Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

Anil Prasad By

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I decided I'd rather play a reggae gig with people that were into the music. I was in a reggae band that was quite successful in Chicago called Charles Cameron and the Sunshine Festival. We're very briefly featured in the movie Love Jones, a beautiful African-American love story that takes place in Chicago. The director saw us play one night and asked us to do it. We did a shoot at The Wild Hare, a really famous reggae club in Chicago. It was fun. I also played a lot of salsa and merengue gigs during those days. They paid horribly and were always far away, which was hard, because I didn't have a car. They were also really, really loud, but man, I was able to get some real saxophone skills together playing merengue. That music is very hard to play. There's a lot of tonguing and weird, fast fingering involved. And again, I liked playing for people. It wasn't like putting on a tuxedo and playing a private party and feeling like wallpaper. In the meantime, I also had my own band. I was trying to get gigs and write music, but even with those reggae bands, if I had a solo, I would just play my shit too. [laughs] The leader thought that it was cool and even hilarious. So it was all good. In that sense, my role model was Michael Brecker. It's interesting to see what he got away with. No matter what he plays on, he's playing exactly like him. If he's playing with Dire Straits, he's still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. If he's playing with Paul Simon, he's still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. [laughs] It's almost like people didn't realize that he was pulling a fast one on them. I always thought if I was going to be in those situations, I was going to have the same attitude. I'm going to play my thing and somehow make it relevant to this reggae or merengue situation.

AAJ: Charlie Parker once said "Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." How does that statement apply to you?

RM: I always liked that quote. The first time I read it was probably in junior high. I had no idea what it meant. Then I understood there was this glamorization of Charlie Parker and his drug addiction. I've never dabbled in any of the hardcore stuff, but there was once a little part of me that thought "Maybe that's what you have to do. Maybe that's what 'livin' it' means." But to look back now at almost 40 years-old, what "livin' it" meant for me was trying to figure out who I am and realizing I'm not white and not black and that I'm something else. The question was: What does that "something else" mean? How does that fit into this country and the rest of the world? How do you stake a claim for yourself and your people? I think anytime one of us does something non-traditional, we're making it easier for someone else to do that. When I see a restaurant review in Time Out New York and see it was written by an Indian or Indian-American, I'm totally thrilled by that. I'm like "Go, dude!" If I look through gallery listings in New York and see an Indian artist, I'm going to go. Even if the stuff looks like crap, I'll go. [laughs] I know that South Asians come to my shows and they're obviously into the music, but they're also thrilled by the occurrence of the event of one of their own performing.

AAJ: Is there a spiritual component to your music?

RM: It's not religion-based, but when I'm really into it, I feel connected to something that is almost otherworldly. I can't describe it very well, but there's something that happens even when I'm alone if I'm playing something that's very special. There's also that amazing thing that happens when the band and audience are all kind of in tune somehow—some sort of resonance takes place that's actually more important than the music itself. So, to that degree, I'm spiritual. I was raised Hindu, but then we were left to our own devices come high school. There are a lot of great teachings on Hinduism, but ultimately, all religions talk about being a good person. That's something I make a conscious effort to be. I know I've gone through periods of being kind of a dick and I regret those. I know why that was happening. Certain things were forcing that. Surrounding myself with good people is as important as surrounding myself with good musicians now. I feel like I'm finally at a place where I really respect everyone I'm playing with as a person. There was a time when I was okay with playing with someone who was an asshole if he played really well. I have no patience for that anymore. As I inferred earlier, the music becomes secondary when everything else is in tune and it's those experiences I'm after.

Selected Discography

MSG, Tasty! (Plus Loin Music, 2011)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Bunky Green, Apex (Pi Recordings, 2010)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Steve Lehman, Dual Identity (Clean Feed, 2010)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Indo-Pak Coalition, Apti (Innova, 2008)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Kadri Gopalnath, Kinsmen (Pi Recordings, 2008)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Codebook (Pi Recordings, 2006)

Vijay Iyer/ Rudresh Mahanthappa, Raw Materials (Savoy Jazz, 2006)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Mother Tongue (Pi Recordings, 2004)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Black Water (Red Giant Records, 2002)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Yatra (RM, 1997)

Photo Credits
Page 2: John Rogers

Pages 5, 9: Cees van de Ven

All Others: Courtesy of Rudresh Mahanthappa
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