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Arun Ghosh: A Very British-Asian Jazz Head-Space

Ian Patterson By

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For Ghosh it was very much a case of learning on the job. He would learn the tunes and melodies and play what he was told to play, as well as what not to play: "Through that I started to get my own concept of South Asian music. I think that's quite important," says Ghosh, "because most South Asian classical musicians study how the music is played with a guru and it's been like that since the year dot. I was lucky enough to be able to come to it in a different head space. I was in a position to think, what is it I like about this?"

Ghosh admits to having an intuitive feel for the music: "Even though I'd never really played classical Indian music before I think I had the right feel, the right flow and intonation, the right groove and the right sentiments, basically. It opened my eyes because it then started to influence my composition. Rather than just wanting to jam over the tabla it became important to me as an element of self discovery and identity to actually be able to play this stuff. I didn't just want to do it okay; I wanted to do it well."

Adopting a rather unusual approach, Ghosh threw himself into learning the intricacies of classical Indian tradition: "Just as when I was learning jazz, transcribing [saxophonist, John] Coltrane solos, [pianist] Herbie Hancock solos and [saxophonist] Julian "Cannonball" Adderley solos, I started to do a similar thing with South Asian music—listening to the records and transcribing the music. That's a real jazz culture approach to a South Asian style. You don't learn South Asian music like that. You normally learn from a guru for years. It started to influence my composition and that's where Northern Namaste came from."


Ghosh's first album was an intoxicating brew of Indo-jazz filtered through the rock, punk and dance cultures that the clarinetist had absorbed growing up. Dholak, bayan drums and tabla mingled with a jazz set-up of drum, bass, piano and saxophone. There was sitar too, played by Jonathon Mayer, son of the progenitor of Indo-jazz in the UK, composer/violinist John Mayer. Mayer had come to London in the early 1950s and besides playing with the London & Royal Philharmonic Orchestras he also formed the group Indo-Jazz Fusions with alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, recording the groundbreaking album Indo-Jazz Suite (Atlantic, 1966).

"That was the first Indo-jazz that I heard and I heard it at a good, formative stage," says Ghosh. My Mum had the LP, actually. I did enjoy that record. What I loved about it was the wonkiness of it. They were just trying things out. It was so 1960s; they had a harpsichord in it," Ghosh says laughing. "I liked where it was coming from compositionally. The compositions and improvisations were really strong. But more so than the South Asian element I loved the Joe Harriot side of things. Sometimes you can feel that they were sticking things together but the ethos behind it was real and it wasn't about fusion."

The fusion in jazz-fusion or Indo-Jazz fusion—terms that are sometimes used to describe Ghosh's own music—doesn't sit too comfortably with Ghosh: "I see fusion as taking two or more styles and sticking them together and what I do isn't about that. What I'm about is jazz," he affirms. "It's just that I'm using another language to the blues, or show tunes or indeed avant-garde experimental music. But the culture that I'm coming from, in terms of how the music is structured, who plays it and where we play it, and in some ways who it's for—but not necessarily—is jazz.

"I'm doing something no different to what [saxophonist Jan] Garbarek does, or did, in terms of use of Nordic folk music. I'm doing something no different to Cannonball Adderley with his gospel roots soul. My point is that I'm just using my own musical language to play jazz. That's why it's not fusion, at least as I see it."

Over the past half dozen years Ghosh has tended to work with a core group of musicians but he is clearly open to new collaborations as his involvement with the Arkestra Makara demonstrated. The Arkestra Makara was a pan-Asian ensemble that Ghosh and Chrys Chijiutomi were asked to put together for the Asian Music Stage as part of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiada, and part of a wider festival called the BT River of Music.

The musicians eventually brought together hailed from Sri Lanka, India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Japan, the Maldives and South Korea. In addition, Ghosh recruited free-spirited percussionist Susie Ibrarra from the United States: "That was an amazing experience," enthuses Ghosh of the one-off concert. "Our ethos was that percussion and strings were very important; the combination of harps and lutes that you've got across South East Asia and the range of percussion instruments are extremely inspiring to work with."

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