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Music: A Magical Mix of Indian Traditional, Canadian Blues, and American Roots

By Amanda Sodhi Email By Amanda Sodhi
November 2011
Music:  A Magical Mix of Indian Traditional, Canadian Blues, and American Roots 20,000 Miles, the debut album of fusion band Slide To Freedom, features a rare tabla player who is also ghazal singer; a celebrated satvik veena player; and an innovative steel guitarist who has traversed from rock to blues, country, and folk. In an interview with Khabar, two of the players, Cassius Khan and Doug Cox, speak about their individual music as well as about this collaborative work.


What do you get when you put together steel guitarist Doug Cox, satvik veena player Salil Bhatt and tabla player and ghazal singer Cassius Khan together? A spicy fusion of the best elements of blues and Indian music that leaves you asking for more. The three musicians are the members of the band Slide To Freedom, whose album 20,000 Miles was released on October 11. The album also features Sacred Steel’s founding father Calvin Cooke, Austin-based singer-songwriter BettySoo, and electric gospel music legends The Campbell Brothers. In the following interview, Cassius Khan and Doug Cox discuss Slide To Freedom, 20,000 Miles, upcoming projects, and more.

Why is your band called Slide To Freedom?

Doug: We liked that name because [our music] features a lot of different kinds of slide guitar. Salil is an Indian classical musician and I am an American slide guitar player—we found that the common ground was we both just played without thinking about what’s going on. He didn’t try to play like an American musician and I didn’t try to play like an Indian musician so what we had in common musically was to just respond to each other.

Tell us more about the album 20,000 Miles and how you selected that title.

Doug: Part of that album was recorded in Memphis out of Royal Studios, which is a legendary studio. We were going to Folk Alliance in Memphis and we found out The Campbell Brothers were going to be there—they contributed steel guitar, electric guitar and drums to the CD. My other musical partner BettySoo from Austin, Texas, was going to be there as well. We decided to pull everyone together to do some recordings, with BettySoo, The Campbell Brothers, and Calvin Cooke. And, we did the rest of the recordings at Cassius’s house in Vancouver—just the trio Slide To Freedom. Basically, what we tried to do with this album that was different from the first two was to make it a little more accessible to Westerners. Indian ragas are very long, sometimes eight to 20 minutes, so we tried to do more of a song-oriented CD this time.

Cassius’s wife suggested the title—she is a guest on harmonium in the album—because it involved musicians from Florida, Chicago, India, Canada and Texas. Every time we get together Salil has to travel all the way from Jaipur, so a lot of miles are involved (laughs).

There are a lot of Indian influences in the album…

Cassius: Yes, Salil Bhatt, the illustrious son of the Grammy Award winner Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and I have contributed a lot of Indian influences in this album. Salil plays the satvik veena, a 19-stringed version of his father's patented mohan veena, and creates rich and dynamic sounds to this new album. Salil played a traditional composition in Raga Vishwakauns, which is his own creation, with Doug melding his playing into the raga with his dobro, and myself on the tabla. I also contributed a ghazal to this album in which Salil and Doug played their stringed instruments and my wife Amika Kushwaha played the harmonium. The ghazal is in Raga Mishr Bageshri. I had composed the tune of it a long while back, but had not recorded or performed it.

Tell us a bit about your musical journey.

Doug: It’s been all I’ve ever wanted to do. I started playing the guitar when I was eight years old and I’m 49 right now and I’ve played in bands all my life. I was playing mostly in rock bands in my 20s and had the opportunity to play with Long John Baldry and with Amos Garrett. Long John Baldry was the father of the British blues movement and Amos Garrett is the man who developed multiple string bending on the electric guitar, perhaps mostly known for his mind-numbing solo on Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight and the Oasis.” I got introduced to blues and bluegrass, country and folk music. And, now I’ve been touring with BettySoo and working with musicians from other countries.

Cassius: When I was a kid I would always play my mum's pots and pans like a tabla would be played. I would also sing ragas when I was young and was quite proficient as a vocalist. My dad used to have a harmonium and an old pair of tabla drums, and I would start playing and singing on the instruments, except, for some divine reason I was exceptionally good for my age. My dad's friend, Rukhsar Ali, who was also a very proficient tabla player, came over when I was very young, maybe four or five. Once, he held my hands and started playing the tabla on his knees and recited some bols. That was my first tabla lesson from him and I knew that we were bound together for life through music.

When we moved to Fiji in 1983, I used to sit under this banyan tree and sing and strum my hands on my knees. One day, a teacher overheard me and asked me to sing and play for some of the students in the class. As there was no tabla present there, I played on an empty plastic water jug and sang a classical song I’d heard on the radio, "Piya Nahin Aaye" in Raga Patdeep. I only knew the main line, so I kept singing the line over and over again, using different patterns within the melody. A kid made a sly comment when he said in Hindi, "Change the cassette over, it seems to be stuck." We all had a good laugh!

My dad's brother-in-law, Dr. Shaukat Ali Sahib, influenced my life towards music. He passed me a very old cassette of some classical music and gave me a bansuri and asked me to learn it. I tried and tried, but I could not learn the flute, as I was more inclined towards rhythm and vocal singing. We used to live in a two-story flat, and the Chinese tenants who lived downstairs would get annoyed every time I would sit on the stairs and try and play the bansuri. Eventually, I stopped playing the flute and started singing on the stairs instead, which worked out much better!

After we moved back to Canada, my interest in classical Indian music overtook everything else in my life, so my parents got me in touch with Rukhsar chacha in my early teens, and I started learning tabla formally. I felt that this was my calling and everything came to me effortlessly. I also started learning Indian classical vocal music from Rukhsar chacha’s older sister, the late Mushtari Begum. She was the one who shaped my voice and my understanding of ghazals and ragas to an extent I may have never learned from anyone else. I combined both tabla playing and ghazal singing together and as a result I have been internationally recognized for my unique contribution towards Indian classical music and classical ghazal gayaki.

I knew very few musicians when I was in Fiji, but I received my knowledge of music from my visions of gurus who would teach me in my dreams. My teachers told me these dreams do not come to anybody, and that I was chosen by the goddess of music to be a sangeetkar. To this date, my music is still growing and nurturing. I practice at least six hours a day I have received the "Salute to Excellence Award" from the City of Edmonton for my contributions to music, my ghazal album Mushtari—A Live Concert got nominated for the 2011 Western Canadian Music Awards, and I have played in many countries around the globe.

Moving back to Slide To Freedom, how did all of you form the band?

Doug: Salil and I met on the Internet. He was coming to Canada and we started to write back and forth because we were interested in each other’s playing. We met and we jammed a few times and really hit it off personally and musically. Cassius met Salil and me at the same workshop at the Calgary Folk Festival.

Cassius: I had known of Doug for a long time because of his affiliation with the Vancouver Island Folk Music Festival, and had also played alongside him on a few workshops in some festivals, but we did not personally interact much then. I met Salil and his father Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhattji in 2005 and we became close friends. The former tabla player for Slide To Freedom unfortunately had a medical condition and could no longer travel from his city in India to Canada, so Salil and Doug wanted me to join this collaboration with them.
Do you follow a lot of Indian bands?

Cassius: I don't really follow any bands as much as I follow classical musicians. My favorite artistes are Ustad Mehdi Hassan, Thumri Queen Shobha Gurtu, vocalists Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan, and Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I also love dearly the father and son duo, Pandit Vishwa and Salil Bhatt, the mohan and satvik veena players, who I perform with often. For tabla, there are so many... Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Ustad Ahmed Jaan Thirakhwa, Ustad Talib Hussein, Ustad Zakir Hussain....

Doug: I listen to all kinds of music and certainly Indian music, too, but I’m not an expert in Indian music. I listen to it as much as anything else. I love all kinds of music!

Do you guys have any advice to aspiring musicians?

Doug: That’s a hard question (laughs). Following your heart is the main thing. The music industry is so structured these days that lots of people will claim to tell you how to succeed. The most important thing is to play music you really believe in and you will find an audience or they’ll find you. If you don’t do that, you can end up pretty miserable because you might change what you are doing to develop an audience and if you don’t get an audience you won’t be happy with anything. A lot of musicians make the mistake of staying in their own region… The best thing to do is to get out there and find places where your music works.

Cassius: Respect your gurus. Practice, practice, practice! Discipline, discipline, discipline! If you are serious about becoming an Indian classical musician, then be prepared to sacrifice your life for this form of music. The road is very difficult, but the rewards are very sweet. Always maintain humility. One should be like the mighty tree with branches that bow to the ground because of the sweet fruit it bears. Most of all, respect the stage and especially your instruments.

Could both of you tell us about your experience performing live?

Doug: I enjoy it. I love seeing different places in the world and I just love to play music. A good way to do that is by going on the road and you get a chance to play every night.

Cassius: The feelings are indescribable when I am performing live for an audience. I feel as if I am most vulnerable at that moment, because ghazal is all about your emotions. I cannot hide my intense feelings, and I pour my heart out to the audience when singing or playing the tabla. For me, it is a very natural process, like I was born on this earth to sing and play.

Cassius, I have seen you described as the "only professional performing artist in the world who can simultaneously play the tabla and sing ghazals." Could you explain how difficult/significant this is?

Cassius: The combination of singing ghazal and playing tabla has not been done before because it is too difficult. Tabla has many intricate fingering techniques, and Indian classical vocal technique is extremely difficult as well, with all the nuances in breathing, bending the notes and singing a raga without destroying the purity of it. The challenges I face are that both ghazal gayaki and tabla requires immense skill, strength and precision. Most vocalists accompany themselves on a tanpura or a harmonium, as those instruments are easier to play for a vocalist. Playing the tabla with the correct timing, tone and balance, plus singing ragas and ghazals combined, and then seamlessly synchronizing it together is the most difficult aspect of all. Also, I have to be at equal strength with both tabla playing and singing. In my concert presentations it is rare to see a musician who sings ghazals in one half, and then plays a full blown traditional tabla solo recital in the second half. This combination took me a very long time to develop.

What are your upcoming projects?

Cassius: So many projects! My tabla/ghazal project is always on the top of my list, and I am going to release another album in ghazals very soon. I also accompany my wife Amika Kushwaha, who is a Kathak dancer, on tabla, and we have some projects in the works at the moment. I also have a classical collaboration of jugalbandi with sitar player Mohamed Assani here in Vancouver, and we are planning to release an album together. I am also collaborating with the great jazz pianist Stu Goldberg. Salil and I will be working in India together in November 2011, as well.

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