Jazz-sutra and Indo-American Friendship
January 2, 2019
In 1935, the first all “Negro-American” band performed at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, marking the beginning of the Jazz-era in India. Jazz has become an integral part of the Indian musical culture ever since. And while the millennial Indian generation may not be aware that Chic Chocolate—who is regarded as the Louis Armstrong of India—assisted C. Ramchandra in bringing a swing to Hindi songs like “Ina Mina Dika” in the film Aasha (1957), they must have heard the recent Bollywood remixes of “Khoya Khoya Chand” and “Hawa Hawai” from Shaitaan (2011) in which well-known composer Mike McCleary combined Indian ragas with jazz tunes.
An eccentric relationship developed between India and America at the shores of the Arabian Sea in Goa and in the winters of Delhi as Jazz pioneers like Leon Abbey and Herb Flemming made many trips to India. They influenced Indian jazz musicians and forged friendships with Indian classical musicians like Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Music knows no boundary, and Jazz is no more American music to Indians.
This jazzy, creative and musical friendship of almost 90 years, still grows strong between the two countries and two recent events—the Indo-Jazz concert held on December 19 at the India Habitat Center (IHC) and again on December 21 at the American Center—bear testimonies of the same.
The event was conceptualised by Vincent Kelley, a young American student of music at King’s College, London. He was joined by two of his music teachers, tabla exponent and Assistant Professor of Music at Delhi University, Rishitosh Kumar and Damani Phillips, who is not only a saxophone artist but also an Associate Professor of Jazz and African Studies at the University of Iowa, USA. They were joined by Delhi-based artists and vocalist, Rekha Kumari, a Delhi University research scholar, flautist Satish Pathak, and bassist Akshay Dwivedi.
The Amaltas Hall at IHC had a full-house audience who were thrilled to listen to the students and teachers playing for them what they study and teach through books, saxophones, tabla, and flute! Organised by NaadAura, American Center and various other patrons of Jazz music, the events had a terrific line-up of academician-artists blending Jazz classics, standards, and rare gems by the likes of Cole Porter, Joe Henderson, and Alice Coltrane with Indian ragas like Jog, Malkouns, Desh, and Bhairvi.The audience also remembered and spoke very dearly about other Jazz festivals like Jazz Utsav and NCPA Jazz Festival, which had pioneers and young artists like Vincent coming to India and playing Jazz music.
On asking Vincent about his experience of visiting India and performing here, he said, "it was a dream come true." He has been to India several times as a Fulbright Nehru Fellow and on other fellowships to learn and understand not just Indian culture and Hindustani music but also to learn Hindi and Urdu. He had always wanted to pay a tribute to his Indian and American gurus as well as to the long tradition of friendship and creative exchange between Indian and Afro-American musical forms and political movements. For him, the concert was like a dream come true as he not only received appreciations from his team but also from the audience. He now wants to pursue a research project on the history of Jazz music in India. He even mentioned that there is a gold-mine kept at the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) of the American Institute of Indian Studies under the supervision of ethnomusicologist Shubha Chaudhuri. She is the Associate Director General (Academic) of ARCE and has been relentlessly digitising and conserving two huge Jazz collections contributed by Niranjan Jhaveri and Naresh Fernandes for years.
In an era of rising chaos in the world politics, this event is a sparkling example of the praxis and practice of what society needs to foster when there are attempts to stifle creative voices. When Martin Luther King Jr. opened the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964 with the speech “On the Importance of Jazz”, he had said:
"Jazz speaks for life… it tells the story of life’s difficulties… only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music… It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. And now, Jazz is exported to the world… Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”
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