Ranjit Barot: Beautiful Collision

Ian Patterson By

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Ranjit Barot is a well-known figure in India's music industry, where for many years he has written film scores, produced Indie pop, and, more recently, composed and directed the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which were held in Delhi. Barot, who spent the first 12 years of his life in England, came to a wider audience as the drummer on guitar icon John McLaughlin's outstanding Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008). McLaughlin—who knows a thing or two about drummers—found in Barot a drummer versed in the jazz, jazz-rock and fusion traditions, as well as one conversant in Indian harmonic and rhythmic accents: a soul-mate, you might say.

It was childhood friend Zakir Hussain who persuaded Barot to get out of the studios where he was earning his bread and butter, and realize his full potential as a musician. Barot toured with Hussain in the United Sates and went on to play with trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Charlie Mariano, honing his craft and growing in confidence along the way.

For Barot, hearing the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti as a teenager were life-altering experiences. The musical vision of McLaughlin and Hussain has influenced and shaped Barot's musical philosophy to a large degree, and has fostered and encouraged a musical duality that was inherent in Barot from the beginning.

Now Barot is venturing out as a leader and composer in his own right, 40 years after first picking up the drum sticks. Bada Boom is an exhilarating and ambitious offering, bringing together a string section, a horn section and an absolutely spectacular lineup of musicians. In addition to McLaughlin and Hussain, there are significant contributions from mandolinists U. Srinivas and U. Rajesh, saxophonist Tim Garland, bassist Matthew Garrison, djembe player and percussionist Taufique Qureshi, guitarist Wayne Krantz, pianist Gwilym Simcock and keyboard player Scott Kinsey.

Bada Boom also introduces several significant new voices on the Indian music scene, including a prodigiously talented 14-year-old bassist, Mohini Day. When such musicians come together, and when such rich and diverse musical traditions fuse under the guidance of Barot, it is indeed a beautiful collision.

All About Jazz: Tell us a little bit about your philosophy on making music and how this played in to the making of Bada Boom.

Ranjit Barot: I have always been conversant with the Western culture; I was born in England and lived there until I was about 12, and then I moved back. My mother was an Indian classical dancer, so I grew up with Indian music all around me in the house. I was going to this school which was predominantly Catholic, and all the affluent kids in the neighborhood were English-speaking and listened to rock and roll—this was all the way through my childhood. I was exposed to both cultures simultaneously, and I fitted in to both very comfortably. I can see the commonality between both cultures without having to force it or intellectualize it, and I think the music reflects that.

AAJ: In the liner notes of Bada Boom, you write about being able to have a glimpse of the oneness of all music. Could you expand on that idea, please?

RB: Yeah, and for that matter not only all music but all art, because if you take a group of musicians from all over the world and put them in the same room and strip away all the things like ethnicity—and what you are left with is intent and spirit—when you get to that point, then anything else becomes superfluous. That conversation, that feeling, is what we are really chasing.

AAJ: Is this oneness of all music something elusive? You talk of being able to have a glimpse of it, as though it's not that easy to find. Or is it something that we don't notice precisely because it's always before us?

RB: Yeah, it's about having the most meaningful conversation you can with other musicians. John [McLaughlin] says it a lot. He plays maybe 100 concerts per year, and he says it's only three or four times that he gets that feeling, and that's what keeps him going on and on: chasing that feeling. It's a kind of nakedness.

AAJ: In terms of the musicians on Bada Boom, you have a veritable embarrassment of riches, but let's start with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain. When did you first hear them, and how have they impacted you as a musician?

RB: Zakir is very close to my family. His father, the great Alla Rakha Khan, was very close friends with my mother, and they lived just down the road from us in Bombay. I was very lucky to spend some time with him and be exposed to all the rhythmic knowledge he had. When I went over there, I would see Zakir and the other brothers, but Zakir was the emerging star. He had already shown at a very young age that he was extremely blessed, so I was always in awe of him. Then when he and John came along with Shakti, I was completely blown away. Then there was the Mahavishnu Orchestra; this is music which shapes your life.

In India the culture is that when we are affected and influenced by musicians, they informally become our teachers and we respect them in that sense. It's not a casual thing. We take it very seriously, and as far as I was concerned they were my teachers. An automatic hierarchy was established in my consciousness about who these people were, and I really learned a lot from them. Then I got a chance to play with John, and that was a dream come true.

AAJ: The track "Supernova" is dedicated to Zakir Hussain's father, Alla Rakha Khan, of whom Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said, "He is the highest example of rhythmic development." Would you agree with that comment, and could you maybe explain it?

RB: Absolutely. Maybe you made the connect, but the whole album is scenes and events from the Big Bang onwards. "Singularity" is when the whole universe was a pinpoint; "T=0" was the birth of time; "Revolution" is the first time we experienced orbits within planets; "Supernova" is self-explanatory because Alla Rakha Khan has maybe gone away from this world, but he still illuminates our lives. We still feel his presence, stronger than ever. Not only was he a great, great musician and a rhythmic genius, but he was one of the most beautiful people I knew. He was a saint.

For me, that is really important. I mean, you can be a great musician, but if nobody can spend five minutes with you in a room, then that's a bit of a drag.

AAJ: Zakir Hussain certainly has all the talent of his father, and his playing on "Supernova" is wonderful, but it's maybe surprising that this is the only track on Bada Boom where you significantly employ a table. Is there a simple explanation for that?

RB: I don't really know. I'm a kind of a busy drummer and I'm not a fan of playing in big rhythmic ensembles all the time.

AAJ: So you felt there was enough going on there?

RB: Yes, I did. You know, there's so much Indian-ness going on in the album, and I didn't want to feature rhythm instruments all the time. This album is as much about my compositions as well as my ability to play the drums, and I think that's something I want to maintain. I don't want to be a drummer; it's my primary instrument, though I'm a musician who wants to compose meaningful music.

AAJ: You toured the States with Zakir Hussain in the Masters of Percussion tour. What was the setup and how was the experience?

RB: I started out playing drums, but for a long time I did the whole studio thing because, basically, I had a family to support and I wasn't making any money from playing drums, man. Zakir Bhai invited me to play at a gig in Bombay, and he told me that it would be a shame if I didn't get out there and play. That was a big judgment for me that he thought I was talented enough to get out of the studio and go out and play. He kept pushing me back to playing drums, and one day he said, "We're going on the road."

That was a demanding tour, especially coming on after him, because he goes on stage for an hour, and he kills it, man. He says pretty much everything that needs to be said. You end up thinking, "Well, what am I going to do now?" At one gig, I said to him, "I've got a great idea for the next gig." He thought I was coming up with a new arrangement, and I said, "You should play last." That way, I could have some sort of respectable moment on stage, because after that guy it's over, you know?

He's extremely encouraging, and I owe a lot to him to be doing what I'm doing right now.

AAJ: You played on John McLaughlin's Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008), an experience which you described on A Meeting of the Minds—The Making of Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008) as the best five days of your life. How did the experience of recording Bada Boom compare?

RB: I'd got my drumming back together and I was feeling better about myself, and then I get a call to play with John McLaughlin. I told myself, "Don't piss it away, man." I learned the songs and I was prepared to do my best. When I got there, the thing that got me was how generous John is with space; you had all this space to do whatever you wanted. You've grown up listening to a guy your whole life, and he's played with my favorite drummers—Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden and Tony Williams—and here he is behind the glass looking at you as you're recording something. It was surreal, quite surreal.

For those five days, most of what he did and said validated a lot of what I felt as a musician and as a human being. That was the best thing. It's great to have your mentors validate you in that respect, and also believing in the same things you believe in, which makes you think you're not so far off in your thinking. It was magical.

My album, on the other hand, was something that had been brewing inside me for a while. I live in a country where the film industry and film music is really the biggest thing, and I'm not allowed to work creatively in those areas; it's very narrow. So ever since I played with John, I had been affected, basically, and needed to do something meaningful. I went about casting musicians for each song, and I'm lucky that I got pretty much everyone I casted. I was so intent and focused on it, and when I was finished I looked back on it, and yes, I was extremely happy that I had done something meaningful.
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