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The Duality of Displacement

A conversation with Rudresh Mahanthappa
By Britt Robson |
AUGUST 16, 2019

On August 24th, SAADA launched the soundtrack to our "Revolution Remix" South Asian American history walking tour with a one-night-only concert at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. We shared stories of South Asians in Philadelphia from the 1780s to the present day and original compositions by five talented South Asian American artists: Arooj Aftab, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Zain Alam, Seti X, and Anju. The album is available now on all streaming platforms including Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud.

Listen to Rudresh's track while reading the interview below:

Rudresh Mahanthappa has fought the culture wars as a consciousness objector.

The constraints on his individual identity were subtle but insidious. The alto saxophonist felt the glares and suspicion when he toured extensively with pianist and fellow Indian-American jazz musician Vijay Iyer shortly after 9/11. One of the reasons the two split apart was because months after playing successful gigs as a member of Iyer’s ensemble, Mahanthappa had difficulty booking the same venues with his own bands because he had “recently been there.” Then there was the entertainment lawyer helping him broker a record deal who suggested he recruit Ravi Shankar for his next project, blissfully unaware that their styles had almost nothing in common.

Mahanthappa persevered, and let his music do the talking. He honored his heritage on his own terms. On his 2004 record, “Mother Tongue,” he sampled the speech patterns of seven different Indian languages responding to the question, “Do you speak Indian?” Three years later, he toured and recorded with Carnatic saxophone legend Kadri Gopalnath for the jazz-classic hybrid, “Kinsmen.” And he has released two recordings nearly a decade apart of his Indo-Pak Coalition trio, an intoxicating mix of Indian raga with the complex structure and improvisation of post-bop jazz.

But his most profound musical influence has been the seminal Afro-American bebop altoist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Most prominently, with his ensemble, Bird Calls, Mahanthappa interpolates and deconstructs songs from Parker’s fabled catalog into fresh compositions that are funneled through his torrid alto phrasings—Parker-inflected, but his own work, through and through. The record “Bird Calls” was voted Jazz Album of the Year by the Downbeat International Critics Poll in 2015, and cemented Mahanthappa’s status as the top altoist in jazz, a designation conferred upon him in that same critics poll seven times in the past nine years.

Mahanthappa’s integrated approach toward roots and identity has made him a natural partner for SAADA. Two years ago, he wrote a piece based on a television clip featuring the Indian singer Kuldip Singh as part of SAADA’s Where We Belong: Artists in the Archive symposium on the overlooked contributions of South Asians. His second partnership endeavor involves the SAADA-commissioned Revolution Remix project, which includes a walking tour of historical places in Philadelphia where South Asian Americans made a pronounced impact on the city and the country. Mahanthappa is one of five artists asked to respond to a specific person and event on the tour with which they are paired.

This interview took place the day after Mahanthappa returned from a vacation in Mexico with his wife and two children, a day of transition between sandy beaches and a re-engagement with his duties as Director of Jazz Studies at Princeton University, a position he has held since September 2016. As he waited for the repair man to come and fix the dryer, which went on the fritz the day they left for Mexico, we began by talking about the then-upcoming concert that would launch the Revolution Remix project.

RM: The Revolution Remix is really interesting to see to what degree South Asians revolutionized the view of people of color in this country. This focus of Philadelphia where I am looking at is the Bose family, which is famous for audio. But you know Bose the father was actually a very important civil rights activist in Philadelphia. We take for granted that everyone has Bose noise-cancelling headphones and wave radio and all of that, but when you look deeper, culturally, you have this brilliant inventor that came in early in the 20th Century and furthered the existence of folks of color in this country, is pretty amazing.

BR: Have you written the piece inspired by the Bose story on the walking tour yet?

RM: Oh yeah, we’ve already recorded it. But the [concert] performance is actually in two or three weeks, it is coming up. But it was really fun to write this piece. With regard to Bose, I was thinking about acoustics and electronics and the way we shape sound. The first idea I had was to get a bunch of old Bose wave radios from the 80s; maybe getting five of those and playing [along] with them. Because the revolutionary thing about that radio was the way the audio was sent, it kind of gave a feeling of stereo from a very small unit. But I found out those radios are vintage and very expensive [laughs].

So I scaled it back and ended up writing a piece for trio for me and some Philadelphia folks; the very well-known electric bass player Anthony Tidd and a great drummer named Doug Hurlinger. It’s me with the electronics and something sort of groove oriented but also very much in the spirit of an Indian raga. It has kind of a disjointed quality to it, which to me conveys that duality of displacement, of making a home in a different country and trying to figure out how to negotiate that and raise children there and somehow be successful.

Collaborating with SAADA has been really great, interdisciplinary in a different sort of way. I have worked with choreographers and different sorts of non-music artists but this is working with history and living history. They have taken the initiative to engage performing artists—and do that thoughtfully. To be able to dig deep and feel connected to the work that they are doing, and to the subject matter, has been very meaningful to me.

BR: When we last talked a few years ago, you spoke of being out on the road with Vijay right after 9/11. Are there similarities and differences between that time and the Trump culture that has arisen with respect to immigrants?

RM: I think the Trump culture is more vile and dangerous. I think post 9/11 there was definitely fear, but I would like to think there was somewhat of an understanding that the perpetrators were a limited, finite group of folks. I think people had a good understanding that the person next to you in line at the grocery store was probably not an extremist.

My wife was at the grocery store and she had more items than she was supposed to and she was getting in the regular line and the woman taking items in the express lane said, “Oh just come over here because there is nobody here right now.” So she went over there and some people got in line behind her and starting making remarks, like she must not know how to count, and don’t worry Trump is going to send them all home. And I was terrified. Definitely terrified, more for my children, like, is somebody going to do something to my kids? So, post 9/11, there was definitely frustration, but not fear in the same way that I think about that incident.

BR: How if at all is the climate affecting you artistically?

RM: I am always aware of what is happening but at the same time I kind of just keep my head down and do my thing. I guess I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anybody anymore, about any of it. I don’t have to prove how American I am. I don’t have to prove how authentic my relationship to jazz and African American music is. I don’t have to prove how Indian I am. I am at the point where so many things are a part of my inherited musical DNA now. I just do what I do.

I am at Princeton now, the Director of Jazz there, interacting with lots of young folks—18, 19, 20-year olds that are coming from a lot of different cultural backgrounds. And they just see the world very differently. They are so far beyond the idea of multiculturalism being something new. They grew up in diverse communities and diverse classrooms and they see music, and art, and literature, everything, from a much broader view, which is really refreshing.

BR: Last time we talked, you mentioned how your peers like Myra Melford and Mark Dresser benefited from the supportive relationships they had with their academic institutions. Since that time you have taken the Princeton job. Are you likewise benefitting from that kind of support?

RM: Yes. It has been an amazing place to be. My father was a physics professor and my brothers are both scientists. The same sort of thought and work ethic and intellect go into my work, just as what my brothers do has a great artistic quality to it as well.

At Princeton, I feel like I am amongst a bunch of people who were like I was coming out of high school, not really knowing whether they want to focus on music or math or economics. My students are actually the peer group that I never had. They could have gone to any of the big music schools and done very well. But they wanted a broader education. I think my presence helps attract them because they can still really work on their music, but probably get a degree in something else. But hopefully I am giving them enough of a foundation and inspiration so they keep playing for the rest of their lives.

BR: So do you teach them differently than you would if you were a professor at Berklee or something?

RM: That’s a really good question. I always want people to be as rigorous as possible, but because a good number of these folks are not planning on being professional musicians, I am allowed a greater latitude in a number of ways. We can have these broader conversations about music and being creative and how that fits into the rest of the world. Instead of nuts and bolts, we can talk about the cultural forces and influences of music.

At the music schools I went to, there was jazz history but that history was more, “….then bebop became hard bop.” It wasn’t stuff like what was happening in the civil rights movement and to African American culture. [At Princeton] we can have those conversations. I brought in Archie Shepp as a guest for a week and then the big band played the “Attica Blues Suite” with him and Amina Claudine Myers. My guess is that that is something Berklee would never do. We were thinking about Archie Shepp the activist as much as we were thinking about him and his music.

BR: In that context, do you ever resurrect your former music as an example? I am thinking about your early album, “Black Water,” or some of those other political stuff. Do you ever talk about the way you were feeling when you were up and coming and searching for your identity?

RM: Yeah, but I want to talk about it in a way that is encouraging them to look deeper within themselves and figure out what they want their music to be about. We always use this cliché of jazz: “Tell your own story,” but very rarely do we take that further and help them figure out how to tell their own story.

I did things that were very Indian oriented or non-Western oriented and then I turned around and did something very Charlie Parker oriented. And I see these things as all being very seamless. All these things are a continuum and I feel like it is much more important for me to not overemphasize any particular aspect. Because what is going to bring the music into the present is to see the larger picture. How is Charlie Parker’s message still relevant? How is Coltrane still relevant? Why is that as modern as anything that is happening now? And obviously we can look at different cultural influences in that same conversation.

Just trying to look at this big picture stuff is one of the things that I think Princeton has allowed me to do and convey to the kids. They are just really supportive of me and what I do and how that fits into the larger scheme of music in general. With regards to music, Princeton is known primarily for their graduate programs in musicology and composition and to be able to interact with those folks has been really great. I have been very much welcomed by the composition faculty and they have encouraged me to write for some of the new music groups and they are very supportive of what I have been doing with the jazz program. They come out to concerts. And I just feel like I fit into the greater fabric of what is happening in music right now. And that includes the students, not just me. And again, that is an experience that would not happen at a hard-core jazz school.

BR: So, you now have this family, two kids, and live in sort of an enclave environment—you don’t have to gig for a living in New York City or something. It’s a mature lifestyle. How do you think that affects your music?

RM: Yeah, that is a good question. I joke about how I am an adult now. There were definitely some slow years and we always managed to do okay. But that definitely changes when you have kids—you have to feed these children, right?

But as far as how it affects my music? I can definitely breathe a little easier. But I have been very aware about not disappearing into academia. We have all seen people who do that, and also cases where people are perceived to have done that, when that is not what they wanted.

It was by design that there was a slow period at the time I started at Princeton, which coincided with the birth of my second child. I haven’t had to confront the major struggle of balancing the position at Princeton with my performing life. But 2020 is going to be the big test of that. I am probably going to tour with this new trio I have with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Dave King so we can record a live album. And [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington and I are co-leading a special project for Charlie Parker’s centenary. We already have a ton of gigs for that. So this is definitely going to be the challenge of family vis a vis Princeton and working. I am kind of bracing myself.

I think there has always been a sense that once you take an academic job that somehow you have checked out. Fortunately I think a few people have managed to dispel that—Steve Lehman at Cal Arts and Vijay [Iyer] at Harvard. There are a bunch of us at a very similar age who all are working within an institution and see that as a larger part of our picture.

One more thing that I’ll say, is that if the position at Princeton was just to teach saxophone, I wouldn’t have been as excited about doing it. This is a real opportunity to steer a program, to shape and to write curriculum and shape how this music gets transmitted to future generations. That was one of the main reasons to accept this and really run with it.

BR: That has always been the kind of “activism” that you’ve preferred.

RM: For sure. Absolutely. Any time I can steer the ship I would rather steer the ship.

The other thing I am working on is some more speaking things. Situations where I am not just playing but talking about aesthetics and culture, ways that music can influence things outside of music. I was asked to speak at the Jazz Congress here in New York a few years ago and it was kind of a TED-style talk, but I was talking about finding your family within this music and this larger notion of family.

BR: Do you think when it comes to those family things does identity have to play a part, in terms of South Asian identity, or jazz identity?

RM: No I don’t think so. For me, yes, those things have been helpful to varying degrees, having those partners in crime. But I am thinking more about acknowledging your influences and acknowledging the cultural forces that created those influences and put you where you are.

BR: So Charlie Parker would be part of your family?

RM: Yes exactly. And even more so the musicians in the Denver/Boulder area where I grew up that you have never heard of, people who might not even play music anymore. Folks like that. I am embracing all of that and looking inward in order to be able to look outward productively.
Britt Robson is a freelance writer of music, sports and politics. He has previously written about Rudresh Mahanthappa for Jazz Times, Pitchfork and the Star Tribune daily newspaper in Minneapolis.