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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Between Kadri and Coltrane

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Rudresh MahanthappaNew York-based jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa in conversation with Hemant Sareen. The interview appeared in the New Delhi-based men's magazine, M, March-April, 2007.



While Bobby Jindal and Indra Nooyi are making Indian-Americans' presence felt in the corridors of political and corporate power in the US, another front seems ready to be claimed by them: the arts. And nothing represents the American arts like jazz. Despite being an international musical currency, jazz is still an unbroken American tradition and a reservoir of the American spirit.



Nothing heralds the entre of Indian-Americans into the sanctum sanctorums of the American society better than the presence of Rudresh Mahanthappa as a leading, vital voice of jazz. The New York-based, thirty-something alto saxophonist and composer is, according to another all-American institution, The New Yorker ..."a talent to keep a steady eye on." Down Beat Magazine has named him a "Rising Star of the Alto Saxophone" for the past four years, (number two on the 2006 critics' poll list). The sound of his alto saxophone, that recalls as much the fluency of John Coltrane as the sharpness of Indian pickles has critics and audiences guessing its provenance.



Like the jazz giants of a previous generation, Mahanthappa's conceptualizing and composing skills, which feed as many as five jazz groups he leads or co-leads, have found equal acclaim. The cerebral-yet-swinging Codebook (Pi, 2006), based on number theory and encryptology inspired by Simon Singh's bestseller The Code Book (Anchor, 2000), was noticed by Wired and Science Magazine and is already in the top twenty on US jazz radio charts. His earlier album Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004), based on speech samples turned into musical notations, received four stars in Down Beat and made it to the top ten jazz CDs of 2004 lists of many jazz publications. It reached number eight on US jazz radio charts and remained at number on Canadian jazz radio charts for over a month.



Mahanthappa's international recognition has come from his innovative music, as well as working as a sideman with such big names as David Murray, Steve Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, David Liebman, and Greg Osby, to name a few. In all, Mahanthappa is one of the most influential jazz musicians in the US today, considered even as the future of jazz. In a telephone conversation with Hemant Sareen, he reveals how he and his jazz, gloriously proud of their hybridism, might even be the future of the US.

All About Jazz: I read somewhere that you were the only Indian family in Boulder, Colorado in California. So did that make yours an Indian or an American childhood?

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Yeah, I didn't grow up with many Indians there. My parents moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1965. And I think at that time they were probably two of the only Indians in Boulder. By the time I was born and growing up, there were a few more. But it was definitely a situation where being an Indian was definitely an oddity. At my elementary school there was one other Indian girl who was one or two years older than me. And everybody assumed she was my sister.

A difference I see in interacting with Indian-Americans of my own generation is that people are Indians to lot of varying degrees and it does have to do with how many other Indians they grew up with. For example, we never really learnt Kannada and growing up my parents spoke more English in the house than they did Kannada. Had there been other people to speak Kannada with, we would've learnt more. But we didn't.

AAJ: Was there a conflict at home between preserving your culture and trying to go out and assimilate?

RM: In a way, my parents found it difficult as they themselves were trying to learn how to raise children in a country that wasn't their country. So they were trying to improvise something. We were obviously taught Hindu prayers and my mom would listen to bhajans she had on lots of albums and tapes. We were raised as Hindus in a "sort of" way, not necessarily a very formal way. But conflicts? No. There was no pressure on my parents, whether to assimilate or not. In trying to learn how to raise children in a foreign country, my parents realized they had to be flexible too. For example, my younger brother came home from school and asked why we didn't have a Christmas tree like all the other kids did. One response would have been to say that we are Hindus we don't celebrate Christmas. But instead my parents chose to buy a Christmas tree. And we still celebrate Christmas by putting up a tree and giving each other presents. But we don't subscribe to any of the Christianity associated with it. So my parents were essentially put in a position of raising children who would ultimately have a hybrid culture.

AAJ: When did jazz or anything resembling jazz come into your early childhood?

RM: Well, my parents really encouraged us to be as well- rounded as possible and investigate as much as we could. So when my time came to choose an instrument, my older brother who played the clarinet at grade school, told me that I should play saxophone because he always regretted that by playing clarinet he wasn't allowed to be in the school jazz band, clarinet being too traditional an instrument. You know for saxophone there is very little European classical repertoire. So, playing the saxophone meant playing jazz, rock, or pop music.



Also, my jazz and saxophone teacher was amazing. I studied with him for eight years, from the age of 9 or 10, all the way until I left for the university. He was very well-rounded, and would always bring over albums for me of all different genres of music ?- jazz, different kinds of rock, traditional jazz, avant-garde jazz, soul, R&B. So, at a very young age I had a sense that there was a great versatility—that good music could exist in different forms. That was really important.

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.

About Rudresh Mahanthappa
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