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All That Desi Jazz

By Girija Sankar Email By Girija Sankar
August 2012
All That Desi Jazz




Indian-Americans have made their marks in medicine, academia, media, and information technology, among other fields. But jazz, you ask? Yes, jazz. That most glorious of American art forms is now the creative home of many talented Indian and other South Asian Americans.





Vijay Iyer.


On June 21, 2012, as we went about our daily activities, two Indian-Americans had made it into the annals of American music history, yet again. The Jazz Journalists Association honored Rudresh Mahan- thappa as Alto Saxophonist of the Year, and Vijay Iyer as Pianist of the Year. Mahanthappa won the same award in 2011, 2010, and 2009. In 2010, the Jazz Journalists named Iyer the Musician of the Year. Consider this: Iyer won an award that had been previously bestowed to jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock. Vijay Iyer also won in five categories in the recently announced 2012 Downbeat International Critics poll.

When one thinks of Indian influences in the global music scene, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar comes to mind, and indeed, his influence on Western performers and audiences is well-documented. Jazz great John Coltrane studied under Shankar and even named his son after the maestro. Today, Ravi Coltrane is himself an accomplished saxophonist.




Prasanna_Koln1_049.JPG “Guitar” Prasanna.

Music enthusiasts may also be aware of artists like “Guitar” Prasanna whose explorations of Carnatic music on the guitar have won him much praise and accolades, including stints as a composer for various Tamil films. But also consider this: the contemporary jazz scene in the States today is home to not just Iyer and Mahanthappa, but also, among others, to performers like Sameer Gupta, a noted percussionist who plays the tabla; Sunny Jain, a dhol player/percussionist who started a band that would feature the dhol as the lead instrument; Sachal Vasandani, a jazz vocalist; Rez Abbasi, a Pakistani-American guitarist/composer; and Rafiq Bhatia, an up-and-coming guitar player/composer.



Rafiq Bhatia.

The stories and musical journeys of the various artists profiled here—some of the most talked about desi performers who showcase jazz in their compositions and repertoires—reflect that very quintessential of immigrant experiences, a quest to marry the richness of the native and adopted cultures, whether the artist is a chef marrying diverse tastes or a saxophonist merging Charlie Parker with Kadri Gopalnath.


All what jazz

Rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and hip-hop feature prominently as early influences for artists such as Bhatia. But, as Indian-Americans, many were also exposed to Carnatic music, bhajans, ghazals, and Bollywood numbers, setting the stage perhaps for a greater appreciation of music in general and particular similarities in rhythms and tones. Early evidence of musical talent and precociousness is a common thread in these artists’ youth.


SunnyJain1_044.JPG Sunny Jain.

“I grew up with Jain bhajans, Bollywood music, and a heavy dose of classic rock,” says Jain, who leads Red Baraat, a nine-piece dhol and brass band. His drums instructor, himself a bebop jazz drummer, encouraged Jain to join his junior high school’s jazz ensemble. Pretty soon, he was completely taken by jazz and began studying some of the jazz greats. Jain later went on to obtain a B.M. in Jazz Performance from Rutgers University and an M.A. in Music Business from New York University.

When his parents visited India, Bhatia, then a first grader, asked them to bring back a snake charmer’s flute. His precocious talent in music became apparent to his parents when he played the then-popular Hum Aapke Hain Kaun tune on the flute, almost as soon as he heard the soundtrack. Bhatia, the son of East African Indian immigrants, is a guitarist/ composer who enjoyed hip-hop growing up. His interest in jazz developed when he took up guitar in high school and started listening to Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Bhatia spurns categorization as an artist. His music may not fit cleanly into what people imagine when they think of jazz. “I make instrumental music that incorporates improvisation and draws on all of the music that inspires me,” he says.

Iyer grew up in a traditional middleclass South Indian-American household. Even though he didn’t start out playing Carnatic music, he was drawn towards it in his twenties. “Carnatic music has a certain symmetry, much like the kolam (South Indian design that adorns the floor in front of homes) or the South Indian temple architecture,” Iyer says.

Rudresh3_043.JPG Rudresh Mahanthappa.

By contrast, Mahanthappa, who started playing the saxophone in elementary school, was exposed to the occasional bhajan music at home, but not much more. Mahanthappa’s exposure to Indian classical music came from a college trip to India in the early ’90s. “It was a revelation,” Mahanthappa says. Attending traditional music concerts from sunrise to sunset, and being exposed to a whole new genre was eye-opening. And then he heard about Kadri Gopalnath, who had mastered Carnatic music on the saxophone. Something clicked. Soon after, he met Iyer and they began their creative collaborations that spread over many albums and continues to this day.

Sachal3_048.JPG Sachal Vasandani.

In an introduction to Sachal Vasandani, NPR host Michelle Norris offers, “Every now and again you hear a special voice that makes you sit up and take notice ... Sachal Vasandani has that voice.” Vasandani, a jazz vocalist, drew attention when he won DownBeat magazine’s Collegiate Jazz Vocalist of the Year award in 1999.

Rez3_051.JPG Rez Abbasi.

Rez Abbasi, born in Karachi and raised in Southern California, is an accomplished guitarist and composer who was tutored by Ustad Alla Rakha. Abbasi, who will visit Atlanta in early 2013 for a concert with Georgia State University faculty and organize workshops on jazz and Indian/South Asian classical music, was exposed to Indian classical and film music through television and from relatives singing around the dinner table at family gatherings.

SameerGupta2.jpg Sameer Gupta.

Sameer Gupta, a percussionist who plays a hybrid tabla and drumset simultaneously, became curious about jazz in high school and was at first hesitant about the art form. “I also didn’t like things that sounded ‘out’ and didn’t have patience for stuff that rocked the boat too much,” he says. With time, though, a greater appreciation of the music allowed him to embrace “the rocking that ensues when it is truly floating down the stream of consciousness.” Growing up, Gupta was exposed to the popular film and ghazal music from the ’60s and ’70s, but became a serious practitioner only several years after college, where he received a degree in Western Orchestral Percussion.

Prasanna, who attended college in India before moving to America, grew up with the music of Michael Jackson, Tamil composer Ilayaraja, Carnatic musician Lalgudi Jayaraman, and Iron Maiden. Given the broad range of musical interests, “jazz was just a logical extension of my curiosity,” he says. However, it took Coltrane’s record Ole Coltrane for Prasanna to truly understand and appreciate the art form. The record “drove home the point that jazz is much more than fancy chords, complex technique, and virtuosic playing. It’s about personal expression.”

Sa Re Ga Ma / Skit-Dat-De-Dat

Jazz and classical Indian musical traditions (Carnatic or Hindustani) share a common logic of improvisation, argue jazz critics. The more popular influences of Indian musical systems harken back to Coltrane’s explorations of the Hindustani alap as evidenced in songs like "Psalm" and "Song of Praise." But today’s performers, especially those featured here, take it to the next level.

For a connoisseur of traditional Indian/South Asian music, jazz is about freedom of expression and improvisation, says Abbasi. Improvisation, according to Abbasi, is the biggest similiary between the two. “I can’t think of another musical genre that exists from and for the purposes of freedom of expression via improvisation,” he says. Abbasi and Mahanthappa would have novices listen to some Coltrane, whose ’60s albums, Abbasi offers, “were very modal in nature, meaning they are generated from one scale and draw parallels to Indian classical.”

Jazz and Indian classical music also have rich cultural histories, and “at times [leave] a profound spiritual impact on the people of that time and place,” adds Gupta.

“Quite simply, I would play them my music,” Vasandani quips. “I would play Wayne Shorter, Jon Hendricks, Benny Golson, Ahmad Jamal, Miles (Davis), Freddie Hubbard, Anita O Day, Ella (Fitzgerald).”

Just start listening to some good jazz records, Bhatia advises. Perhaps some John Coltrane or even records by Vijay Iyer and Mahanthappa.

The first step to enjoying jazz is to listen to music with no interruptions and, more important, no expectations, Jain says. Jain’s Red Baraat explores the much-loved but poorly represented brass band tradition most visible as wedding band ensembles in India. In an interview with Jazziz magazine, Jain argues, “Nowadays when people are combining Indian music with jazz, it seems like they’re sticking to either Carnatic classical tradition or Hindustani North Indian tradition. But there is so much variant music coming out of that continent.”

An Amazon user glowingly reviews Jain’s album Taboo: “I first heard this recording on Bandcamp a few weeks ago and have been drawn back to it ever since. Jain is a remarkable percussionist and talented composer, and I’d say he’s one of the pioneers in the captivating sub-genre of Indian-Jazz fusion.”

Indian performers of jazz or jazz performers who are Indian?

“Sometimes folks talk to me saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t hear any Indian influence at all.’ To which I respond, ‘So what?’” Mahanthappa says. Non-Western names and appearances often imply subaltern heritage and ethnicities. Audiences then expect an “ethnic” influence to the Indian performers’ repertoire, often goaded by media portrayal of the performers as “spicy,” in not-too-oblique references to their Indian heritage.

“My Indianness was and is very much a part of my personality and in as much as my music is a creative and personal expression, it also reflects on my heritage. But I don’t want to be seen as that Indian guy that plays jazz,” Mahanthappa says, adding that he and Iyer used to be “those Indian Guys.”

Abbasi echoes Mahanthappa’s sentiments. “When an artist discovers his or her true colors, and voices that for a number of years, the media has a tendency to put walls around that artist.” Now, though, artists like Iyer and Mahanthappa are respected across the board for their music and not merely because of their heritage.

But the artists also acknowledge that audiences are increasingly beginning to see past the superficial media commentary and judge South Asian contributions by the quality of the music rather than the color of the skin.

In many ways, even labelling the music undermines the product, argues Jain. “When I compose music, I aim to serve the music, and that to me is stripping away musical genre or labels. When I perform, I aim for trust and honesty for what I hear and how I react in the moment.” As Bhatia suggests, sometimes even expecting Indian- American performers to reflect on their heritage can undermine their skills and straitjacket them into a niche that they may not be willing to occupy.

Gupta offers a slightly nuanced viewpoint on immigrant identities and jazz, suggesting that developing an American identity is just as important “since Jazz is an American art form.” But perhaps, he adds, since the American identify is in itself an amalgamation of different cultures and peoples, “identifying as Indian while being in this country ultimately does inform one’s American identity.”

Growing up, Iyer says, artists like him had to pretty much blaze their own trails. There are now enough Indian-Americans in the States that more of us are being recognized in various not-so-traditional fields, such as, for instance, jazz!

NareshFernandez1_047.JPG Naresh Fernandes.

Contemporary jazz in India

How is the jazz scene in contemporary India? A very niche enterprise, laments Naresh Fernandes, author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age. Fernandes, a consulting editor at Time Out India, researched the history of jazz in Bombay for over eight years, and his book is as much a labor of love about Bombay as it is about jazz as an art form.

“Jazz is a metaphor for Bombay cosmopolitanism in the ’30s through the ’60s,” Fernandes says. It all began when African American musicians such as Leon Abbey came to Bombay in the mid-30s and began introducing Bombay’s elite to jazz. They played such fast music that Bombay’s “dancers couldn’t keep pace.”

In the early decades of the 20th century, several African-American jazz performers began traveling abroad not only to spread the music but also to escape increasing segregation back home. Paris, Shanghai, and Bombay became travel stops for some, permanent homes for several. Soon, jazz tunes and arrangements began to make their mark in Hindi film songs. Film numbers like “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” (from the 1958 classic Howrah Bridge) and “Eena Meena Deeka” (from the 1957 release Aasha) have jazz elements. A weird inversion happened, Fernandes says, an inversion where the music of the “ghetto” became the music of the elite in Bombay.

Jazz, interestingly enough, was also used by President Dwight Eisenhower as a Cold War weapon, by sending jazz musicians around the world to spread American culture. “Unsettled by the decision announced by 29 newly independent nations at a conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, to remain nonaligned in the icy power struggle between Washington and Moscow, the U.S. decided to deploy jazz bands to win the hearts and minds of the elites in many of these Asian and African countries,” Fernandes writes. “As America’s only home-grown art form, jazz didn’t just embody the country’s immense creativity: it also allowed Washington to present African-American musicians as goodwill ambassadors ....”

Indian influences on jazz stretch much farther than conventional narratives would claim, Fernandes asserts. While many would point to John Coltrane’s exploration of Indian spirituality and music, Fernandes argues that in fact Indian musicians were already playing jazz tunes in the ’40s and incorporating jazz elements into mainstream Indian music. He points to Goa and Goan Portuguese musicians as a case in point.

Goa was a curious element in the history of jazz. Portuguese musicians were already playing string quartets for Maharajas when jazz performers began performing in Bombay. Jazz then crept into their music as well. Goa, Fernandes writes, became this curious bit of “West” in the “East” reaching out to the “West” again.

Jazz now remains a fixture of small clubs and bars for a devoted, albeit tiny, audience—which is poignant, given that jazz is four generations old in India and there are third-generation Indian jazz musicians, Fernandes says.

Do diasporic jazz performers receive much recognition in India? Well, they are celebrated as much as other well-known Indians—for their success as a minority in the Western world and not necessarily for their metiers. But jazz is as much a part of the Indian cultural makeup as any other influence, Fernandes says— from its influence on film music to what performers such as Iyer and Mahanthappa are doing today in the West.

Jazz and the immigrant experience

Shared histories and heritages perhaps allow for better musical collaborations. Trite though it may sound, this fact is borne out by the many interweaving and overlapping collaborations among Indian-American performers. Prasanna and Iyer belong to a trio called Tirtha, which also features tabla player Nitin Mitta. Prasanna’s upcoming album also features both Mahanthappa and Iyer.

Mahanthappa and Iyer typically perform together at least once a year on a European tour, and also on each other’s albums. Mahanthappa’s own Indo-Pak Coalition features Abassi on the guitar. Abbasi’s album Things to Come featured Iyer, Mahanthappa, and vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, Abbasi’s wife.

These collaborations allow the artists to pool their creative energies and shared histories and produce music that at once transcends and transcribes boundaries, no longer jazz or Hindustani or Carnatic, but music that, as Jain puts it, goes beyond labels.

Young musicians should answer the calling, Iyer says, only if it calls them strongly. “You have to be driven by a passion so severe that that is all you want to do.”

Perhaps it is that passion and drive that also motivate bassist Harish Raghavan, a young and promising jazz musician, who studied under Jazz great John Clayton at the University of Southern California and is now making a mark in New York, performing with the likes of Iyer.

In 2010, GQ magazine chose Iyer as one of 50 most influential Indians (a list that included Salman Rushdie and Fareed Zakaria), a recognition that surprised Iyer. “There are probably more film stars that are popular than me,” he says, but also humbly acknowledges that many young Indian-Americans are inspired by his successes to follow their own dreams, no matter how unconventional they may seem.

Mahanthappa offers an anecdote which many of us may be able to learn from. A student of Mahanthappa’s was never quite engaged with the music and soon the lessons ended abruptly. Several years later, Mahanthappa discovered that the same student was now a prominent food and wine critic, who told Mahanthappa that he had emulated the passion he learned from the jazz musician, but in another field closer to his heart.

The immigrant experience in the adopted country, city, or town is one that calls for adjustments, compromises, undoing, and redoing. If anything, the lives, pursuits, and musical improvisations by these trailblazing artists is yet another testament to the ever-changing and expanding identity of Indian-Americans in the United States, and indeed, much like the art form they embrace, the epitome of improvisation.

Indian immigrant families in the States place much emphasis on their children’s balanced development, investing not just in Kumon and Aloha, but also in tennis, swimming, and of course, music. Oftentimes these childhood pursuits, while rewarding, perhaps serve greater ambitions such as getting their wards into prestigious colleges. Some may return to their childhood pursuits, but many may not. Those who choose to pursue their musical passions can rest assured that the trails blazed by the likes of Mahanthappa, Iyer, and Abbasi will guide them in their quest for professional success.

Girija Sankar works in International Development for an Atlanta-based NGO. Her writings have also appeared in Eclectica, India Currents, JMWW, Alimentum, Youngzine, and Muse India.

Recent Albums

Rez Abbasi: 2012 Continuous Beat, Rez Abbasi Trio, ENJA Records.

Rafiq Bhatia: Fall 2012, TBD on label Rest Assured.

Sameer Gupta: 2010 Namaskar, Sameer Gupta (arranger / composer/ drums / tabla / executive producer), Marc Cary (co-producer/ piano), Arun Ramamurthy (violin), Neel Murgai (sitar), Motema Music.

Vijay Iyer: 2012 Accelerando, Vijay Iyer Trio, ACT Music.

Sunny Jain: 2011 Bootleg Bhangra by Red Baraat, Sunny Jain (producer/composer/ dhol), SinJ Records.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: 2011 Samdhi, Rudresh Mahanthappa (composer and alto saxophone), David Gilmore (electric guitar), Rich Brown (electric bass), Damion Reid (drums), Anantha Krishnan (kanjira, mridangam), ACT Music.

Guitar Prasanna: 2011 Tirtha, Vijay Iyer (performer, composer/arranger, producer), Prasanna (vocals/guitar), Nitin Mitta (tabla), ACT Music.

Sachal Vasandani: 2011 Hi-Fly, Sachal Vasandani (singer/composer/arranger), Mack Avenue.

Side Notes

Khabar asked the artists about food, TV shows, books, music, and other inspirations. Here are some of their more interesting answers:

Rez Abbasi

What’s on your MP3 player right now? I don’t use MP3 players much at all … I still like the surprise of radio or choosing a full CD to listen to.

Favorite Indian food or meal? It used to be chicken tikka masala or butter chicken but since I quit eating chicken, it’s now paneer masala!

What inspires you the most ... a place, thing, or person? My wife, Kiran Ahluwalia, who is an Indian vocalist by profession. Also my parents and in-laws and a few close friends.

Dream vacation destination? I’m a homebody but when it’s time to take a break, any place with an ocean, all-inclusive drinks, and food is good. On second thought, parts of India!

Rafiq Bhatia

What’s on your MP3/CD player right now? “Bugg’n” from TNGHT (Hudson Mohawke x Lunice).

Movie most recently watched? Safe House featuring Denzel Washington … I’ll admit it, I sat through the whole thing.

What inspires you the most ... a place, thing, or person? People! That’s what music is about for me, anyway—connecting with people, communicating, uplifting, inspiring, consciousness-raising, …

What’s your guilty pleasure on television? I don’t own a television, but that hasn’t stopped me from keeping up with Mad Men.

Sameer Gupta

What’s on your MP3/CD player right now? Ravi Shankar—“Improvisations on Theme Music from Pather Panchali.”

Movie most recently watched? Today’s Special with Aasif Mandvi.

Book on your Kindle/E-book reader? The Dark Tower series by Stephen King (the whole series).

What inspires you the most ... a place, thing, or person? Anything delivered from the heart, be it music, an idea, or a meal. Something that is palpable.

Performer you would like to perform with? Well, if I have to pick, then Trilok Gurtu, but really it’s not fair, because you wouldn’t have enough pages ….

Vijay Iyer

What’s on your MP3 player right now? Solo piano by Avenging Angel, Das Racist, Yo Yo Ma.

Movie most recently watched? A kung fu movie, and an animated Japanese samurai movie.

Book on your Kindle? Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man by Mark Changizi.

What inspires you? A place, thing, or a person? Chocolates … that works!

Performer that you would like to perform with? Zakir Hussain. I interviewed him last year.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

What’s on your MP3 player right now? Black Saint by Billy Harper.

What inspires you? A place, a thing, or a person. Charlie Parker, or sometimes, Woody Allen!

Performer that you would like to perform with? Peter Gabriel!

Sachal Vasandani

Favorite Indian food or meal? Jalebis, of course!

Book on your Kindle/E book reader? The Paris Review, 40th Anniversary.

What inspires you the most ... a place, thing, or person? Tension.

Guilty pleasure on television? BBC mysteries.

Performer that you would like to perform with? Sade.

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