roots, and has collaborated with orchestras and choirs. Though the music changes, Golden adheres to a single golden rule: “Listening is the most important thing for me.”

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Toronto.

At which point did you know Toronto was not for you in the long term?

I visited a friend here in 1979, who was selling jewelry at the Renaissance Fair in Comox. I met a tabla player, which is really weird. I knew then I wanted to move here.

When did you arrive in Victoria?

I had come out to Victoria the summer before I finished high school in 1972, with four guys from high school. I fell in love with it at that time and knew I wanted to be out there.

What eventually brought you here?

In 1980, I got a job at Canada Post, and in 1986 I transferred out here. That was the beauty of [Canada Post]. You could transfer anywhere in Canada, if there was an opening and your seniority worked right. I was a relief carrier at first, in Esquimalt and Colwood and Gordon Head. My first route was in Rockland, near Government House.

What is your favourite thing about Victoria?

I was just thinking about this yesterday. It’s the middle of January, and my evergreen clematis is already growing. Winter’s not so hard to take out here. I go for walks in Gordon Head down by the ocean, and I see eagles, ravens, deer. It’s great. I love that part.

What is your greatest accomplishment as a person?

The ability to play, the ability to share that with somebody else by playing with them, and then the ability to share with people who are listening. It’s really a gift.

And as a professional?

Tours with Xavier [Rudd] and Harry [Manx] were big highlights. I’ve done so many things; overall, I just like playing.

First album you purchased?

The Beatles, Revolver. I remember wanting it, and I remember asking for it.

Favourite album?

I’m a huge Beatles fan, so pretty much anything by them I love.

First concert you attended?

The Beatles in 1964, the first year they played Maple Leaf Gardens. Because my sister was older, my parents made her take me to see concerts in Toronto. I saw the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Peter, Paul, and Mary. I saw (Little) Stevie Wonder open for the Supremes.

Favourite concert you attended?

I remember being blown away by Chicago Transit Authority. I was in high school then, but I went to a gig at the University of Toronto. I remember being blown away by their musicianship.

If you had one motto, or rule to abide by, what would it be?

I’m working on a song called Enjoy Life While You Can, so I try to remind myself of that. Don’t get upset over things you have no control over. People do that a lot. Why waste your energy there?

Niel Golden has two upcoming performances, both with his group, DNA — a house concert at Merlin’s Sun Home Theatre on Sunday, and a show at the Clayoquot Sound Community Theatre in Tofino on Feb. 2.