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

Ian Patterson By

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Ghosh was musical director of the Arkestra Makara and enjoyed the luxury of several days' rehearsal before the show: "Each of the musicians brought a piece of music of their own or of their folk style and the rest of the ensemble learnt it. We had my house band and my crew—bass, drums, vibraphone and percussion. We also worked with some young musicians from Morpeth School Music Department in East London, which was a great element.

"The colors that we were able to achieve texturally were absolutely brilliant," says Ghosh. "The combination of tuned percussion, gongs, strings plucked and bowed, with vibraphone, bass, drums and horns produced a really fine, amazing sound. That's why we called it Arkestra, because it really tapped into everything you hear in [pianist/bandleader] Sun Ra—or the things that you don't necessarily hear but that are almost implied."

Ghosh speaks with notable enthusiasm about the Arkestra Makara and the exotic array of instruments, some of which, he admits, he had never heard of before. "We really did something special," says Ghosh. "The Arkestra Makara is really kind of special. You can hear pan-African or pan-European ensembles but pan-Asian seems to be less common and I'd love to be able to do that more often. One day I'd really like to record it, but it's got to be all those elements, all those people. Collaboration is a great thing. It's very inspiring."

Another collaboration that threw Ghosh into new territory was the score he wrote in March 2010 for Lette Reiniger's 1926 feature-length animation "The Adventures of Prince Achmed." This bringing together of live performance and cinema premiered at the Albany, London and has since been performed in Manchester and in 2012 in Casablanca, Morocco with Berber, jazz and classical musicians.

In many ways, Ghosh's early professional grounding in the theatre served him well for this project, but likewise insists Ghosh, the experience of composing for theatrical/cinematic events such as "The Adventures of Prince Ahmed" has had an important effect on his method of composing for and performing with his touring group.

"The compositions I do for theatre, the musicians that I find myself working with and the musical ideas I have to express, all those things find their way into the songs that I'm writing, the instrumentation and my performance style. They inform each other," Ghosh explains.

"My improvisation has started to inform how I'm composing in the theatre. More often than not now I'm composing at the piano. I watch what's going on, the movements and the lighting, and I listen to the text and I improvise to it. At some point I'll record it with different instruments and that's started to influence how we're playing live. Anything which can take you beyond the notes, for me at least," says Ghosh "is to be welcomed."

Ghosh was appointed Associate Artist at the Albany Theatre in 2010 and a year later was made Artist-In-Residence for the Southbank's Alchemy Festival. He's composed music for over half a dozen theatre projects as well as composing scores for radio, film and television. With appearances at the London Jazz Festival and the aforementioned special commission for the London Cultural Olympiada with Arkestra Makara, Ghosh has clearly achieved a tremendous amount in a short time. This British Asian jazz clarinetist, who channels rock, punk and dance music as much as South Asian influences into his music, seems to be an important figure of the jazz mainstream in the UK.

Ghosh, however, is not entirely sure: "I'm getting some mainstream attention, in terms of who's interested in programming us, writing about us or playing us on the radio. I can't say I'm not mainstream in that sense. I'm glad about that I have to admit. I do feel that there's another side that keeps us away from the mainstream. My rock 'n' roll and pop background separates me from a more traditional jazz-orientated head space. I'm naturally going to be part of an alternative scene, one that's more aligned to the punkier, rockier side of jazz."

In a sense, Ghosh's music falls between two stools and it's not something that has escaped his notice: "The music I make with the South Asian sound also separates me from the main stream to a certain extent. There are places I haven't been programmed at and wouldn't be programmed at because I'm not necessarily thought of as a jazz artist but as a World Music artist. On the flip side there are World Music and South Asian music scenes that I'm also not necessarily part of because I'm thought of as a jazz act. I've made my own bed and I'm lying in it."


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