DR. L. SUBRAMANIAM INTRODUCES THE BLUES TO EASTERN INDIAN MUSIC
It was May of 1999 when I received a call from a Dr. Raman. He was the manager of the great violin master from India known as Dr. L. Subramaniam or Mani as his friends call him. Dr. Raman is also a Biochemist (as is his wife Shouba). Dr. Subramaniam (Mani) was a practicing heart surgeon for a number of years before he gave that up to devote his life to music. And so the title of *Dr.*
I later found out that Mani is the only living violinist to receive the Chakravarti or Emperor of the violin Award from the Indian Government. He is considered to be the new Ravi Shankar of India. He is also very well known in the west by those in the jazz world. My friend and jazz critic Neil Tesser (Critic for Playboy, the Chicago Reader and author of a new book published by Playboy, told me that he was a major fan of Mani's and was very impressed with his musical accomplishments and lifetime achievements.
I was told by Dr. Raman (Mani's Manager) that a friend of Mani's with the name of Jim Bessman had suggested to Mani that he contact me for consideration as part of a Chicago Global Fusion concert featuring many virtuoso artists from all over the globe.
Jim Bessman is the critic from Billboard Magazine who chose Chamber Blues -- Complementary Colors as his top 5 favorite CDs of 1998. I owed him my life for that. And now he introduces me to Mani!
It was always my understanding that putting different forms of music into categories was interesting and useful to some degree. But it also has the potential to separate forms of music and therefore separate cultures, and therefor separate people. Not a good thing if you think about it. However when one person from one culture, strata or neighborhood, enjoys the music from another culture, strata, or neighborhood, it generates love and respect for the people behind the music. In this way music has a natural power to pull people together and nurture respect and love for all cultures and individualities. Not a bad thing if you think about it! The music industry (which is not entirely bad) has done an expert job in creating great walls between musical genre. Not a good thing!
Imagine what it would be like today without the fearlessness of the Beatles, Yehudi Menuhin and other artists that explored genres beyond their own and sometimes made them their own and helped weaken at least some of the walls. This is true crossover. Also it is good to remember that every new form of music began as a form with some degree of crossover as the new or innovative element. Crossover has an immediate and important place in the arts and is also an amazing tool for bringing people together as one diverse humanity which is the greatest political, social, and human goal. As the music industry begins to promote crossover it helps mend some of the social wounds it has a hand in creating.
When I was asked to be a member of this crossover project and to appear at Chicago's Orchestra Hall (now called Symphony Center) I agreed to the idea. I didn't feel worthy to be part of a group of amazing world masters but I knew what I had to offer so I expressed my musical limitations during a conversation with Mani and I then surrendered to whatever might turn up for me.
The first rehearsal (one day before the concert) was held in a far south side Chicago suburban home. Mani and other musicians were flying in from India that morning including Vishwa Mohaan Bhatt the Grammy Award-Winning master who plays a multiple stringed *guitar* of his own design and Kamalakar Rao the 65 year old murdungam master with the hands of a lotus flower and Swapan Chaudri the tabla (classical Indian hand-drum) master who co-founded the Ali Akbar school in S.F. and has played with everyone from the Beatles to ...
(The tabla is a set of classical Indian hand drums which I also use in the Chamber Blues project. In Chamber Blues the tabla are played by Frankie Donaldson the 11 year verteran with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. The murdungam is the predicisor to the tabla and is a log like hand drum with heads on either end).
Their flight was a few hours late so they rushed right to the rehearsal and began the work after a 30 hour travel time on the road. I was delighted and honored to find that Mani composed a piece for me that morning on his flight on the way to the rehearsal.
On first speaking with Mani back in May, I had suggested that it would be best if he kept any possible solos of mine to a single major chord accompaniment so that I could play more freely within the blues mode which I am accustomed to. I had explained to Mani that I am a *blues guy* and that outside of this mode I am limited.
Mani had performed and recorded with everyone from Jean Luc Ponty, Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli, and he has literally hundreds of recordings and sound tracks around the globe. I guess Mani was not interested in allowing me to rest on my laurels and in this piece he offered a number of challenges for me. Some chord changes can be approached in a very modal style. In other words, one can pretty much ignore the changes and weave the melodic improvisations around and through the changes if need be. This piece was not like this and I was forced to adapt. If I felt unworthy in the presence of these great musical masters and the additional challenge of the chord changes in this piece made me feel like I wanted to disappear.
A great teacher of mine said that when you feel like; *I just can't do this* you should understand that this is good. Your ego is out of the way now and all you have left is your heart. Sometimes us performers must be brought back down to earth because all we hear from people is raves. It is said that you can't *be* humble you can only experience humility and learn from that. So I did not run away from this opportunity to grow and learn.
From the first rehearsal till concert the next day and even right up to Mani's return to the airport the morning after the concert, the schedule was non-stop. It wasn't bad for me but these travelers from India started with a 30 hour travel deficit handicap. We rushed from the first rehearsal on the far south-side to a dance concert on the far north side to a dinner on Devon street on the north side to a late night rehearsal in a downtown Chicago hotel where Mani was going to spend the night ... what would be left of the night.
It was getting close to 2 AM and not one musician at the rehearsal made any comments much less complaints. Even the 65 year old Kamalakar Rao with the hands of a lotus flower played hard till the rehearsal ended and didn't blink an eye or utter even a single vibration of discontent.
As it was approaching 2 AM I wanted to let my wife Holly know what time she should pick me up. I interrupted the rehearsal and without explaining the reason to Mani I asked him what time he thought the rehearsal would be ending.
*Do you want to go?;* He asked sincerely. *No way! I'm not going to go to sleep before you;* are the words that came out of my mouth. I was aware that I was one of the few members of the group that was rested and had in the near future the possibility for more sleep. The rehearsal would end at the right time -- whenever that was -- and I would then call my wife and that would be fine. I realized that it was silly to disturb the flow of the rehearsal just so I could save 10 or 15 minutes for myself.
When I perform with Chamber Blues I arrive to the concert hall stage sometimes as early as noon (with a good night sleep or not a good nights sleep) to set up the stage and make sure the sound and everything is ready for the rest of the group. The actual sound checking usually starts at 2:00 PM for me. The group shows up a 4:00 PM to do their part of the sound check. The sound is extremely important to me. I believe that no matter how great the music is, if the sound is not beautiful -- what good is it. So I put a great deal of planning and time into the sound enhancement. I can talk about this more in another BluesLetter if anyone has an interest in this.
Anyway, the technical part of the day is over usually around 5:30. This gives me just enough time to get used to the piano, practice some harmonica, go over the form of the show, have a small snack and hopefully relax a bit before I have to get dressed for the show. I rarely go back to the hotel before the show. Sometimes I have to do a little rushing around to radio stations and interviews or pre-concert lectures or workshops and of course this adds to the intensity of the day. After the show the group and I make it a practice to rush out to the lobby and meet the members of the audience and answer their questions and sign the CDs. With Chamber Blues they always have great questions. After that there is often a reception or an after concert dinner with the promoter. The group works very hard but I understand how it is an extra challenge and responsibility for the leader of the group and this is why I had to have very special respect for Mani and why I was so willing to just go along with things and not ask too many frivolous questions. I know how great it is to have people who are flexible and willing to offer the greatest space to work within for everyone's benefit. I did not want to relax out of that awareness.
I called my dear wife Holly (who is also my personal manager) as the rehearsal wound down at 2:00 AM. Holly arrived at 2:15 AM just as I and the other members walked outside of the hotel. I got home at 2:30 AM. However some other members were staying on the far south side and probably didn't get to sleep until 3:00 or 3:30 AM. 65 year old Mrdangham master Kamalaka Rao with the hands of a lotus flower was one of these musicians.
The next morning we all met at the Hotel at 10:00 AM to load our equipment over to Orchestra hall, set up, soundcheck and rehearse some more.
The concert at Orchestra Hall began at 4:00 PM. The first three hours featured Mani, his two drummers and Vishwa Mohaan Bhatt. This was three hours of Eastern classical music at its best. Jon Weber (the Jazz piano player from Chicago) who is one of those musicians that I cannot conceive of how they do what they do, said of the music at this concert; *This music and performance is so amazing I cannot conceive how they do what they do.* What makes this even more amazing to think about is that much of the instrumentation and structure was developed and designed by the sages and masters from antiquity for the sole purpose of healing and uplifting humanity. This added another interesting dimension to my evening.
Mani has injected the science of this ancient music into his *Global Fusion* compositions. So his Global Fusion compositions not only offer crossover to the world and help bring people together but also act as a powerful and special upliftment for the musicians and the audience as supported by a lineage of musical sages and masters from the beginning of time. I won't do any of this music the injustice by trying to describe it ... this is something you will have to see for yourself.
The Global Fusion took place in the fourth hour of the concert. When it came time for my cameo, I was as prepared as I could be. I spent all the time that was available working on the technique that would help me do my job and allow me to immerse myself as unconsciously as possible into the deep experience of music. Even so, I felt completely out of place with all these amazing musicians, though Mani and everyone was completely kind and supportive. But I was also surrendered to the idea that at a more meaningful level this is exactly where I was supposed to be and in many ways I understood that this challenge was nothing but a great gift. By this time all I had left to offer was my heart.
When I perform, I have no way of knowing *how the performance was.* As one of the great modern sages of our day Mr. Nike says; *Just Do It!* My job is to focus deeper and deeper into the musical experience and not worry or be distracted by technical or judgmental concerns from the over-active mind. The joy of art for the artist is more about a process than it is about the result. Especially when it comes to performing music. Of course the judgmental process, from the performer's vantage point, takes place only in the *past tense* regarding something that has *already happened.* So if one is judging *what happened* one is missing what is *happening* in the present. This can be disastrous if not at least distracting.
In addition to this, the judgment process itself is distorted by superfluous items such as; hidden fears, fashion consideration, mood, misinterpretation of physical feed-back from audience members and etc. It is filled with thick psychology and is at best inaccurate and misleading. Think about all those people you respect that have completely opposite opinions about what is *good* art and what is *bad* art. Who is correct? A contemplation on this should give anybody doubts about the reliability of art criticism. Anyway ... either the process is joyful and uplifting to the individual or it is not. And for the artist, this is mostly a choice. Even at the risk that there might be some relevance hiding in art criticism, as a performer I have to throw that baby out with its dirty bath water. I will share with you a quote I have been developing that reflects my personal experience of the creative process and the critical mind; ***From a tiny place in an artist's being *blossoms* an offering. Its purpose is to uplift ... not to be squeezed into the tiny space of an other's imagination.***
So even though there were many concerns hovering over me like mosquitoes I was able to *just do it.* Again, Mani and his associates were completely supportive and honoring and I received countless and sincere expressions of gratitude from many people for the blues harmonica offerings in the Indian Lullaby piece.
After the entourage hung out with the guests backstage after the concert, we all rushed off to the Indian consulate's home for an amazing dinner. The Indian consulate was a wonderful man. We understood that he was the most loved person who had ever served in that station.. A very special and good fellow indeed. In a speech he gave at a subsequent event he told how India is the most tolerant and diverse country. He talked about the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Islam and other communities that are not only accepted and respected but that they are loved and that in India the people honor each other and blend. India, he said, is not just Hindu and Muslim, but is a true fusion of many cultural diversities. This talk was given at the time of the Pakistan attack on India. He said that Pakistan people are great great people and all of India loves them. *We can't always judge ourselves as people by the errors of our political leaders. *
Anyway, the meal was divine and I felt like I was in the middle of a Kipling novel right there on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. ( And I haven't even gotten to the part where we tour India! )
At about midnight the dinner party was about to break. Dr. Raman (Mani's manager) came to me and the others in the entourage and said in a very serious tone of voice with a serious face; *We must go back to the Hotel and meet in the lobby.* He added; *This is very important.*
It was approx. half past midnight ... we all sat around in a circle in the lobby of the hotel. Dr. Sonty, the promoter was there. What a great man he is. What a funny man. All you have to do is point at him and he will start laughing. And a lot of laughter there was. The puns and jokes began to fly. Dr. Sonty explained that he was an optomologist. I asked if he was an optomologist or a pessimologist. At one point when the room reached an intense moment of silence ( and I still had no idea about the purpose of this meeting ) I seriously asked if someone had a speech to give. Someone else replied that Dr. Sonty was going to give the speech. *On what subject shall I give the speech;* quipped Dr. Sonty. Without a millisecond hesitation Jon Weber announced; *Dr. Sonty will now speak on ***You & Your Retina!*** Out of the silence of the moment came howls of laughter that was sure to be heard across Lake Michigan.
The evening went this way till about 2 in the morning. Miya was curled up asleep on one chair and Vishwa Mohaan Bhatt was asleep on another chair ... upright but head back and mouth open ... as if waiting for the curious fly. The question was then asked of Mani; *What time is your flight tomorrow?* Raman spoke; *7:30 A.M.* I suggested that I drive Mani to the airport and we would need to leave at least by 6:00 AM to get there one hour before departure. I bargained for 5:50 to be sure. Mani called me and raised me 20 minutes i.e. 6:10 AM and we all left the lobby and I still had no idea why we met or what was so important ... though we had a great time.
The next morning as Mani and I pulled out about 6:20 AM the sun was serrated behind a thin veil of dappled clouds. You could look at the round sun without having to squint your eyes. *How very auspicious;* I remarked; *There is a full sun this morning for us travelers.* Because of unusually fat traffic, Mani never did catch his flight! It was actually nice to get one more hit of Mani as he called me on my cell phone to share the news that he was able to reschedule a flight to NY and then to India.
You know how it is when you have a great experience with a bunch of very great people ... you miss them. Jon Weber and I found ourselves repeatedly eating together at Tiffin our favorite Indian restaurant on Devon street. Holly and I found ourselves spending much social time with our great new friend Dr. Sonty and his family as well as other members of the Global Fusion support team from Chicago.
I was truly surprised, delighted and honored when Dr. Raman asked me to be part of a 4 city tour of India with Mani, the Berlin Opera and one thousand and eight Indian children to celebrate the Millennium with Global Fusion performances. Jon Weber was also invited.
Speaking of my dear friend Jon Weber ... I didn't know about this ... but when Jon Weber was in Iceland a year ago he ran into a strange fellow outside the airport who for no apparent reason seemed to know everything about Jon even though Jon was not even recognizable buried beneath his Eskimo style parka. he found out later that this guy was a renowned ESP dude. In Jon's mind the truth of the matter was revealed when Jon misplaced his car keys somewhere in his apartment in Chicago in the midst of an anxious attempt to make it on time for an important appointment. Jon called this man all the way in Iceland and asked him where to look for the keys. The man told Jon exactly where to look and that was exactly where Jon found the keys. So this experience (though I did not know about this) completely set Jon up completely for this little practical joke that was executed perfectly by Holly's dad, Tucker.
I asked Tuck to go up to Jon at his gig at the Four Seasons Hotel and request *Ganga* whilst Holly and I and Tuck's wife Joan hid behind a post. Now you have to imagine this stranger. A 72 year old ex-executive from General Motors requesting that Jon play this exotic Indian piece called *Ganga* ... what's more, he did it in his strongest southern Ohio accent! Jon asked; *The one by Dr. L. Subramaniam?* Tuck nodded affirmative (though he knew nothing about Ganga). Jon replied; *Yes I can play that.* Then Jon did a double take; *How do you know this piece? It was only just written by Dr. Subramaniam a very short while ago and only a few people in the world know the name of this tune ... and not that many more have ever heard it!* Jon started playing the piece and asked; *Is this it?* Tuck nodded affirmative (though he never heard the piece ever in his life). Then Tuck said; *You will be going to India soon won't you?.* Jon abruptly stopped playing and with a look of complete surprise said; *Yes, Yes, how did you know that?* Tuck replied straight faced; *I am psychic* Jon rebuffed; *Well, if you are psychic ... what am I thinking right now?* Without hesitation Tuck replied; *You are wondering -- who is this guy and what is he all about?* *That's right!!!!!*; Exclaimed Jon -- eyes rolling in his head -- not knowing what to say next -- so he sat back down and began playing Ganga again. Ten seconds later Jon stopped dead in the middle of a phrase, got a great big knowing grin on his face, pointed right at Tuck and said; *Corky!*
After this and to this day forth Jon and I would never say hello to each other ... we would never say good-bye to each other ... we would never address each other as Corky or Jon ... we would only say Ganga!
The air reservations were not made until the last minute because the 4 concerts in Bangalore, Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi were in the process of being moved to different dates and possibly some of them might be canceled. We received our tickets at 10:00 AM on the same day of the international departure at 1:00 PM from Chicago's O'Hare airport. For someone who likes getting to a flight from Chicago to Milwaukee 3 hours early this was tight.
Because I have a tendency to experience extreme motion sickness if there is anything moving anywhere in my vicinity, we felt it would be best if we flew to India in two parts with a full day layover in Frankfurt. After eight or nine hours in the air my wife and I were ready to get off of that plane. The second leg of our journey found us upgraded to first class. The large leather seats fully reclined and adjusted electronically. The seat even had an electronic remote adjustment that only required a slight wiggle of a finger tip for complete and perfect achievement of supine perfection. If that was not enough there was a control that supplied a perfect support at the bottom of your feet with just the right pressure to prevent any of that foot dangling that just does not look right in the company of first class patrons. Each seat had its own TV that folded out of the arm of the Lazyboy or should I say Lazyexecutive. Each passenger had a choice of approx. 20 movies throughout the flight. The service was elegant and continuous, offering three topping choices for our ice-cream sundae with fresh nuts and dopples of fresh old-fashioned whipping cream.
When the plane landed my wife and I refused to get off and it took two or three professionals from the local fire department to pry us out and carry us off. Just kidding, but you get the idea. A warning to the wise. Don't do it! If you are going to fly First Class or Business Class once and don't intend to make a habit of it for the rest of your life ... Don't do it! It's better to not know what you are missing. Trust me! It is better to not know what is going on behind those curtains!
Out of the jet, into the airport. here we are in Bombay. no plans have been forwarded to Holy and I regarding where we are going, how we are getting there, or who or what is getting us there. There were thousands of people crowded at the exit to the street who all seemed to be wondering the very the same thing. There were hundreds of cab drivers, chauffeurs, and associates, clambering with little signs that hoped to get matched correctly to the names on their dance cards by getting the attention of their correct passenger. There was a lot of confusion as each sign carrier opted for best visual position in front of one another. After a few minutes of scanning we did not see our own familiar names ... but it was to our great joy that we did recognize our own familiar face ... our own beautiful face ... the wonderful face of ... the face of Dr. Raman's lovely wife Shouba who was there waiting to rescue us from possible obscurity.
Shouba, the Indian Goddess of the evening -- dressed in premium sari silks -- escorted us to a large-old tour bus in the dusty airport parking lot. There waiting for us was Dr. Raman. Dr. Raman you remember is Mani's manager and now the tour manager. Back home in Indiana he works as a chemist during business hours, a movie distributor after business hours and the rest of the time (ha ha) he manages Mani. He feeds on this stuff. When he is faced with challenges his face lights up and you can see the excitement he is experiencing. Some day he will get some sleep. But in the meantime he is a great man and he has a wonderful calming presence for everyone around him.
Already seated in the bus was Jorge Struntz and his wife/manager Kathy. Jorge Struntz is the amazing guy who incinerates classical style guitars with his blazing flamenco guitar. He's a great musician also and Holly and I and he and Kathy had a lot to talk about (all of us being self-managed) regarding the very interesting relationship between artists and the industry. This delightful couple just flew in to Bombay from Los Angeles. Jorge (pronounced Hoar- ghay with somewhat of a silent H and a back of the tongue rolling R) would rather you just call him George than twist up your face ... and then possibly fall on it. Mani just calls him George. I myself was compelled to make an athletic event out of it at every opportunity.
Also there was Dr. Raman's mom. She lived in Bombay and was going to visit us just for the late evening. She was very very sweet, very funny -- at least I think she was funny -- she didn't speak English -- but we had a great time with hand signs -- she was also very enthusiastic about whatever she was talking about. We all had a great time with her.
Jon Weber the 6 foot 9 inch pianist with an immeasurable memory and his exotic girlfriend Lena from Estonia (don't ask me where that is) arrived next. They just arrived from Chicago/Frankfurt. The reader should not forget to see Jon Weber at the Four Seasons in Chicago. He is there Monday through Friday from about 6:00 PM. Try to stump him on some old standards ... it is hardly possible ... and be sure to ask him to play *Ganga.*
We all rode to the superb five star hotel in Bombay and had a very late, great and long dinner from about 11 PM till 3 AM. The whole crew had to go back to the Bombay International Airport to pick up a valuable shawl Holly left in the terminal that a very good person found and held for her. Then off to the city airport and a 5 am flight to Bangalore. Dr. Raman's mom saw us off and we bid her adieu as if she was our very own mom. She was very excited about coming to see us all perform in Delhi later down the line. At this point the Delhi concert was the only concert that was a sure thing.
After a number of travel happenings and a good nights sleep the greatest conglomeration of the entourage found itself waiting in the lobby of the St. Marks hotel in Bangalore for additional members Kim, Miya and Jiebing.
When I went to get Jiebing from her room I heard her practicing her erhu outside her door -- amazing sounds came from the room. It sounded like a human voice imitating a violin. She opened the door to the room and I introduced myself to a pretty Chinese girl . She was wearing a beautiful Chinese kimono-like suit and I told her it made her look very Chinese. She reminded me; *I am Chinese Corky!* Jiebing recently played in Chicago with her Bejing Quartet. Guess who is in her quartet? Max Roach. Yes. I'm not kidding. Max Roach ... the guy who helped define *bebop* with Charlie Parker. Wow! Jiebing and I walked down to the lobby and Miya was already there.
Miya is a very attractive Japanese Koto player. I am saving an interesting description of her for later on in the story but you should know right now that the Koto is a very large instrument.
Finally Kim Menzer came down. He is a 62 year old youth from Denmark who plays *everything* you can blow into including the Australian aboriginal didgereedoo. This Kim is a happy person who can not walk without dancing. We turned out to be soul mates. We have been to many of the same places (figuratively), and seem to be settling down in very much the same spot (figuratively). He also had a 60s band. His hard rock band was the top group in Denmark in the 60s and 70s and maybe the 80s. In the 90s Kim was associated with director Peter Brooke who made Mississippi Masala and a winning stage version of the Indian Epic; The Mahabharata. Kim was writing and recording many projects for Peter Brooke.
I forgot to mention that the driving we experienced in India was like an intense teen video game not intended for the nervous adult ... similar to the New York City cab ride but only vaguely similar ... with additional obstacles provided by National Geographic. There were bicyclists ... some with giant bails of straw balanced precariously on their heads, hundreds of tiny mopeds, sometimes two on a bike with the woman on the back dressed to the hilt with silk sari riding side saddle with the center of balance somewhere across the street looking at Newton and his dear laws of motion smack in the face. The most unusual site on a moped in India was a helmet. In addition there were cows, cars, busses, trucks, carts pulled by mule, water buffalo, donkey, people, and millions of microscopic three wheeled motor cabs. For the most part there were no lines in the road and there were no rules in the road either. Well maybe one rule; *Don't crash!. What was obviously permitted and OK was weaving onto (what I would call) the wrong side of the road and coming within a millimeter of an on coming pedestrian, water buffalo, truck, or what have you, without slowing. The drivers were masters of the razors edge. They must have evolved that way. This is a great example of survival of the fittest in the modern world. And after my own countless hours and miles riding (sans seat-belt) with this scenario ... I still myself am here to write about it!
After an hour or so socializing with the gang in the lobby of the St. Marks we were finally escorted through the nite-life traffic and sometimes narrow streets by Venkatesh, Dr. L. Subramaniam's mild mannered assistant. We arrived at the studio and Venky went in to see if Mani was ready for us to bring up the instruments from the bus. He came back after a few minutes and said that we should all come up but leave our instruments in the bus for the time being.
The studio which was on the second floor of a two story building in a residential area consisted of five small rectangular rooms. The larger room in the center was surrounded by two rooms on one side and two rooms on the other side. Three of the rooms had large rectangular aquarium like glass and one room had none. This room without windows was set up for meditation and was stocked with images of Indian Gurus and Goddesses and a *puja* (the focal point for worship -- usually a table with the favorite images and statues of spiritual representatives like Ganesh, the Elephant God who is famous for removing obstacles. What is not very well known however is that he can also be the one that puts them there in the first place).
All the rooms were paved with the gray outdoor carpet on the floor and the shaggy orange carpet on the walls doubling very well as wall paper and acoustic tile -- though very *loud* acoustic tile. The washroom by the way was on the tar roof and to the westerners in the group, looked like a booth with a hole in the floor and only added to the exotic atmosphere of the evening.
The entourage and I (Holly, John, Lena, Miya, Jiebing, Venkatesh, Kim, Jorge, and Kathy) quietly entered the larger control room of the studio. We removed our shoes to the haunting accompaniment of tandori flavored music. We were encircled by activity as we peeked through the aquarium-like windows that were surrounding us. Mani and his family sat in the stern of the control room with recording engineers, Devesha and his wife at the helm. On the floor of another room sat a man with an Indian hand-drum. The hand-drum seemed to come from a more ancient tradition than the already incredibly experienced tabla or mrdhangham of yore.
Kim (the didgereedoo player from Denmark with a dance in his step) disappeared into the meditation room, and he hasn't been seen since. In the two remaining rooms stood two very good looking people . . .one each in front of their own microphone, in their own room, perfectly pantomiming the sweet sugary singing that was pouring out of the hi-fi speakers along with the curried rhythms and melodies into our central room, into our ears, through our semi-circular canals, and into our hearts. The song and the sound became almost immediately nostalgic.
The female singer, as we discovered later, was Kavita Krishnamoorty. She is the premier east Indian classical master with 4 current *playback* hits on the Indian Top Ten. The fellow turned out to be Lucky Ali, India's favorite pop singer, with his latest CD on Sony International rising beyond double platinum. Kavita finished up and Lucky stayed in his room to finish harmony parts. He was really struggling with some of those complex Indian-style quarter-tone melodic lines, wavers, and asymmetrical rhythms. It was obvious to me he was being challenged with musical athletics outside of his genre and outside of his particular mode of experience... a circumstance I had most recently become familiar with myself at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. However, even with the struggle attached, his voice and approach had a most wonderful quality and added a special greatness to the track. After what seemed like hours (the others had already disappeared to the porch or the roof or the control room) Lucky came out of the inquisition room smiling and laughing and said to me; * I'm so embarrassed.* * I am not good at singing all these complex Indian-style quarter-tone melodic lines, wavers, and asymmetrical rhythmns*. I explained to him that I completely understood. Seeing the compassion in my eyes, he believed me - we bonded immediately. *Mani is not going to let us rest on our laurels* I said.
From almost the outset of my career in 1965 I had my own groups, wrote my own music, and dictated what the group would perform. I never had to stretch too much, or learn other people's music. My techniques developed very strictly within my own musical choices. I played what I could easily play, and wrote what I could easily play. I wanted to experience the joy of musical self-expression without having to wait for my fingers and my brain to catch up with my heart. Asking me to play an old standard jazz tune on the harmonica might be similar to asking Bob Dylan or Tom Waits to sing opera.
There are many musicians like me who *do what they do* and they were not designed to do otherwise. There are also many musicians who can do *anything.* Lucky and I were surrounded by these musicians. We were honored to be part of the project. Lucky told me the story of how he ended up on this gig. I can hear Lucky's voice in my mind right now as I recall what he said:
***I was on a flight recently and was sitting next to a very gentle Indian man who placed a violin in the overhead. I asked him if he played and he said he did. I asked him what kind of music he played on the violin and he told me he played Indian classical music. He asked me about my profession and I told him I was a pop singer and told him about my tours around the world and my recordings. I also told him I was the son of Mamud (considered to be the greatest Indian comedy actor of the 20th century). He told me he knew about me and I was flattered. Then somehow I had the presence of mind to ask him his name. As soon as he said Dr. L. Subramaniam, I jumped out of my seat and bowed down, fell on the floor, and touched his feet. I considered Mani to be a master and I was overwhelmed and honored to even have the good fortune of being in his presence. Then he honored me further and asked me to join him on this tour and on this recording session.***
By now it was quite late and Mani had decided to call it quits and resume the recording on the following day. Kavita, Mani and his three children bid us all adieu (Kim re-materialized out of the meditation room) and we all boarded the bus. Mani came down and stood by the side of the bus before it took off and with a deep sincerity and a tear in his eye said; *Thank you all so much for coming. This is a dream come true for me to have you all together here in India.*
Music is so powerful. You pluck one string on your guitar, you touch one note on the piano, the vibrations and its uplifting quality fill the atmosphere and fill every cell of everyone's body. When a musician performs (amateur or professional or even entry level) the love focused into his performance is carried by the sound and absorbed by those in proximity. If you pay attention you can see that this is true. It becomes common knowledge by many performers that the responsibility and essence of our work is somehow about love more than it is about music. Besides being together to learn the music and get it right and get it tight, we were there to meld and bond with each to be able to allow ourselves to experience this love and offer the highest to an audience. All the time we spent waiting with Mani and the entourage, all the time we spent together at seemingly meaningless meetings like the great midnight meeting in the lobby of the Chicago hotel, began to make sense.
The next morning we all hung out in the hotel waiting for our calls to the studio. Mani called us over to the studio in bunches this time. Miya and her koto, Jiebing and her erhu, and me and my harmonicas, were called over in the afternoon after the others completed their tracks that morning. While Miya put together and tuned her koto which was about the size of a canoe and filled the studio and took about an hour to set up, Jiebing pulled out her little erhu. The erhu looks like a small vertical banjo with a snake skin stretched over the circular drum bottom. It has two taught steel strings running up and down along the neck but to my terror the neck had no finger board (the compassionate piece of wood that lies directly under the strings of most fingered-pitch stringed instruments).This means the strings had to be fingered in mid-air! The good news is that this allowed the player to express subtle changes of pitch not only by changing the position of the fingers on the string but by applying different levels of pressure on the string. The bad news is that jiebing's poor little fingers had to receive the full karma of the steel strings pushing back on her fingers without any relief from such a thing as a fingerboard. Ouch! Because of the technical as well as physical challenges which this instrument provided little Jiebing, I suggested to her that erhu players should all receive handicap parking.
She played a virtuostic solo piece both effortlessly as well as with a deep emotional intensity and we all knew we were in the presence of greatness. We would not have believed what we had just heard but Jiebing has the credentials that made this experience believable. Here are some of them. I will call this:
Jiebing A National Treasure of China.
Jiebing Jang is recognized as the world's foremost virtuostic exponent of the erhu. Shanghai born, she began performing at age 6 and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music with high honors. In 1988, the highest honor given by the Chinese government was presented to her - as a *National First Rank Performing Artist.* She was soloist with Shanghai's Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and Dance Theatre Company. ... It goes on ... she has performed with symphony orchestras in Moscow, Hungary and Taipei ... she has recorded with Bela Fleck, James Newton, The Billy Taylor Trio and the Jon Jang Sextet. ... she has produced the largest catalogue of erhu recordings in China and the US. She also received a Grammy Award nomination for *best world music album* ... What is not listed in this bio is that Jiebing is one of the three members of the Bejing trio with drummer Max Roach as mentioned previously.
Next it was my turn to perform a solo piece. I was under the impression when Mani asked me to do *a solo piece* that he was speaking of the piece he wrote for me in Chicago called *Lullaby.* No. He wanted me to do a solo piece for him on the blues harmonica to demonstrate the instrument and my particular blues style to his fans -- particularly his Indian fans and the tape was about to run. The *Lullaby* would have been a challenge as I had described earlier in this BluesLetter when I told the story about Orchestra Hall ... sort of like swimming with hand-cuffs. But instead the hand-cuffs were taken off and Mani said; *do your stuff.* I was very happy. This would be the very first time Mani and his people would get to hear what I do. I improvised a six minute harmonica piece. I did three takes and experienced much sweat (this time the kind that comes with exhilaration) and also took much direction from Mani. After I recorded the three versions, Mani asked me to name the piece. Immediately I said; **Water Buffalo,* I would like to call this piece *Water Buffalo.** **Are you sure you want to call the piece *Water Buffalo?** questioned Mani with a slight essence of trepidation. *Yes, I guess so;* I replied -- with a little bit of trepidation. **OK. *Water Buffalo* it is;** conceded Mani -- with a little bit of trepidation.
And last but certainly not inconsequential was Miya Masaoka and her koto. Miya has performed extensively in the US and Japan with musicians of every tradition including Pharoah Sanders, The Berlin Rias Dorchester Symphony and the Berlin Opera, Rova Saxophone Quartet, Steve Coleman, Mark Izu, Francis Wong, George Lewis, henry Kaiser, Fred Frith, Wadada Leo Smith, Rohan de Saram (Arditti String Quartet) James Newton and many others. By this time Miya's 12 foot long koto with what seemed to be 100 strings and 200 adjustable bridges was set up and tuned. She played an amazing composition of her own she composed for this session. Oh. It was fitting that Miya is now living in San Francisco because the vision of her sitting behind this instrument could have seemed like she was a giant Japanese mermaid, rising out of the mouth of San Francisco Bay and artfully plucking the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge and producing an amazing collection of sounds -- but you really had to squint your eyes to see this. Mani asked Miya to compose a romantic 6 minute piece and Miya did the job. Fantastic and beautiful. When you hear and see people perform like this and compose like this you experience the meaning of the word *artist* because art is something that is so deep we really can't talk about it ... we can only experience it ... and Miya and her gorgeous music defined the experience of art for us.
After Miya was congratulated by everyone Mani turned to me with a twinkle in his eye and just a touch of trepidation in his voice and said; *Corky, did you know that in India the Water Buffalo represents death?* ... a pause ... everyone in the room cracked up in hysterics. When the room again turned into a silent pause I spoke, with a twinkle in my eye and a touch of trepidation in my voice; *Whoops.* Before there was a chance for more twinkle and trepidation my dear wife Holly announced with complete authority; *The Bangalore Blues!* And I reconfirmed; *The Bangalore Blues it is!*
Other tracks were laid out by Jon Weber and some of the others and then we all had a late dinner on the porch where we got to hang out with some Bangalore cows and water buffalo. We also got to spend a lot more time with the gang and got to know Kavita and also Mani's three kids.
Ambi was the youngest, about 7 years old. The real superman in the Subramaniam family. The youngster with the wise man in his eyes. Ambi immediately christened Corky as *Corkster* the moment they met, and it became his new name. Raju was the older brother, about 10 or 12, shy, and quiet until you got to know him - then he would share the most astonishing and insightful things with you. Seeta was the older sister to Raju and Ambi, and about 15. Anytime I think of her, I can't imagine her without her beautiful smile. She was very bright, pretty, and had a wonderful voice which is recorded on her father's CDs. The children each had a delightful sense of humor, and were so completely enchanting and endearing that when it came time to say good-bye when we left India, our hearts did ache.
After dinner Mani blew all our minds (as he always does when he picks up his violin). He laid down an improvised violin track. It breaks all the rules. While passing through even some moments of humor it is deep and emotional and mystical and healing and with all this there is an athleticism of fiery scalistics that sets the night a-blaze -- and still he stands calmly but passionately, in the eye of this musical hurricane whipping around him.
Tomorrow we would all get up early and head to Delhi. We were going to spend many days rehearsing with 700 Indian Children. This would culminate in a concert at Nehru Stadium (where the rehearsals would also take place) with 90 thousand fans. Mani, Kavita, Raman and his Mom (back in Bombay), and all of us were very very excited about this concert and knew we were about to embark on a very special, unique, and amazing musical journey.
|Copyright 2010 by Corky Siegel||Home Page: www.chamberblues.com|