All posts by Madanmohan Rao

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.

“Music is a medium for social interactions and dialogue” – interview with Ronnie Malley, multi-instrumentalist, producer and educator

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 Malley – Auraad Fathiya

 

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.

 

Abhisek Lahiri and Ronnie Malley at Jaipur LitFest – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

East Meets Middle East at Jaipur LitFest – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

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.

 

George Lawler (percussion) and Subrata Bhattacharya (tabla) at Jaipur LitFest – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

East Meets Middle East

 

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.

 

Ronnie Malley at Instituto Cervantes

 

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.

 

Ronnie Malley with Allos Musica

 

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.

 

Ronnie Malley – Surabhi

 

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.

 

Lamajamal

 

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.

 


Ronnie Malley, co-composer and performer in the theater play The White Snake

 

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.

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Interview with French Flutist and Composer Jean-Luc Thomas

Jean-Luc Thomas

 

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.

 

Jean-Luc Thomas in Bangalore with Indian flutist Ravichandra Kulur – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Jean-Luc Thomas in Bangalore with Indian flutist Ravichandra Kulur – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Jean-Luc Thomas with Kej

 

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.

 

Jean-Luc Thomas in Bangalore with Indian flutist Ravichandra Kulur – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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!

 

Jean-Luc Thomas in Bangalore – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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).

 

Jean-Luc Thomas

 

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.

 

Jean-Luc Thomas with Serendou

 

Jean-Luc Thomas with Serendou

 

 

Jean-Luc Thomas with Carlos Malta and Bernardo Aguiar (Brazil)

 

Jean-Luc Thomas with Carlos Malta and Bernardo Aguiar (Brazil)

 

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.

 

Jean-Luc Thomas

 

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.

 

Jean-Luc Thomas

 

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!

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Internal Activities

Sattyananda – Internal Activities

Sattyananda – Internal Activities (DadA Music, 2011)

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.

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Jaipur LitFest 2017: a five-day showcase of literature – and music!

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.

Day One

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.

 

Shillong Chamber Choir – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Rajasthan Josh – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Kabir Cafe – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day Two

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.

 

Bombay Bassment – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Inna Modja – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day Three

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, Sam Amidon and Rajasthan Josh – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Rudy Wallang – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Tipriti Kharbangar – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day Four

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.

 

Aga Khan All Stars – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Aga Khan All Stars – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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 Dixit – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Raghu Dixit Project – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

Day Five

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.

 

East Meets Middle East – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Abhisek Lahiri and Ronnie Malley – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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!

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IndiEarth xChange 2016, Chennai: Weekend conference and festival of world music and indie acts

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.

 

electronic gear at the festival

 

Industry insights

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.

 

Divya Bhatia, founder of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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).

Day One

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.

 

Aver – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Pratik Shrivastava on sarod – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Vinayak Netke on tabla – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.’

 

‘Miss V’(Vasuda) – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.’

 

Vidya Shah – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Kurangan – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Organic Bananas – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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!

 

Sauvage Sound System – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day Two

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.

 

Aditya Balani – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Kulam – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Identité – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.’

 

Krameri – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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.

 

Nucleya – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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!

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‘Music is pure energy’ – interview with guitarist-composer Amit Heri

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 Jhoola and Elephant 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.

 

Amit Heri - I ♥ India
Amit Heri – I ♥ India

 

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 IIndia 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.

 

Amit Heri
Amit Heri

 

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 IIndia 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 IIndia! 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.

 

Amit Heri
Amit Heri

 

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?

Yes.

 

 

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 IIndia 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.

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“I see myself as a world citizen” – Asian Underground Pioneer Karsh Kale

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, and The Matrix (by Tabla Beat Science, co-founded by Bill Laswell).

 

Karsh Kale - Up
Karsh Kale – Up (2016)

 

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)!

 

Karsh Kale - Realize
Karsh Kale – Realize

 

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.

 

Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

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:

 

Karsh Kale in Bangalore 2016 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Karsh Kale at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Karsh Kale band at the Art Bangalore Festival 2016 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao
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Rainforest World Music Festival 2016: 25 bands covering all 5 continents!

The annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) is now in its 19th edition, and featured 25 bands from around the planet. The venue is the lush equatorial rainforest of the Sarawak Cultural Village – located between Mount Santubong and the South China Sea.

The 2016 lineup featured 17 international and 8 Malaysian groups. The overseas bands included Auli (Latvia), Broukar (Syria), Derek Gripper (South Africa), Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), Dya Singh (Australia/Malaysia), Krar Collective (Ethiopia), Lan Dieu Viet (Vietnam), Naygayiw Gigi (Australia), Nukariik (Canada), Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band (Ghana), Shanren (China), Stelios Petrakis Quartet (Greece), Chouk Bwa Libete (Haiti), Teada (Ireland), Vassvik (Norway), Violons Barbares (Bulgaria, Mongolia, France), and Vocal Sampling (Cuba).  The Malaysian lineup consisted of Alena Murang, Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, Mathew Ngau, Sape’ Sarawak, The Thunder Beats Of Nanyang Wushu Drums, Unique Arts Academy, and 1Drum.

See also my coverage of earlier editions of RWMF: Collaboration, Creativity and Community, and Global Sound, Diversity and Celebration; as well as interviews with some of the performers (eg. Rafly wa Saja, Drew Gonsalves, ShoogleNifty).

Festival previews

Kuching Festival Food Fair.
Kuching Festival Food Fair.

 

Before the Festival, some of the bands held preview concerts in local pubs, cafes and the Kuching Festival Food Fair. One of the previews was rained out due to a torrential downpour, but I caught the next superb performance by percussion troupe Dol Arastra Bengkulu from Indonesia. They are influenced by the ‘percusi dol’ ritualistic traditions of Sumatra, celebrating acts of heroism.

 

Dol Arastra Bengkulu - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Dol Arastra Bengkulu – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The musicians carried the thunderous ‘gendang dol’ drums with them as they danced around the stage, occasionally even lying down on their backs while playing them. They alternately formed circles and rows, sometimes even playing on their neighbors’ drums.

 

The Thunder Beats Of Nanyang Wushu Drums - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
The Thunder Beats Of Nanyang Wushu Drums – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day One

Each morning of the festival began with a media meet between journalists and musicians; see my earlier articles on artiste insights: Fusion without confusion – how world music bands blend multiple influences (2016), How world music bands build collective vision, promote indigenous culture and yet adapt to changing times (2015), World music bands address the importance of heritage, messages and innovation (2014) and World music bands address their role in social change, cultural preservation and creativity (2013).

The media meet was followed by an afternoon of indoor workshops and performances, starting off with Vietnam and Malaysia. The five members of Lan Dieu Viet are all music teachers at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Trương Thị Thu Hà played a dazzling solo on the beautiful trung (bamboo xylophone), and Cồ Huy Hùng (moon lute) and Nguyễn Hoàng Anh (bamboo flute) also stood out in the folk performances.

 

Lan Dieu Viet
Lan Dieu Viet

 

They were followed by Alena Murang on sape and vocals, performing traditional music of Sarawak in the language of the Kenyah and Kelabit people from Ulu Baram. Murang is one of the few young women to openly perform and teach the sape, an instrument from Borneo that used to be a taboo for women to even touch. She learnt from masters such as Mathew Ngau, and has played overseas and gives talks and lectures on the sape.

 

Alena Murang - Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board
Alena Murang – Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

 

Each evening, a drum circle was facilitated by Malaysia’s 1Drum (their slogan is ‘Drum, Cause You Can!’). The outdoor acts at night were held on two adjacent stages set in the picturesque rainforest. Traditional ceremonies to bless the festival were conducted by local cultural groups and musicians.

Sape’ Sarawak is a band drawn from the various Sarawak ethnic groups such as Orang Ulu, Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Malay, Chinese and other communities. The 17 players presented age-old tales of ancient warriors and supernatural princesses.

Naygayiw Gigi then wowed the audience with an astonishing array of costumers and ritual dances. The troupe, whose name means ‘Northern Thunder,’ hail from Bamaga, the northernmost town in Queensland, Australia. They played the music of seven clans from the Torres Strait, in the form of stories about celebration as well as defense from other attacking clans.

 

Naygayiw Gigi - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Naygayiw Gigi – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The focus shifted back to Asia with the Unique Arts Academy, performing music and dance of the South Indian communities in Malaysia. Folk drums such as thappu, kottu, chimta, and ganjira filled the stage, along with harmonium and bass guitar. The group has performed at the International Folklore Festival and World Harvest Festival.

 

Unique Arts Academy - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Unique Arts Academy – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Acclaimed Irish folk band Teada then took the stage; ace fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada regaled the audience with his humor along with his fellow musicians on percussion and guitar. “Ireland is so nice a place that all our neighbors invaded us,” they joked. They dedicated a song to the freedom-fighters of Ireland.

 

Teada - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Teada – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Their high energy set also featured some enthusiastic step-dancing by keyboardist Samantha Harvey, and the audience clapped loudly in appreciation. “Thanks, but your kindness will be forgotten,” the band joked again. Over the past 15 years, Teada has also performed at the Edmonton Folk Festival in Canada and Harare International Festival of the Arts.

The energy picked up several notches with a thunderous performance by Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), who had also played a shorter set at the previous day’s preview showcase. The first African band of the festival then took the stage: Krar Collective from Ethiopia. The set had elements of electro-folk and rock, with the talented Temesgen Zelekeis on electric krar, Grum Begashaw on drums, and Genet Assefa on vocals and dance.

 

Krar Collective - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Krar Collective – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Assefa changed costumes six times during the set! and the audience had a tough time trying to imitate her ‘shoulder dislocating’ dance moves! The band has also collaborated with Baaba Maal and Rokia Traore, and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

The night came to a climax with the high-energy bagpipe and drum music group Auļi from Latvia. The band revives Latvia’s earlier bagpipe traditions, and added a terrific percussive layer with some of the biggest ‘tree trunk drums’ in the Baltics. They played danceable tracks from some of their earlier albums, which include the aptly named ‘Etnotranss.’

Day Two

The indoor performances on Day Two were kicked off by Sikh hymn singer Dya Singh, who grew up in Malaysia and is now based in Australia. He has released over 25 CDs, and has performed at dozens of festivals including WOMADelaide, Vancouver Folk Festival, and California World Music Festival. His uplifting spiritual incantations actively involved the audience as well; he was accompanied by Dheeraj Shrestha (tabla) as well as his own daughter Gimel.

The second indoor performance featured solo acoustic guitarist Derek Gripper from South Africa, who has nine albums to his credit. He interpreted a number of kora compositions on his guitar, for which he had earlier received acclaim from classical guitar legend John Williams and kora maestro Toumani Diabate. The audience showed their appreciation by lining up immediately after his performance to buy his CDs and get his autograph.

 

Derek Gripper - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Derek Gripper – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

An hour of torrential rain got the night performances off to a delayed start, but the show went on; after all, what’s the rainforest festival without some rain? The performances began with Mathew Ngau, master sape player and story teller, who also makes his own range of sape instruments and teaches the young Sarawak generation about their traditions.

The next band was Stelios Petrakis Quartet, performing the lively music of Crete from Greece. Petrakis also makes his own instruments such as the lira and laouto, and the pride and respect he had for his traditions shone through in his performance. The accompanying dances also drew loud applause from the audience.

Naygayiw Gigi from Australia treated the audience to some more brilliant costumes and dances; they were followed by Band Girl LKNS from the Sabah state of Malaysia, who showcased a wide range of traditional local gongs.

 

Band Girl LKNS - Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board
Band Girl LKNS – Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

 

One of the most unusual bands at RWMF was Vocal Sampling, a male a capella sextet from Cuba, with a lineup that included Rene Baños Pascual, Pedro Bernard Coto, and Reinaldo Sanler Maseda. If you closed your eyes, you could almost visualize a real Latin band playing with congas, bass, trumpet, trombone and guitar! They have performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bobby McFerrin, Ray Barreto, Celia Cruz, Chick Corea and Gal Costa.

 

Vocal Sampling - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Vocal Sampling – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The group has played at Couleur Café, WOMAD, Festival de Jazz de Nice, Jazz Festival Istanbul, and World Music Festival Sukiyaki. Their rendition of the rock classic ‘Hotel California’ drew loud applause as well at RWMF.

Another range of instruments then featured on the next stage, with Shanren from China playing high-energy folk-rock music from the Yunnan region. Reggae was also blended into the set as the quartet showcased instruments such as xianzi, qinqin and dabiya (four-stringed plucked instruments) as well as xianggu and sun drum (percussion). They have performed at Barcelona Festival Asia, Canadian Music Week, Midem in Cannes, Turtle Island Festival and Liverpool Sound City.

 

Shanren - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Shanren – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The perfect closing act for the Saturday night performances was Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band from Ghana. Called the ‘Golden Voice of Africa,’ Pat Thomas filled the stage with a phenomenal range of musicians including multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yeboah (guitar, keyboards) and saxophonist Ben Abarbanel-Wolff. The set blended Ghanaian highlife, afro-beat, afro-pop and even disco – spanning four decades of genres and fusion. The aptly-named ‘I Need More’ was the encore.

 

 Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band - Photo by Madanmohan Rao

Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Day Three

The indoor performances on Day Three featured some outstanding throat singing from Norway and Canada. Torgeir Vassvik and his trio kicked off the first performance; Vassvik is an artist from Sápmi’s northernmost tip, Gamvik in Norway. The Sami joik and resonant throat singing reflect the diverse textures and climates of the Arctic zone.

 

Vassvik - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Vassvik – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The second Northern band on stage was Nukariik from Canada. The duo consists of sisters Kathy and Karin Kettler. Their Inuit throat singing and breathing styles, performed while facing each other, were inspired by the birds, animals and seasons of their region; a backdrop of photographs provided stunning visuals as well. “The mosquitoes in the Arctic are much bigger than the Malaysian ones,” Kathy joked.

 

Nukariik - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Nukariik – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The sisters explained how the alternating scales and close sequencing of tunes lead to complex yet entertaining melodies. They have performed at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, and are on the Inuit Throat Singer’s Committee.

The night performances on the last day were kicked off by the youthful band Thunder Beats of Nanyang Wushu Drums, from Sarawak in Malaysia. It included 12 drums representing the 12 months of a year, which are performed for prosperity, fortune and abundance.

The eagerly-anticipated Syrian band Broukar took the stage next (I was fortunate to also catch their performance earlier in July at the Forde Festival in Norway; see my writeup here). They were founded in 2007 in Damascus by Taoufik Mirkhan (kanun), and the musician lineup now includes his sister Hadil Mirkhan (oud) and Modar Salameh (percussion).

 

Broukar - Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board
Broukar – Photo courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

 

The kanun has 78 strings, which means 78 minutes of tuning,” joked Taoufik Mirkhan, during one of their earlier afternoon workshops. “We also teach this music to our younger generation so they can keep the culture alive – and hopefully one day perform at festivals like this,” he said, referring to the sad plight of Syrian refugees.

The highlight of their performance was three sets of whirling dervish dance by Ahmad Alkhatib – twice in traditional white Sufi costume and finally in a breathtaking black-and-white dress.

Another high-energy trio then took the stage: Violons Barbares, with members from three countries: Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal (or Epi, from Mongolia), Dimitar Gougov (Bulgaria) and Fabien Guyot (France). Epi blew the audience away with his deep throat singing and sense of humour, and sizzling work on the morin khoor. The Malaysian expression for ‘thank you’ (terima kasi) spoken in his super-deep voice drew delighted whoops from the audience.

 

Violons Barbares - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Violons Barbares – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Dimitar Gougov played haunting tunes on the gadulka, and Fabien Guyot was simply magnificent on percussion. The trio played a range of love songs and high-energy tracks (including the Afghan ‘Caravan’), and pushed the frontiers of tradition and cross-boundary fusion.

Gears shifted to the largely percussion band Chouk Bwa Libète, a traditional Haitian Mizik Rasin (roots music) band. The voodoo music featured an astonishingly intricate yet highly danceable array of rhythms and chants, with multiple fades and crescendos. The energy was so infectious that lead vocalist Jean Claude Sambaton Dorvil even seemed to be possessed with a spirit for some time, adding a layer of drama to the performance.

 

Chouk Bwa Libete - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Chouk Bwa Libete – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Drummers Lakous Badjo, Souvenance and Soukri showed unbelievable energy and variation as they alternated between their instruments. The audience joined in a chorus of ‘Amun Aye’ for the last track, and a rousing conch tone wrapped up the set.

The place slowed down a bit with the traditional joget (Malaysian dance) by the group Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, and picked up once again with Latvian bagpipe-drum band Auli (who had also finished up Day One’s performances).

 

Auli - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Auli – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

All the bands from the three days of the festival came together on stage for the grand finale, and the audience cheered them on loudly as they took their final bow. The black-and-white twirling cape of Broukar’s dervish dancer Ahmad Alkhatib soaring above the rest of the musicians was a memorable sight. The festivities carried on with a poolside jam at the musicians’ hotel, with samples of Greek, Arabic and Canadian indigenous music!

 

Rainforest World Music Festival 2016 grand finale - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Rainforest World Music Festival 2016 grand finale – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

I picked up a stack of CDs from the bands over the three days of the festival, which should keep me busy with reviews for the next couple of weeks. We already look forward to the next Rainforest World Music Festival in 2017, which promises to be extra special since it will be the 20th edition!

 

Performer CDs 1
Performer CDs 1

 

Performer CDs 1
Performer CDs 1

 

Sunset in Sarawak - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Sunset in Sarawak – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Headline photo: Dol Arastra Bengkulu

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Fusion without confusion – how world music bands blend multiple influences

The 19th Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia), regarded as one of the Top 25 music festivals by Songlines magazine, was once again a three-day delight of afternoon workshops, evening performances and interactive discussion between media and musicians each morning.

See also my articles on the media meets at previous RWMF editions: How world music bands build collective vision, promote indigenous culture and yet adapt to changing times (2015), World music bands address the importance of heritage, messages and innovation (2014) and World music bands address their role in social change, cultural preservation and creativity (2013).

The 2016 lineup featured 17 international and 8 Malaysian groups. The overseas bands included Auli (Latvia), Broukar (Syria), Derek Gripper (South Africa), Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), Dya Singh (Australia/Malaysia), Krar Collective (Ethiopia), Lan Dieu Viet (Vietnam), Naygayiw Gigi (Australia), Nukariik (Canada), Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band (Ghana), Shanren (China), Stelios Petrakis Quartet (Greece), Teada (Ireland), Vassvik (Norway), Violons Barbares (Bulgaria, Mongolia, France), and Vocal Sampling (Cuba).  The Malaysian lineup consisted of Alena Murang, Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, Mathew Ngau, Sape’ Sarawak, The Thunder Beats of Nanyang Wushu Drums, Unique Arts Academy, and 1Drum.

During media interactions over three days, and in separate interviews, members of these 25 bands described their careers, instruments, collaborations, socio-political contexts and musical messages – along with their sense of humor.

The ‘4Es’ – Entertainment, Empathy, Education, Empowerment

I asked the bands how they mix entertainment in their music along with serious messages that build empathy for social causes and educate audiences about different cultures.

In Inuit culture, throat singing is a form of entertainment as well as culture,” explained Kathy and Karin Kettler of Inuit duo Nukariik from Canada. “We are the indigenous Sami people. Our joik music comes from ritual activity. It is serious and fun at the same time,” agreed Torgeir Vassvik from northern Norway.

Shanren
Shanren

In our case, entertainment and message are wrapped in one. In the Yunnan region, music, dance and alcohol are integrated,” joked the members of folk-rock band Shanren from China. The region has 26 ethnic groups with very diverse cultures. “We play rock as well as world music. There is a risk of our local music dying out,” they said.

I want to be the voice of the poor people in my country and speak for them,” said Sambaton Dorvil, lead singer of Haitian voodoo band Chouk Bwa Libete.

Indonesian percussion troupe Dol Arastra Bengkulu said they play in rituals celebrating heroism, but also teach young people to play anywhere. Inter-ethnic group Violons Barbares described how they perform in festivals, concert halls, and clubs, as well as immigrant community centers and events in their new countries.

Our music is used in a documentary, and will also be in a game on AppleTV,” said the bagpipe and drum music group Auli from Latvia.

In addition to performances, sape player Alena Murang from Sarawak speaks at events such as TEDx KL, plays on TV, and conducts workshops in schools in Western Malaysia where the sape is not very well known as an indigenous instrument.

Our tradition is strong – and strict! I feel happiest when I get respect from my local tradition and the international community,” said Stelios Petrakis, founder of the Greek band Stelios Petrakis Quartet. “We get requests even at 5 in the morning after all-night performances,” he joked.

In some traditional music communities, creativity and deviation are not respected. I don’t see it as a compromise, I see it as a challenge and opportunity to create new music for new audiences,” Petrakis said.

When we do a capella, we have more freedom and variation,” said Vocal Sampling, a Latin music a capella group from Cuba.

An interesting category of world music artists consists of those who have immigrated to other countries, or are children of immigrants, or are of mixed parentage. Issues of tradition and creative freedom play out differently in their case.

We play collaborative music so we are free from the ‘jail’ of some strict traditions,” explained the members of Violons Barbares, a trio with musicians from Mongolia, Bulgaria and France.

Sikh hymn singer Dya Singh is of Indian origin and grew up in Malaysia – he now lives in Australia and performs along with a percussionist from Nepal. “We are truly global citizens,” said Dya Singh, and he showcased it brilliantly during a jam session where he blended a Sufi chant with Latin a capella beats.

Music and dance give us deep roots. A lot of younger generations are washing away the messages from culture,” cautioned his daughter Gimel, herself a performer at RWMF.

Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 2 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 2 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

Vision, mission

Many of the bands described their vision of the world and what kind of role they see in it. “The most important contribution of world music is to help address and solve problems,” said Dya Singh. This can also be part of the role of world music festivals. “The tree-planting ceremony in the mangrove wetlands at RWMF sends out a good message about the environment,” he added.

Musicians can help raise social awareness about anything happening anywhere in the world. Musicians have to be positive and help make the world a better place,” agreed Pat Thomas of Ghana.

The role of a musician is to keep out of politics – but have a strong say about issues like the environment. Corruption is more intricate, it has always been there, it can be hard for musicians to pick one party against another,” Dya Singh explained.

The world is a complex place for anyone to understand,” agreed Vassvik of Norway. “Music is what comes out when we don’t have more words to express or explain things; it goes deeper,” he said.

Missionaries used to ban throat singing in Canada (‘kill the Indian in the child’); we preserve it now and teach it,” said Kathy and Karin Kettler of Nukariik. “We will continue to promote Sabah tradition, the music will not stop!” said Band Girls LKNS from Malaysia.

I sometimes wonder how much fossil fuel we burn when we travel around the world playing at festivals!” joked guitarist Derek Gripper of South Africa, commenting on the environmental impact of travel.

Musicians have to first remind us of what it means to be human, find commonalities and celebrate diversity,” he said. “Even if music can’t ‘achieve’ anything, we can have fun!” he quipped.

For endangered cultures, even the act of performance is a statement, according to Naygayiw Gigi, the dance troupe from Queensland, Australia, who promote the clan cultures from the Torres Strait region.

The Rainforest World Music Festival has helped preserve and promote local culture also,” said Jun Lin, Artistic Director, RWMF. It has instilled pride in Sarawak instruments like sape and built connections to promote them overseas as well. Given the international turmoil, the festival has also increased awareness and empathy about refugees, eg. by inviting the band Broukar whose members are Syrian refugees.

Careers

An interesting and humorous discussion revolved around what the artists were doing before they embarked on their musical careers, and what part-time jobs some of them have to fund their musical interests.

I used to be a management consultant and wasn’t happy! I decided I had to get out of the rat race and do what I could do for my culture and what I was happy doing,” said Alena Murang of Sarawak.

I was a pharmacist – it was nice to help people but the magic was in music!” said kanun player Taoufik Mirkhan of Broukar from Syria. “I have a pharmacist certificate and hung it up on the wall to please my mother – now I go out and play music! I also teach music, which is very important for the next generation,” he added.

I have a day job in product engineering, but folk music is my love,” said lead member Mikus Čavarts of Auli from Latvia. “In some day jobs also you don’t make much money – so just do what you love and play music!” he advised.

I studied to be a lawyer, and then gave my diploma to my mother. But it’s easy now for me to read my contracts!” joked Stelios Petrakis. “I also made instruments, I had two lives! Then I decided to make my life more crazy and do only music,” he added.

Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 3 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 3 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

Fusion without confusion

I also asked the bands how they are able to create fusion without confusion – or blend different elements and forms of music in their performances without losing coherence.

There always has been fusion and confusion in music, joked Derek Gripper. Over the years, traveling musicians have introduced new elements into traditional music, eg. jugalbandi from India in some of the kora music of Africa.

There are different types of fusion, based on form, instrument and performance. “We play traditional music on contemporary instruments as well,” said Band Girls LKNS from Malaysia.

We have collaborated with hip-hop artists and even rock stars,” said Temesgen Zelekeis from the Ethiopian band Krar Collective. “We do club gigs as well, not just traditional sets. Modern interpretation is not a restriction based on elements of culture,” he said.

Our group has brought in outside influences from disco, jazz and so on over the decades; this also helps reach larger audiences,” said Pat Thomas from Ghana.

Technology continues to accelerate the interaction between different types of music. “There has been a massive change in the music of the world over the last 100 years. Flows between music around the world have always been there – it’s much faster now,” said Derek Gripper.

Musicians need to keep diversity alive without becoming homogeneous,” he cautioned. For example, some kora players are tuning their instruments to the piano – that could lead to the loss of the kora’s individuality.

Festivals like RWMF are also important because musicians from one country can play with those of other countries thanks to the collaborative workshop format and media discussions. Unfortunately, many emerging economies do not have as many festivals with as much international exposure and mixing as in the case of Western festivals.

Some musicians expressed concern about youth in their countries being more influenced by rock, hip-hop and EDM than local traditions. “Every new generation wants new music also, take it like it is,” advised Pat Thomas.

This year I will focus on preserving our old traditions with young musicians,” said Mathew Ngau of Sarawak. Some old taboos are now being tackled as well; it used to be a taboo for women to play the sape, but now girls are playing it.

There were taboos on women playing didgeridoo also, but that should not be the case anymore,” added Dya Singh.

Traditional instruments and dances

The artists also described some of the traditional instruments they brought along – and even made themselves, in some cases. Matthew Ngau said he makes his own sape, and has developed knowledge of local wood types, some of which are rare now because of deforestation. String materials like creepers are sometimes substituted with steel. Stelios Petrakis from Crete also makes the instruments for his band.

We have modified some traditional instruments to make them easier for stage performances and travel,” said members of the group Shanren from China.

The krar is over a thousand years old as an instrument, and we have also modified it in electric style now,” said Temesgen Zelekeis of the Krar Collective.

Haitian band Chouk Bwa Libète uses drums from Benin and Congo. Other traditional instruments featured were the Sabah gong, thappu frame drum from India, Vietnamese dan bau monochord and trung bamboo xylophone, Middle Eastern kanun, and Bulgarian gaduka (three-string violin).

We brought along our throats!” joked the throat singers of Nukariik, a sentiment strongly echoed by Cuban a cappella band Vocal Sampling!

Respect the instrument and the craftsman,” said Dya Singh, strongly disapproving of breaking of instruments by some rock bands. “My flutist sleeps with his flutes if his wife is not around! My tabla player uses his blanket to keep the tabla warm on cold nights, rather than for himself. Smashing musical instruments is sacrilege. My father once slapped me in public because I stepped over an instrument,” he explained.

Traditional dances were also featured in some of the performances, such as joget (Malaysia) and dervish (Syria); the dancers of (Aus) wore dazzling costumes as well. Everyone asks our Dervish Dancer how he does not get dizzy even after 15 minutes of twirling!” joked Broukar.

The Mongolian throat-singing also surprises many new audiences, as well as the unusual combinations of three nationalities in the group Violons Barbares (Mongolia, Bulgaria, and France).

I interpret the ‘classical’ music of Africa, such as the kora stars,” said South African guitarist Derek Gripper, who has released a series of award-winning albums.

We are losing our culture rapidly, it is important to pass on our language, music and dance,” said Naygayiw Gigi. “Australia has two indigenous peoples: near the centre and near the coast. We need to explain this to Australians as well!” they joked.

Pat Thomas blends traditional instruments like the cowbell along with the trumpet in their highlife music. “We turn emotions around – ‘happy’ music about sadness, ‘sad’ music about happiness!” he joked.

Irish traditional folk music plays a huge part in our lives, particularly in rural areas. Freedom, fun and entertainment have been a part of our music – and recently in bars and pubs too,” said fiddler ace Oisín Mac Diarmada of Irish band Teada.

The meaning of success

I asked the bands how they defined ‘success’ for themselves as musicians, eg. in terms of more albums, concerts, money, or pursuit of an inner journey.

Success is keeping our music group together over many years, while also evolving and collaborating with others,” said Oisín Mac Diarmada Teada; their band has been together for 15 years.

Success is to keep playing!” said Abhisheg M. of Unique Arts Academy of Malaysia. Many musicians start playing at very young ages, when they may not have clear definitions of what success could be. “Music is for my inner peace; success is remaining happy, that is good enough,” Abhisheg added.

Fame and recognition are important for us because it inspires our next generation. It is success if our children appreciate our culture and dance – not just hip-hop,” said members of Naygayiw Gigi.

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“Create more positive music” – Interview With Soukous Master Siama Matuzungidi

Siama Matuzungidi
Siama Matuzungidi

Siama Matuzungidi was deeply influenced by the soukous music of rural DR Congo (then known as Zaire) during his youth. He grew up in the Bakongo region, immersed in local traditions of music, storytelling and dance. He taught himself to play guitar at age 12, and later joined the band Cavacha in Kinshasa. He then moved on to Uganda and onward to Kenya; his later homes were in Dubai and Japan, and he is now based in Minneapolis.

Siama would go on to play with a range of soukous greats: Tshala Muana, Sam Mangwana, Kanda Bongoman, Samba Mapangala, Moreno, Lovy Longomba and more). In 2014, he received a McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians, and launched a solo career. His album ‘Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi’ was released in May 2016. Siama joins us in this interview on his extraordinary musical journey, influences and collaborations.

Q: From DRC to Minnesota – that has been a long and winding journey! What has inspired you, and what have been the challenges?

A: Music makes me feel good and I feel like I’m gifted to make people happy when they hear my music. But when I compose a new song it’s hard to know when it’s ready to let people hear it!

Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?

A: I first taught myself guitar by playing along with big soukous artists like Franco and Tabu Ley on the radio. While I was living in Kenya in the 1980s, George Benson became a big influence and still is. I was so honored he came to our gig while I was living in Japan (with Ibeba System band) and he sat in with the band. Joe Pass made me love guitar more too.

Nirmala and Siama recording an album in 2015
Nirmala and Siama recording an album in 2015

Q: Who are some of the musicians you collaborate with the most, and how did these relationships get formed?

A: I really enjoy collaborating with musicians who play different styles because it makes me think in a different way. It’s a good challenge. One of my favorite collaborators is Nirmala Rajasekar, a veena virtuoso from South India. Her style of playing and singing is so different from mine but fits with my style so well, and she likes to experiment like I do. We first played together when Steve Kaul invited me to share a night at a world music venue. We composed a song on the stage and it felt like magic.

I play a lot with Mikkel Beckmen too. We met during the show with Nirmala. Mikkel plays washboard and other American traditional instruments which fit really well when I play my music on acoustic guitar. We wanted to perform at folk venues so he came up with the name, “Siama’s Afrobilly” for our trio (with Dallas Johnson) because the name describes the bridge between American and Congolese traditional music.

Dallas Johnson is a singer who co-produced my new record and introduced me to many of the musicians who played on it. Dallas and I met in 1995 when we both had just moved to Minneapolis and were in the same band. She has two original jazz CDs available online and now we write songs and perform together. She helped me start my solo career in 2014 and quit her job last summer to work with me full time. We got married in October and we get to do a lot of fun music projects together.

Siama Matuzungidi's-Afrobilly Blue in 2016 at Como Conservatory - Photo by Tom Smith
Siama Matuzungidi’s-Afrobilly Blue in 2016 at Como Conservatory – Photo by Tom Smith

Q: Who are some of the musicians you have collaborated with for your new album?

A: My new record features collaborations with many musicians who play different styles. The core band (Greg Schutte, Tony Axtell and Brian Ziemniak) plays jazz and jazz-funk and the record also features pedal steel player Joe Savage, gospel singer J.D. Steele, cellist Jacqueline Ultan, world percussionist Tim O’Keefe, versatile guitarists Zacc Harris and Steve Kaul, trumpeter Bobby Jay Marks, jazz singer Dallas Johnson, veena virtuoso and singer Nirmala Rajasekar from South Indian Carnatic traditions, and Tibetan master multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Ngawang.

I could have invited a hundred more because there are so many musicians I love playing with. It makes me want to live a long time so I can try everything.

Q: What are some of the challenges in interpreting traditional folk music with modern instruments and style?

A: Traditional music from home was played with thumb piano, likembe and rhythm instruments. When I play traditional style songs with electric instruments the main thing that has to be right is the rhythm and the challenge is to play guitar chords that give a sense of the way traditional instruments sound.

I play around with the notes and picking a lot until it reminds me of home. Growing up, we called traditional music, “old people music” but the more I learn other styles and the more I travel the more I appreciate how much traditional music from DR Congo has influenced music all over the world.

Q: How are you able to do ‘fusion’ of different styles and instruments without ‘confusion?

A: The most important thing is picking musicians who are really talented and open minded. It takes courage and experience and each musician has to really listen and give each other room and be open to the moment.

In the studio, I told the musicians to be free and have fun and find themselves in my music. I didn’t want them to play what they thought I wanted to hear. We recorded all 12 songs in two afternoons. They’d learn the progression of a song, play it through once or twice and we’d record. Almost all of the songs were only second take. Back in Africa we’d record an album in one day, live to two-track. I wanted this record to feel live like that and we didn’t do much overdubbing so there’s more feeling in it.

I give our engineer and co-producer Steve Kaul a lot of credit because with so many really great tracks it was a big challenge to mix the record in a way that featured guest collaborators but kept the songs simple and open. When listening to one of the songs before mixing began, one of the musicians said, “You’re gonna have a job mixing that bowl of noodles!”. Steve was a master at that and he had such great ideas for the songs and the mixes. I owe him a lot.

Siama Matuzungidi
Siama Matuzungidi

Q: How long were you working on the album Rivers?

A: We recorded the main tracks in November, added special guests and vocals in January and March and did most of the mixing in April – so six months on and off. We’d do a few days, then take a break, do more, take a break. We did it that way because I wanted it to feel natural and not forced.

Q: What is your next album about?

A: [laughing] I don’t know yet. I’m busy promoting this one now. The feeling will come when it’s ready. Actually, Dallas Johnson and I have started writing some kids’ songs so that will be my next project, maybe during the winter. We love playing music with kids.

Q: The tracks Jungle Zombie, Sisilli, and Maisha Mazuri are fabulous ­ please tell us how you composed them!

A: The 6/8 rhythm in Jungle Zombie is used in almost every traditional song back home. I was playing around with some chords on my guitar and imagining hearing that beat and the sound reminded me of people waking up in the morning and walking through the bush to get food at the farm. That’s why I wrote it in my mother’s language Kikongo when I sing, “Bring me water. bring me food.”

Sisili was the second song I composed in my life. I wrote it for my girlfriend Sisili, just as a love song for her. The melody came first and the words and chord progression came in a natural way. In the studio, Moni Mambo asked if any musicians had a new song so I played Sisili. He loved it and it became a big hit. The bad thing was Sisili’s dad didn’t want her dating a musician so he took her out of town and we never saw each other again.

Our sweet friend Krista moved in with us while she was very sick. I would sit quietly with her and play guitar to help her relax and the chords to Maisha Mazuri came to me during that time. She loved it and always asked me to play it for her. Even though she was facing so much pain she would invite her mom and her friends to hang out with her, meditate with her, make her healthy food and make her laugh. It was so inspiring to see how much she loved life so I wrote the lyrics for her. (“Beautiful life. Drink it up. No one knows about tomorrow but today is for us to live.”)

Q: How would you describe your musical journey?

A: It’s been fun! I’ve met so many people I wouldn’t have met if I wasn’t a musician. I would’ve been stuck in an office and I wouldn’t know why I was so bored and not happy. Music is so fun and inspiring. It makes people get along and enjoy life so much. Music is a great way to make friends with good people.

Q: Where do you see yourself headed in the next 10-15 years?

A: I want to be somewhere by the sea, relaxing without worries and of course I want to play music forever. Most of my life I played music every day but never made much money. I started my solo career in 2014 and things have been going great. I’m hoping this can keep growing so I can travel and collaborate with musicians and make friends around the world.

Q: Which are your favorite musical festivals, and what makes them so special?

A: I love the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the American Folk Festival because the musicians are so talented and you can hear so many styles so it’s inspiring. There are so many great music festivals here in MN during the summer. I’m really looking forward to the Lowertown Guitar Festival in August.

Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?

A: Sometimes people come to me in tears saying my music is a healing cure for their soul.

Q: Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?

A: Yes, I teach songwriting, guitar and rhythm. I’d like to do more of this because I love helping people learn. They say I make it fun and inviting.

Q: What have been some of your collaborations with musicians from Asia?

A: I already described playing with Nirmala. I also love playing with my Tibetan friend Tenzin Ngawang. He is a master musician and singer who’s so creative and has such a big heart too. He seems shy but then he opens his mouth to sing and he surprises people with his big sound. He plays a dranyen (Tibetan lute) so it’s fun to play with another stringed instrument and fun to compose together because he brings different ideas I wouldn’t think of.

Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums?

A: My music is mostly a message about love and happiness, not politics. Everybody has a different purpose. Mine is to share love and make people happy.

Q: What is your message to the musicians and artistes of the world in this age of globalisation and also conflict?

A: Let’s create more positive music so negativity doesn’t make us forget the good things in life. Art and music are very important.

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