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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

By Published: May 2, 2011
RM: More than anything, whatever I was going to do within the confines of the project could not be jive in any way. I couldn't jive some sort of Indian melodic raga-oriented thing with him sitting next to me doing it for real. What was important about the situation is that I felt like I could be a jazz musician within this kind of Indian setting, as opposed to finding a way to negotiate both sides, because half of it was taken care of. So, that was new territory. Of course, rhythmically, when we're trading all of that stuff he's throwing at me so quickly, I have to answer back. That was a ballbuster. It was like "Okay, I think I have good ears, but this guy has amazing ears and can play anything back." We did some gigs a few months ago for the first time in awhile and it was great. I saw how much I had grown in three years in terms of having a greater understanding of what I'm trying to do and where I'm headed. I felt like I was coming to the music with a more substantial level of maturity. I was thinking "Wow, I can hang in a way I wasn't hanging in 2007." That was very cool.

AAJ: Both you and Gopalnath have been considered outsiders during your careers. Did you have conversations about that?

RM: We didn't have conversations about sharing that experience, but we did talk about his past, which was great, because it was like a jazz musician's past. I always think a lot of Indian music is about lineage, involving the son or the grandson of the disciple of so and so, with all of this knowledge passed down. People are almost anointed. And then you have the whole Brahmenical culture on top of that too. That adds another layer of high-falutin' superiority. With Kadri, you have a guy who's not a Brahman. He's the son of a semi-professional musician who plays in the local temple. Kadri is a self-made man. He talked about how he was on this schedule in which he was working at an electronics store, selling transistor radios, and working a 10-hour shift there. Then he'd come home, eat, and practice until 3:00 am in the morning. He'd go to sleep for three hours and go back to work. He did that for a few years while he was trying to get his thing together. He also discussed the All India Radio thing, in which you get "Class A" or "Class B" for your playing. You're judged on your abilities in order to get work on radio. He walked into All India Radio with his saxophone and they laughed at him. Then he started playing and they said "Ohhhhh." They conducted a kind of examination and said "Now do this. Now can you play this?" And he's playing the hell out of all this traditional Carnatic musical literature. What a novel experience it must have been to get over with those folks.

I didn't really tell Kadri about the ways I felt like an outsider, because really, I wasn't sure if he would even get it if I did. I think being trained as a Western musician and making a living in that universe is very alien to him. He would even get hung up on really basic things like clothes. He would say "You don't wear traditional Indian clothes?" I said "No, I never have." He'd respond "You don't wear a black-and-white tuxedo like the orchestra musicians either?" I said "No, I usually wear nice pants and a good shirt. Very occasionally I'll wear a suit for something special." And he'd say "So, what you wear is traditional jazz dress?" That would crack me up. I didn't know how to explain it to him. [laughs]

AAJ: Tell me about the beginnings of Indo-Pak Coalition and how the idea evolved into the current line-up.

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