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Jazz with a desi twist

Bands in New York are into spiritual music from South Asia, reports Riddhi Shah.

music Updated: Aug 21, 2010 11:12 IST
Riddhi Shah
Riddhi Shah
Hindustan Times

It was in antiseptic environs of the F train to Brooklyn that New York-based drummer Brook Martinez's life changed. It was the spring of 2004 and Martinez had been listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Final Studio Recording when it occurred to him that Sufi music had a lot in common with jazz.

Both, he thought, are virtuosic, buoyant rhythms, comprising of simple melodies and extravagant improvisations. Suddenly, Martinez had an idea to marry the two: jazz instruments used to play Sufi songs; the saxophone, the trombone and the drum set all singing Fateh Ali Khan's soulful qawwalis.

That day after a Google search revealed that such a band did not already exist, Martinez formed Brooklyn Qawwali Party (BQP), a collective that takes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Sufi music and plays it as loud, boastful, swinging jazz.

Dhol meets sax
Elsewhere in New York, at around the same time, another jazz musician, Sunny Jain was having his own life altering experience. It was his wedding day and a group of his friends — all musicians — decided to come together to play at his baraat.

Realising that the resulting music was an inimitable blend of Bhangra, jazz and lilting Caribbean sounds, Jain created Red Baraat, the first American Bollywood marching band. He'd already been playing Indo-Jazz fusion through his collective Avaaz for a few years, but it was Red Baraat's unique sound that put him on the radar of the mainstream musical press.

What makes Jain newsworthy, though, is not that Red Baraat has just come out with its debut album called Chaal Baby; it is that he has a penchant for mixing ancient Jain bhajans with modern Jazz.

"Many jazz musicians these days borrow from mainstream musicians such as Bjork and Radiohead. But for me, as an Indian-American, songs that are popular range from Jain bhajans to the Smashing Pumpkins. So it's very natural for me to take songs from my childhood and arrange them to jazz. It's who I am," says Jain, 34, whose Punjabi-Jain family is originally from Sialkot, Pakistan.

His compositions include a brassy, instrumental version of iconic Gujarati bhajan Samaro Mantra and a delicate vocal rendition of Hindi bhajan Meri Bhavana.

"Playing jazz requires one to let go of their thoughts so that creativity can flourish. Jainism also teaches us to meditate in order to achieve a higher state of being. I can't think of a better way to find inner peace then to perform a Jain bhajan in a jazz setting," says Jain.

For 32-year-old Martinez too, composing and playing for the BQP has taken him further along a path of spiritual progress. As he got more involved with Sufi music, he began to be more influenced by the philosophy too: working with a Sufi teacher, and reading Rumi and the poetry of Hafeez.

Playing it by ear
Jain and Martinez have something else in common too: neither can read Hindi. Both interpret the music through listening alone.

"I sit down with a song and listen to it until I figure out the main melody and then transcribe it in western musical notation. Then I play it on the drums and show it to the rest of the band," says Martinez.

For Jain it is more of a struggle because he often has to teach his singers the lyrics as well: "I recite them over and over until I finally get the pronunciations right".

Jain includes at least one Jain-Jazz song in each album he produces and someday plans to bring out an entire album of Jain bhajans. Martinez's goal is more metaphysical: to disseminate the theme of the music beyond boundaries of race, culture and religion.

Riddhi Shah is studying cultural reporting and criticism at New York University