Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Kseniya Tsoy of World Culture Open and Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

This autumn, a colorful world music caravan swept through China and Korea in the form of world music festivals that mark the start of a growing pan-Asia world music initiative powered by World Culture Open and World Music Shanghai. Kseniya Tsoy is part of the External Relations of World Culture Open – the creative planning team of Jeju World Music Oreum Festival. We interviewed her to find out more about the world music scene and cross-cultural collaboration in Asia.

Tell us a little about your organization World Culture Open.

Kseniya Tsoy – World Culture Open is an international network cultivating sustainable platforms for interactive cultural exchange through creative collaboration. In other words, we believe that culture is our common humanity and what unites us all beyond our differences, and we are dedicated to facilitating creative programs – the common ground for different cultures, ideas and dreams to meet and learn about each other, and experience the beauty of diversity through creative expressions.

What motivates you and your team to do the Jeju World Music Oreum Festival?

A music festival is a great example of such a platform. Music is our common language that we all understand beyond the verbal and the written, and so for us a world music festival is an occasion that is more than just a festival, but a great chance to introduce different cultures in a most attractive and beautiful way, easily understood by all. That’s why we were very excited to develop this new world music festival in Asia.

 

 Hana Art (South Korea) performing infectious rhythms at the Jeju stage at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

Hana Art (South Korea) performing infectious rhythms at the Jeju stage at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

 

What is the Jeju World Music Oreum Festival?

Jeju World Music Oreum Festival 2016 is the first of its kind world music festival in Jeju Island. In a way the festival is an introduction of world music to the inhabitants of the island, and it is about sharing the beautiful island and its unique culture with the world.

Many would probably wonder what is “oreum” in the festival’s name! A signature feature of Jeju Island is its 368 oreums or parallel volcanoes, dotting the island’s landscape. Each oreum has its own flora and fauna, and there are not even two oreums that are exactly alike. Oreums are the lungs of the island’s ecosystem and are an important element of Jeju culture. An oreum is a special place for recreation and healing. Bringing world music to the island, we wanted to pay tribute to the island’s unique nature: the crater of an oreum, resembling an amphitheater, boasts perfect natural acoustics, and so is a perfect music venue. We envisioned the festival as a musical retreat in the heart of nature.

 

Shanren (China) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival
Shanren (China) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

 

You must be approached by numerous booking agents and artists. How do you choose the artists? What elements do you take into account aside from music quality?

For us, the cultural aspect of the world music plays a very important role. Aside from “quality” and popularity of the musicians, we also care for the artists’ dedication to the unique cultures that shape their style and music, and their passion to introduce and share their cultures with the world.

Are there are artists you tried to book for this year’s festival that you were not able to bring to South Korea?

One of the main reasons for bonding the world music festivals across countries is to make it easier and more attractive for bands to come to Asia, giving them a chance to take a journey through cities and countries of the region and play at multiple festivals. So this year we had a very good response from the artists who were glad to join the Jeju Festival after their tours in China.

 

Trio Kazanchis (Switzerland) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival
Trio Kazanchis+1 (Ethiopia/Netherlands/France) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

 

What concerts were the most popular this year? Did you notice a change in the audiences’ interest in world music?

Since the audience was mostly local, it was natural that there were more people at the performances of the renowned Korean bands. But that is exactly the reason for creating an initiative such as a world music festival – to introduce new treasures along with old favorites.

It was absolutely lovely to see how the audience, for a band new to the island, would keep growing from the band’s first song to the last, and how people would not want the music to stop when they had started the journey to the world they didn’t know before. It is a beautiful effect of a discovery – coming with no knowledge and expectations and having discovered something that opens your mind and broadens your horizons.

We hope the festival has kindled the locals’ interest in the “other” music, and that this interest will only grow.

What would you like music fans to come away with from Jeju World Music Oreum Festival?

Music has the beautiful power of transcending our judgmental thinking and reaching right into our hearts. We are all so unique and we play music in so many different styles and ways, and yet they are all just different expressions of one music, and that’s why it has this huge universal bonding power.

It feels so natural amidst the music playing to take a stranger’s hand and dance together. It is only a moment shared together, but after that you are not strangers anymore. We had an example of two fans, Eugene and Natalia, who stayed together with us throughout the whole festival, and by the end of it they didn’t want to say goodbye to the musicians who had touched their hearts, so they took the artists who stayed after the festival around the island – the artist-audience relationship blossomed into a beautiful friendship. In their very own words, “Being surrounded by the nature of Jeju and music from all over the world, it felt like a pleasant and intense trip through different countries and cultures. It was an amazing place to discover original music and make new great friends.” We hope this is what everybody would take away from the festival. They would leave with new knowledge of different cultures and friendships beyond borders.

 

DAGADANA (Poland Ukraine) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival
DAGADANA (Poland Ukraine) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

 

Are there any artists that you enjoyed working with the most?

We genuinely love working with all the different artists. Everyone has different styles and approaches, and each connection is a great opportunity to learn about “another way”, see our own reflections in that, and grow together.

Do the artists who perform at Jeju World Music Oreum Festival also participate in workshops and other events for the community?

Yes, this is an important part of the festival and all of our other programs: to provide more opportunities for audience-artist interaction beyond the stage.

For the Jeju festival this year, we had a conference in the program which featured local artists, and international participants were welcome to learn about the Jeju culture. Our Chinese partners also have kept the beautiful tradition of artists participating in workshops and events for the community through all the years.

 

 Folksong Troupe Soriwat (Jeju) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

Folksong Troupe Soriwat (Jeju) at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

 

If anyone visited the island of Jeju for the first time, what stores, music venues and sightseeing places would you recommend?

The island of thousands of myths and legends, Jeju is a designated UNESCO natural heritage site, and has recently been proclaimed as one of the eight natural wonders of the world for its distinct picturesque landscapes and stunning ocean sunrises. The eco-friendly island has become the “it” place in Korea and neighboring countries, resulting in more and more visitors over the past few years.

The island is a vibrant and creative place, and one will find many local cafes and bars featuring local artists, often collaborating with friends from mainland Korea and beyond. We would recommend visitors to check out a gig by the local band “Jeju Dialect” when you are in town.

Stroll along the streets of Jeju Old Town – which are being revitalized with arts and culture these days – to catch some local street art and music performances. In the center of Jeju city “Qoomza Salon” is a must for checking out occasional special performances and events. In another city of the island, Seogwipo, one will be delighted to discover the “Jeju Art Station” and its eclectic treasures.

What’s your relationship with World Music Shanghai?

Though music is not World Culture Open’s only sphere of work, we definitely see it as a very important aspect for it is a common thread running across every culture, as mentioned earlier. For this, we are happy to be in partnership with World Music Shanghai, whose team is very passionate about and highly appreciative of music, and in particular world music. World Music Shanghai has demonstrated unwavering dedication over the years, with their best efforts to preserve authentic music of diverse Chinese ethnic groups, and introduce the world’s vibrant cultural diversity to Chinese audiences through music. Recognizing the importance of music and its lasting and sustainable influence, we value our collaboration and plan exciting large-scale and small-scale projects together besides the festival.

 

Yang Guanglei and Kseniya Tsoy at the official launch of the partnership between World Music Shanghai and World Culture Open in Shanghai, China 2016
Yang Guanglei and Kseniya Tsoy at the official launch of the partnership between World Music Shanghai and World Culture Open in Shanghai, China 2016

 

In addition to South Korea and China, what other Asian countries do you collaborate with?

Since World Culture Open is first and foremost a network, we are always open to new collaborations, and different projects have been created naturally with/in different countries.

In general, being based and active in Asia right now, we envision building a strong collaborative network in the region, to bring different parts of Asia together through cultural exchange and creative collaboration.

Can you give us an advance of what to expect for the 2017 Festival?

Having completed the first edition of the festival, we have lessons and feedback to learn from, and also have many new fresh ideas that came up during and after the festival. We are currently in the process of incorporating both while being open to new partnerships and collaborations, and are excited to see where it takes us from here.

 

The crowd goes wild at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival
The crowd goes wild at 2016 Jeju World Music Oreum Festival

 

How do you see the future of world music in East Asia?

The World Music scene in Asia may not be as busy as the scene in the west, but the rise of people’s interest in World Music is evident over time. Asia itself has abundant amazing talents shaped by different unique cultures, some of which are still yet to be discovered and appreciated on the world scene. Likewise, with increasing collaboration between regions across our world, East-West and North-South, more exciting music treasures will be introduced to Asia, and ultimately, we hope it will give birth to special intercultural collaborative projects. This time, we have seen a beautiful example of Dagadana (Poland-Ukraine) performing together with the North Lab (Inner Mongolia, China) on one stage, and this combination of original Slavic melodies with the sounds of steppes and throat singing was … amazing, fascinating, dramatic! Such fusion uncovers culture as a whole – showing through the sounds of music the amazing array of humanity’s creative expressions cultivated over thousands years. It breaks your mind and heart open.

We believe that in Asia we are coming to the point at which we fully recognize the beautiful roots and originality of our own music and welcome new cultures into collaboration, which will push the boundaries of our own potential, and take us and our cultures into a new phase of evolution.

We hope to see new influences coming to Asia and more cultural fusion projects emerge.

As an inter-cultural organization, we can only say that we will continue to work on facilitating more “made in Asia” cross-cultural collaborations, as well as developing new platforms for such creative cultural exchange, which includes initiatives such as music festivals and beyond.

Websites:

World Culture Open

More about Jeju

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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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Interview with Captivating Ethiopian American Artist Meklit

Ethiopian American singer-songwriter and composer Meklit Hadero, beter known as Meklit, will be performing on October 5th in Los Angeles, California. She will be presenting her new musical project “This Was Made Here” (TWMH) at the Skirball Cultural Center. TWMH is described as a danceable celebration of Ethiopian beats and pentatonic melodies, with striking horn lines and inspirational lyrics.

Meklit has released two solo albums and three collaborative albums. She was born in Ethiopia and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Meklit is currently based in San Francisco. In addition to her musical activities, Meklit is also a cultural activist, TED Senior Fellow, and Co-Founder of the Nile Project.

 

Meklit - TED Talk Photo by Ryan Lash.jpg
Meklit – TED Talk Photo by Ryan Lash.jpg

 

Meklit talks to World Music Central about her musical background and upcoming concert:

Angel Romero – You’ll be performing “This Was Made Here” at the Skirball Cultural Center. How would you define this new project?

Meklit – This is Ethio-Jazz infused music, with groove and pentatonic melodies at the core. In 2011, I met Dr. Mulatu Astatke, the Godfather of Ethio-Jazz, and he pushed me to add my own vision to the continuum of this music. I’m inspired by him musically, but also in terms of what he did, experimenting with bringing his sonic lineage into contemporary expression. He lived for years in the 1950s and 60s New York, when American Jazz was moving and shaking. He brought that spirit back to Addis, and that’s how the bloom happened. So, he’s deeply in this music not only in the sound, but in the approach.

What band will you be taking to Skirball Cultural Center?

My band is myself on guitar, and even playing a little bit of krar (the traditional Ethiopian harp); Colin Douglas on drum kit; Marco Peris on percussion; Howard Wiley on tenor and bari sax; Michael “Tiny” Linsdey on bass; and LA’s own Todd Simon of Ethio-Cali on trumpet. The fabulous Dexter Story will be sitting in with us on electric guitar for a few tunes as well. It’s gonna be hot!

How did the band come together?

We’ve been working intensely on this music for the past year, when we had the debut at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco back in May. Tiny is a new addition. This was also a chance to collab with Todd Simon, who has been doing so much cool work with Ethio-Jazz down in LA. It’s exciting to have him on board.

What do you consider as the musical essentials, those songs or performers that you draw on as a group?

We are definitely very inspired by the music that came out of Addis Ababa in the late 1960s and early 70s. But I also listen to a lot of traditional music, and I’ve had the whole band listen to a lot of that as well. That’s where the swing comes from. One of my favorite bands is Ethio-Color Fendika, who makes a home at the Fendika Asmari Beit (traditional music house) in the Kasanchis neighborhood of Addis. They are my dear friends and deep inspirations.

 

 

Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.

My first EP was called 8 Songs, and it was just me singing and playing simple guitar, with a few songs also featuring Yair Evnine on cello. We almost called it Songs from a Hallway, ‘cause most of it was recorded in a hallway with great acoustics. Those were my first tunes, but it was a big musical moment. We released it in the last days of 2007. I had 17 Bay Area artists hand paint the first 300 covers, and the release party was an art show. You could pick your cover off the wall itself and then go get it filled with a disc at the counter. I’d love to do something like that again.

My musical evolution came later. I always sang but didn’t really go for it professionally till I moved to San Francisco, and found a community of artists from all disciplines and all walks of life. They were deeply involved in creative work, and also in the ways that art helps us explore community and the world around you. It was a heady time, and I dove right in.

Every step I took towards music, music took ten steps towards me. It was a magnetic relationship. I got an audience through the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP), a free street level arts festival that I also co-organized. I played every MAPP for three years, and suddenly folks were coming to my other shows too. Those folks became my audience. It was very organic.

 

Meklit - Photo by Ibra Acke.jpg
Meklit – Photo by Ibra Acke.jpg

 

What musical instruments do you use?

I play guitar. I have started playing krar, but I am really at the beginning of that journey. I am constantly writing basslines, so I want to be a bass player, but I haven’t done it yet. This new music is very dance oriented, which makes both drums and percussion a natural fit. And finally, I am eternally in love with horn sections. They just feel so good.

Most of the music we currently receive from Ethiopia is Ethiojazz, rap and a great pianist named Samuel Yirga. How’s the current musical scene in Ethiopia? What artists would you recommend?

I love Sammy, by the way. He’s not only an amazing musician – we featured him in the tune Kemekem that came out on my last record – but he’s also a beautiful human being, deeply dedicated to art. I can’t say enough about him.

Other folks I love are Fendika, as I mentioned above, the saxophonist Jorga Mesfin, the traditional flute player Tasew Wendem, the masenko player Endris Hassen, and the krar player Messele Asmamaw. These are all geniuses. Also the singer Selamnesh Zemene is seriously one of the most powerful voices I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Also – my dear friend Munit Mesfin is a wonderful singer-songwriter really doing her thing out there. The talent is huge. Too many folks to name.

Music video for “Kemekem” (I Like Your Afro) featuring Samuel Yirga:

 

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

I love the Lotus Festival in Bloomington Indiana. It’s amazing. It’s like the whole town comes out to welcome you. I love Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, I used to go there and listen to music as a kid. When I was 6 or 7, I got lost there with my best friend, and we wandered backstage. It was my first time ever hanging out in a green room. They gave us ice cream cones and announced our names from the stage. I’ll never forget that!

I love Stern Grove in San Francisco. Dragonflies enjoy themselves while the music is rocking, and it’s incredibly diverse with folks from every corner of the Bay. Also – I’ve never been to Afropunk but I sure do love what it stands for.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with who would that be?

Well a few of the folks that I really would have loved to play with died this year – David Bowie, Prince, Getachew Mekuria. Sad losses, all of them. Others include, Dr. Mulatu Astatke, Girma Beyene, The Roots, Leonard Cohen, Bjork, Nona Hendryx, Cindy Blackman, Caetano Veloso.

 

 

What music are you currently listening to?

Somi, Alsarah and the Nubatones, Esperanza Spalding, A Tribe Called Red, Quetzal, Noura Mint Seymali, Gregory Porter, Bezunesh Bekele, that Duke Ellington & John Coltrane record, Shabazz Palaces.

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?

I was recently commissioned by Lincoln Center to create a body of music called There Is No Sound Barrier, based on the concepts of a musically alive world that I explore in my TED talk. But that won’t be out till 2019 or so. For now, it’s all about Ethio-Jazz.

Meklit’s TED talk, The Unexpected Beauty Of Everyday Sounds:

Discography:

8 Songs, EP (self-released, 2007)
On a Day Like This… (Porto Franco Records, 2010)
Earthbound, with CopperWire (Porto Franco Records, 2012)
Meklit & Quinn, with Quinn DeVeaux (Porto Franco Records, 2012)
We Are Alive (Six Degrees Records, 2014)

[headline photo: Meklit – Photo by Ibra Acke. Artistic Direction by Wangechi Mutu

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Interview with World Music Ensemble Stellamara

American world music ensemble Stellamara will be performing at the symbiosisgathering.com. The electronic music festival includes world music and will take place September 22-25 at Woodward Reservation Regional Park in California.

Stellamara’s sound has evolved throughout the years, bringing together musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds in a shared devotion for folk and classical music rooted in Near Eastern, Eastern European, Medieval European, Arabic and Persian traditions.

The ensemble is led by vocalist and producer Sonja Drakulich and multi-instrumentalist Gari Hegedus. Stellamara also includes percussionist, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Evan Fraser; percussionist Sean Tergis; and their newest member, accordionist, vocalist, programmer and keyboardist Dan Cantrell.

We talked to Sonja Drakulich about Stellamara’s background, evolution and upcoming concert.

Angel Romero – Can you tell us about the band you will be taking to the Symbiosis Gathering?

Sonja Drakulich – It’s the lineup we’ve had for the past year with our newest member, Dan Cantrell on accordion, vocals, keyboards and programing; as well as my original music partner in Stellamara, Gari Hegedus on oud, violin, mandocello and saz; and Evan Fraser on ngoni, vocals, mbira and percussion. Myself on vocals and percussion.

When and why did you start playing?

I didn’t have a choice. I knew I needed to sing as a child. I have always needed to express what I hear, feel and sense through singing. I was very shy however, so I sang alone in my bedroom for the first 14 years of my life with only my cats, dogs and my stuffed animal collection as my audience.

I also spent my childhood singing quietly to the bees, moths, butterflies, snails, pill bugs, and any other non-human creature I commune with in Los Angeles. I then moved close to Long Beach (South Los Angeles) with my mother when I was a teenager, and began singing to the ocean on a daily basis.

Gradually, my passion overgrew my shyness and I was encouraged by friends and family to continue with my singing and songwriting. I then sought out many teachers around the Los Angeles area, ranging from North Indian Hindustani to Persian to Bulgarian and Turkish vocalists to opera singers, and I joined both early music choirs and Bulgarian choirs. This wide range of study along with my passion for recording and creating sonic landscapes led me to where I am today.

 

Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) - Photo by Aya Okawa
Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Aya Okawa

 

What do you consider as the musical essentials, those songs or performers that you draw on as a group?

Both the songs and their players are essential, though I feel the players are most important, as I have been blessed to work with musicians who are truly open to the muse and are incredibly skilled at conveying the music that will always come through them.

How has your music evolved from your first album “Star of the Sea” and “The Seven Valleys” to your current sound?

It has evolved enormously as there have been many years and many life changes as well as band member changes between each album. I recorded ‘Star of the Sea’ while I was in my last year of high school and also attending recording engineering classes at the local community college. That album was recorded on an analog Tascam 8 track tape recorder!

I was also teaching myself how to sing on that album. I had so many ideas and visions and yet at that time barely had the technical ability to express them, but I did everything I could to manifest what I envisioned. That debut album was co-produced with Jef Stott who continued on into a solo career of electronic music production. ‘Star of the Sea’ represents a very special time in my youth, innocence and passion. We laughed about how it became what was referred to as “the missing link between goth and new age.”

 

Stellamara - Star of the Sea
Stellamara – Star of the Sea

 

The Seven valleys was a more collaborative process, after I had moved to The SF bay area and met the incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist, Gari Hegedus, who is still my main music partner in Stellamara. We co-wrote many of the songs and delved in deep into a multi layered approach to songwriting and production that has become a signature sound for Stellamara.

 

Stellamara - The Seven Valleys
Stellamara – The Seven Valleys

 

Your most recent album “The Golden Thread” features two Greece-based artists we’ve featured often in our magazine, Kelly Thoma and Ross Daly. How did you connect with them?

In short, Ross Daly was (and still is) the greatest living musical inspiration and mentor for both Gari and myself. We were greatly inspired by a particular album of his that features NY cellist Rufus Cappadocia. As fate would have it, I met Rufus at a club in the mission in San Francisco shortly after hearing this album. We became instant friends and bandmates that night, staying up until dawn listening to music and sharing stories and inspirations. Ross then heard Stellamara’s music through Rufus, and out of the blue I received an email from Ross inviting us to perform at his music school and concert series in Houdetsi, Crete.

Ross and Kelly performed with us in Greece, and we stayed with them in Houdetsi for six weeks, immersing ourselves in the music, land and sea. Ross and Kelly were already booked to be in San Francisco the following month for a performance, so we decided then to record an album together based on the repertoire we had developed in Crete.

They stayed with me for two weeks and we recorded almost every day. It was the highlight of my life so far as a producer. Their attention and care for every detail of every track was phenomenal. As individuals, musicians and composers, I cannot speak more highly of their virtues and integrity. They have since catalyzed a new genre of modal musicians who span the globe and who are recording some of the most beautiful, innovative music on the planet at this time (in my humble opinion).

 

Stellamara - The Golden Thread
Stellamara – The Golden Thread

 

Vocals play an essential role in your sound. How do you project the vocals and what kind of effects do you use at the studio and live?

I like to experiment and express vocal music through a wide range of vocal colors and textures. i actually became a vocal teacher partially because it was a challenge for me to find teachers who focused primarily on expanding the singers range and color palette without confining the voice to one particular style or another. It was always important to me to retain rawness and freedom of expression and I was apprehensive about becoming limited into one particular style, or sounding overtrained, especially within a western classical format.

After 10 years of study and training with vocal teachers from the East and the West, I compiled a method that can be utilized in any style, and that is focused primarily on freedom and ease of expression.

As far as vocal effects, this is another creative outlet of exploration. On recordings, I do like to add my own vocal harmonies and will use a combination of reverb, delay and occasionally slight chorus effects. For the past three years I have been using the TC Helicon Voice Touch Live on stage, as it is the closest effects unit on the market which allows a singer to control their own effects from the stage. This way I can trigger delays on and off and change reverb settings on stage, not having to rely on the sound engineer for this. That said, I do look forward to the day where I can work with an FOS engineer who can program all of this so that I won’t have to do on stage programming at all. I’d rather just focus on the music and dance!

Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) - Photo by Trinette Reed
Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Trinette Reed

 

And what languages do you use when you sing?

Bulgarian, Croatian, Hungarian, Persian, Turkish, Romanian, Roma, Ladino and English, and occasionally Spanish, Latin, Greek, Gaelic and Arabic. When I was with Faun’s vocalist, I also sang in German and Finnish.

Often however, I am singing in my own language based in the feeling, vowels and consonants that shaped naturally by the melody. I recently wrote (or rather channeled) an ‘imaginary’ language on a train from Norway to Berlin, inspired by my tours in Northern Europe, and it carries the feeling and energy of the old dialects of Finnish, which is one of my very favorite languages.

I love the process of creating not only melodies but imaginary languages, as it allows the singer to purely become a musical instrument and bypass the analyzation and interpretation of words. The meaning of this singing can then be found in the mystery of the sound itself.

What musical instruments do you use?

As far reaching as the languages, though most often: oud, violin, cello, viola, mandocello, saz’s of all sizes and tunings (baglamas), lyra, tarhu, ngoni, mbira, darbuka, dahola, daff, frame drams, riqq, carcabas, accordion, and we customize and incorporate some electronics as well.

Your videos show dancing. What types of dancing do you use in your live performances?

We collaborate with my dear friends, who happen to also be the most celebrated modern bellydance, Persian and Odissi fusion artists in the world.

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

Symbiosis is actually our favorite of them all, and we also love LIB. We have seen them both evolve greatly over the years in their expansion of artist programming. Last year was a breakthrough year for Symbiosis in their monumental hosting of creativity which included many acoustic based musicians, female musicians, butoh artists, and many other cutting edge experimental visual and sonic performance artist that are breaking ground at this time.

We also saw LIB [Lightning in a Bottle] break similar ground this year. We are fortunate to be a part of the productions on both of these festivals that set the bar for both quality and the risk taking required in producing phenomenal experiences- both internally and externally.

We also very much love the festivals in Oregon, nestled in the beautiful evergreen forests that contain their own vibrant magic. We have as well had the fortune of being hosted by festivals throughout Europe, which offer their own magic of both artists, craftsmanship and incredible historic locations.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with who would that be?

I am honored to say that I have already been fortunate enough to do this! I realized some years ago that success to me as an artist is the ability to co- create with my very favorite artists around the world. This has already happened and continues to! Each of my band mates are included in this category of my favorite musicians. Gari Hegedus of Stellamara is one of the most brilliant musicians I will ever meet, and carries a depth and soulfulness that is rarely expressed so purely in these times. As well, I am ever grateful for being a creative collaborator with Ross Daly, Kelly Thoma, and Rufus Cappadocia, and I am just now in process of collaborating with Efrén López, a multi-instrumentalist / producer from Spain, who has been one of my favorite musicians in this world, and a great inspiration for many years.

I am also grateful for the ongoing collaborations with the dance artists I work with, who inspire me to no end, as well as my European band mates in Faun, who I have learned a great deal from. There are also many other artists and producers I would love to collaborate with, and it’s just a matter of time!

What music are you currently listening to?

This varies greatly day by day. It’s usually a mix of source recordings of old, traditional songs and contemporary artists whose innovation and production techniques I appreciate.

 

Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) - Photo by Aya Okawa
Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Aya Okawa

 

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?

Stellamara is in the middle of recording after a long studio hiatus (largely due to my intensive tour schedule over the past few years) We will be releasing 3 / 3 song digital EPs as a triptych, which will be released as a full length album with bonus tracks after the digital releases.

I’m working on two music videos as well for Stellamara and one for another project with an amazing director from London and downtempo / trip hop / trap / soul producer. I am working on several projects with electronic music producers I am very excited about as well, and am thrilled to be expressing myself vocally in new ways. There is exciting film work in the works this year (I work in Los Angeles on occasion as a session singer for period / fantasy / drama TV and films).

A great passion of mine has been in the further development and expansion of the format for my teaching an integrated method of healing through vocal expression, increasing sensate abilities, nada yoga, and transformation/ integration through consciousness, movement and sound. This format has been developing over the past two years from three hour long workshops to week long intensive immersions, and I will soon be offering these programs more frequently and in a wider range of centers, internationally.

There are many projects happening at once, this year has essentially been nonstop. I’ve just been trying to keep up with it all, which is a good issue to have.

That’s all I feel I can say regarding these projects at this point, since I would rather the rest be a surprise 🙂

Discography:

Star of the Sea (City Of Tribes, 1997)
The Seven Valleys (Hearts of Space Records, 2004)
The Golden Thread ‎(Prikosnovénie PRIK135, 2009)

Official website: stellamara.com
Symbiosis Gathering: symbiosisgathering.com
LIB (Lightning in a Bottle): http://lightninginabottle.org

credits: headline photo –> Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Aya Okawa

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Yoham Ortiz’s Conversation

Yoham Ortiz
Yoham Ortiz

Yoham Ortiz’s voice gently weaves in and out of his acoustic guitar notes. His vocal is warm, expressive and works well with his intricate guitar playing. He recalls that “everyone always danced” in Quisqueya (a Taino word encompassing Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the island he spent his formative years in. That island’s music ranging from the Carabine to the Merengue has stayed with him and finds its way into much of his music. But his inspiration is also jazz, West African, and Brazilian music. At times, Yoham’s music is earnest and sad reminiscent of Joan Armatrading’s wistful songs, yet it can as easily become upbeat, even playful. Versatility is part of his gift as a songwriter. He writes for television, film, and other musicians.

Now he is based in New York, he has chosen to perform alone. His guitar is his only accompaniment. To perform solo acoustic guitar is a bold statement in a time when audiences expect big, multi-dimensional sounds. Yet Yoham’s talent as a musician is to create a very spare, heartfelt ambiance that makes an immediate and intimate connection with his listeners. Sound is vital to him and he enjoys sharing his love of it with others as I quickly found out in this telephone interview.

DJL: It is good to finally catch up with you.

YO: Yes, on Wednesdays I have started a music program at a local Presbyterian school with children aged 2, 3 and 4. I designed the program to introduce young children to music by focusing on the 3 basic steps that lead to creativity: Inspiration-Thought-Communication. In class we explore the idea that musical instruments are tools with which to express the music that comes from within you. In other words: you are the instrument. Also, this concept teaches them that sounds come with information. It helps children better communicate their inspirations and thoughts – not only in music but in anything they are doing. It also makes them better listeners.

DJL: Yes, because you could argue that people don’t listen to music as deeply as they used to.

YO: I think people are not compelled to listen to music in the same way they once did. For example, most cartoons now do not use real instruments in their scores. The older cartoons of Hanna-Barbera did not use synthesizers, they used real instruments to play the effects and music. The Flintstones used real bongos when Fred took off running. The practicality of synthesized instruments is great, but it is missing the magic of live musicians collaborating and performing together.

DJL: Do you enjoy teaching music?

YO: Yes, I do enjoy sharing and teaching. This school asked me to start a music program, so I began in January of this year. But I explained to them that I was not going to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or any lullaby. Children are exposed to ‘children’s music’ everywhere they go – I feel it is patronizing for them at times. Children can appreciate all music. Young children do not have any preconceived notions about music, so I wanted to expose them to a variety of sounds from the Griot music of West Africa to the elephant horns of Tibet and Mongolia. This program would allow them to tap into sounds that perhaps they would not hear at home.

 

Yoham Ortiz - Photo by David Troncoso
Yoham Ortiz – Photo by David Troncoso

 

DJL: Is this music program connected to your project about sound?

YO: Yes, in some ways. “Listening to the Language of the City: Understanding How Communities of Sound Inform the Soundscape of New York City” was my thesis at New York University while I was doing a Master’s there in Music and Behavioral Science. I am developing it into a book. In this work I investigate the information that sounds emanating from urban environments convey to people living and traveling around cities. I study how people hear sound and how they navigate through the city in relation to sounds. The project makes the case that cities could be designed in a better way with more balance and awareness of sound.

DJL: Were your family musical?

YO: My family is mostly involved in the medical field. Although my father, who is a Gastroenterologist, did play trumpet as a young man. I came from a family of ten children. One of my elder sisters started learning to play piano when I was about seven. Every day she would come home and share something she had learned with me. One day my parents heard me playing, I was about ten, they signed me up for classical piano lessons.

DJL: When did you come to the guitar?

YO: I was about 12 years old. I was first inspired by Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. I started playing rock guitar. When I got to college, I listened to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, the jazz guitarists.

DJL: When I listen to your music, I also hear Spanish flamenco guitar. Does that resonate with you?

YO: Yes, absolutely, Paco De Lucia, the great flamenco guitarist. I love flamenco music, also the music of Brazil, such as the Chorinho, the Baiao. Sounds I grew up listening to in New York include the subway, congas played in the summer streets, artists from the 70’s record label Fania, Juan Morel Campos (Puerto Rican Danzas), Santana, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Ventura, Bernard Hermann (Twilight Zone). My older brother and I grew up listening to the music my parents and my two older sisters were listening to and that covered a very wide range of genres.

 

Yoham Ortiz - Photo by David Troncoso
Yoham Ortiz – Photo by David Troncoso

 

DJL: Speaking of the Baiao music of Brazil, your recent song, Baiao Blues, has a slow, spare feeling to it. Your humming is a deep, nice compliment to the bluesy feel of the music. There is no real vocal, yet it swings. And I love how out of nowhere the guitar breaks into an elaborate solo.

YO: Baiao Blues is a lament for displaced and marginalized refugees. For example, many indigenous peoples of Brazil, where the Baiao comes from, have been driven out of their homes by major corporations looking to exploit their land. A lot of the people from the Delta area in the United States, where the blues exists have also been marginalized for the same reasons.

 

 

DJL: The song Carabine del Emigrante is upbeat and more forceful. The song is based on the Carabine, a folkloric genre of the island Quisqueya, can you speak about that?

YO: Carabine is one of the folkloric sounds of the North of my island, mostly the Samana province. Carabine del Emigrante is a song about leaving something you love because it no longer can give you what it once gave you. This may apply to someone leaving their homeland or someone deciding to leave a person. And we see this happening all over the world from Palestine to Syria: everyone wants their kids to be safe.

 

 

DJL: Your voice has a strength to it, it has a beautiful tone that works well with the acoustic guitar. Your vocals are honest and sincere, so as a listener I trust what you are expressing.

YO: I’ve always sung but I never thought of myself as a singer. I’ve always thought of myself as a composer, producer and musician. As a record producer, I’ve had to sing many vocal references in the studio to help artists understand how the melody fits in the musical arrangement. That helped me to find my voice as a singer. I have been fortunate to work as a producer with many great singers from whom I’ve learned a great deal. And I have also studied with vocal trainers to better understand my voice as an instrument. Now, it is just my voice and the guitar. I am keeping the sound minimal, not overproduced, not too much technology. I come alone; I trust the elements. I use the acoustics of the room where I am performing as an instrument. It is as raw as it gets.

DJL: What do you mean when you say raw?

YO: By raw I mean, you get what you see and hear. No gimmicks or tricks; just the sounds that are naturally happening as I play my guitar and sing in a room. There is a direct connection to the soul like this – a spiritual conversation between the music, the audience and myself.

DJL: Well I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and I am sure your fans are ready for more conversation.

YO: Thank you, I’ve also enjoyed talking to you.

For more about Yoham Ortiz’s music, please visit: yohamortiz.com

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Les Moncada Chats with Bongo Legend Chucky Lopez

I met Chucky Lopez in 1973. Eddie Palmieri had moved to the City by the Bay San Francisco, California. Eddie has family there and felt the move would be great since he loves San Francisco. One night, after hanging in San Francisco during the day, myself and 3 other friends decided to stop by Cesar’s Latin Palace on Green St, the old location to see who was performing. It was dark about 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

The doorman at Cesar’s in San Francisco said Eddie Palmieri was playing and we all went in to see the show. Chucky Lopez was on bongo and mostly on timbales that night, doing what a great musician does best, play! I do not remember who all the members of the band were at that time; although that night I met Eddie and also very young outstanding vocalist (Ubaldo) Lalo Rodriguez from Puerto Rico. Lalo did stay, residing in San Francisco for quite a few years, and I never imagined that decades later my orchestra would open for Lalo.

Chucky is a great person, musician, bongo legend of legends and an all around great Latin percussionist.

Mind me saying this, when Chucky plays, the people in the audience just turn their heads to look who’s up there on stage playing. All bongoseros have a style, but Chucky has select style of his own.

 

 

Chucky’s father is the great conguero Tommy Lopez, who passed away, great friend of Francisco Aguabella. Francisco used to tell me that when he traveled to New York, Tommy Lopez would keep him up all night long playing rumba! Francisco always spoke well of his friend Tommy Lopez and would laugh and chuckle about his times with Tommy Lopez.

Let’s see what Chucky has to say…

 

Chucky with a neighbor on Easter
Chucky with a neighbor on Easter

 

Chucky tell me when you were born?

I was born on August 1st 1954 and my birth name is Thomas “Chucky” Lopez.

Tell me a little bit about your upbringing in music?

I was raised in Hell’s Kitchen during the 60’s. That was a wonderful time in my life as it was the first time that I went to see musicians perform live at the Apollo.

It was also the last time they closed before renovation and I was fortunate enough to have played on the stage at the Apollo, I was only 8 years old. My father is Tomas Lopez, he was also quite know in the Latin music field.

 

Tommy Lopez Sr. on congas. Chucky’s mother was the dancer.
Tommy Lopez Sr. on congas. Chucky’s mother was the dancer.

 

Chucky can you tell me a little about how you got musical lessons as a kid interested in music?

Ever since I can remember. I remember my dad giving me lessons, even on occasions when I just wanted to be a kid. My father would always say to me “niche” do it like this, do it like that! He never let up. For that I am grateful as it opened doors for me in the music field.

 

 

Who did you dad hang with musically?

Some of my dad’s friends were Patato (Carlos Patato Valdez), Totico (Eugenio Arango), Julito Collazo, Francisco Aguabella, Chino Pozo and Armando Peraza, just to mention a few.

 

Chucky Lopez in 2000 at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Raphy Irizarry and the late Milton Cardona on congas.
Chucky Lopez in 2000 at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Raphy Irizarry and the
late Milton Cardona on congas.

 

So how did this work for you musically?

I grew up with these guys on a daily basis as my dad and they would have jam sessions and just hang out.

 

Chucky Lopez
Chucky Lopez

 

Chucky how did it work out that you started to play the bongos?

I started picking up the bongo more seriously around the age of 13. Although my dad had trained me more on conga drum, my preference was the bongo.

 

 

So where did you go to play the bongos or observe musicians performing?

I started hanging out at Hunt’s Point Palace every Sunday. That was the place to see and be seen. About 10-15 bands would perform and one could see them for only a $2.00 admission. On one weekend Johnny Colon was performing and he invited me on stage, the rest is history.

Whom have you performed with?

I played for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri offered me a job. Most of the guys I hung out with were older and I learned a lot from them. I was still in Junior High School, 123 to be exact in the Bronx, New York.

 

 

Where did your career take you?

As I moved on with my career I was fortunate to play with Machito, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Orquesta Broadway, Mongo Santamaria Jr., Conjunto Clásico, Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto, Tito Rodriguez, Jr., Conjunto Candela, Cortijo El Combo just to mention a few more. I have traveled to many countries, states and cities. I have met people from all walks of the earth.

 

 

What do you say about the roots of your learning bongo?

It was quite a privilege as I had my father on hand to assist me with clave and various rhythms and tuning my instrument etc. When I think back of my childhood teen years I can’t say I regret anything, as I was quite fortunate. I am still very fortunate 30 years later to be talking about it.

Some words from a few friends of Chucky Lopez:

Pablo “El Indio” Rosario: percussion legend, Puerto Rico:

Chucky and I grew up together, although I am a little older. For his very young age he was always a step or two ahead of the rest in part due to his dad Tommy Sr. In my opinion, Chucky is one of the top bongo players that the music business has to offer for the last 50 years.

His bongo solos should be studied by all aspiring bongo players as a true focus of advanced drum conversation. He is a musician that happens to play bongo among other percussion instruments. Yet at the same time, he is the most underrated bongo player today. He is very humble, not criticizing or embarrassing anyone. We come from the same school of show me what you’ve got to say. Toca y no hables tanta baba (play and don’t talk so much).

To this day, I am still learning from one of the most powerful bongoseros of our modern time. Mr. Thomas Lopez Jr. (Chucky Lopez) El Verdadero Caballero.

Pete Lugo, artisan, bongo & bell maker, Bronx, New York:

I have always had much respect and admiration for you Chucky, for you as a person as well as a master drummer. Who knows, maybe one day I can build a nice bongo for you. I hope when I open my new shop in the Bronx, you can visit me, so I can begin to post some pictures on my wall of my favorite percussionists or percussionists that I build drums and make bells for. I would also like to meet Pablito El Indio Rosario one day, another of my favorites!

Mario Grillo, leader of Machito Orchestra, percussionist, performed with Chucky Lopez in the Machito Orchestra:

All I can say about Chucky Lopez is 2 words: The Best. My father (Machito) loved his playing; he has extreme knowledge of what the instrument is about. His concept is complete, great. He is from the old school, he is a master at bongo, conga and timbales, you’re not gonna get better than Chucky Lopez.
I have known him all my life; I have known his father Tommy Lopez all my life. He has extreme knowledge on the tradition. Chucky is a team player, when Chucky is in a rhythm section, he makes the section better, he makes you better, ‘cause you got to play better, he also has a great memory, a photographic memory, he can play a tune and 10 years later he will play it just as he originally did. He is a great player in the studio as well as live.

His father Tommy Lopez was know as “Mano de Hierro” (Hands of Iron), Chucky is the same, he has hands made out of cement. I have played with other players, the best players [Mario mentions the names of a few greats] but hands down, hands down, Chucky is the one you want to play for your Orchestra.

“Thank you Chucky Lopez for making this interview possible and to the great ones, Mario Grillo, Pete Lugo and Pablo “El Indio” Rosario for your great time, memories of Chucky, and assistance to make this project possible. You guys are the greatest! Thanks again!” – Les Moncada

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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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Interview with Zydeco Accordion Virtuoso Jeffery Broussard

Jeffery Broussard
Jeffery Broussard

Louisiana accordionist Jeffery Broussard is considered one of the most influential accordionists in modern Zydeco music. He has innovated Zydeco, developing the new Zydeco sound in Zydeco Force. Jeffery currently plays more traditional Zydeco with his own band, Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys. Zydeco music was developed among Black Creoles in Southwest Louisiana in the 1940s. Zydeco mixed traditional Creole music, the Francophone fiddle and accordion traditions, blues and R&B.

Jeffery Broussard was born in Lafayette, Louisiana on March 10, 1967 to Ethel and Delton Broussard. He is the youngest of 11 children, having 5 brothers and 5 sisters. The family lived in Frilot Cove, Louisiana, a rural community northwest of Opelousas, in southern Louisiana, on a farm where his father was a sharecropper.

Jeffery grew up fishing in the bayous (marshlands), riding horses across the fields with his friends. His music career started very early in life. At the age of 8 he started playing drums in his father’s band, the acclaimed Delton Broussard & The Lawtell Playboys. After seventh grade, Jeffery left school to farm full time to help his parents. Jeffery spent long days digging and sorting potatoes.

Whenever he could, Jeffery would sneak in to the house and played his father’s accordion, teaching himself how to play.

During his teen years, Jeffery played drums in his oldest brother Clinton’s band, Clinton Broussard & The Zydeco Machines. It was in this band that Jeffery played the accordion in public for the first time. His brother would let him play a few songs from time to time. It wasn’t until Jeffery joined the band Zydeco Force that he began to sing.

Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys are set to perform at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina. Concerts dates include Friday, September 9 at 6:00 pm at Wrangler Stage; Saturday, September 10 at 2:45 pm at Dance Pavilion; Saturday, September 10 at 9:30 pm at Wrangler Stage; Sunday, September 11 at 12:00 pm at Dance Pavilion; and The Big Squeeze: Accordion Traditions on Sunday, September 11 at 3:15 pm at Lawn Stage.

World Music Central talks to Jeffery Broussard and band manager Millie Broussard about the upcoming concert.

Angel Romero – Can you tell us about the band you will be taking to the National Folk Festival 2016 in Greensboro?

Millie Brossard – I’ll first start off by saying Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys are excited about performing at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys as you may know plays the traditional Creole Zydeco. He is commonly referred to as pound for pound the best accordion player around, although he is not limited to just the accordion. Jeffery plays every instrument. He is an awesome fiddler which he also uses in his performance… and there is a point in his performance where he does the old “switch-a-roo” with Djalma Garnier III who is the bass player, and in the midst of a song Djalma will take over fiddle and Jeffery will play bass, the crowd goes wild.

The rubboard player, which is the youngest member of the band but also the largest, we have given him the nickname “Big Truck,” is Jeffery’s youngest son, Jeffery Broussard Jr.

The guitarist Daniel Sanda is an awesome guitarist. “Daniel Boone.” as we refer to him. He has a way to make that guitar sing with his soulful notes.

The drummer, Paul Lavan Jr is not only talented on drums but accordion as well. He is the comedian of the group and never misses a beat.

Together these guys make up Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys. We are not just a band. We are family. We laugh. We cry. We love.

Jeffery Broussard - Photo by Robin Murray
Jeffery Broussard – Photo by Robin Murray

When and why did Jeffery start playing?

Millie Broussard – Jeffery first started playing professionally at the tender age of 8 in his father’s band as a drummer when the original drummer could not make it to gig. Jeffery’s father (Delton Broussard of The Lawtell Playboys) told Jeffery “get dressed boy, you are playing drums tonight.”

So as many Zydeco musicians today, the accordion was not Jeffery’s first instrument. It wasn’t until his teenage years that he picked up the passion for the accordion and has then mastered it.

When did the band come together?

Jeffery Broussard – The Creole Cowboys has been in existence for approximately 9 years and going strong. Thanks to God and my fans.

Tell us about Jeffery’ first recordings and musical evolution.

Millie Broussard – Jeffery’s first recording was in the 1980s when he was accordionist/vocalist for the ever so popular band Zydeco Force. Still today many of the younger Zydeco musicians try to mimic Jeffery with old tunes from Zydeco Force. However, as the sayings goes, “often imitated but never duplicated” (laughs out loud).

How’s the current Creole music scene in Louisiana?

Jeffery Broussard – The Creole music scene in Louisiana is still going. However, with the new generation of music and younger musicians adding their own zest to the music, I’m afraid it will lose its authenticity as the younger artist are adding more hip-hop and less accordion, so my goal is to keep the tradition and culture going, not by preserving the music but by performing and promoting it!

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

Jeffery Broussard – I really can’t say I have a favorite festival or place of performance as each festival or place has its own uniqueness…and I love spreading my love for the music and culture everywhere. I can say this, no matter where we perform no matter the size of the crowd, we give it our best. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 or 10,000 in audience, the performance will still be the same.

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

Jeffery Broussard – I can’t recall any unusual activities at any of my performances because I myself and band members are of high energy and we cut up and act silly interacting with audience, so anything unusual I wouldn’t notice. It’s all about fun. Zydeco is a happy music.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with who would that be?

Jeffery Broussard – If I could collaborate a group of musicians my choices would be as follows: Buckwheat Zydeco; Nathan Williams and The Zydeco Cha-Chas; CJ Chenier; Terrance Semien; Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys; Geno Delafonse and The French Rocking Boogie Band; and I have to add as he is not a Zydeco musician but he is an awesome awesome accordionist, Joaquin Diaz. He lives in Montreal by way of Dominican Republic.

What music are you currently listening to?

Jeffery Broussard – As I love Zydeco, playing and listening to Zydeco. I listen to Gospel a lot more, because it is God that blessed me with this talent.

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?

Jeffery Broussard – Not only will I have new Zydeco CD but a Gospel CD as well, and, yes, I will be playing all the instrumental parts myself so be on the lookout for more of Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys.

Discography:

Keeping The Tradition Alive! (Maison de Soul, 2009)

Return of the Creole (Maison de Soul, 2011)

Live at Jazzfest 2013 (Munck Mix, 2013)

Live at Jazzfest 2014 (Munck Music, 2014)

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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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‘Pay attention to your inner music’ – interview with saxophonist-composer Sundar Viswanathan

 Sundar Viswanathan (Avataar)
Sundar Viswanathan (Avataar)

Canada-based saxophonist-composer Sundar Viswanathan has recently released the album Avataar. It is a brilliant blend of Indian classical music and jazz, reflecting his own journey in an immigrant backdrop in the West. He teaches at York University in Toronto, and has played with musicians ranging from Wynton Marsalis to Vijay Iyer. Sundar joins us in this interview on his musical experiences and messages.

Q: From jazz to Indian classical music and fusion, that’s quite a journey! What is about music that inspired you so much to devote your life to it?

A: The cliche is: “You don’t choose music, it chooses you”. While that’s very much true in my case, at some level I just stumbled into it. I was involved in music with my family from a very young age, and later, in high school, it was the one subject area for which I had a natural talent.

I also think being an introvert led me deeply along this path; music was an outlet for me and a way in which I could express my creativity most effectively. My interests in different genres were in good part due to the influences of different people in my life: primarily music teachers and musicians that I knew and respected.

Q: What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?

A: I would say, overall, music is a low-stress occupation! 🙂

However, there is a great deal of pressure to maintain a high level as a performer, especially in the times when other things are going on in your life and you really don’t feel like being on stage in front of all those people (luckily this feeling most commonly passes after a tune or two.)

Along with that are the dual pressures of what I call “the weight of tradition” and “the curse of innovation.” These two pressures are polarities; the first references the vast influence of musics that came before, and that beg to be attended to (even when there is not enough in a lifetime to do so); and the second has to do with the need to sound fresh, to create new material. Again, when one tries to do so, it seems to slip away more quickly! Both can sit like heavy weights on your shoulders when you give too much attention to them.

With regard to composition, there’s the challenge of accessing the creative spaces that lead you to works that you are willing to add to your portfolio. In other words, the challenge of being able to write something you are willing to keep! It’s not so easy to do.
And then again, there are the economic challenges.

Avataar
Avataar

Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career, from the jazz, Indian and fusion sides?

A: The range of my influences is broad, going beyond jazz and Indian classical, to Western classical, Brazilian, Indonesian gamelan, groove, ambient and ‘New-Age’-type music.

More specifically, my influences include; Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett, Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin), John Coltrane, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ornette Coleman, Shakti, Zakhir Hussain, Paul Motian trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, Scriabin, Alban Berg, Trilok Gurtu, Nitin Sawhney, and artists like DJ Shadow, Enya, Bliss, and Loreena McKennitt.

There are many others that have influenced me in my compositional path, but I think these have had a more direct impact on this album.

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

A: I’ve been very fortunate to have played with a lot of great musicians from jazz and world music, including Rez Abassi, Dave Holland, Charles Tolliver, Kiran Ahluwalia, Vijay Iyer, Wynton Marsalis, Yair Dalal, and more.

I wish I could say these are recurring collaborations, but given my proximity (living in Toronto) and focus these days, most of my collaborations are with (equally excellent) local musicians, like those on my recordings and with other bands I play with, like world music band Jaffa Road.

A lot of the musicians I meet and play with come through a mutual awareness of our interests, or through word of mouth. Also, musicians of like-mind tend to radiate toward one another, and cross paths a lot on the festival circuit and in clubs.

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

A: Good question. Firstly, I never liked the term ‘fusion’, because the picture I get is of two parts fused or slapped together, without integration of either part. I see my music as more of a hybrid, a ‘new form’ created by the many styles (and instruments) coming together in a natural, assimilative fashion. I think the key here is that I don’t think about the genres when I write the music.

As I mentioned before, I’ve studied a lot of different styles, hopefully deeply enough that their essences have seeped into my musical psyche, and so will come together seamlessly when I compose. The challenge created here, however, is that it can become harder to ‘categorize’ the music into a specific genre. This sometimes throws off industry types and festival ADs. But some of my favorite music is music that goes beyond genre, so that’s ok.

Q: How long were you working on the album Petal? What is your next album about?

A: Petal took over a year to record, edit and produce. We could have spent a lot more time nuancing the album, but I didn’t have that luxury! And, I really haven’t given much though to the next album – my focus now is to get the band playing and touring as much as I can.

Avataar - Petal
Avataar – Petal

Q: The tracks Agra, Monsoon and Annapoorna are fabulous ­ please tell us how you composed them!

A: My compositional process is typical – I usually get the initial melodic ideas or a bass line and sing them into my phone and work with them later. Then I write my music alone, in my basement, with or without piano. It ends up being a very intuitive process; I was also inspired by the narrative theme, and the title of the songs. I might also work with specific ragas or scales I create that have a sound that I like, and want to develop.

Sometimes I also map out the phrase rhythms that I want, that follow a shape that feels good to me, and fill in melodic material from there. These processes apply to all three pieces you mention here.

Most of the time I don’t go back and edit my writing in great detail; sometimes there are small things that I change/add/remove. With this music, there was some editing and revision during rehearsals – some of my bandmates suggested things that we liked, and then incorporated into the tunes.

Ultimately, if I don’t feel moved myself by the narrative (the story behind the song), it’s very difficult for me to put out interesting material – by the way, most composers will tell you that you should be able to write whether you’re inspired or not (I guess I’m not a natural! 😉

Q: How would you describe your musical journey? Where do you see yourself headed in the next 10-15 years?

A: How much time do you have? Seriously, though, I suppose my musical journey parallels my life journey. I could quote Charles Dickens “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Certainly, my musical journey was not without bumps – I worked very hard over the years and sacrificed a lot to develop my musicianship, but there were great rewards, like meeting and playing with fascinating people and traveling all over the world and getting paid for it. And those moments on stage when I feel most connected to the music, musicians and to myself, in turn, make all the work worth it.

The next 10-15 years? Hopefully there will be more records and a lot more touring and good times. And money, oh yes, LOTS of money! 🙂

Avataar
Avataar

Q: What have been some of your collaborations with other musicians from India, and other parts of Asia?

A: I’ve played with some very good jazz musicians in Japan – interestingly (and this speaks to the universality of music) none of them spoke English well enough for us to communicate. But the musical experience was great.

I’ve done some jamming in India with Louiz Banks, and others like Shivamani and Adrian DeSouza, but my musical experiences in India have been limited, so far. I hope to do more there and with other Indian-based artists. I have played with several NRIs (non-resident Indians) in Canada and the USA (I mentioned Vijay Iyer, Rez Abbasi (who is of Pakistani heritage) and Kiran Ahluwalia).

There are a lot of very good musicians of Indian origin (and others who play ‘Indian music’) in the Toronto area, such as Ravi Naimpally, Suba Sankaran, Rakesh Tewari, Ed Hanley, Neeraj Prem, Azalea Ray, Ernie Tollar, George Koller, and others.

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

A: I’ve played a lot of jazz and folk festivals in Canada, USA, and Europe. I like the folk festivals for their relaxed atmosphere (read: hippies!) and the collaborative nature (there are frequent ‘jam sessions’ with featured bands).

Worldfest in Grass Valley, California was a trip – so much fun and interesting people. I’ll never forget the experience of playing in full sunlight at 2AM at The Rocking Walrus Festival in Igloolik, right near the Arctic Circle. The Vancouver Jazz fest was excellent – so organized and the intensity of performances was impressive.

Local festivals like Sunfest and the Ottawa Jazz Festival were also great experiences. I also have to acknowledge some of the jazz festivals in Europe that I’ve played at: Viennes, Pescara, Umbria, Blue Note, North Sea — they really made us feel like royalty and the music experiences were incredible. Rubbing shoulders with people like McCoy Tyner, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman and others didn’t hurt either.

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

A: One comes to mind: I was presenting a CD release of my album Hope and Infinity with Sundar’s Induswest Project. The great pianist, Dave Restivo, was in the middle of an intense solo – the rest of the rhythm section had dropped out, and Dave was traveling into outer space.

Somewhere along his solo excursion, a lady in the audience passed out. People flocked to her, to help. Meanwhile, Dave was still going, his eyes closed. Eventually I had to put my hand on his shoulder and break him out of his meditation. The lady was ok, but I don’t think Dave ever recovered from being so rudely interrupted… 😉

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

A: Yes! As you probably know, I am a University professor (I teach at York University in Toronto), so I have a lot of different ideas/concepts worked out. And as you can also see from my long answers, I like to talk!

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

A: There are many ways that the music on Petal can be interpreted. I wanted to let the listeners draw her/his own conclusions – this is why I didn’t include extensive liner notes about the meanings of the songs. The two songs with lyrics and the last track, though, give some insight into the meanings of the CD as a whole. The main themes are impermanence, universal consciousness and the idea of no-mind.

Having two little children, I’ve often watched them and been struck by how small and fragile they are, how they are like flower petals. Through them, I’ve also observed the reality of my own mortality, and of the fact that nothing lasts forever. Interestingly, during my research around these themes (and for the record) I also found that a lot of spiritual thinkers see flower petals in this way, as a metaphor for humanity.

With regard to the idea of no-mind, I’d been reading some great dialogues by the Indian mystic Osho – he talks about the idea of there being no ‘mind’, just a series of photographs that we put together in our brain that creates our past and projects our present. I directed the singer, Felicity Williams, toward some of these ideas and she wrote lyrics around them for the record.

And I’ve always believed that there’s an invisible connection, a vibration, between all humanity, and really, all life. In our day, and more than ever, this is something we all need to pay attention to. If we do, maybe we can transcend our differences and move toward empathy for each other, With regard to the record, at the end of the day, I also hope that I can move my listeners to a place of some emotional depth.

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

A: Keep doing what you do, with honesty and love. Pay attention to your inner music – be authentic to your voice. Write and play/sing what you are; don’t try to be anyone else. Our world would be a richer place if more artists and musicians did this.

Finally, there is a lot of suffering and conflict in the world – if we all direct our artistic vision toward healing, maybe the masses will hear our collective message of peace and move into that space…

Headline photo: Sundar Viswanathan (Avataar)

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