Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival, now in its 39th year, is regarded as the world’s largest jazz festival. The music line-up includes ambassadors of jazz and blues – as well as a generous dose of artistes in world music and fusion. See my writeup from the previous editions of MIJF (2016, 2015); fans of jazz and world music can check out my app ‘Oktav’ as well, a collection of witty quotes about music (available on Apple iTunes and Android).
The 2017 edition of MIJF featured artistes from Canada, USA, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Congo, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Cameron, Guadeloupe and Switzerland. An estimated two million attendees flocked to the stages, spread over 10 days and two dozen venues. The long summer days of late June and early July made for perfect outdoor performances, along with ticketed indoor events.
Check out some of the highlights in this photo tour of MIJF 2017, and make sure you attend the 2018 edition!
Flavia Coelho from Brazil played for the first time at MIJF, and featured tracks from her third album, Sonho Real. Funk, forro, ragga, ska and dub fused together in a high-energy set at the indoor venue Club Soda.
Bixiga70 was another outstanding band from Brazil at MIJF. The Sao Paulo collective featured ten musicians with a combination of Afrobeat, Ethio-jazz and funk.
Gypsophilia played a joyous set of gypsy jazz blended with funk and Latin rhythms. Anchored by Adam Fines, the septet from Halifax kicked off a fine evening of music at the outdoor Club Jazz Casino stage.
Gypsy Sound System featured a broad range of gypsy music anchored by Swiss couple DJ Olga and Dr. Schnaps. The music blended Slavic salsa, electronica, and brass. The group drew loud applause for their energetic set and sheer musicianship.
The Django Festival Allstars paid tribute to the legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Featured artistes included Samson Schmitt, Ludovic Beier and Pierre Blanchard. Their indoor set at the Gesu venue transported gypsy swing into the 21st century.
Rosalía Refree is an outstanding vocalist from Barcelona, and was accompanied by Raül Refree on guitar for a soaring set of neo-flamenco. The youthful duo played tracks from their recent album, Los Angeles.
The Gipsy Kings, celebrated masters of flamenco, salsa, and pop fusion, have been on tour for over 25 years and show no signs of stopping. Their booming vocals and guitars had the audience on their feet clamoring for more, as the band played classic hits as well as new tracks from their album Savor Flamenco.
A-Wa was another astonishing band at MIJF, featuring three sisters from Israel: Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim. Their music featured Yemenite vocals, hip hop and electronica rhythms. Their hits include Habib Galbi (Love of My Heart).
Gabacho Maroc had an unusual lineup of eight French, Moroccan and Algerian musicians. The stage was filled with bendirs, drums, keyboards, darbukas, and jembes. The creative set fused gnawa, Afro, berber, trance, jazz and electronica, breaking new frontiers in world music and jazz.
Djmawi Africa brought a touch of Algeria to jazz, and the eight-member troupe blended gnawa, rai and reggae in their phenomenal one-hour outdoor set. The music crossed new domains of North African sound, particularly appreciated in an era of growing cross-border hostility.
Coyote Bill is a Montreal collective blending Afro-beat, jazz, funk and reggae. Their incendiary set was a perfect closing act in the indoor Metropolis venue, with hybrid beats and energetic horns.
Jazzamboka is a Montreal quintet powered by two Congolese percussionists. It brings to urban audiences the spirit of African village music (yamboka means village in Lingala, a Bantu language). Funk, rock, be-bop, soukous, and electronica brought the sounds of Central Africa to new frontiers in this outdoor set.
Afrikana Soul Sister were closing acts on two nights of MIJF 2017, with a high-powered set of electro-house. Artistes include Jean-François Lemieux on bass, Joanie Labelle and Fa Cissokho on percussion, and Djely Tapa on vocals. The quartet blended house with African musical roots, and played tracks from their latest album Mayébo.
Bokante played a spirited set of Caribbean and African music blended with jazz, thanks to the influences of Michael League (bassist-composer of Snarky Puppy) and vocalist Malika Tirolien. Malika is from Guadeloupe and is now based in Montreal. The high-energy performance drew loud applause for the percussion and vocal-bass duet with Malika and Michael.
Just Wôan is a bassist-vocalist from Cameroon, and delivered a set of jazz blended with Afro-groove. He was born in Yaunde and already has three albums to his credit. He sings in French, Bassa, Duala, and Ewondo or Creole.
Huu Bac Quintet featured a range of instruments from Vietnam and China such as dan bau (Vietnamese monocord), erhu (Chinese fiddle), and even the quena (Andean bamboo flute). Multi-instrumentalist Huu Bac did a great job of blending Asian sound with North American jazz.
Fwonte is a Haitian-born Montreal artist who blends tropical rhythms with electronica. Caribbean sounds were reinterpreted for the digital age in his one-hour set.
Ife is a collective from Puerto Rico playing ‘live electronic music’ without remixes and computers. Their indoor set celebrated Yoruba cult music and explored new frontiers in fusion.
The Villalobos Brothers featured three brothers originally from Mexico and currently based in the US. The violinists, singers, songwriters and arrangers were all over the stage in their high-energy set, and reinterpreted original folk compositions with jazz and classical music.
The 20th Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) delivered a special four-day delight of preview showcases and evening performances. There were also interactive discussions between media and musicians each morning, followed by afternoon workshops and jam sessions.
The 2017 lineup of 22 international and 5 local groups included Abavuki (South Africa), Achanak (UK/India), Ba Cissoko (Guinea), Belem (Belgium), Bitori (Cape Verde), Calan (Wales), Cimarron (Colombia), Dom Flemons (US), Hanggai (China), Huw Williams (Wales), Kelele (South Africa), O Tahiti E (Tahiti), Okra Playground (Finland), Pareaso (Korea), Radio Cos (Spain), Romengo (Hungary), Saing Waing Orchestra (Myanmar), Spiro (UK), Svara Samsara (Indonesia), Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe (Taiwan), The Chipolatas (UK/Australia), and The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band (Thailand). The Malaysian lineup featured At Adau, Ilu Leto, Lan E Tuyang and Sekolah Seni Malaysia Sarawak from Sarawak, as well as Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca.
During media interactions over three days, and in separate interviews, members of these 27 bands described their connection with nature, local and diaspora influences, traditional instruments, industry careers, political messages, and music impacts.
“In cities, we are separated from rural life and the natural world. I hope that we can honor nature while living in the city, it’s our responsibility,” said Jon Hunt from UK-based Spiro.
Landscapes are an influence and inspiration in their music as well.
“We are nature. We are part of our land. All our costumes are taken from nature,” said Marguerite Lai, founder of dance troupe O Tahiti E. For example, women wear red as the color of life.
“We really appreciate nature. The jungle is our playground in Sarawak. Our music reflects our love for nature,” said Meldrick Anak Udos from Kuching band At Adau. The band is named after the root of the tree used to make the sape string instrument. “Nature is very personal for us,” he added.
“Our music mimics the sound of wind blowing under coconut trees, farmers chasing cows, and bees humming around flowers,” said Nattapon Siangsukon of the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band from Thailand, whose music reflects the culture of the north-east. “One of our musicians grew his own tree for 10 years to make his instrument,” he explained.
Cimarron from Colombia features the rural music and dances of peasants. “Our instruments are made from local woods from the rainforest of South America. We mention local animals in our songs, such as crocodiles and regional birds. The sounds of milking of cows are also in our songs,” explained Carlos Rojas from Cimarron.
RWMF itself sends out strong messages about nature and conservation by conducting a mangrove tree-planting ceremony at Kuching Wetland National Park the day before the festival. “The tree-planting ceremony was one of the most memorable experiences,” said Monika Lakatos, singer from Hungarian gypsy band Romengo.
Local and diaspora connections
A number of artists showcased unique instruments from their regions, such as bamboo mouth organ khaen and two-string guitar (Thailand); cuatro, bandola, maracas and tambora (Colombia); Burmese harp (Myanmar); twin-pipe nose flute (Taiwan); and kantele (Finnish cordophone). Others performed dances and rhythms from their region, such as the clog dance (Wales) and funana (Cape Verde).
Some world music bands play traditional music without modification, while others adapt it to new surroundings and audiences. “We are an experimental world music band. We are neither fully traditional nor fully contemporary,” explained Meldrick Anak Udos from Kuching band At Adau. Their influences include the cultures of the Iban, Bedayu, and Orang Ulu tribes.
Some musicians said they make their own instruments as well. “I make my own sape. I can play better with an instrument I make myself,” explained Mathew Ngau from Sarawak’s Lan E Tuyang.
“We learn traditional rhythms from villagers, and then adapt the music to our times,” said Gihon Siahaya, percussionist with Svara Samsara from Indonesia. “Our music is based on traditions but can’t be called traditional music,” he explained.
“Our music is rooted in folk but we also add our own lyrics,” said Sami Kujala, bassist with Finnish electro-folk group Okra Playground.
Many diaspora populations in the West have kept alive their homeland music and fused it with their new base culture as well. “Previous generations of our communities came to the UK from northwest Punjab in the 1950s and 60s,” said Ninder Johal, tabla player of UK-based bhangra fusion band Achanak. “We combine Punjabi folk music with Western instrumentation, and have been performing for 20 years,” he said.
Political awareness, social change and diplomacy
Many of the bands also had messages about global dialogue and local social change. “It used to be taboo for females to play the sape,” said Alena Murang of the all-female six-member group Ilu Leto (‘We The Ladies’).
The group is breaking away from such traditions – but also keeping alive other traditions such as the chants of the tribes Iban, Kelabit and Kenyah (there are over 50 tribes in Sarawak). “We are from six different ethnic groups. Social media has helped us connect and collaborate,” explained Alena.
“Countries and people need to talk to one another, not just make assumptions. Music festivals may be the last channel of diplomacy. They are going to become more important,” said Huw Williams from Wales.
The creative community needs to engage with the larger issues and challenges confronting our world – this includes visual artists, musicians, writers and more. “Musicians are in an industry which involves traveling around the world. It is our duty to inform others about what is happening where we travel and share these messages back home,” said Siyabulela Jiyani of Pan-African vocalists group Kelele.
“Protest music exists in multiple styles. South African music is well-informed of the challenges of the time, and is not just about good times,” said Siyabulela from the Capetown-based group.
Many musicians also expressed support for unity in diversity, and found commonality among the various cultures represented. “We are people of the world. We are different but so similar,” said Marguerite Lai, founder of dance troupe O Tahiti E. She pointed to the similarities in some words in Malay and Polynesian languages.
“I am a world citizen representing a larger cause,” added Don Flamins, songster and Grammy Award Winner from the US.
The performers agreed that one of the unique features of RWMF is the multiple opportunities for the bands to get to know one another and collaborate. “We made many good contacts and want our music from Guinea to go further around the world,” said kora virtuoso Ba Cissokho.
“Extreme commitment of the audience to stay and enjoy the performances even during heavy rains adds to the joy,” said Monika Lakatos, vocalist with Hungarian gypsy band Romengo.
“We don’t like rain during performances, except in the Rainforest,” joked Tristan Glover from music-humour trio Chipolatas.
The afternoon workshops and jam sessions are a major highlight of RWMF. “It was amazing to play together with people you have never met before. It was a magical experience for us to play with the Chinese horse fiddle player,” said Sami Kujala from Finland’s Okra Playground.
“At first we were very nervous about the workshops. But after the first workshop we relaxed and did very well,” said Hwang Dong Yoon from South Korea’s Pareaso.
The lighter side
Many performers also shared humorous anecdotes from their concerts around the world. “Our funniest experience was being in an Italian village where no one spoke English! It’s a great experience for all of you to be in such a situation – have fun,” joked Jay Tilag, director of Sekolah Sani Sarawak from Malaysia.
Finnish audiences may appear expressionless but show their emotions through texts, joked Sami Kujala from Okra Playground. For musicians it is better to have feedback right away, so such reserved behavior can be a challenge!
Tristan Glover of The Chipolatas shared another unusual experience during a performance in a Middle Eastern country. Men and women were seated separately, and there was absolutely no applause during the event – but a huge crowd gathered outside later for autographs and selfies!
Other than ‘feel good’ sentiments and global geography tours, world music festivals do have notable impacts as well. Many supporting anecdotes and trends were shared by the performers and organizers.
“A visible local impact of RWMF is the rise of awareness and pride in local culture and instruments among youth in Sarawak, such as the sape,” said June-Lin Yeoh, RWMF artistic director. “Youth are seeing foreigners play their sape with pride – and getting recognition, fame, and money as well,” she explained. Now many youth are making their own sape and forming traditional and fusion bands.
Another impact of the festival is closer cooperation and collaboration between the musicians from different countries. In many other festivals, the musicians just “load in, play, load out, leave,” said Jun-Lin. But at RWMF they make friends with each other and with locals as well. Interestingly, this year there were bands from China as well as Taiwan!
The setting of the festival is also unique. “Jungle, mountain and sea – all three are here,” said Jun-Lin proudly. The festival also highlights some instruments which one may never see anywhere else even by world music standards.
World music festivals do help preserve and promote local cultures from around the planet, affirmed Betham William-Jones from Welsh group Calan. Ethnic music is not just something taught in school or described in official documents.
In Taiwan, the government did not allow some tribes to use their own language. “Now kids ask their parents about how to sing our melodies,” said Camake Valuaule from the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe, Taiwan. “Traditional music is forever. We sing forever,” he affirmed.
“Traditional music need not sit in museums and archives, it can be made alive and contemporary,” said Alena Murang of Sarawak group Ilu Leto; RWMF gives such groups a chance to showcase their music to local as well as global audiences.
“With music you can change someone’s life. Welsh music saved my life,” said Huw Williams from Wales. “I actually wanted a normal job with a regular check, but due to mass employment in my youth I was forced to become a musician,” said Huw Williams from Wales. “I have been reduced to travelling the world and singing songs,” he joked.
Ironically, some world music bands are more known outside their home country than within. “We need people like you,” said Andile Makubalo from South African band Kelele. Overseas audiences and international festival appearances also help keep alive local music traditions and cultures.
Airlines should also be playing music on board from world music festivals, given how many international passengers they carry, joked Kevin Nila Nangai, communications manager at RWMF.
James Asher and Mahesh Vinayakram – Bravado Masala (Times Music, 2008)
This album sounds promising and exciting on the cover, which certainly has an element of humor in it as well. The 8 tracks span just under an hour, but many of the pieces come across as rather cheesy and amateurish, which is quite surprising considering the fusion success of musicians like James Asher. Still, we recommend the track Lost Summer.
Another piece which also manages to stand out is Tabletop Dancer, which reveals influences of Middle Eastern sound. We would recommend instead Asher’s other fine fusion album, Feet in the Soil.
Ronnie Malley is a multi-instrumentalist musician, theatrical performer, producer, and educator. He collaborates with the music groups Allos Musica, Duzan Ensemble, Lamajamal, and Surabhi, and is a faculty member at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. He performed recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in India with George Lawler (percussion), Subrata Bhattacharya (tabla) and Abhisek Lahiri (sarod). See my writeup on the JLF music showcase here.
His recent credits include author and composer of the original play Ziryab, The Songbird of Andalusia (Silk Road Rising World Premiere), author and composer of the story The Oud, Ziryab, and Andalusia: An Enchanting Tale of Music (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Cultural Center). He has produced the albums Auraad Fathiya, Saazuk Safar, Tsikago, and Gypsy Surf.
Ronnie conducts Arabic language artist residencies for Chicago Public Schools through Intercultural Music Production and is a teaching artist for music and theater with Global Voices Initiative. He joins us in this wide-ranging interview on his musical journey, the role of music in cultural identity, and his message for a better world.
Q: How did the lineup for East Meets Middle East get formed? How did the musicians know each other?
RM: East Meets Middle East (EMME) formed in early 2016 as a collaboration between two Chicago musicians; George Lawler and myself, who had been playing together for over 10 years, and two seasoned classical Indian musicians from Calcutta; Subrata Bhattacharya and Abhisek Lahiri, who were both on tour and visiting Chicago. We were introduced by a mutual musician friend.
EMME’s concept arose from a conversation between Subrata and myself about a hate crime on a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, which we thought displayed the ignorance that exists about different faiths and cultures from the Middle East and India, not only in America, but elsewhere. We thought about making a project that would emphasize the uniqueness of these rich, yet distinct, cultures and serve as a contrast to many ‘East Meets West’ albums that often lump South Asian and Middle Eastern music into one broad category.
Q: How was your overall experience touring through India this month?
RM: Touring India this month was an exhilarating experience! I’d say one major highlight was being able to see three distinct cities: Kolkata, Jaipur and Delhi. In Kolkata, George and I were able to get a closer look at one of India’s cultural capitals and learn more about its folk music (e.g., Jhoomur and Tusu) as well as one of my favorite literary icons Rabindranath Tagore.
In Jaipur, the world just came together through music and literature. I especially enjoyed reconnecting with friends such as Nathu Lal Solanki (nagarra player from Rajasthan) and Homayun Sakhi (Afghan rubab player in Aga Khan All Stars). Delhi was also amazing because George and I got to perform with friends Raghu and Sudha Raghuraman, masters of Carnatic music, and also meet folks from Amarrass Records, Desmania Design, and One World College of Music.
Q: How is your album ‘East Meets Middle East’ being received by the audiences and media?
RM: Folks at the JLF were very supportive. We’re a little new as a group and still building our audience and media coverage, but social media and streaming site comments have also shown appreciation for what we’re trying to do. Some have expressed that it’s refreshing to get a more in-depth look at these cultures through music. Others enjoy the instruments and how they complement each other.
The sarod and tabla are Indian counterparts to the Middle Eastern oud and darbuka (also called a tabla in the Mid East). Though, I’d say most comments have been about the improvisation. We have a structure for the compositions, but we also leave room to improvise – making each live performance a unique experience for us and the audience.
Q: The tracks Misty Trail and Distant Star really jump out! Can you describe how they were created?
RM: All of the tracks on the album are original compositions. Misty Trail is a composition by Subrata Bhattacharya and Distant Star is an original composition of mine. Initially, Subrata went to a studio in India with Abhisek Lahiri and recorded the composition as a guide track for us to learn, and eventually re-record in Chicago.
Distant Star came about as an improvisation while rehearsing with George in Chicago, which I later arranged. Ultimately, once we had a structure for the pieces, improvisation became the focus. Indeed the whole album was conceived like that. Basically, once Subrata and Abhisek arrived in Chicago, they came to George’s and my studio for rehearsals, which we ended up recording, and that became the album. It’s a live album of original compositions and improvisations, but really it’s a musical dialogue of our encounter.
Q: What other lineups and genres have you experimented with?
RM: I grew up playing everything from rock and blues guitar to Middle Eastern and North African folk and classical music. George and I also have had the group Lamajamal for about ten years, which explores music from the Balkans, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa. With that group, we include clarinet, bass, guitar, and various Turkish instruments. George also has a group called Byzantine Time Machine, which explores Balkan and Greek music through an electronic medium.
I also have another fusion group called Surabhi, which is a group that celebrates the connections of Indian, African, and Middle Eastern music to Spanish flamenco. The lineup for Surabhi consists of veena, oud, tabla, guitar, cajon, bass, and African percussion. Our groups are based in Chicago.
Both Abhisek and Subrata also have their own fusion projects in Calcutta as well as Europe and the US. Abhisek’s group is Ionah and Subrata’s projects are many, including Flat Earth Ensemble and Naad, to name a few. They’ve also collaborated with countless artists.
I think EMME is unique for all of us. The group explores the relationship between raga and maqam musical styles, but also delves into the improvisational components of those styles, as well as drawing on all of our collective influences in everything from Pink Floyd to Ali Akhbar Khan.
Q: How would you describe your musical journey so far, in terms of phases, genres, collaborations, inner discovery?
RM: For myself, music has been all I’ve ever really known. I went from performing in the family Mid-Eastern band at weddings as a child to playing rock and in punk marching bands to performing classical Turkish and Persian repertoire with the University of Chicago Middle East Music Ensemble to collaborating with world artists and creating groups like EMME.
I know Abhisek also began performing with his father, Pt. Alok Lahiri, at a young age. George, like myself, honed a lot of his background in world musics from Chicago’s diverse communities. It’s all really a continuous journey that unfolds new chapters with every project, encounter, or collaboration. It’s about trying to build experiences where music is a medium for social interactions and dialogue – not just for musicians, but also those with whom we interact.
Q: What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
RM: As a musician and composer, the great challenge is striking a balance between performing and writing in one’s career. As a performer, sufficient practice to hone one’s craft and deliver a great performance is essential, even when the repertoire is not new. One has to discover something new in what might appear mundane. As a composer, it is important to shift practice routines for performances and allow more time to think creatively for thoughts and inspiration to translate into more writing.
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
RM: The family band with my father and brother is probably my first leading influence in my musical career as we were able to perform as the house band in Chicago for many visiting artists from the Middle East.
Next, I would say the musicians with whom I performed like Tony Hanna from Lebanon, Magdi El Husseini from Egypt, and Najib Bahri and Mohammed Saleh from Tunisia. A lot of credit is also due to some of Chicago’s own older established musicians who migrated to the US, like Issa Boulos and James Stoynoff.
Q: How do you blend different musical influences and genres, i.e. how do you create fusion without confusion?
RM: It is about mutual respect. For example, it is one thing to say, “Oh, I love Indian or Middle Eastern food,” and another thing to have dinner with an Indian or Middle Eastern family. In the first case, it’s like choosing something as a matter of taste simply because it’s appealing and can offer some spice to your proverbial melody. Perhaps, it’s a start to gauge interest, but confusion on what’s authentic or appropriate can arise.
In the second case, a relationship is formed. One learns the customs, language, and perspective of a culture developing a bond with the people and their tradition. The latter approach is what I appreciate about creating cross-cultural collaborations in music.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
RM: With EMME, we’re trying to raise awareness that there are similarities and distinctions in the traditions we represent. Both Mid-Eastern and South Asian cultures have robust pluralistic societies consisting of many religions and philosophies that tend to be homogenized in the West, but also misunderstood in the East amongst the people themselves.
Our hope is that music can serve its part in an effort to bring humanity closer in dialogue and make us all more productive. While it is important to celebrate our differences, we should also get over them and realize we face similar issues that affect and should unite us all.
Q: What new album or video are you working on now?
RM: All the members of EMME have their own projects they tend to, but we are looking to begin recording a second album in Chicago around Spring and Summer of 2017.
Q: How is the creative scenario for traditional and fusion music today? Are audiences/venues/labels/artistes very open to such collaboration?
RM: It’s important not to ascribe the label ‘fusion’ to all cross-cultural collaborations. Indeed many traditional styles, such as Spanish flamenco, Indian raga, Mid Eastern maqam, and music from the Americas are organic blends of multiple styles that date back hundreds of years.
Overall, I think there’s an audience for anything one wants to focus on – and in turn, probably a record label or streaming service that’s tailored for or by that audience. There’s room for a lot styles from academic projects like Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road, to cross-genre projects like Junoon, or straight up hip-hop sung in Arabic or Punjabi by emerging artists where these languages are spoken. My hope is that people in general can transcend the labeling of a genre and rather open more to exploring and appreciating sound, whether it’s classical or contemporary, analog or digital.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘˜dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
RM: 10 to 15 years from today I plan on continuing to work in music production and performance as well as teaching and writing about it. The greater vision is to create more interdisciplinary art projects that allow others to perceive practice of art as a way of life and perceiving the world, not just as a commodity for consumption.
Q: Do you compose on the road also, while traveling?
RM: I always have a recorder and blank sheet music handy. Inspiration strikes when you least expect it sometimes. It could come from seeing something or someone in the street, while waiting for a train, or in a cab driving through the street of Calcutta or Chicago.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
RM: It really depends on the audience and where we’ve played. In my group Lamajamal, we had people come up to us crying saying how a piece of music brought back memories of their father or mother, or of being back in their country. That was the case once with an Armenian woman who was attending a performance at a cultural center.
We’ve also been asked to conduct workshops and lectures about the music and cultures we present. This was the case when Lamajamal presented a workshop on commonalities between Jewish, Turkish, and Middle Eastern Music at Georgetown University. My other group Surabhi has given similar performances and presentations about the commonalities of Indian, Arab, and Spanish music. These presentations are often meant with informative questions and new learning.
A different experience occurred when I was touring last year with a project called Caravanserai. The sponsors of the tour were showcasing arts and artists from the Muslim world to cities in America, where most people had never even met a Muslim, and were informed only by what they saw on TV. Zeshan Bagewadi, an Indian-American musician, and myself headlined the tour. Though we both had Muslim backgrounds, the music we presented was funk and rock n’ roll with elements of Sufi poetry and style.
In our first performance to some community members from the town, someone within earshot said, ‘So this is what terrorist music sounds like!’ That was definitely not a reaction I was expecting on the first day being in this town. After a week-long residency of workshops and community engagement there, we felt that our music and outreach was able to soften their hearts from the first reaction and open their minds by the time of the final performance at the end of the week.
Q: As a Palestinian, how important is culture to the people’s identity, and how do you see yourself contributing to this preservation?
RM: Culture is the image and representation of any people’s identity. Yet, I also think it’s important to make sure we identify with who we are – musician, artist, poet, athlete – more than where we come from. In other words, I’d rather be considered an artist who happens to be Palestinian, than always being viewed as a Palestinian artist.
My background is in Global Music Studies and I find that by knowing and passing along music from my culture or other cultures with which I engage (e.g., Indian, Turkish, Balkan, American) I can represent them better from an artistic perspective than a nationalist one. There are many Mid Eastern and South Asian artists who know their traditional cultures very well, but who also have experience in music from outside, yet existing within, their own cultures in genres like rock n’ roll, hip hop, jazz, and classical music. In that sense, they still represent who they are and also where they come from.
Artists like Junoon, Zubin Mehta, M.I.A, and the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM are all examples of artists from specific cultures who are also global representatives. In short, if I were to represent my ethnic heritage, I would say demonstrating how I am a global citizen would be one way.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
RM: All of the members of EMME are also teachers of their respective craft. George and I both work at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and also work as teaching artists conducting workshops and lectures in schools and universities. Abhisek and Subrata also have many private students and have given residency workshops at schools around the world including the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
Q: How has the music industry changed over the years, and how has it impacted you?
RM: I think acts have come to rely greatly on the do-it-yourself model with emphasis on income from live performance, self-publishing, and potential placement for licensing than record sales, which in today’s digital economy can be negligible for artists. The ability to reach a whole new audience has never been easier through the advent of social media and recording technology. As for other aspects, we learn to embrace and utilize tools responsibly, whether they be social media or instruments like electronic loops and mixers.
Q: What is your message to the aspiring musicians out there?
RM: The only way you’ll get to where you’re going is if you remain in the game. All measures of success are relative. One does not have to be a superstar to have a career in music, even though that, too, is a legitimate aspiration. I’ve found it to be more rewarding to contemplate what we can contribute to the world as artists and how the relationships we build along the way truly determine our success.
Q: What is your message to your audiences?
RM: Support live music and art. Practice an art, whatever it may be, if just for the sake of appreciating expression and what art means to humanity. In a world, caught up in technology, nothing will ever replace the need for face to face time whether one is a practitioner, student, or observer.
“Music is a fantastic communication medium” – French cross-cultural flutist-composer Jean-Luc Thomas
Based in Brittany, French flutist and composer Jean-Luc Thomas has traveled around the world for a series of musical collaborations. Celtic traditions blend in a creative mix with African, Arab and South American sounds in his albums. Spanning folk, classical music and jazz, Jean-Luc continues to cover a wide range of sounds and styles in his projects. His earlier albums include Ainara, Translations, The Dance of Fire, Parallel Horizon, Namou, Kej, Hastan, Dibenn, and History of Water, Tree and Stone.
I caught two performances of his fusion lineup promoting his most recent album, Magic Flutes, as part of an India tour. He performed with Indian musicians Ravichandra Kulur (flute), Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), and Muthu Kumar (tablas, cajon, djembe, darbuka). They played at Alliance Francaise and The B-Flat Bar in Bangalore. In this interview, Jean-Luc speaks on his collaboration of Celtic and Carnatic styles of music, his decades-long musical journey, and message to the world.
Q: How would you describe your musical journey so far, in terms of phases, genres, collaborations, inner discovery, and so on?
JL: I learned to play the flute alone, then I learned to play music thanks to others. I started with no teachers because flute, at that time, was very new in Brittany. So I had to find the basic technical things by myself. Then I met old singers of Breton traditional musics who gave me times and songs, then I went to Ireland to play during the sessions they have in pubs.
Here I learned many technical things and lots of tunes. I was a traditional musician for 15 years (quite successful), but I felt I had to listen to others sounds. So I went to Mali, Poland, Brazil, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Niger, and so on. I played each time with local musicians. I also started to meet jazz musicians, story-tellers, electronic musicians – and little by little I discovered new sounds, new territory. I improved my availability and capacity to listen and then play with other people.
So, I always keep one feet in my local music and the other foot in encounters of other artists with improvisation as a key to communicate.
Q: How did the lineup for Magic Flutes get formed in France, and then in India?
JL: In France, Ravi and I decided to invite Camilo Menjura on guitar for the recording (we had met him earlier in Rudolstadt (Germany) in 2013). When we started recording Ravi and I immediately thought about Camilo. Camilo is a Colombian guitar player living in London. When we performed last June, he couldn’t leave England for administrative reasons, so we had Philippe Bayle at the guitar. In June, we also performed with tabla player Prabhu Edouard, who plays kanjira and some other percussion as well. It was a great moment!
In India, Ravi wanted to try several combinations, I think it was a very good idea. We could change the colors of each concert, so we had Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), Muthu Kumar (tablas, cajon, darbuka), Swam Selvanganesh (kanjira), and Rafiq Langa (khartal). We played sometimes in trio, sometimes in quartet. I completely trusted Ravi on his musical propositions. So, every concert was a different party.
Q: What are the features of Carnatic music that makes it possible for you to collaborate so well with South Indian musicians?
JL: As a Breton traditional musician, I come from a modal music, not tonal. This is the specificity of Carnatic ragas. We play modes or ragas and not tonality. I’m fascinated with modes, music with drones, which is very meditative and very inspiring for improvisation. The time stops, you are in a meditative atmosphere and then you let the ideas become organized, the improvisation emerges, and you let music go through you!
Q: How was your overall experience touring through India this month? What were some highlights for you?
JL: We had very good concerts in Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Every concert was different because we changed the line up for each concert. It was a really good experience to travel through India with Ravichandra as a guide. I saw so many different things, met so many people, listen to so many amazing musics, eaten so many different meals, that I need a little bit of time for a good digestion of all that!
Q: How did the musicians know each other?
JL: I met Ravi in Rudolstadt in July 2014, Camilo Menjura was also a part of Magic Flute’s first creation in Rudolstadt. Then sometimes I introduced Ravi to Western musicians, sometimes Ravi introduced me to Indian musician. Music is a fantastic communication medium!
During the Indian tour, many musicians met just before the concert. The musical quality of each of them allows lot of precision and freedom for us. Music allows that situation, especially if you are ready to improvise, which is obvious in India, but not so obvious sometimes in Europe.
Q: How is your album being received by audiences and media?
JL: We had very good feedbacks of this album, internationally (Canada, South America, USA Belgium) and in France (including Brittany, where I live). Endorsements and praise have come from Cloudcast (Canada), RTBF (Belgium), Le Tregor, Global Village, Trad Magazine, and Ethnotempos.
Q: The tracks ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Carnaak Nagin’ really jump out! Can you describe how they were created?
JL: I composed the fast melody of Crossroads for Ravi in 2014 when I came to Bangalore. I was thinking about his flute and this tune arrived. Then we practiced together and Ravi wanted to have an aalap. When he played it, I was thinking of the ancient Pibroch (Piobaireachd or Celmar) of the old tradition of bagpipes from Scotland. Then Ravi composed the last tunes, and one after the other, each of us brought an idea; we tried, we kept, we changed, we threw, we kept some elements. It is the way we work together. On the album, the presence and colors of Camilo Menjura are awesome, and he contributes a lot to the sound of this album.
Carnaak Nagin is another story. We were talking about common groove and scales. I played a very old tune from South Brittany on a very old scale (microtonality, ¼ tone) and Ravi immediately enjoyed it, so we played it again. The tempo arrived and the dances from South-Brittany could communicate with Indian snake’s dances. For the recording, Ravi also wanted to have additional percussion and they also bring their own colors in this album, on tunes like Carnaak Nagin. (Carnac is a place in south Brittany famous for menhirs and dolmens of the old Celts tradition.)
Q: What other lineups have you played with?
JL: The album original ‘Magic Flutes’ features Camilo Menjura (guitar), Jerome Kerihuel (percussion), and additional percussionists K.U Jayachandra Rao (mridangam), G. Guruprasanna (kanjira) and Muthu Kumar (table, darbuka). For my Bangalore tour in 2014, I collaborated with Arun Kumar (drums), Prakash Kn (bass), and Aman Mahajan (keyboards).
In France, I have teamed up with Philippe Bayle (guitar) and Prabhu Edouard (tablas, kanjir). Other musicians on my India tour this year have been Swami Selvanganesh (kanjira) and Rafiq Langa (karthals).
Q: What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
JL: As a flute player, you need to work every day on the instrument, so, it’s a lot of time just to keep connected to the instrument. You need to work on technical things, daily exercises on improvisation and traditional music. Then you need to feed your art by listening, reading, observing nature, to find inspiration for compositions, new roads to explore as an artist and, of course, meet other musicians.
And then, you need to work, record albums, perform live. I created a label with Gaby Kerdoncuff, another musician from Brittany, called Hirustica, which is 10 years in 2017. It allows us to record and produce our music with 100% liberty. So you need to be always connected to the instrument, find ideas and be creative, try to perform to make your compositions live on stage or on albums.
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
JL: So many influencers, from local musicians and singers from Brittany and Ireland to others like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Hermeto Pascoal, Alim Kasimov, Steve Reich, Egberto Gismonti, Eric Dolphy, and Rolland Kirk – without forgetting the amazing nature from Brittany with sea, birds, forests and rivers and all the wonderful musicians I met on my musical journey!
Q: How do you blend different musical influences and genres, i.e. how do you create fusion without confusion?
JL: In all the collaborations I had, I wanted everybody to keep his accent. I think of music as a discussion, sometimes you have to talk, sometimes you have to listen and be silent when the other is speaking. When everybody speaks, that’s confusion for me in music as in life. So, the human quality of the others musicians is also fundamental.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political and economical turmoil?
JL: We can be Indian, Breton, Nigerian, and so on – but before all we are terrans, we live on this earth, we have our qualities and limit. There are so many things we can’t do alone so we need to work and learn from the other. Anyone else can teach us some important things in music, in life. We need to move the borders, keep our accent, our spices, but cook together something new with humility and sincerity because each is a new school.
1+1 is more than 2. Over religions, politics, and opinions, you have music and the quality of a relationship on stage. I played with so many different musicians. But I felt always the desire to share music above all with all of them. Through music or arts, you can meet so many different people. Learn to accept and enjoy the difference because it helps to learn and grow.
Q: What new album or video are you working on now?
JL: The next album, ‘Serendou.’ will be released in February. It’s a collaboration with the amazing flautist and singer Yacouba Moumouni and Boubacar Souleymane from Niger, we have worked together for 10 years now. We played in Niger, France, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and now it’s time for the second album. We have guests Carlos Malta (Pifano-Japurutu) and Bernardo Aguiar (pandeiro) from Rio de Janeiro, and the amazing Michel Godard on tuba. We’ll be on tour in France and Scandinavia in March 2017.
I will also finish a new solo creation ‘Oficina Digital,’ which is a concert where I wrote 100% of the music. I worked with a looper who sent soundtakes I made in Brazil during different stays and my own flute that I loop in real time for diffusion via five speakers around the audience. There is also a video I made in Brazil. It’s a creation with video mappings and spatialized sounds, and takes me a lot of time.
Q: How is the creative scenario for jazz and fusion music in France today?
JL: My humble perception is that it’s still possible to find some places opened to experimentations, creations, far from the big music business. But it’s a fragile network supported by people of an amazing faith in new sounds, radicalities and explorations. I’m surrounded by fine musicians who try to explore new musical horizons, sometimes they can have support from festivals, venues, producers, radios – and sometimes not, but most of them don’t give up and never will.
In the 70s it seemed that everything was possible, now some producers have managed to format music as entertainment and not for art or culture, so it’s not so easy for creative and original artists to be regularly programmed. But there still remain some places and festivals who keep providing spaces for undiscovered sounds.
Q: Are French audiences, venues, labels and artistes very open to collaboration?
JL: Some are, others are not. Most of them are in search of rentability or easy profit. It means mainstream success. As in any city, you can find fast food and cheap bad food restaurants, you’ll find in the world (and France is a part of that), fast listening, quick consuming, big musical gatherings who can survive because they sell lots of beers surrounded by a bad loud sound. But it’s also always possible to find real restaurants with people who prepare good food with originality, ethics and creativity.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
JL: I have no vision, life has taught me that everything I have is more than any of the dreams I could have. I play with fantastic musicians: Michel Godard, Yacouba Moumouni, Carlos Malta, Ravichandra Kulur, and so on. I never dreamed of that and it’s really deeper and more beautiful that any dreams I could have.
So, no projection, I keep working on my Breton garden, open to Indian spices, African ginger, Brazilian coconut – trying to be honest with me, musicians I play with and audiences who may come to my concerts.
Q: How does your composition process work? When do collaboration and jams come in?
JL: Each composition is different. You can compose thinking about a place, a person, you can compose during an exercise, during a walk in the forest, looking at the sea, or inspired by a book. I always start with a melody. I sing it, then I record it in a non definitive version. I let it sleep for a while and come back to it a few days later to listen with fresh ears – I change some things or maybe not, and then think about the pulse, a bass line, some harmonies.
Then I may continue alone or submit to other musicians who will add their own creativity for the structure, introduction and so on. Sometimes I can do everything at home, sometimes I wait for a rehearsal to fix more some elements. Each composition has its own story!
Q: Do you compose on the road also, while traveling?
JL: It happens, I need calm, time, good vibes, feeling quiet to be able to compose. Very often, I compose after traveling, back home, quiet.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
JL: With Magic Flutes, during our last concert in France in June 2016, many people cried. They had too much emotion relating to the dialogue, respect, love between myself and Ravichandra Kulur. That was very intense for Ravi and me.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
JL: Yes, very often, it can be traditional music from Brittany or Ireland, or improvisation. I give three or four workshops (from two days to one week) each year.
Q: How has the music industry changed over the years, and what are the effects? For example, downloads, social media, loops/mixers.
JL: Everything changes around us, everyday. So, you have to learn and adapt. I don’t want to be sad about old times. What is happening, happens. I knew vinyl, tapes, CDs, and now digital technology. But in Brittany vinyl is back with lots of interest. So it’s good to be connected to the world, we can listen today to all the music of the world, but do we listen? One thing will never change, it’s the quality of time you spend practicing, rehearsing, listening.
Q: What is your message to the musicians and audiences out there?
JL: Keep faith, work on your personality, open your ears and your heart. Never forget curiosity and alterity!
This is a rather interesting psychedelic downbeat album, though it doesn’t quite grab the listener they way it could – except in the last track, Space Fields, featuring Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan.
The 14-page booklet has excellent photographs of Indian scenery, but the music needs to match it a bit better. There are no percussive beats, but a blend of Indian instruments such as sarangi, santoor, sitar and sarod. Other tracks worth checking out include “Bhairavi Mahadev.”
Though some listeners may not be swayed by this album (especially with its price tag), the artist Nikhel Kumar Mahajan certainly has potential and we await his future releases.
The annual Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), held every January in Rajasthan, is widely regarded as one of India’s best literary events, and indeed one of the world’s largest free events of its kind (see my compilation of 75 Inspiring Quotes from the 2017 edition). It’s not just the established and emerging authors that are a popular draw, but also the celebration of art and music that have become major attractions at the five-day event.
The music lineup at the 10th edition of the festival featured a range of artistes at three locations: the festival venue Diggi Palace in the mornings, an evening heritage showcase at Amber Fort, and night-time performances in the lawns of Hotel Clarks Amer.
The first musical performance was by the Shillong Chamber Choir from Northeast India. The choir covers everything from Indian cinema to opera. “It’s not music that is the difficult part. It is sticking together that takes effort,” explained lead singer William Richmond Basaiawmoit in an interview.
The evening performances kicked off with a high-energy set by Rajasthan Josh, a folk band performing a wide range of traditions of the north-western region of India. Featured instruments included the morchang, bhapang, khartaal, double flute, and nagada, performed in traditional bhajans as well as mystic Sufi Rajasthani compositions. The colorful folk dances on the superbly-designed stage also drew loud applause.
The second band to take the outdoor stage on the chilly night was Kabir Café, who play a genre called Kabir Rock, derived from the teachings and music of the 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint Kabir. The lineup includes Neeraj Arya (vocals, guitar), Mukund Ramaswamy (violin), Viren Solanki (percussion) and Raman Iyer (mandolin). The messages of devotion, tolerance and inner faith, set to contemporary rhythms, resonated well with the audience at the literature festival.
The morning of Day Two kicked off with a performance at the lit-fest venue by Swanand Kirkire (Hindi singer and lyricist) and Ankur Tewari (Bollywood lyricist and composer). The evening highlight at the scenic Amber Fort was sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The sarod has been derived by modifying the ancient folk instrument of Iran, rabab. Khan also has a wide range of collaborations with Western classical musicians, and his legacy carries on with his two sons, Amaan and Ayaan, themselves accomplished sarod artistes.
The night-time performances kicked off with Bombay Bassment, with the sounds of hip-hop, reggae, funk, and drum & bass. The members include drummer Levin Mendes and bassist Ruell Barretto, along with Kenyan rapper Robert Omulo (aka Bobkat) and Chandrashekhar Kunder aka Major C, a DJ. Their first album was released in 2014, and the band has performed across India as well as at the Glastonbury Festival and the Reunion Kaloobang Festival.
The final act on Friday night was Inna Modja, a singer-songwriter from Mali. Her hit songs include ‘Mister H’, ‘French Cancan’ and ‘La Fille du Lido.’ The performance blended Motown soul, Sahel desert blues, Mandinka guitars, a Fula flute, and kora.
The Saturday morning vocal performance featured Padmini Rao, exponent of the Kirana Gharana form of North Indian classical music. Rao is a senior disciple of renowned singer Dr. Prabha Atre, and also studied under the guidance of the late Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Khan Dagar.
The evening show kicked off with the melodic combination of Beth Orton and Sam Amidon.
Beth Orton is a singer-songwriter from the UK who has released six acclaimed albums, including Kidsticks. Sam Amidon is a singer/banjoist/guitarist from Vermont, with five albums to his credit (the latest is Lily-O). To the audience’s delight, folk band Rajasthan Josh also joined them for a memorable collaboration at the end, and Western folk harmonics smoothly blended with Rajasthani folk and dance to a rousing crescendo.
Top Indian blues band Soulmate wrapped up the Saturday night showcase, with a sizzling set of vocals and guitar. The quartet was formed in Shillong in 2003 by guitarist Rudy Wallang and vocalist Tipriti Kharbangar, along with Leon Wallang (bass) and Vincent Tariang (drums). Tipriti drew rousing applause for her songs ‘Voodoo Woman’ and especially ‘Keep your hands off me,’ in protest against incidents of women being assaulted by men.
Sunday morning kicked off with vocalist Devashish Dey, a classical singer who specializes in thumri, dadra, tappa, chaiti and kazri styles. He has performed widely across India and the UK and released many albums.
The final night-time showcase began with Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, whose award-winning albums include At Swim, Sea Sew and Passenger. The audience cheered along for her outstanding and haunting harmonies. She also showed her sense of humor and compassion by dedicating a song to the safety of drivers in India’s notorious traffic-choked streets (‘don’t be in a hurry, don’t be crushed by a lorry’).
A mesmerizing band then took the stage: Aga Khan All Stars, with a range of talented instrumentalists from Afghanistan, China, Italy and Syria. The collective is a project of the Aga Khan Music Initiative, an inter-regional music and arts education program. The music evoked the culture along the historic Silk Route from Asia to Europe. Salar Nader, Homayoun Sakhi. Wu Man, Feras Charestan, Basel Rajoub, and Andrea Piccioni drew loud applause for their outstanding solos and duets on pipa, tabla, saxophone, kanun and tamburello.
The perfect finale was the colorful and energetic Raghu Dixit Project, one of the most popular contemporary folk-fusion bands in India. Their infectious and happy tunes were sung in Kannada and Hindi, with Raghu Dixit on vocals, Gaurav Vaz on bass, Sanjay Kumar on guitar, H.N. Bhaskar on violin, and Wilfred D’moz on drums. They performed hits from their albums including ‘Jag Changa,’ and ended with the superb ‘Har Saans Mein.’
Raghu engaged with the audience throughout, urging them to get up and dance rather than ‘sit down and look at the bums of the people dancing in front of you!’ The band has performed extensively at festivals across Asia, Europe and Australia, and their youthfulness and creativity will ensure that they continue to headline a range of cultural events.
The final musical performance at the Jaipur LitFest was on Monday morning, titled ‘East Meets Middle East.’ It featured a superb blend of music from the Middle East and South Asia, with Subrata Bhattacharya (tabla) and Abhisek Lahiri (sarod) from Kolkata collaborating with Ronnie Malley (oud) and George Lawler (percussion). Palestinian Ronnie Malley anchored the set, and the group truly transcended boundaries as they paired off in a range of scintillating duets.
I look forward to interviewing the artistes in more detail and reviewing their albums, and will be sure to check out the 11th edition of the Jaipur LitFest next year, with its unbeatable combination of literature and music!
The annual IndiEarth xChange conference and festival wrapped up in Chennai recently with a weekend of world music and indie performances at The Park Hotel. The event also included conference tracks, workshops and film screenings (see my earlier writeups on the festival editions from 2015 and 2014).
The IndiEarth initiative, promoting independent musicians and filmmakers, was conceptualized by the founders of EarthSync India, a music label and film production company launched by Sastry Karra, Sonya Mazumdar, Yotam Agam and Kris Karra in 2004. It is widely regarded as one of the best forums to discover new bands and to network among the independent music industry, venue founders and festival curators in India.
The event was a celebration of the ability of artistes around the world to collaborate at a time of increasing political conflict, and also to share industry lessons on building viable careers and forums for the world of arts and culture. Panel discussions were held on music education, media contributions and festival design, along with workshops on field recordings, legal issues and preservation of folk arts.
Classical and folk musician Vidya Shah conducted an outstanding multi-media presentation along with live performances, titled ‘Women on Record,’ highlighting the gramophone era of recorded music and its mixed impact on the world of live performances. In a world of increasing commercialization of culture, it is important to understand the value and contributions of folk musicians, according to Divya Bhatia, founder of the annual four-day Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur.
I took part in a panel on ‘Arts Journalism: Content Creation, Ethics, and Reportage,’ covering the increasing role of social media in artiste promotion and music reportage, the need for talent strategies incorporating partnerships and internships, media coverage for local audiences as compared to international markets, the balance between business and editorial agendas, and new digital formats for content about music (see for example my app ‘Oktav: Music Quotes and Proverbs’ available for Apple and Android devices).
In the afternoon of Day One, the music performances kicked off in the lobby stage with Aver, a nine-piece Indian contemporary fusion-style band. Formed in 2015, the band is based in Chennai; its Indian as well as Arabic influences were reflected in their range of instruments and sounds.
The evening show began with the spellbinding Hindustani classical music duo Pratik & Vinayak. Vinayak Netke composes, arranges, and plays the tabla for his fusion band Zamee, and has also released two devotional albums, Aadi Pujya and Kalidas’s Meghdoot. Pratik Shrivastava was born into a family of musicians, and began playing the sarod at the age of six under the guidance of his grandfather Pandit Rabi Chakraborty. They played two ragas (Rageshri was outstanding), and drew loud applause for their virtuosity and call-response interplay.
The mood switched to electronica with Vasuda (‘Miss V’) on digital media and Chaitanya Bhaidkar on guitars. The music blends Indian classical and folk with Western contemporary music. Vasuda’s debut album is ‘Attuned Spirits.’
Another superb performance of Indian folk and ghazal followed, with Vidya Shah on vocals accompanied by four musicians on sarangi, tabla, percussion and guitar. She picked up on some of the themes from her morning presentation, and wrapped up in fine style with the ever-energetic ‘Mast Kalandar.’
Gears shifted again to the lobby stage with Tamil rock band Kurangan. They showed that scorching funk and blues have no geographical barriers, and lend themselves well to local interpretation. Formed in 2015, the band is set to release its debut album next year.
French alternative electronic band Organic Bananas wowed the audience with some amazing sound from the hurdy gurdy, fused with modern digital ambience. Kraftwerk in the 21st century, with some rock and groove, would be an apt way to describe their music.
The night ended with a long set of African-influenced danceable electronica by Sauvage Sound System from the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. The DJs Kwalud and Black Ben kept the audience on their feet late into the night, as could be seen by the sleepy faces of some of the conference attendees the next morning!
The second and final day of performances began with singer-songwriter Abhi Tambe from Bangalore, who was earlier with post-rock group Lounge Piranha. Abhi performed some melodic tracks from his upcoming solo album. Another solo performance featured Aditya Balani on guitar and digital media; he has been on BBC Asia Beats, MTV Coke Studio, Pepsi MTV Indies, and BBC Radio.
The previous day’s Tamil rock track picked up again with folk rock band Kulam, featuring Pradeep Kumar on guitars and vocals, Jhanu on bass and Tapass Naresh on drums. Barefoot and in lungis, the guitarists joked among themselves between their songs, to much audience delight.
Another terrific band from Reunion Island then took the energy to another level: Afro-jazz band Identité. They blended maloya with jazz, showcasing the creativity of Creole culture. The percussion section and lead saxophone were outstanding, and drew loud applause from the audience.
Electronica took the floor again with the Chennai duo Krameri, consisting of Gopi Krishnan and Damini Chauhan, followed by Indian punk rock band Dossers Urge. Synth-pop took the stage with Akshay Rajpurohit’s solo set; his debut album is called ‘Sadomist.’
By then the audience was all pumped up for Indian dubstep guru Nucleya; his high energy set blended Indian sound with global bass. His new album ‘BASS Rani’ is a hit with audiences across the diverse regions of India.
The music carried on later in the hotel bar well into the early hours of the next morning; a round of goodbyes followed the next day over breakfast and lunch (or was it brunch?). We look forward to next year’s xChange 2017 festival and conference already!
Guitarist Amit Heri composes and performs a creative blend of Indian classical music and jazz. He cites John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, U Srinivas, and Ravi Shankar as influences. Amit has collaborated with a range of artistes including Zakir Hussain, Salif Keita, Trilok Gurtu, Angelique Kidjo and others.
He has performed at festivals around the world including Montreux Jazz Festival, Berlin Jazz Festival, WOMAD, London Jazz Festival, Rome World Music Festival and the Paris Jazz Festival. Amit’s earlier albums are JhoolaandElephant Walk; he has just released his new album, I ♥ India.
Amit joins us in this interview on his spiritual journey, arrangements on his new album, artistic collaborations, and the messages conveyed through his new album.
How would you describe your musical journey thus far?
My music is a reflection of my life and is a continuously evolving entity. Earlier on, I was more focused on the technical aspects of music, then the mental and nowadays more on the soulful. It really is a coming together of the body, mind and soul. Also, earlier my music was more centered around the art itself and now it really has become a vehicle for connection (with others and the divine) and service – to spread joy and bring meaningful experiences to myself and others. The actual technique, vocabulary and style are just incidental and a result of my past experiences.
Just as I strive to move beyond judgment, the music I offer is intended to transcend judgment and invoke a response from the heart.
How does this album differ or continue from your earlier ones?
One of India’s major contributions to the world (if not the biggest one) is in the spiritual realm. This album is a result of my delving into Yoga and Mantra as part of my spiritual practice. Music has always been (especially in India) a divine form and I ♥ India is my way of reaching for the divine thru music.
John Coltrane has always been my greatest influence in jazz and how his music became a vehicle for divine connection during the later part of his life. It’s common knowledge that Indian spirituality greatly influenced his life and his path greatly influenced my own. Being Indian, I’m fortunate to naturally have access to the world of Indian spirituality and music to fuel my music.
Even my instrumental jazz albums (I recorded one in New York this January, and will release it next year) is a reflection of this evolution.
How did you form the band in the lineup for your album?
For me, the rhythm section is the most important aspect of the music. A great rhythm section makes for great music. Because of the stylistic range of the album (from pop to hardcore jazz fusion), I wanted to have a grooving rhythm section with musicians who had extensive experience playing different styles – funk, progressive rock, jazz, odd-time meters and pop.
Since I was recording in Los Angeles, my research led me to choose Joel Taylor – one of LA’s top drummers. Joel plays with a lot of heart and has an incredible command over the musicality of the drum set, having worked with legends such as Allan Holdsworth, Al DiMeola and Yanni. Ernest Tibbs is one of LA’s top bass players and is one of the well known modern voices in Funk, jazz and fusion bass playing, and has worked with such luminaries as Allan Holdsworth, Andy Summers and Lee Ritenour. Since Joel and Ernest have worked on many projects together as a rhythm section, I decided to get them to record on I ♥ India as the backbone of the music.
And of course, I like to stretch my guitar solos and Joel and Ernest were right there with me.
Since this is an album with Sanskrit chants, I also needed a backing vocalist who could sing in Sanskrit, but had a background in Funk, Jazz and pop as well because of the global style of I ♥ India! I was lucky to find Tulasi Devi – a wonderful singer and violinist who was perfect for the project.
The tracks ‘Purity’ and ‘Clearing the Path’ really jump out – tell us how you composed them.
‘Purity’ is a funk-fusion track essentially with a Ganesha Mantra on top and an Indian guitar solo followed by a jazz guitar solo. It’s always good to start with a Ganesh mantra so this is the first song on the album and it features my guitar playing.
‘Clearing the Path’ is also a Ganesha shloka and mantra. In this one, I have more ambient textures in the first part and it moves towards become a groovy, energetic song under the final chant. Melodically, there are elements from Indian music and jazz. This track is intended to connect listeners on a body/dance level. What better way to remove obstacles than by singing and dancing!
The track ‘Transformation’ seems very different from the others – what’s going on behind the scenes here?
On a musical level, the intro of ‘Transformation’ is kind of like a Indian music meets (guitarist) Bill Frisell thing. The next part is groove and rhythm heavy (African influences) to bring out the dancing Shiva energy of the chant. And then it moves into a Indian melodic segue arranged with a string section and ends with a climax of the chant and a konnakol.
Stylistically, I tried to make this more of a world/dance track to bring out the energy of the chant and also dynamically flow thru different sections to reflect the process of transformation from negative to positive – the meaning of the chant.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
I strive for my music to speak my truth – it’s an authentic expression of my experiences and my life. In life, society runs on conformity to expectations of others. In context to expressing who you are through music, the reality largely is that people like you when their expectations are met – or they can judge you, and sometimes very harshly.
On its own, music is pure energy – when we listen to it, we superimpose our likes and dislikes on it. Some of my biggest challenges as a musician and composer are to remain true to myself, neutral in how my music is received by listeners (whether they like it or don’t!) and to keep trying to get people to resonate with it regardless! Of course, everything takes time and doing what is needed with patience, regardless of the fruits, is the greatest challenge.
Who would you say are the leading influences in your career?
John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Charlie Mariano, John McLaughlin, George Benson, U Srinivas, R A Ramamani, Ravi Shankar, Prince, James Brown, James Taylor…… it’s a never ending list!!!
How are you able to blend Indian and jazz music so effectively, i.e. create fusion without confusion?
I grew up with Indian and Western influences in equal part – my thinking, attitudes and lifestyle reflects that as does my music. It’s effective because it is based on authentic experiences.
What is your vision of what music can do in this age of turmoil?
Music is a very powerful medium in helping people experience uplifting and positive states of being, regardless of physical realities and/or what they may be going thru. It has great healing power and is a unifying force to humankind, connecting us with the essence of our being – one that is peaceful, calm and joyous. The world today needs a great deal of healing, oneness and a reality check. My vision for music is to do just that – heal wounds, and bring more peace and joy to the world.
What have been your previous highlights in playing across India? Overseas?
Some performances that remain special to me:
Berlin Jazz festival with Charlie Mariano, Ramamani and the KCP
Performances with Louiz Banks, Ranjit Barot, Karl & Keith Peters, Sanjay Divecha, Shankar Mahadevan, U. Srinivas, Selva Ganesh in India
Performance with Zakir Hussain in Chicago
Performances with Trilok Gurtu – Montreal Jazz Festival, Paris Jazz Festival, Rome World Music Festival, and many more
Performances with Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Robert Miles, Jabu Kanyile
Performances with my original jazz group with Matthew Garrison, Marko Djordjevic, Matt Renzi, Lester Menezes, Rudresh Mahanthappa in India and the US
Performance with my group at the World Social Forum in Brazil with a 100,000 + audience and sharing the stage with Gilberto Gil.
Do you compose on the road as well while traveling, or only in a studio?
I compose mostly at home or in nature.
Do you also teach workshops?
How has the music industry changed over the years, and how has that affected your work?
The biggest change is that the music industry has moved online to a great extent. As an artist, this means that there are more options to reach your listener directly and more potential for sales all over the world. The flip side is that it requires a lot of time and energy and some ingenuity to be noticed (if you don’t already have a following) in the clutter of the internet. It’s mainly the marketing and distribution aspects of the industry that have changed and it’s fairly new – I’m learning on the fly, so to speak.
What can we expect to hear at your next performances?
It depends on the setup I’m playing in. It could be songs from I ♥ India or my Indian jazz set. I will be doing some gigs in December with flautist Ravi Kullur, Ranjit Barot and Turkish American pianist Osam Ezzeldin – the tour is still being put together.
What message do you convey through your music?
My message through music is one of oneness, bridging humankind and celebrating existence.
Award-winning musician and composer Karsh Kale performed in India recently for the launch of the Art Bangalore Festival. The British-born, New York City-raised producer and multi-instrumentalist of Indian heritage has released a string of albums: Realize, Liberation, Breathing Under Water, Up, andThe Matrix (by Tabla Beat Science, co-founded by Bill Laswell).
Karsh is one of the pioneers of the ‘Asian Underground’ genre, mixing Indian classical and folk music along with electronica and ambient music. He has conducted masterclasses on his musical journey, and cites groups ranging from Shakti to Led Zeppelin as musical influences. He has collaborated with Anoushka Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Sting, Norah Jones, Warren Mendonsa (nephew of Bollywood composer Loy Mendonsa), and a range of other artists.
Karsh sees India as ripe for experimentation with a range of sounds and a globally-exposed youth. His set in Bangalore was a heady mix of tablas, vocals, Carnatic flute, percussion and electric guitar. Karsh joins us in this interview, conducted just before his set, on his musical style, journey and message.
Q: It has been 15 years since your first album ‘Realise’ was released. Where do you see yourself headed in your artistic journey?
I have expanded my scope into films – music scores and script-writing. I continue to try out new technologies in the area of music and performance – such as virtual reality (VR)!
Q: How do you manage to do ‘fusion without confusion’ – blending so many styles and genres and yet coming across so coherent and creative!
It is important to have a palette of different experiences, but not just dabble in a range of styles. I have studied these different forms very hard, and that makes the flow and fusion easier.
I have communicated and connected with people from different walks of life, and that makes it easier to collaborate and fuse. My music comes across as natural and not ‘conceptual.’ For example, when I am blending thumri with electronica, the song is happening and playing in my head.
Q: How do you see the role of technology tools in changing music?
I use a range of tools, but at the same time I also spend time away from the computer, playing with acoustic guitars for example.
Tools are great, but one must go beyond the software palette as well! I have also played with others on acoustic instruments such as the kora.
Q: What are some of your next albums and collaborations?
I am working on an album with Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, sons of sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and stars in their own right.
Q: What are some of your favorite festivals to play at?
I have played in a range of festivals around the world, such as Glastonbury and NH7 – but Burning Man really stands out!
I have played there three times. The audience, energy, format – everything is amazing, the effect it has on you as soon as you get there is incredible. The entire system is different – you barter things, you share. It feels like another planet!
Q: Some of your more unusual collaborations have been with Chinese musician Sa Dingding. Tell us what that was like!
Yes, that was very different. I got a call once from Universal China to collaborate with her, and next thing I knew I was in Beijing, sitting next to her at a piano! We didn’t speak each other’s languages, but the music emerged as we played.
I did some research on Chinese classical music and pop, and the album featured elements of Indian classical music, Chinese pop, electronica and other contemporary sound. The sound engineer did help with some translation as well.
Q: What can we look forward to at your performance and lineup tonight?
I will play a mix of old and new material. There will be great visual displays and effects too. I don’t have a fixed band but a collective with shifting and evolving lineups, like a revolving door. For example, during my performance in Toronto last week, I played with half my New York band and half my India band.
Q: What is your message to the audience?
I want the audience to create their own message, by the way my music unleashes their imagination. From Mexico to Poland, I want my audiences to connect to my music from their own contexts.
I see myself a world citizen, and want to make the world a smaller and hopefully better place.
Additional Photos of Karsh Kale and his band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016:
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music