Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 2, 2008

Rudresh Mahanthappa interview: “Do You Speak Indian?”


Enthusiastically avant-garde

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Part 1: Music is the Mother Tongue

Walking home after a date one evening a few years ago, jazz musician and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa passed a playground: Despite the soundscape of a New York City evening, he found himself enraptured by the squeak of its nearby swingset.

“The rhythm of that squeak – the song of that squeak – it was totally crazy,” says Mahanthappa. “I thought, ‘I hope no one ever gets any WD-40 onto that,’ and I asked my [future wife], ‘Do you hear that?’ And she did – she’s an abstract painter; she got it, and she totally loved it too! I think that sealed the deal; that’s when I knew, ‘I want to get married.'”

It’s an apt introduction both to Mahanthappa, and to his music: wondrously enthusiastic yet effortlessly avant-garde, the New York-based saxophonist’s music is as interestingly complicated, and as simply gorgeous, as the squeaks and squawks of the globalized urban playground he inhabits. (There are samples of Mahanthappa’s music available at the Pi Recordings site, as well as at his own recordings site.)

It’s a boldly optimistic foray into contemporary jazz that has earned Mahanthappa a host of kudos, from the Downbeat International Critics Poll (their #2 ‘rising star’ in 2006) to a 2007 Guggenheim fellowship – the fruits of which will debut at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts as Samdhi: Diasporic Connections, a series of jazz compositions based on Mahanthappa’s intensive study of classical Indian music forms from the Carnatic raga tradition.

Mahanthappa, the American son of Indian immigrants, has long been interested in exploring elements of his South Asian heritage and its intersection with jazz composition. Rather than the byzantine rules of Carnatic music, however, at first, this intersection struck him through language. For Mother Tongue, Mahanthappa interviewed speakers of various South Asian languages, asking them questions such as, “Do you speak Indian?” and “Do you speak Hindu?” – the sort of culturally ignorant questions he was asked as a youth growing up in Colorado. The recorded answers – their rhythmic cadence and linguistic melodies – became the basis for Mother Tongue‘s compositions.

But unlike some of jazz music’s more conceptual creative artists, Mahanthappa keeps one ear on his artistic mandate, and one turned towards the listener’s needs. “The world speaks musically,” he says, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t need a little translation; some coaxing for a street-corner conversation or swingset to get up onto the concert stage.

“I hear music in everything,” says Mahanthappa. “I made a tape recording [recently] of this bird going crazy outside my window at 4 a.m., because the rhythm was so killer. The world speaks rhythmically, but it’s also arrhythmic and amelodic, but in a very visceral way. And I feel that music is a way of smoothing out that arrhythmic or amelodic sense: ‘Here’s that bird that was going nuts, but I’ve smoothed it out into a way that’s palatable.’

“I try to find a middle ground: ‘Let’s not round it out too much, so that I sound like Kenny G or something!’ The composers I look up to are the ones who maybe stopped that process halfway – look at Bartok, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bach – in [each of these composers’] time, there was something about what they did that challenged the ear. It’s not really a mission, because I’m really hearing it – here’s this language, or this code, or this car backing up outside my apartment in Brooklyn, now, let’s do something with it!”

[Check back for more about Rudresh Mahanthappa’s stay in India, learning the rules of raga, and how that’s becoming jazz for the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.]


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