An Indiosyncratic Introduction to Indian Music

We’re incredibly pleased to offer this guest post by saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. It offers insight into Rudresh’s own art, while also serving as a terrific primer on Indian music. For those – like us – who have been curious but somewhat cowed by the sheer volume of styles and recordings, this is an invaluable resource. For anyone not familiar with Rudresh’s extraordinary recordings, some tunes of his conclude the entry. So without further ado, take it away, Rudresh…

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With my release of two CDs last year of obvious Indian influence, Kinsmen (Pi) and Apti (Innova), Chilly and Drew were kind enough to ask me to write a post about the albums/artists that have influenced my work. While the music that is meaningful to me is quite varied (after all, I was raised in the U.S. and am truly a child of the ’80s), I thought that this would be a good forum to talk specifically about the Indian music that has had a great impact on me.

I am by no means attempting to put forth a survey of Indian Classical music (the veda-derived art music of India), nor do I consider myself an expert on Indian music in general. In much the same way that there are albums or tracks of any genre that we love or have even changed our lives, I simply want to share some Indian music that has done the same for me, along with a little back-story as to how I came across these artists. Perhaps you will be turned onto some music you haven’t heard before.

Growing up in Boulder, CO, most of the Indian music I heard was what my parents played on the stereo. This consisted primarily of Bhajans, Hindu devotional songs. While these are plenty engaging and still very much ring in my head, they’re not quite as meaty as the classical stuff. Mom and Dad did however have a few Ravi Shankar and M. S. Subbulakshmi records, a coincidental cross-section, as each are living legends of Hindustani music (North Indian) and Carnatic music (South Indian), respectively. At the time, I was a beginner jazz musician listening to Charlie Parker along with a good bit of instrumental R&B/soul (Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn) and jazz-fusion (Yellowjackets, Brecker Brothers). I knew that Indian music was an improvised art form, but was looking for a little more explanation.

A friend of mine who I met through a weekly Dixieland jam session turned me on to Ravi Shankar’s The Sounds of India. This album is subtitled An Introduction to Indian Music, which it is indeed. I found Ravi’s explanation on the opening track to be very significant not only in basically laying out the elements of Indian music, but also in eventually shaping my perspective on how jazz and this musical form compare, contrast, and possibly intersect:

Ravi Shankar
The Sounds of India

Shankar has truly been an ambassador of Indian music. This is evident in his willingness to explain the music on recording, in liner notes, and in live concert, for those of you who have had the pleasure. The third track on the same album is one that has always stuck with me. You can hear a strong reference to that on “Palika Market” from Apti:.

Ravi Shankar
The Sounds of India

In college, the crisis of trying to figure out who I am and where I’m from bowled me over. Am I Indian? Am I American? Neither? Both? Musically speaking, I was often surrounded by the assumption of my peers that I “understand” Indian music, or that it’s “in my blood,” probably based on my name and the color of my skin. It was clear to me that engaging with Indian music was important to me but was something that I had to do on my own terms, at my own pace, and at a time that felt right. A major issue for me was to figure out how to deal with this music as a saxophonist. At Berklee College of Music, some fellow students from India told me that there was indeed someone playing Carnatic music on alto saxophone.

Kadri Gopalnath

Soon after, by sheer coincidence, my older brother gave me an album called Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Gopalnath. This was the guy! I saw immediately that there was no gimmick involved. Here was a artist playing Carnatic music at a very high level, whose vehicle just happened to be the saxophone. Kadri had figured out how to overcome the fixed-pitch nature of the saxophone and moreover had developed (technically and musically) a completely different approach to playing the instrument. Hearing Carnatic music played on my own instrument opened up new possibilities as a saxophonist and as an improviser. I could learn from this album in much the same way I was dissecting the jazz albums that I was listening to from Coltrane, Bird, Miles, Joe Henderson, Bunky Green, etc.

Saxophone Indian Style is very hard to find. My copy was stolen. Here is a track from Shadows, which I believe was released around the same time:

Kadri Gopalnath

A few years later, Berklee decided to send an “all-star” band to India to perform at the biennial Jazz Yatra festival. I was excited by the opportunity but also very nervous. I had not been to India in over 10 years and was perplexed about seeing family that I did not know well, confronting the fact that I don’t speak my parent’s language, explaining that I’m pursuing music as a career, etc. On this trip, the guitarist and bandleader, Amit Heri, a Bangalore native, took us to a concert on one of our days off. This concert changed my life. It was an all-night affair, which is quite common in Indian music. We got there at 8 PM and left around 4 AM. They were still going when we left! Among those on the program were veena artist Chitti Babu, vocalist Parween Sultana, and father-and-son percussionists Vikku Vinayakram and Selva Ganesh (both of Shakti fame). True superstars of Indian music all in one place!

Completely charged by what I heard, I went to the record store (in Bangalore) the next day and bought as much music as I could afford. In addition to looking for those whom I had I heard the night before, I also asked the shop owner for recommendations of “essential” artists/albums. Most of those recordings are still to this day some of the most inspirational and influential to me. Here are few of them:

Parween Sultana

I am continually blown away by Parween Sultana’s command of rhythm and melody.  This sort of complete musicianship is very rare regardless of genre. Unfortunately, I only have her album An Hour of Ectasy with Parween Sultana on tape. Here is a track from the equally amazing Simply Divine:

Parween Sultana
Simply Divine

Bismillah Khan

Often considered a major influence on Coltrane’s soprano playing, shehnai (North Indian double reed instrument, similar to the oboe) artist Bismillah Khan could say more with one note than most can with a thousand. I know it sounds clichéd but I think you’ll agree when you listen to this track:

Bismillah Khan

Emani Sankara Sastry was the guru (teacher) of Chitti Babu. His album Veena Recital is no longer available, but you can hear a track from Inde du Sud – L’art de la Vina:

Emani Sankara Sastry
Inde du Sud – L’art de la Vina

The nadhaswaram is the South Indian brother of the shehnai. On this same India trip, I was very lucky to be visiting the Jain temple of Gomateshwara at the time of a major festival that occurs every seven years. The nadhaswaram ensembles were in full force and I was captivated. Karukurichi P. Arunachalam and his guru T. N. Rajarathnam are considered the two greatest nadhaswaram players who ever lived. Recordings of these two are somewhat difficult to find; here’s a track from the album I bought:

Karukurichi P. Arunachalam

For quite a while, I had clearly gravitated towards the melodic aspects of Indian music, probably because I play a monophonic melodic instrument. Just a couple of years later, I met pianist Vijay Iyer, who turned me on to rhythmic aspects both via recordings and his own music. One album in particular was Laya Vinyas by mridangam master Trichy Sankaran. The track that initially struck me was this one, as Trichy demonstrates his virtuosity through both konnakol (vocal percussion) and the mridangam:

Trichy Sankaran
Laya Vinyas

The idea of perceiving rhythm melodically was relatively new to me. Steve Coleman had talked about this at length, but I had never heard execution at this level of genius.

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Since my exposure to the mentioned albums, I have continued to explore Indian music and have been lucky enough to collaborate with a few Indian musicians of note. Below are some other artists that I highly recommend; I admit that most are Carnatic, as that has been my focus in recent years. Again, these are folks that have been inspiring to me and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Just drop their names into Google, iTunes, eMusic, or Rhapsody, and something worth listening to will probably come up.

Look out for any album with “December Season” in the title. December Season refers to the major Carnatic festival that happens for the entire month of December in Chennai. During this month, there are 40-50 concerts per day from 5 AM-11 PM all over the city. All Carnatic artists, regardless of where they live in the world, perform in Chennai during this time, and everyone sports a “Play or go home!” attitude. Recordings of these concerts are usually killing! In general, most Indian musicians feel that live recordings are better than studio recordings because of the energy and degree of expression that can be achieved.

Ramnad Krishnan, Sudha Raghunathan, T. M. Krishna, O. S. Thiagarajan, P. Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam, T. N. Seshagopalan, Abhishek Raghuram

L. Subramaniam, Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, A. Kanyakumari, Ganesh & Kumaresh

Chitraveena (slide veena):

E. Gayathri

S. Shashank, Hariprasad Chaurasia, N. Ramani

U. Srinivas

Bikram Ghosh

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, Mannargudi Easwaran, Kaaraikudi R. Mani, Anand Ananthakrishnan

A. K. Palanivel

Bangalore N. Amrith

S. Karthick, V. Suresh

There are several web sites that stream Indian classical music for free. One really good one is Kannada Audio. Click on “classical” (which takes you to vocal music) or “instrumental.” There are similar sites for Hindustani music as well, if you poke around.

Thanks for reading!

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Thank you, Rudresh, for providing such an expansive selection of tunes, and for delving into how this music has affected you. As a capper to this wonderful introduction, we gratefully offer:

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition
Innova : 2008
Buy at eMusic. Buy at Amazon.

RM, alto sax; Rez Abbasi, guitar, sitar-guitar; Dan Weiss, tabla.

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Pi : 2008
Buy at Amazon.

RM, alto sax; Kadri Gopalnath, alto sax; A. Kanyakumari, violin; Rez Abbasi, guitar, sitar-guitar; Carlo de Rosa, bass; Poovalur Sriji, mridangam; Royal Hartigan, drums.

For more on Mr. Mahanthappa, be sure to check out his rich home page; his myspace, which includes more tunes; the mypace for the Indo-Pak Coalition; and the Internet home of Raw Materials, the duo of Mahanthappa and Iyer.

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