Nikhil Patwardhan has released six albums of Indian classical music – and is also an electrical engineer. He shares his unusual story in this interview, covering his musical journey, inner spiritual calling, and message to the audience.
Nikhil has played across India and overseas, in the US, UK, Dubai, Japan, Kenya and Zambia. Born to Shri Kumar Shrimangalmurti Patwardhan and Srimathi Madhura Kumar Patwardhan, Nikhil started his musical journey at the tender age of four. His grandmother, Srimathi Sarojinidevi Patwardhan and his grandfather, Shri Shrimangalmurti Patwardhan were also deeply into Hindustani classical music.
Nikhil’s projects include the musical trio, ‘When Wood Sings,’ based on instruments such as sitar, flute and tabla. I caught two recent performances in Bangalore by Nikhil, along with tabla players Partho Banerjee (at Lahe Lahe) and Shailesh Shenoy (at Jus’ Trufs).
Tell us about your musical background, and how your family influenced your choice of music as a career.
Although sitar and Indian classical music have been in my family for three generations, I really took to the sitar after hearing a concert recording of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. To this day, my grandmother Mrs. Sarojinidevi Patwardhan, my parents and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee remain as the leading influences in my musical career. Inspiration is everywhere: even a bird singing in the morning can provide great music fuel to the soul.
I have a master’s in electrical engineering from Clemson University in the US and have worked for 12 years in semiconductors. I have been playing sitar and Indian classical music for over 30 years now.
At the age of eight, I gave my first public performance at Balgandharva, Pune. I became a Balodyaan AIR artiste at the age of nine. At the age of twelve, I won the prestigious Centre for Cultural Resources and Training scholarship from the government of India.
At the age of fifteen, I started receiving training from Pandit Parthapratim Chatterjee, who is an exponent of the Maihar Gharana from Kolkata and a disciple of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib.
I am balancing both worlds, the world of a techie and the world of a musician!
How does your composition process work – individually, or along with other musicians? Do you also compose while on the road?
It works through both ways – primarily through individual creation and then a lot of continuous listening and collaboration with other great musicians.
I very much compose on the road as well. In my day job, I have to drive for a couple of hours every day – so my car always turns into a music studio where I listen to and also record some compositions I think of.
Currently I am not into music full-time and doing both a day job and music. I feel that the day job and music complement each other extremely well.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
Like yoga, our music is intense, complete and with a lot of depth, as it has evolved through so many thousands of years. So it becomes difficult for the general public to understand and extract the goodness that this music has to offer. Hence, the challenge I face is to get more people interested in our oldest form of Indian classical music. However, over the years I am seeing a very positive comeback of people, especially the younger generation, wanting more of this pure and divine music.
What have been some audience reactions you get at your performances?
I feel I am really blessed to have some amazing and appreciative audiences across India and all over the globe. My biggest highlights have been when people from the audience have come up to me after the concert in tears, and told me that the music really went to their hearts and they did not want me to stop playing.
Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?
Yes, I have several students. I have taught workshops both overseas and in India. I make it a point to give a short lecture demonstration before every concert so people can understand what they should listen to in this music.
How has the music industry changed over the years in terms of tech trends, and how has it affected you?
The virtual and real worlds have been swapped. We all live in the virtual world and the real world is only to meet our physical needs. I think this is an incredible evolution as this allows someone sitting with an online connection in the remotest corner of the world to listen to Indian classical music. Sound technology has also helped immensely in bringing out the finest and subtlest of the sounds of the sitar.
How would you describe your musical journey so far?
It has been a fantastic journey so far and every second of it has taught me to respect my music and reap the joy out of it. Juggling between two lives (techie and musician) definitely is very difficult to manage but music to me is the very oasis that powers my life. I think a music-centric life is very rich, and it not only gives happiness to you but also brings so many people together.
I think my albums show the degree of growth and maturity in my music over the years. I have slowly learned how to explore the depth of a raaga and the rhythm and not only the breadth. I think learning is a continuous process and all you have to see is if you as a whole are growing with respect to your own past.
Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
I see myself as a performer and a teacher in the next 15 years or so. In today’s life where everything is supposed to happen in the blink of an eye, Indian classical music can always bring peace and harmony to our mind and bodies and slow us down. One of my dream projects is to work on a music therapy album which I would consider my ‘magnum opus.’
What are your thoughts on the rise of ‘fusion’ music, and how to bring about ‘fusion without confusion?’
I think it is a great idea to blend different genres so that people who like both genres can enjoy both aspects of the music. Fusion is an excellent way to bring the musically uninitiated to start liking music.
However, it should not sound like ‘con’-fusion. A good musician always knows when and where to put the right notes in the listener’s ear, just like a good cook knows how to put the right ingredients in the right dish. However, I think if one stays true to oneself, only then will the real colour of his or her music come out, so trying to imitate without understanding the depth of the music will lead to a dilution of both genres of music.
What is your vision of what music can bring to our troubled world?
My vision is to use this music to bring peace all over the globe just as the yoga movement is trying to bring good health to all. All this turmoil for power is totally unnecessary and music can definitely pave the way to a peaceful, happy world.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians out there?
Stay true to yourself. If you like rock, play and perform rock, if you like jazz, play and perform jazz. Feel each note, feel each vibration. Each one of us has a beautiful and unique way of expressing ourselves, if it comes straight from the heart. I also advise aspiring musicians to get a good education that will give a means of livelihood and also do music. This will prevent them from compromising with their music and stay true to their music.
As a Chinese proverb goes, ‘If you have two coins, with one coin buy food to eat and with the other coin buy a rose.’ The food will give you life and the rose will give you a purpose to live that life.
Seattle-based Kenyan Afro-folk vocalist and songwriter Naomi Wachira has a new album titled Song of Lament. We talked to her about her songs and the new recording.
Your new album is titled Song of Lament. What’s the meaning behind the title?
“Song of Lament” was written at a time when I was sensing so much fear around me, especially because terrorism has been on the rise and also because of the refugee crisis. I was also in a hopeless place personally, so I was lamenting a lot. The album is compilation of songs that mourn some of the harsher realities of life, but also looks forward to what can bring a difference, which I believe to be empathy, kindness and living from a place of recognizing our shared humanity.
As an Afro-Folk songwriter, what topics are you more interested in or concerned about? I’m mostly interested in writing music that empowers and inspires all of us. As an artist, I get to write words that will influence other people, and that is something I take seriously because I desire that what I write has a positive impact on the listeners. Whether writing about romantic love, or lessons I’ve learned from my mistakes, or what I hope for the human race, the overarching theme will always be love and hope.
Tell us about the musicians who participated in Song of Lament.
What I love about Seattle is that the music community is very close knit and I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best. Teo Shantz (drums) is a good friend of mine and has been playing with me since 2014. Masa Kobayashi (bass) started playing with me in 2015 and plays for quite a few other bands, one of them being Clinton Fearon. Andrew Joslyn on strings and Owour Arunga on trumpet are friends I’ve known for the last 5 years and both play for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis among a long list of other bands they contribute their talents to. The only two I didn’t know prior to the record are Dave West (Organ) and Tommy Sandovallegos (percussion) who were brought on by my producer.
Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
I’ve always looked up to Tracy Chapman and Miriam Makeba both from the longevity of their careers, but also the content of their work and the fact that they wrote about issues affecting society.
Does the traditional Kenyan music have any influence in your music?
I don’t think that traditional music per se has had a lot of influence in my style, because I grew up listen to all genres of music, which I think comes through in how I write.
Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
My first record was an EP “African Girl” which I released in 2012. I worked with a friend of mine and we recorded in a tiny bedroom and a warehouse. I feel like from the beginning of my career I’ve always known that I wanted my music to be simple, with an emphasis on the lyrics being more prominent than instruments. I’ve always favored sparse production on songs, because again, I want people to hear the words.
The greatest evolution has been to trust my own vision of what my album should sound like. It has been about believing that what I hear is valid and I don’t need to seek approval from someone on how the album should sound. Song of Lament is an album I’m so incredibly proud of not only because of the content, but because I got to have every song exactly as I wanted it to be and I’m grateful to have worked with a producer who trusted that vision.
What musical instruments do you use in your arrangements?
I’m very simple and often play solo with an acoustic guitar. On the record, for the pretty basic songs, I had a drummer and bass player accompany me with some additional percussion. But I also tried different things, such as strings and horns, which I hadn’t done before.
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with who would that be?
I recently got to see Mokoomba from Zimbabwe and loved them so much that I hope to someday collaborate with them.
What music are you currently listening to?
With my daughter around, all she wants to hear is pop music, so currently we’re listening to Top 40 – especially because we’re on the road a lot.
Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?
Because Song of Lament just came out, that will be my focus for now.
New York city-based band Forró in the Dark has a new album titled, Sandcastle (Nacional Records), its first release in 8 years. The band was formed in 2002 features Brazilian musicians based in the United States. Forró in the Dark members include Mauro Refosco on zabumba, percussion; Guilherme Monteiro on guitar; and Jorge Continentino on pífanos, flutes, and saxophones.
Forró in the Dark’s music is characterized by the forró rhythm of Brazil that is combined with rock, jazz, country and other genres. Earlier recordings include Bonfires of Sao Joao (2006), Light A Candle (2009) and Plays Zorn (Tzadik, 2015).
We talked to guitarist Guilherme Monteiro about Sandcastle.
This is your first album in 8 years, how has the band evolved musically during this time?
Well, we’ve done a lot of touring after the release of “Light a Candle”, so we had the opportunity of developing that music in big stages around the world, which is pretty different from the process we had before of testing out our new material at Nublu, which is a small club we used to play in New York. Also, we grew a lot individually, playing in different musical situations as side man or with our own projects, so when we get together to play with Forró In The Dark these days it has less of a testosterone driven energy and a much more musical vibe. We play with more dynamics and nuances than we used to.
Are there lineup changes?
Yes, Davi, who was a percussionist in the band, left the band a few years ago, so that was important for us to forge the sound of the new record. Me, Mauro and Jorge have a more similar sense of aesthetics and way of approaching the music.
What languages are you using in your new album Sandcastle?
Portuguese and English.
Eight years is a long time in-between albums. What have you been up to during this time?
We toured quite a lot in Europe and the States. Played some important festivals, like Bonnaroo, did extensive tours with Gogol Bordello. At some point we all had individual projects going for each individual member. Mauro was out playing with David Byrne, Atoms for Peace and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers; Jorge with Bebel Gilberto; and I’ve been touring with Gal Costa, who is a 72 year old singer, a sort of a living legend in Brazil.
Forró is still not a well-known genre outside Brazil. Are you making any inroads in the American market?
We think of ourselves of a band that honors the Forró genre but we don’t feel obliged to make inroads for it. We are primarily a band that makes music for people to dance, feel and think. Forró is a means to achieve that but we don’t consider ourselves “ambassadors” of the genre.
Aurelio Martinez takes up space in the room even when he is seated. He speaks without hesitation and with big clear gestures. I had wanted to speak with him ever since catching an ecstatic live performance at the Global Beat Festival in New York a couple of years ago. By the end of that concert everyone was on their feet.
Aurelio is a guitarist, percussionist, composer and singer. Darandi is his fourth album (released on Real World Records in February 2017). It represents the best of his thirty years in music. This album captures the live sound of his performance. The musicians were all recorded in one room. So, its lively and real, rather than the precise, overdubbed sound of his previous albums.
To understand Aurelio’s music, you need to know his background. He grew up and spent his childhood in Plaplaya, Honduras, surrounded by Garifuna music. Indeed, he is one of the Garifuna peoples’ strongest Ambassadors. Garifuna music is closer to West African music than to rock; it’s closer to folk than New Orleans jazz. Sometimes, it’s as melancholy as the blues, but always it owes more to Africa than to Europe.
Much of the music has a percussive undercurrent that both grounds it and helps to propel the music forward. The segunda is a bass drum that is at the core of much Garifuna music. Aurelio has a very evocative voice, even if as a listener you cannot understand his vocal, you feel there is true heart in what he is singing
He is a master of Paranda music, a sub-genre within Garifuna music, that is blues-like in feel, and its lyrics, like the blues, often convey a lively commentary on society.
The Garifuna people are the descendants of African slaves who were first bought to St. Vincent in the West Indies and the Arawak Indians. While in St. Vincent, they fought the English colonizers, who killed many of them, the ones who survived were taken to Punta Gorda, Belize. I spoke to him recently about his music, his childhood, and the Garifuna. His conversation is as upbeat as his music.
DJL: Can you tell me about your childhood?
AM: Yes, my mother was a singer and composer of Garifuna music. She represents fifty to a hundred percent of my music, even now when I compose. She is my best mentor. My father was a guitarist. My grandfather too was a musician with the local community band. My music school was my family.
DJL: How did you come to play guitar?
AM: I made my first guitar out of fish line and pieces of wood. (He chuckles.) You know how you come to find toys sometimes. I was about six years old. I first wanted to play the saxophone, because my uncle was a saxophonist. But when I was 15 years old, my Dad, who had moved to America, sent me my first professional guitar.
DJL: The biography on your website describes you as a singer, guitarist and percussionist, but one aspect that is sadly missing, is your incredible dancing. You can get everyone in the audience on their feet, even coming up on the stage to take turns dancing. Sparks fly during a performance. Can you talk to me about your dancing?
AM: Yes, you know when I hear drums, it is impossible for me not to dance. I used to hold onto my grandmother’s skirt as she danced at parties. And you know the dancing is sensual, I was watching all of that as a young boy. I was taking it all in. In Garifuna culture, we have celebrations where both the young and old come together. When I was little – seven or eight – drumming was my special weapon.
I would say to the adults, ‘if you are not inviting me to the party, I am not playing drums.’ I used the fact that I could play percussion to negotiate invitations to come to parties.
DJL: What would you like to say about Garifuna culture to someone who knows nothing about it?
AM: On April 12th this year, we will have our annual celebration that marks 286 years of our living in Central America. Garifuna people are extended into four places: Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. We have a huge Garifuna population in the United States, half a million people. We have food, language, spirituality and music that are all unique to us.
DJL: Are you fighting to preserve this culture?
AM: Yes, of course, the government in Honduras is a threat. They want to convert our community to a tourist place by building hotels on our land. Previously, the Christians said we were diabolical. We have been forbidden to speak our language. We face discrimination and oppression. Yet, we are keeping this culture alive. My band takes our pride around the world, we convey to people a culture that is both powerful and rich. The soul of Garifuna is about bringing people together, in peace and harmony. I am a spirit, the music comes through me. I want to be true in my music. I sing what I feel.
DJL: You met Andy Palacio, who was a known Garifuna musician and a leading activist, who fought hard for the people, before dying at aged 47. Can you describe him?
AM: Yes, we met in Honduras. He was a brother. It was a friendship. We agreed on many things about the Garifuna people, we saw eye to eye, and he loved his culture. We worked on music together. When I first stepped on the beach in Senegal, West Africa, after he died, I was moved. I knew that Andy would have been there with me in Senegal, if he were still alive. His spirit was with me that day on the beach.
DJL: This album Darandi represents your whole career, why now?
AM: It is about closing one part of my musical life, and a renewal, moving into more powerful music. I want to work with other, different musicians, who play jazz or Afropop. I want to open the music up.
DJL: Yalifu is a powerful track on this album. Yalifu is a song of longing. Can you talk about it?
AM: Yalifu means pelican, and in the song I ask, “pelican, lend me your wings so that I can fly.” This is a love song about wanting to fly to my father, who at that time was far from me in America. It was written as I was remembering being young in Honduras and missing my father. The song also speaks to bigger issues of immigration, borders, loss, and longing, how people should have the chance to move freely around the world.
DJL: Landini is also another evocative track.
AM: Yes, it is a song about my reconnecting to my home town, Plaplaya. When I sing that song, the image of my home town appears in my mind: the river, the birds, the boats coming in.
DJL: And finally, what is your hope for the Garifuna people?
AM: Do you know that in 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the language, music, and dance of Garifuna as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity? We love to live in community, not to fight. A grandfather is a grandfather to our whole community. Come to the Garifuna nation to see. I welcome you. I know that we will continue as a spiritual people with our music of love, our culture of love.
To read more about Aurelio and his discography, read his Artist Profile.
For about 4 years Alyona Minulina has been known as Alyona FolkBeat – a beautiful folk singer and beatbox musician from a rising star group FolkBeat. In February 2017 Russian label FireStorm production released their new album “I’m marching on my own” that was recorded and produced by Alyona but at the same time their fans were shocked by news about her leaving the project. Alyona tells us what happened and what’s next.
Q:How did the group FolkBeat get started?
Alyona Minulina: FolkBeat grew up from a student’s ensemble. It was called differently and consisted of a large number of participants. Later I began to study beatbox and electronic music, so I thought it was interesting to combine it with Russian folk songs. So FolkBeat has traditional Slavic polyphony, surrounded by electronic arrangement, which is close to the styles of EDM trap, dubstep, trance and crunk. The compositions are often performed with beatbox – imitation of drum machines and music effects using vocal apparatus and articulation organs.
Q: How would you describe your musical journey so far?
AM: When we started we made music for ourselves and gradually our music started to be interesting to other people. We didn’t think about genres, we were passionate about making music with each other, it was really awesome. When we went on stage the audience felt our special energy.
Q: Did you perform in Europe or only in Russia?
AM: In 2016 Folkbeat took part at EuroRadio Festival and had a concert in Viljandi (Estonia). Besides this we visited Madrid, Munich, Athens and Tallinn with festival of Russian cultural FeelRussia.
Q: As I know – you love collaborating with different music genres and bands: what are the features of Russian folk music that makes it possible for you to collaborate with other musicians?
AM: The most interesting thing for me is the fact that people connect with each other, share cultures, and different genres and traditions mix too. Now I have plans to record some songs together with the master of throat singing Alexei Chichakov from Mountain Altai. This will be the connection of his own Altai traditions and Slavic melodies.
In every collaboration I’m looking for special feeling when the spark runs between musicians (chemistry in our relationship), because then, every performance becomes memorable for listeners. This is the highlight for me. Of course with Folkbeat we often had this feeling. When the head is full with ideas – I always find the way to realize them. But sometimes I get tired and I need to allow some rest for myself. This is the most difficult thing for me.
Q: What music instruments do you use?
AM: Different electronic things (loop station, keyboards), sometimes folk wind instruments like kugikly and kaliuk, khomus.
Q: What can you tell us about the contemporary Russian folk scene?
AM: Despite the fact that the Russian folk scene is a real “folk star” and a budding young musicians, it hasn’t been formed yet. We do not have enough support and solidarity between each other. Although we have more opportunities for advancement than 10 years ago.
Q: How are your albums being received by audiences?
AM: Our first album «Joyful meeting» became favorite Russian-folk album on EBU Folk Festival in 2016. In Russia it was in the top twenty music albums of 2016. This year we released the album «Sama idu» (I’m marching on my own). We collaborated with different electronic musicians and DJs, so it can be classified as pop-folk.
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
AM: My teachers, who always said something like this: pull yourself and work, work hard, if you really love it.
Q: So what happened to FolkBeat?
AM: With Folkbeat we are friends, but we do not work together anymore. If the world gives us a chance to sing together again, I will take this chance.
Now I work on original songs album with the texts of famous Russian poets from XX century. And together with Jewish, Armenian, Russian musicians and composer from Canada, Ivan Popov, we have created a world music project “Under The Same Sky” which intertwined tunes and melodies of different national cultures. In March we will have a concert of Slavic-Jewish music.
Q: Are Russian audiences, venues, labels and artists open to collaboration?
AM: It depends on various factors, but if you play interesting music, you can always find a way.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today?
AM: I see myself chewing pasta in my favorite little pizzeria in Italy, resting in a cozy wooden house on the Solovetsky Islands in Russia, and playing my set at the Burning Man.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
AM: I opened vocal beatbox and body percussion workshops named “Pulse” in Moscow recently and it’s getting popular. I have a lot of new ideas and projects in my head and I hope my music experience with FolkBeat will help me to create something really unique and internationally interesting.
Ronnie Malley is a multi-instrumentalist musician, theatrical performer, producer, and educator. He collaborates with the music groups Allos Musica, Duzan Ensemble, Lamajamal, and Surabhi, and is a faculty member at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. He performed recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in India with George Lawler (percussion), Subrata Bhattacharya (tabla) and Abhisek Lahiri (sarod). See my writeup on the JLF music showcase here.
His recent credits include author and composer of the original play Ziryab, The Songbird of Andalusia (Silk Road Rising World Premiere), author and composer of the story The Oud, Ziryab, and Andalusia: An Enchanting Tale of Music (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Cultural Center). He has produced the albums Auraad Fathiya, Saazuk Safar, Tsikago, and Gypsy Surf.
Ronnie conducts Arabic language artist residencies for Chicago Public Schools through Intercultural Music Production and is a teaching artist for music and theater with Global Voices Initiative. He joins us in this wide-ranging interview on his musical journey, the role of music in cultural identity, and his message for a better world.
Q: How did the lineup for East Meets Middle East get formed? How did the musicians know each other?
RM: East Meets Middle East (EMME) formed in early 2016 as a collaboration between two Chicago musicians; George Lawler and myself, who had been playing together for over 10 years, and two seasoned classical Indian musicians from Calcutta; Subrata Bhattacharya and Abhisek Lahiri, who were both on tour and visiting Chicago. We were introduced by a mutual musician friend.
EMME’s concept arose from a conversation between Subrata and myself about a hate crime on a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, which we thought displayed the ignorance that exists about different faiths and cultures from the Middle East and India, not only in America, but elsewhere. We thought about making a project that would emphasize the uniqueness of these rich, yet distinct, cultures and serve as a contrast to many ‘East Meets West’ albums that often lump South Asian and Middle Eastern music into one broad category.
Q: How was your overall experience touring through India this month?
RM: Touring India this month was an exhilarating experience! I’d say one major highlight was being able to see three distinct cities: Kolkata, Jaipur and Delhi. In Kolkata, George and I were able to get a closer look at one of India’s cultural capitals and learn more about its folk music (e.g., Jhoomur and Tusu) as well as one of my favorite literary icons Rabindranath Tagore.
In Jaipur, the world just came together through music and literature. I especially enjoyed reconnecting with friends such as Nathu Lal Solanki (nagarra player from Rajasthan) and Homayun Sakhi (Afghan rubab player in Aga Khan All Stars). Delhi was also amazing because George and I got to perform with friends Raghu and Sudha Raghuraman, masters of Carnatic music, and also meet folks from Amarrass Records, Desmania Design, and One World College of Music.
Q: How is your album ‘East Meets Middle East’ being received by the audiences and media?
RM: Folks at the JLF were very supportive. We’re a little new as a group and still building our audience and media coverage, but social media and streaming site comments have also shown appreciation for what we’re trying to do. Some have expressed that it’s refreshing to get a more in-depth look at these cultures through music. Others enjoy the instruments and how they complement each other.
The sarod and tabla are Indian counterparts to the Middle Eastern oud and darbuka (also called a tabla in the Mid East). Though, I’d say most comments have been about the improvisation. We have a structure for the compositions, but we also leave room to improvise – making each live performance a unique experience for us and the audience.
Q: The tracks Misty Trail and Distant Star really jump out! Can you describe how they were created?
RM: All of the tracks on the album are original compositions. Misty Trail is a composition by Subrata Bhattacharya and Distant Star is an original composition of mine. Initially, Subrata went to a studio in India with Abhisek Lahiri and recorded the composition as a guide track for us to learn, and eventually re-record in Chicago.
Distant Star came about as an improvisation while rehearsing with George in Chicago, which I later arranged. Ultimately, once we had a structure for the pieces, improvisation became the focus. Indeed the whole album was conceived like that. Basically, once Subrata and Abhisek arrived in Chicago, they came to George’s and my studio for rehearsals, which we ended up recording, and that became the album. It’s a live album of original compositions and improvisations, but really it’s a musical dialogue of our encounter.
Q: What other lineups and genres have you experimented with?
RM: I grew up playing everything from rock and blues guitar to Middle Eastern and North African folk and classical music. George and I also have had the group Lamajamal for about ten years, which explores music from the Balkans, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa. With that group, we include clarinet, bass, guitar, and various Turkish instruments. George also has a group called Byzantine Time Machine, which explores Balkan and Greek music through an electronic medium.
I also have another fusion group called Surabhi, which is a group that celebrates the connections of Indian, African, and Middle Eastern music to Spanish flamenco. The lineup for Surabhi consists of veena, oud, tabla, guitar, cajon, bass, and African percussion. Our groups are based in Chicago.
Both Abhisek and Subrata also have their own fusion projects in Calcutta as well as Europe and the US. Abhisek’s group is Ionah and Subrata’s projects are many, including Flat Earth Ensemble and Naad, to name a few. They’ve also collaborated with countless artists.
I think EMME is unique for all of us. The group explores the relationship between raga and maqam musical styles, but also delves into the improvisational components of those styles, as well as drawing on all of our collective influences in everything from Pink Floyd to Ali Akhbar Khan.
Q: How would you describe your musical journey so far, in terms of phases, genres, collaborations, inner discovery?
RM: For myself, music has been all I’ve ever really known. I went from performing in the family Mid-Eastern band at weddings as a child to playing rock and in punk marching bands to performing classical Turkish and Persian repertoire with the University of Chicago Middle East Music Ensemble to collaborating with world artists and creating groups like EMME.
I know Abhisek also began performing with his father, Pt. Alok Lahiri, at a young age. George, like myself, honed a lot of his background in world musics from Chicago’s diverse communities. It’s all really a continuous journey that unfolds new chapters with every project, encounter, or collaboration. It’s about trying to build experiences where music is a medium for social interactions and dialogue – not just for musicians, but also those with whom we interact.
Q: What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
RM: As a musician and composer, the great challenge is striking a balance between performing and writing in one’s career. As a performer, sufficient practice to hone one’s craft and deliver a great performance is essential, even when the repertoire is not new. One has to discover something new in what might appear mundane. As a composer, it is important to shift practice routines for performances and allow more time to think creatively for thoughts and inspiration to translate into more writing.
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
RM: The family band with my father and brother is probably my first leading influence in my musical career as we were able to perform as the house band in Chicago for many visiting artists from the Middle East.
Next, I would say the musicians with whom I performed like Tony Hanna from Lebanon, Magdi El Husseini from Egypt, and Najib Bahri and Mohammed Saleh from Tunisia. A lot of credit is also due to some of Chicago’s own older established musicians who migrated to the US, like Issa Boulos and James Stoynoff.
Q: How do you blend different musical influences and genres, i.e. how do you create fusion without confusion?
RM: It is about mutual respect. For example, it is one thing to say, “Oh, I love Indian or Middle Eastern food,” and another thing to have dinner with an Indian or Middle Eastern family. In the first case, it’s like choosing something as a matter of taste simply because it’s appealing and can offer some spice to your proverbial melody. Perhaps, it’s a start to gauge interest, but confusion on what’s authentic or appropriate can arise.
In the second case, a relationship is formed. One learns the customs, language, and perspective of a culture developing a bond with the people and their tradition. The latter approach is what I appreciate about creating cross-cultural collaborations in music.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
RM: With EMME, we’re trying to raise awareness that there are similarities and distinctions in the traditions we represent. Both Mid-Eastern and South Asian cultures have robust pluralistic societies consisting of many religions and philosophies that tend to be homogenized in the West, but also misunderstood in the East amongst the people themselves.
Our hope is that music can serve its part in an effort to bring humanity closer in dialogue and make us all more productive. While it is important to celebrate our differences, we should also get over them and realize we face similar issues that affect and should unite us all.
Q: What new album or video are you working on now?
RM: All the members of EMME have their own projects they tend to, but we are looking to begin recording a second album in Chicago around Spring and Summer of 2017.
Q: How is the creative scenario for traditional and fusion music today? Are audiences/venues/labels/artistes very open to such collaboration?
RM: It’s important not to ascribe the label ‘fusion’ to all cross-cultural collaborations. Indeed many traditional styles, such as Spanish flamenco, Indian raga, Mid Eastern maqam, and music from the Americas are organic blends of multiple styles that date back hundreds of years.
Overall, I think there’s an audience for anything one wants to focus on – and in turn, probably a record label or streaming service that’s tailored for or by that audience. There’s room for a lot styles from academic projects like Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road, to cross-genre projects like Junoon, or straight up hip-hop sung in Arabic or Punjabi by emerging artists where these languages are spoken. My hope is that people in general can transcend the labeling of a genre and rather open more to exploring and appreciating sound, whether it’s classical or contemporary, analog or digital.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘˜dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
RM: 10 to 15 years from today I plan on continuing to work in music production and performance as well as teaching and writing about it. The greater vision is to create more interdisciplinary art projects that allow others to perceive practice of art as a way of life and perceiving the world, not just as a commodity for consumption.
Q: Do you compose on the road also, while traveling?
RM: I always have a recorder and blank sheet music handy. Inspiration strikes when you least expect it sometimes. It could come from seeing something or someone in the street, while waiting for a train, or in a cab driving through the street of Calcutta or Chicago.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
RM: It really depends on the audience and where we’ve played. In my group Lamajamal, we had people come up to us crying saying how a piece of music brought back memories of their father or mother, or of being back in their country. That was the case once with an Armenian woman who was attending a performance at a cultural center.
We’ve also been asked to conduct workshops and lectures about the music and cultures we present. This was the case when Lamajamal presented a workshop on commonalities between Jewish, Turkish, and Middle Eastern Music at Georgetown University. My other group Surabhi has given similar performances and presentations about the commonalities of Indian, Arab, and Spanish music. These presentations are often meant with informative questions and new learning.
A different experience occurred when I was touring last year with a project called Caravanserai. The sponsors of the tour were showcasing arts and artists from the Muslim world to cities in America, where most people had never even met a Muslim, and were informed only by what they saw on TV. Zeshan Bagewadi, an Indian-American musician, and myself headlined the tour. Though we both had Muslim backgrounds, the music we presented was funk and rock n’ roll with elements of Sufi poetry and style.
In our first performance to some community members from the town, someone within earshot said, ‘So this is what terrorist music sounds like!’ That was definitely not a reaction I was expecting on the first day being in this town. After a week-long residency of workshops and community engagement there, we felt that our music and outreach was able to soften their hearts from the first reaction and open their minds by the time of the final performance at the end of the week.
Q: As a Palestinian, how important is culture to the people’s identity, and how do you see yourself contributing to this preservation?
RM: Culture is the image and representation of any people’s identity. Yet, I also think it’s important to make sure we identify with who we are – musician, artist, poet, athlete – more than where we come from. In other words, I’d rather be considered an artist who happens to be Palestinian, than always being viewed as a Palestinian artist.
My background is in Global Music Studies and I find that by knowing and passing along music from my culture or other cultures with which I engage (e.g., Indian, Turkish, Balkan, American) I can represent them better from an artistic perspective than a nationalist one. There are many Mid Eastern and South Asian artists who know their traditional cultures very well, but who also have experience in music from outside, yet existing within, their own cultures in genres like rock n’ roll, hip hop, jazz, and classical music. In that sense, they still represent who they are and also where they come from.
Artists like Junoon, Zubin Mehta, M.I.A, and the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM are all examples of artists from specific cultures who are also global representatives. In short, if I were to represent my ethnic heritage, I would say demonstrating how I am a global citizen would be one way.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
RM: All of the members of EMME are also teachers of their respective craft. George and I both work at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and also work as teaching artists conducting workshops and lectures in schools and universities. Abhisek and Subrata also have many private students and have given residency workshops at schools around the world including the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
Q: How has the music industry changed over the years, and how has it impacted you?
RM: I think acts have come to rely greatly on the do-it-yourself model with emphasis on income from live performance, self-publishing, and potential placement for licensing than record sales, which in today’s digital economy can be negligible for artists. The ability to reach a whole new audience has never been easier through the advent of social media and recording technology. As for other aspects, we learn to embrace and utilize tools responsibly, whether they be social media or instruments like electronic loops and mixers.
Q: What is your message to the aspiring musicians out there?
RM: The only way you’ll get to where you’re going is if you remain in the game. All measures of success are relative. One does not have to be a superstar to have a career in music, even though that, too, is a legitimate aspiration. I’ve found it to be more rewarding to contemplate what we can contribute to the world as artists and how the relationships we build along the way truly determine our success.
Q: What is your message to your audiences?
RM: Support live music and art. Practice an art, whatever it may be, if just for the sake of appreciating expression and what art means to humanity. In a world, caught up in technology, nothing will ever replace the need for face to face time whether one is a practitioner, student, or observer.
“Music is a fantastic communication medium” – French cross-cultural flutist-composer Jean-Luc Thomas
Based in Brittany, French flutist and composer Jean-Luc Thomas has traveled around the world for a series of musical collaborations. Celtic traditions blend in a creative mix with African, Arab and South American sounds in his albums. Spanning folk, classical music and jazz, Jean-Luc continues to cover a wide range of sounds and styles in his projects. His earlier albums include Ainara, Translations, The Dance of Fire, Parallel Horizon, Namou, Kej, Hastan, Dibenn, and History of Water, Tree and Stone.
I caught two performances of his fusion lineup promoting his most recent album, Magic Flutes, as part of an India tour. He performed with Indian musicians Ravichandra Kulur (flute), Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), and Muthu Kumar (tablas, cajon, djembe, darbuka). They played at Alliance Francaise and The B-Flat Bar in Bangalore. In this interview, Jean-Luc speaks on his collaboration of Celtic and Carnatic styles of music, his decades-long musical journey, and message to the world.
Q: How would you describe your musical journey so far, in terms of phases, genres, collaborations, inner discovery, and so on?
JL: I learned to play the flute alone, then I learned to play music thanks to others. I started with no teachers because flute, at that time, was very new in Brittany. So I had to find the basic technical things by myself. Then I met old singers of Breton traditional musics who gave me times and songs, then I went to Ireland to play during the sessions they have in pubs.
Here I learned many technical things and lots of tunes. I was a traditional musician for 15 years (quite successful), but I felt I had to listen to others sounds. So I went to Mali, Poland, Brazil, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Niger, and so on. I played each time with local musicians. I also started to meet jazz musicians, story-tellers, electronic musicians – and little by little I discovered new sounds, new territory. I improved my availability and capacity to listen and then play with other people.
So, I always keep one feet in my local music and the other foot in encounters of other artists with improvisation as a key to communicate.
Q: How did the lineup for Magic Flutes get formed in France, and then in India?
JL: In France, Ravi and I decided to invite Camilo Menjura on guitar for the recording (we had met him earlier in Rudolstadt (Germany) in 2013). When we started recording Ravi and I immediately thought about Camilo. Camilo is a Colombian guitar player living in London. When we performed last June, he couldn’t leave England for administrative reasons, so we had Philippe Bayle at the guitar. In June, we also performed with tabla player Prabhu Edouard, who plays kanjira and some other percussion as well. It was a great moment!
In India, Ravi wanted to try several combinations, I think it was a very good idea. We could change the colors of each concert, so we had Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), Muthu Kumar (tablas, cajon, darbuka), Swam Selvanganesh (kanjira), and Rafiq Langa (khartal). We played sometimes in trio, sometimes in quartet. I completely trusted Ravi on his musical propositions. So, every concert was a different party.
Q: What are the features of Carnatic music that makes it possible for you to collaborate so well with South Indian musicians?
JL: As a Breton traditional musician, I come from a modal music, not tonal. This is the specificity of Carnatic ragas. We play modes or ragas and not tonality. I’m fascinated with modes, music with drones, which is very meditative and very inspiring for improvisation. The time stops, you are in a meditative atmosphere and then you let the ideas become organized, the improvisation emerges, and you let music go through you!
Q: How was your overall experience touring through India this month? What were some highlights for you?
JL: We had very good concerts in Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Every concert was different because we changed the line up for each concert. It was a really good experience to travel through India with Ravichandra as a guide. I saw so many different things, met so many people, listen to so many amazing musics, eaten so many different meals, that I need a little bit of time for a good digestion of all that!
Q: How did the musicians know each other?
JL: I met Ravi in Rudolstadt in July 2014, Camilo Menjura was also a part of Magic Flute’s first creation in Rudolstadt. Then sometimes I introduced Ravi to Western musicians, sometimes Ravi introduced me to Indian musician. Music is a fantastic communication medium!
During the Indian tour, many musicians met just before the concert. The musical quality of each of them allows lot of precision and freedom for us. Music allows that situation, especially if you are ready to improvise, which is obvious in India, but not so obvious sometimes in Europe.
Q: How is your album being received by audiences and media?
JL: We had very good feedbacks of this album, internationally (Canada, South America, USA Belgium) and in France (including Brittany, where I live). Endorsements and praise have come from Cloudcast (Canada), RTBF (Belgium), Le Tregor, Global Village, Trad Magazine, and Ethnotempos.
Q: The tracks ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Carnaak Nagin’ really jump out! Can you describe how they were created?
JL: I composed the fast melody of Crossroads for Ravi in 2014 when I came to Bangalore. I was thinking about his flute and this tune arrived. Then we practiced together and Ravi wanted to have an aalap. When he played it, I was thinking of the ancient Pibroch (Piobaireachd or Celmar) of the old tradition of bagpipes from Scotland. Then Ravi composed the last tunes, and one after the other, each of us brought an idea; we tried, we kept, we changed, we threw, we kept some elements. It is the way we work together. On the album, the presence and colors of Camilo Menjura are awesome, and he contributes a lot to the sound of this album.
Carnaak Nagin is another story. We were talking about common groove and scales. I played a very old tune from South Brittany on a very old scale (microtonality, ¼ tone) and Ravi immediately enjoyed it, so we played it again. The tempo arrived and the dances from South-Brittany could communicate with Indian snake’s dances. For the recording, Ravi also wanted to have additional percussion and they also bring their own colors in this album, on tunes like Carnaak Nagin. (Carnac is a place in south Brittany famous for menhirs and dolmens of the old Celts tradition.)
Q: What other lineups have you played with?
JL: The album original ‘Magic Flutes’ features Camilo Menjura (guitar), Jerome Kerihuel (percussion), and additional percussionists K.U Jayachandra Rao (mridangam), G. Guruprasanna (kanjira) and Muthu Kumar (table, darbuka). For my Bangalore tour in 2014, I collaborated with Arun Kumar (drums), Prakash Kn (bass), and Aman Mahajan (keyboards).
In France, I have teamed up with Philippe Bayle (guitar) and Prabhu Edouard (tablas, kanjir). Other musicians on my India tour this year have been Swami Selvanganesh (kanjira) and Rafiq Langa (karthals).
Q: What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
JL: As a flute player, you need to work every day on the instrument, so, it’s a lot of time just to keep connected to the instrument. You need to work on technical things, daily exercises on improvisation and traditional music. Then you need to feed your art by listening, reading, observing nature, to find inspiration for compositions, new roads to explore as an artist and, of course, meet other musicians.
And then, you need to work, record albums, perform live. I created a label with Gaby Kerdoncuff, another musician from Brittany, called Hirustica, which is 10 years in 2017. It allows us to record and produce our music with 100% liberty. So you need to be always connected to the instrument, find ideas and be creative, try to perform to make your compositions live on stage or on albums.
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
JL: So many influencers, from local musicians and singers from Brittany and Ireland to others like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Hermeto Pascoal, Alim Kasimov, Steve Reich, Egberto Gismonti, Eric Dolphy, and Rolland Kirk – without forgetting the amazing nature from Brittany with sea, birds, forests and rivers and all the wonderful musicians I met on my musical journey!
Q: How do you blend different musical influences and genres, i.e. how do you create fusion without confusion?
JL: In all the collaborations I had, I wanted everybody to keep his accent. I think of music as a discussion, sometimes you have to talk, sometimes you have to listen and be silent when the other is speaking. When everybody speaks, that’s confusion for me in music as in life. So, the human quality of the others musicians is also fundamental.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political and economical turmoil?
JL: We can be Indian, Breton, Nigerian, and so on – but before all we are terrans, we live on this earth, we have our qualities and limit. There are so many things we can’t do alone so we need to work and learn from the other. Anyone else can teach us some important things in music, in life. We need to move the borders, keep our accent, our spices, but cook together something new with humility and sincerity because each is a new school.
1+1 is more than 2. Over religions, politics, and opinions, you have music and the quality of a relationship on stage. I played with so many different musicians. But I felt always the desire to share music above all with all of them. Through music or arts, you can meet so many different people. Learn to accept and enjoy the difference because it helps to learn and grow.
Q: What new album or video are you working on now?
JL: The next album, ‘Serendou.’ will be released in February. It’s a collaboration with the amazing flautist and singer Yacouba Moumouni and Boubacar Souleymane from Niger, we have worked together for 10 years now. We played in Niger, France, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and now it’s time for the second album. We have guests Carlos Malta (Pifano-Japurutu) and Bernardo Aguiar (pandeiro) from Rio de Janeiro, and the amazing Michel Godard on tuba. We’ll be on tour in France and Scandinavia in March 2017.
I will also finish a new solo creation ‘Oficina Digital,’ which is a concert where I wrote 100% of the music. I worked with a looper who sent soundtakes I made in Brazil during different stays and my own flute that I loop in real time for diffusion via five speakers around the audience. There is also a video I made in Brazil. It’s a creation with video mappings and spatialized sounds, and takes me a lot of time.
Q: How is the creative scenario for jazz and fusion music in France today?
JL: My humble perception is that it’s still possible to find some places opened to experimentations, creations, far from the big music business. But it’s a fragile network supported by people of an amazing faith in new sounds, radicalities and explorations. I’m surrounded by fine musicians who try to explore new musical horizons, sometimes they can have support from festivals, venues, producers, radios – and sometimes not, but most of them don’t give up and never will.
In the 70s it seemed that everything was possible, now some producers have managed to format music as entertainment and not for art or culture, so it’s not so easy for creative and original artists to be regularly programmed. But there still remain some places and festivals who keep providing spaces for undiscovered sounds.
Q: Are French audiences, venues, labels and artistes very open to collaboration?
JL: Some are, others are not. Most of them are in search of rentability or easy profit. It means mainstream success. As in any city, you can find fast food and cheap bad food restaurants, you’ll find in the world (and France is a part of that), fast listening, quick consuming, big musical gatherings who can survive because they sell lots of beers surrounded by a bad loud sound. But it’s also always possible to find real restaurants with people who prepare good food with originality, ethics and creativity.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
JL: I have no vision, life has taught me that everything I have is more than any of the dreams I could have. I play with fantastic musicians: Michel Godard, Yacouba Moumouni, Carlos Malta, Ravichandra Kulur, and so on. I never dreamed of that and it’s really deeper and more beautiful that any dreams I could have.
So, no projection, I keep working on my Breton garden, open to Indian spices, African ginger, Brazilian coconut – trying to be honest with me, musicians I play with and audiences who may come to my concerts.
Q: How does your composition process work? When do collaboration and jams come in?
JL: Each composition is different. You can compose thinking about a place, a person, you can compose during an exercise, during a walk in the forest, looking at the sea, or inspired by a book. I always start with a melody. I sing it, then I record it in a non definitive version. I let it sleep for a while and come back to it a few days later to listen with fresh ears – I change some things or maybe not, and then think about the pulse, a bass line, some harmonies.
Then I may continue alone or submit to other musicians who will add their own creativity for the structure, introduction and so on. Sometimes I can do everything at home, sometimes I wait for a rehearsal to fix more some elements. Each composition has its own story!
Q: Do you compose on the road also, while traveling?
JL: It happens, I need calm, time, good vibes, feeling quiet to be able to compose. Very often, I compose after traveling, back home, quiet.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
JL: With Magic Flutes, during our last concert in France in June 2016, many people cried. They had too much emotion relating to the dialogue, respect, love between myself and Ravichandra Kulur. That was very intense for Ravi and me.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
JL: Yes, very often, it can be traditional music from Brittany or Ireland, or improvisation. I give three or four workshops (from two days to one week) each year.
Q: How has the music industry changed over the years, and what are the effects? For example, downloads, social media, loops/mixers.
JL: Everything changes around us, everyday. So, you have to learn and adapt. I don’t want to be sad about old times. What is happening, happens. I knew vinyl, tapes, CDs, and now digital technology. But in Brittany vinyl is back with lots of interest. So it’s good to be connected to the world, we can listen today to all the music of the world, but do we listen? One thing will never change, it’s the quality of time you spend practicing, rehearsing, listening.
Q: What is your message to the musicians and audiences out there?
JL: Keep faith, work on your personality, open your ears and your heart. Never forget curiosity and alterity!
Russian group Ochelie Soroki is deeply inspired by ancient traditional Russian songs along with Norse mythology. We interviewed vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Uliana Shulepina to learn more about Ochelie Soroki.
How did the group get started?
Uliana: When I met Pavel Boev in 2005, he worked in Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra as a double bass player. He has travelled a lot with his orchestra and collected ethno musical instruments, which he brought from every country where he has been visited. At that moment I was already interested in traditional Russian singing, so we decided to combine all these things, and start the greatest ethno folk band ever existed.
In the next 6 years, we worked on the creation of relevant arrangements, and the repertoire for the first album. And, of course, searched for musicians. Also studied traditional Russian musical heritage, researched the ancient culture of the Baltic countries and peoples of the Siberian region. Since 2011, the group got its name Ochelie Soroki and began performing numerous concerts, and participating in festivals across Russia.
You describe your music as pagan dark folk, based on Russian old traditional songs as well as Norse mythology. Can you elaborate a little more, especially about the Russian traditions?
Uliana: When we say ‘pagan dark folk’ we mean that some of the songs we perform are really very old, at least 1000 years old, which is meaning they were created probably before Christianity came into Russia. Many old Russian folk song were part of rituals, connected with the most important events of human existence, like birth, life and death, as well as astronomical phases of the sun like solstice and equinox, in accordance which all ancient celebrations were established on.
The old traditional Russian songs were not originally performed for the audience; there was no audience at all, but only participants. The rituals included singing or playing, as well special dances (round dancing), games, incantations, lamentations, some magical acts in certain locations, such as sacred forests, lakes, rivers, tops of hills and mountains, etc. However, this subject is too vast to talk briefly, so we focus on the musical aspects.
The most archaic Old Russian polyphonic chanting complexes which survived till nowadays as calendar, epic, ritual or warriors songs have complicated microtonal improvisation structures, intuitively recognizable by all participants. This ancient singing tradition has been passed down from generation to generation orally, from age to age.
Currently, homophonic-harmonic system of the musical texture is completely different from the early sacred fractal scales and heterophony, characteristic of folk music. By the way, there are many musicians interpreting old music material greatly simplifying it, to make it easily digestible and well-selling product. We are characterized by a very attentive and careful attitude to the ancient musical artifacts which in our opinion is just necessary.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
Uliana: Researching ancient Russian musical heritage, I think, is the most important part of our music. Even just retransmission of these old songs is connecting us and our audience with a powerful source of the archetypal images. Some of our sounds determine this effect, like trance state and slowing down the time motion. So, second important element is a special atmosphere of our performance, which is achieved by using bourdon type of the ethnic string instruments, ornamented with low-frequency bass pads and drums as well as playback of some special selected background video.
Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
Uliana: As the main music source, we believe it is an ancient Russian musical tradition and some of its local keepers and researchers since the late 18th century to nowadays. As interpreters of folk music, some Nordic bands, such as Garmarna (Sweden), Wardruna (Norway), and Hedningarna (Sweden\Finland).
Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
Uliana: We spent about 4 years to prepare and record our debut CD album called “Northern Kingdom” which was recorded on “Pro live recording® Studio” and released in May 2015. The album received very good reviews and the band got many fans around the world. Currently, Ochelie Soroki started to record its second album, which is scheduled for spring 2017.
Many of your musical instruments are made by luthier Pavel Boev, founder and musician of the group. How did he become interested in making musical instruments?
Uliana: Well, I think, he made his first instrument in the early 2010. That was a jouhikko (bowed lyre); it is a string bowed instrument of the Baltic countries. We call it in Finnish, jouhikko. Pavel had not so much experience in making musical instruments at that moment, but in the meantime, he was very inspired by the jouhikko sound. And also, it was very complicated to buy it, because jouhikko or talharpa (Sweden) is a quite rare instrument. So, it was easier to create it, than to order it.
What instruments does he make? And what materials does he use?
Uliana: For now, he is making tenor and alto Jouhikkos, also an extremely rare bass jouhikko (bass bowed lyre); the citras, Norwegian langeleik, a sort of archaic dulcimer; traditional overtone flutes and reed flute.
In general Pavel prefers to work with natural materials and components. Some plants and reeds are very suitable to make overtone flutes, as well as some fish bones are useful to produce authentic fishbone glue. As I know, Pavel is using pine wood, maple and special resonant spruce wood to construct his jouhikkos and citras. Also, he sets Mongolian horse hair in his bows.
Is Pavel Boev teaching new generations how to make instruments?
Uliana: Yes he is, during the years he organizes training courses on the history and manufacture of ancient folk musical instruments for everyone.
If someone is interested in purchasing one of the instruments, how can they do it?
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with, whom would that be?
Uliana: Honestly, we’ve already performed with numerous Russian bands and surely would love to collaborate with many amazing musicians around the world. Currently, we are especially addicted to some Scandinavian neo folk bands such as Garmarna (Sweden), Wardruna (Norway), and Hedningarna (Sweden\Finland), so we would be happy to perform on the same stage with them. And of course, we hope we will be honored to have an opportunity to make ‘Ochelie Soroki debut performance with LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) at the Barbican Hall, or at the Royal Albert Hall.
Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?
Uliana: Of course we do, the most exciting is release of our second greatest CD album which is scheduled for the next spring. As well as the upcoming Ochelie Soroki European tour next summer 2017.
There are timbaleros (timbales players) in Latin music and then there are timbaleros. Nicky Marrero is the master at his work! Nicky Marrero has performed on hundreds of recordings, especially for Fania Records in New York City. Nicky Marrero is “El Monstruo del Timbal”, the Monster of the Timbales.
Nicky, has the ability of getting many tones out his drumheads, playing with preciseness and action. Nicky Marrero is always exciting on stage and bringing light to the show. You know that when he plays, it is Nicky Marrero up there on stage soloing, A-1 plus, like a Monster Timbalero should.
With years of playing, practice and patience with the drums, whether it is timbales or congas, Nicky Marrero brings a solo swing to the orchestra, to compliment the musicians and the coro (chorus) in the orchestra. This is what Nicky Marrero does on stage if you observe him.
Nicky is always getting better, as he ages, like a fine wine!
Nicky has performed with all the legends; too many to name, also a member of the legendary Fania All Stars and is a very humble musician.
Let’s hear what Nicky has to say about himself, and his love for the timbales, and what he has to say to the new young and upcoming timbaleros!
Nicky where were you born, your birth name and where were you raised?
I was born in St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx on June 17th 1950 and raised in the Bronx. My Name is Nicholas Marrero Jr.
Was your family musical in any way?
My uncle Chuito Velez played guitar, piano and the accordion. He had his own Orchestra and would sometimes join the family on weekend parties. Like in most Puerto Rican families there was always something to celebrate or just get together to dance and party. My Brother Luis Sánchez played guitar and bass for many years with my uncle as well as with Belisario López y su charanga, the Plata Sextet, and Orlando Marin and his Orchestra.
When was the first time you heard a cowbell and when was the first time you listened to a mambo-ish or salsa type music or Latin music?
Quiet simply, at home! Plus, by parental composition, Puerto Ricans love their Spanish radio stations to keep up the latest cleaning products, soap operas, what movies are showing, what theaters are having live vaudeville acts, then If there is time left in the day—–The News!! There was Spanish music in all of them, from different Latin countries. Diversity!
What was the first band you were a member of professionally?
Orchestra Caribe, meaning I got paid. The going rate at that time for a 14 year old, was 10 to fifteen dollars, if the promoter didn’t high settled it out of town. And there were 12 of us plus the band boy, who just wanted to be part of the group, the guys just looked the other way, except maybe sometimes?
Who are past or present your favorite timbal players, conga players and bongo players?
Me, Me, and Me! Seriously, on timbales, Orestes Vilató and Orlando Marin. On conga, Orlando Vega and Johnny Rodriguez. On bongo, Johnny Rodriguez, Bobby Allende, and Orlando Vega.
Nicky, what was you favorite band to play with, or you can mention a few?
Eddie Palmieri, Machito, Tito Puente, Fajardo, Tipica 73, Dizzie Gillespie, Jorge Dalto, but then I was part of at least forty other bands, and for different extended times. There’s not enough paper to explain it all but in a book.
Who would be your all-time favorite Latin orchestra leader?
What is some advice that you would tell young timbaleros or percussionist who study the art of drumming?
To listen to the past records, and learn about each orchestra and its members and their backgrounds and where they came from and to follow their carriers. Learn to listen, and listen to learn!!! Practice the art of imitation to the exact with discipline. Learn that you are your greatest competition!! Broaden the many options of how to practice, they become limitless, as are your abilities.
The Big 3, Machito, Tito Puente Sr. and Tito Rodriguez Sr., what is your opinion of them?
They were my heroes, and still are. I wouldn’t know whether to dance or play! There were many excellent dancers in my family, and I picked up on it very quickly, and became a very good dancer myself. It sometimes boggles me how some percussion players play and don’t know how to dance—really! That’s like a dentist pulling out teeth without first taking x-rays! Huh!
What is your all time favorite record or records?
Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Machito, Cal Tjader, Cortijo y su Combo, the charangas of Aragon, Fajardo, Arcano, Estrellas Cubanas, La Sensacion,Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barreto, Charlie Palmieri, extra, many more. Conjuntos—Arsenio, Chapottin, Modelo, Roberto Fas, Rumbavana, Kuvavana, Estrellas de Chocolate, etc.
What is one or two of the favorite recording you performed on?
Well, Nicky do you remember when you went to get your cha cha bell repaired by craftsman Pete Lugo. Let me ask why did you insist in getting that particular bell fixed and not just buy another new bell?
This bell was made with a special gage of a certain type of metal, and it had to be treated just the right way or it would ruin the bell forever. The sound of the bell became part of who I am, the study I put into investigating and analyzing their sounds and the types of material they are made of.
So tell us about your great current projects that you’re on.
Well, what are the future plans for Nicky Marrero musically and otherwise?
I am working on to fulfil my dream of starting my own project (orchestra) and record.
Have you seen the music scene changing somewhat and what do you think of that?
To bring it back to the dancers, with quality entertainment. We need more clubs of quality!!
Who are or were your favorite musicians to play with. Give us some names?
Nelson Gonzalez, Jimmy Bosch, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Rodriguez, Willie Rodriguez and many more.
Now you tell us something Nicky
We need more in depth professional interviews such as yours. Also more radio stations with quality Latin cultural music past and present, with knowledgeable radio personalities!!
I would like to thank Nicky Marrero for his precious time, when I approached Nicky to this interview he was flying out to Lima, Peru with the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra! Thanks Nicky! El Monstruo del Timbal!
Reed Rickert has directed several documentary films related to music. We talked to him to find out more about his projects.
Walila: The Modern Sound of North African Sacred Music features music producer Daniel Masson. How did you connect with him?
I met Daniel a few years ago through my brother. At the time my brother was producing music in the San Francisco Bay Area and he had reached out to Daniel to have the final mix and mastering done of his latest album. After the album was complete Daniel made a trip to the Bay Area for a series of live performances and we got to meet. Since then Daniel and I have kept in touch with the idea that it would be great to do a project together some day.
At the time when we met I was working on my first feature documentary project on a different musical topic – the link between the traditional Mexican music style son jarocho and the music of Southern Spain and North Africa (The Third Root). While working on this film I lived in Morocco for about a year. So when the opportunity came along to do Walila, Daniel thought it would be a great opportunity to have me along with him in Morocco since it was a familiar culture to me.
How did the film evolve from concept to final product?
The French Institute of Fes contacted Daniel to create a electronic music album with traditional musicians of Fes, and they wanted him to later perform that album live at The Festival of Sacred Music in Fes. Daniel thought it would be a good project in which to do a documentary about the process. He knew that I spent a lot of time in Fes filming with musicians so he knew that I would feel at home filming there. At that time the Paris attacks had just happened and he wanted this project to be about more than just the process of making music, but a message of unity. I thought it was a great idea.
From the beginning I knew I wanted to hang the story off of the final performance, it was a good way to give the film structure, but figuring out the body of the film was more fluid. It wasn’t until I spent a few days with Daniel in France and later in Morocco that it took shape in my mind, where each song of the EP album would have a separate visual theme based off of the title of the song, and at the same time represent a different step of Daniel’s music making process and later the final performance.
You’re an independent film maker. How did you fund this project?
Over the years I’ve become pretty accustomed to being a one-man-band type of production. I like the intimacy, accessibility and agility that allows me on a shoot like this. Also, the technology now for production has reached a level which permits for pretty great quality without a big crew. For Walila, it was just me on the production, giving me the opportunity to spend more time with Daniel and his family, creating more of a bond of trust between all of us.
What camera and sound equipment did you use?
I used the Sony a7sII camera which is a great little camera for light production work and it is excellent in low light. With the metabones adapter I can use my Canon lenses, I have the 16-35mm f/2.8 L, 24-105mm f/4 L and a 50mm f/1.4 USm lens. I also brought along some macro adapters that gave my the nice close shots on all of the equipment and knobs that Daniel uses in his studio. For sound, I had a Rode Videomic Pro camera mic for all ambient sound and I used a wireless Sennheiser lav system for my interviews. Since most of the film audio would be Daniel’s music I didn’t want to complicate things too much with my audio.
Due to budgetary and time constraints I wasn’t able to accompany Daniel in March of 2016 when he did all of his recording of the musicians. This was a “no-budget” situation so between Daniel and I we made sure I could be there in May of 2016 for the final performance at the festival. With a trip to where Daniel lives in France, and another to Morocco, we filmed the whole story around the time of the live performance in Fes.
What editing equipment do you use?
Since I began using the Sony a7sII this year, I made the switch from Final Cut 7 to Adobe Premiere. Premiere gives me a streamlined workflow working with the video files that come out of the camera.
Are there specific countries or musical cultures that you’d like to explore in future films?
In general, I am fascinated by different cultural modes and music is a passion. So with that combination there is so much to experience. In South America there is a lot I’m drawn to and would like to explore.
What’s your next project?
Right now I am developing a few projects. I am working on a series concept centered around music. With Daniel, I hope to get him to Mexico very soon (where I currently reside) to perform, and where he would like to record musicians for his next album. Also, I am working on a feature documentary, Pacha Kuti, that is in the crowd-funding stage. It is a film that gives voice to the Machiguenga, one of various indigenous groups considered to be guardians of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world that is currently at great risk, the Manu area of Peru.
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion