Rudresh Mahanthappa: Song of the Jasmine has been a wild ride

Categories: Q&A
Photo by Ethan Levitas

Colorado-raised, New York-based composer and jazz alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has fused bop and avant-garde jazz with everything from punk rock and drum 'n' bass to classical South Indian stuff over a 20-year career.

Premiering May 15-18 at Walker Art Center, Song of the Jasmine is his new collaboration with Twin Cities-based Ragamala Dance choreographers Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy. After a recent rehearsal with Ragamala, Gimme Noise and Mahanthappa discussed the Jasmine project and his career.

Drawing on the artists' South Indian heritage, Jasmine explores conflicting notions of identity, the traditional and contemporary, spirituality and sensuality. Five Ragamala dancers will adapt the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam to Mahanthappa's hybrid of jazz and Carnatic (South Indian) music, including improvised passages by both musicians and dancers. The band assembled for Jasmine includes longtime Mahanthappa associate Rez Abbasi on guitar, Carnatic flautist Raman Kalyan, and sisters Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan on mridangam and violin, respectively.

Gimme Noise: How is Song of the Jasmine coming together?
Rudresh Mahanthappa: We've been getting together to work on sections of the piece every six to eight weeks since December. It's a stretch for everyone involved because the Bharatanatyam tradition doesn't really deal with improvisation, but some of the sections of what I've written are improvised and structurally more akin to a jazz tradition. The music doesn't sound that way, but structurally it kind of functions that way. So there are parts of the show that will be different every performance. We're trying to figure out some language together where we can communicate with each other and still create something cohesive. It's been a wild ride; it's really cool. Dancers hear music differently. They don't deal with music like musicians do, regardless of the fact that this tradition is obviously so tied to music and tied to rhythm. It's been really different so it's fun to try to get inside of that too.

So the dancers improvising too?
Yeah, they're improvising just like jazz musicians. They're improvising within their vocabulary and their language. But yeah, those sections of some of the movements, they will be different from night to night. The dancers are reacting to the soloists and the soloists are reacting to the dancers. There are certain cue points so we know how to get in and out of these sections. But it's very different from, you know, the music is set and the dance is set and it just goes. It's a whole interactive process between all ten of us.

Ragamala Dance

The dancers are part of the band and the band is part of the dance troupe?
Absolutely. Definitely.

On a project like this, what comes first, the dance, the music, or what?
Even if it's vague, a framework for what the whole piece is... There is a story line of loss and longing, kind of typical scenes that occur within both Indian classical music and dance, but in a modern way. I knew very quickly I wouldn't be able to show up with a band like Gamak [Mahanthappa's current genre-blurring ensemble], with acoustic bass and screaming electric guitar and drums -- that wasn't really gonna work. Even just thinking about instrumentation, like something that kind of meets in the middle, between South India music and jazz, for lack of a better word, which is something I've been doing on my own for quite a while.

And then since it is Indian music essentially, or it's coming from that base, it's easier to think about ragas and for me to build around that... I didn't go totally out, but I can do that... Now the piece is four or five movements with some interlude sections to bridge things. There is one movement that's without dance because it's a really great band and I wanted people really get to hear us too. Not that they don't get to hear us within the dance, but it's nice for us to just be able to let it rip for eight minutes.

I've heard this piece deals with identity and multiculturalism and global issues.
Even when you read the ancient poetry of India there is an issue of identity and rediscovery. There are denominations of Hinduism that pay no regard to the caste system and you have generations of people that were really able to reinvent themselves. And then of course Aparna and I, we're Indian-Americans and we're part of probably the first major generation of Indian-Americans that are out there in the arts. We're not doctors, we're not engineers, we're actually trying to create a new hybrid language within what we do to describe what it means to be bi-cultural. At its very core, the piece represents that in a way, so we're both stretching and collaborating to exemplify ways to do that.

You've done that in almost all the music you've done.
I see it all as kind of a journey; different ways of looking at the same thing, I guess. As I grow as a composer I'm more interested in other things and it all becomes part of a larger conversation. I think that way back when, say like '95 when I'm in my mid-20s, trying to actually define what it means to myself to be Indian-American was actually an issue. Now I don't think twice about it. I think the confusion actually becomes a benefit and becomes something that gives me a unique perspective on how I observe the world around me and how that translates with making music.

Is that something you had to work through in a personal sense and in an artistic sense?
In a personal sense it's a larger issue, just to have that kind of cultural angst. But musically, in some ways in working through that the music is maybe a by-product of growing up and becoming an adult. But specifically with regard to music, the main issues to me were to not sell either side of the cultural equation short. There are a lot of bad Indo-fusion projects out there; a lot of bad East-meets-West collaborations that are just terrible. It's people coming together and playing in the same room; they're not playing together, they're playing next to each other. They're not really collaborating, they're not necessarily interested in learning about the cultural background of the other collaborators. They're more interested in showing up and doing what they do. Or it's exoticism, or it's trying to dress something up to look as if it's not Western.

That's a danger with any kind of hybrid thing. As an artist, as a composer how do you do that without diluting, compromising one or the other?
It's important to be as educated as possible, obviously, in this case about Western music and about Indian music, and just continue that process of learning for the rest of my life. But also to look at the basic building blocks. If you take any art form and break it down to its building blocks, break it down to its roots, you're in a much better position to actually build something that incorporates both, that is actually creating new language that has a lot of integrity and sincerity. It's when you take the superficial exotic -- "Oh, I took this Indian melody and I put some chords under it and I put some swing feel to it, now I'm hybridizing jazz and Indian music" -- that's the dangerous stuff that I see. I see it happening less though, just because there's greater access to information because of the internet now. But I still see it and it still freaks me out.

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