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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Between Kadri and Coltrane

By Published: August 2, 2007
AAJ: You remember your first jazz album?

RM: Yeah, it was Winelight (Elektra, 1980), by Grover Washington Jr., a really great jazz saxophonist who passed away a couple of years ago. I think I still have a copy of it somewhere.

AAJ: How did Berklee happen? Were you deep into jazz when you went to the Berklee College of Music?

RM: Yeah, I think I was already deep into jazz in high school. Towards the end of high school I had to make some difficult decisions about what I was going to pursue in college. I was pretty torn between doing something math or economics related and pursuing music. My parents were of course terrified about the idea of me going and studying only music. My dad tried to convince me to consider double major, say study math and music courses together. Math was something I was passionate about also. Their other apprehension was that, although they liked what I do, and like it more and more as the years go on, my father being an academic, didn't have a sense of how good, or even how bad [laughs], [a musician] I was.

What persuaded them for sure was a very substantial scholarship I got to study music. Personally I felt if I had studied something else, I would have always found asking myself what could have been had I studied music. And I don't think I could live with this idea that there was something I was really passionate about that I wasn't going to pursue or pursue it to the extent that I wanted to.

AAJ: At Berklee, were you the only Indian student?

RM: I was the only Indian-American student. But there were four to five students who were actually from India. My major was in jazz saxophone performance.

AAJ: You say somewhere, that till than you thought you were white. When did the realization come that you weren't white?

RM: That happened before Berklee. Even though I knew I was Indian, being surrounded by white people and treated as a white person by friends, I had started thinking of myself as one. By college I gradually realized that I wasn't. Part of this was that before Berklee, I had gone to the North Texas State University, with a very good jazz program. This school is in the American south, which is a little bit of a racist part of the US. There, I was made aware of the fact that I wasn't white. The school also had a very large African-American student population. But I discovered that I didn't belong to that group either. That's when I started thinking more and more about my roots, where I come from, and what my identity actually is. I started reading a lot of Indian-American authors like Bharati Mukherji. She was at that time at the forefront of Indo-American, Indo-Canadian authors who wrote about the issues of hybrid identity.

But in a musical way, I think it was a little later that the awakening came. When I was at Berklee, the college decided to send an all-Indian band, with a few of the Indian kids who were at Berkley and me, to represent it at the Jazz Yatra 1994 in India. There was one particular point when we were in a bus somewhere in Tamil Nadu, just north of Madras. Somebody was playing a Bismillah Khan [a celebrated Indian player of shehnai, an Indian reed instrument closely resembling a clarinet, in the Indian classical tradition who died in 2006] CD on the bus stereo, and it really moved me. It touched me in a very special way.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

A couple of nights later we went to a concert where Praveen Sultana [a well-known exponent of vocal Hindustani classical music] was singing. That really blew my mind too. That was the point when I really started thinking more about my roots and their being a huge part of who I am, and trying to figure out how to make that a part of how I expressed myself musically.

Around that time my older brother brought me a CD by Kadari Gopalnath. I couldn't believe someone was playing Carnatic music on the saxophone. So between all those things I wanted to understand more about where I am from and how that figures into who I am and what can I do [with it].

AAJ: Does ethnicity matter a lot in your music?

RM: It's important to me. The way it comes out is through my composing. My compositional style is very much influenced by lots of rhythmic and melodic concepts of both the North and the South Indian classical music. And even my approach to my sound, or at least the sound in my head that influences the sound of my saxophone, is very much from the shehnai or the nadaswaram tradition.

AAJ: When you perform around the US, does the audience accept you as an all-American music maker?

RM: These are very interesting times in the US where the idea of being an Indian-American is very much at the forefront. It's almost like we are the new Americans now. Finally! [laughs]. I see the notions of things Indian all around me, whether its fashion, or television. There are more Indian-Americans on the prime time TV than there ever were.

There was a time when I felt people wanted something artily Indian from me or they were projecting something Indian on to me. So, somebody would either come up to me and say, "I really like your music, but can't hear the Indian element." Or, on the flip side, they would see the color of your skin and say, "Oh my God! I can hear the rich tradition of 5,000 years of classical Indian music in your playing." And that's not really true either.

I think what it comes down for me is that it's not about being Indian: it's about being Indian-American, it's about defining a relatively new bio- cultural entity in the American landscape. "We're here, the first generation of non-immigrant Indians, who are making waves in business, entertainment, music, or whatever, and this is who we are. We are very much in touch with our roots and in touch with being American. We don't have to have a tabla player in our band and we don't have to go on stage wearing a turban. We don't have to do these things because we are a hybrid identity that is very much here to stay.

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