Progressing the Tradition: Rafiki Jazz


Rafiki Jazz, from Sheffield in the UK confounds easy categorization. The band which includes musicians from the Senegalese and South Asian diasporas as well as British and refugee musicians has been called ‘the most diverse band in the UK’. The group’s website claims the band plays ‘jazz world’ music.


The jazz reference in their name continues a long tradition of African bands using the word: Bembeya Jazz National, TPOK Jazz, Dar es Salaam Jazz and Morogoro Jazz.  Of course, the music these and countless other ‘jazz’ bands played while improvisational to some extent and solo-friendly sounded nothing like the American original.  The African sounds were free wheeling and danceable with guitars being the primary heroes of the stage.


Rafiki Jazz draws deep on Africa for much of its sound which again bears little resemblance to the iconic bands named above. High in the mix is a powerful strain of Sufi music and Indian sangeet. Indeed, though the band’s name is African/Middle Eastern (rafiki=friends) most of the tracks make you think this is a subcontinental band, especially as the title Har Dam Sahara is emblazoned in Urdu on the cover.


This is an album full of wonderful sounds, pauses and instruments. Definitely a couple listens are required to start to an appreciation for the many jewels contained within. But I highly recommend this to friends of this blog even if it doesn’t technically qualify as South Asian.



Track Listing:

  1. Sunno
  2. Saya
  3. Tasbih
  4. You Are Light
  5. Har Chand Sahara
  6. Jhooli Lal Qalandar
  7. Cheikh Amadou Bamba


By the Trunk of Ganesha: Kadri Gopalnath

Lord Ganesha

Lord Ganesha

Kadri Gopalnath was born in Mangalore, on India’s west coast.  As a young boy, while on a visit to the royal city of Mysore Kadri had his Damascus moment. As a marching band made its way through the streets he spied a strange looking instrument, unlike anything he’d seen to that time. It was brass and looked a bit like the trunk of Ganesha reaching up to accept the gift of a banana.   Kadri was entranced and bugged his father to tell him what the instrument was.  “A saxophone. Now keep quiet,” scolded his father.


Kadri Gopalnath

Kadri Gopalnath

As an adult, Sri Gopalnath, has carved out a niche for himself as the most famous, and most accomplished Indian saxophone player.  Like many of his musical peers who took to western instruments (guitar, violin, clarinet) he had to make some adjustments to the classic jazz instrument to make it perform and sound the way he wished, which was the Carnatic classical musical way.


Over thirty years ago while attending India’s premier international jazz festival in Bombay, his playing caught the year of John Handy. Asking the young musician to play with him he was immediately taken by this strange but familiar music coming out of the sax.  Sort of like free jazz pioneered in the lofts of New York in the 60’s, Gopalnath’s playing was nothing like the music American jazzmen were making.


Over the years, Kadri Gopalnath, has toured the world, both as an Indian classical musician as well as a partner with some of the great jazzmen of the day.  He has collaborated with fellow sax player Rudresh Mahantappa (among many others) and received rapturous accolades from audiences and critics alike.


Here is a CD of his Carnatic playing that I picked up in Chennai several years back.  Enjoy this fresh music!

Captivating Sounds Of Saxophone And Tavil

Track Listing:

01 Raja Raja Aradhithe – Niroshta – Thistra Adi – Muthiah Bhagavathar

02 Adukaradhuni – Manoranjini – Adi – Thyagaraja

03 Baja Mana Rama – Sindhu Bhairavi – Adi – Thulasi Dasar

04 Raga Alapana – Karaharapriya

05 Rama Neeyata – Karaharapriya – Adi – Thyagaraja

06 Sri Rama Padhama – Amirtha Vahini – Adi – Thyagaraja

07 Western Notes

08 Swami Sangeetham – Ayyappan Song

09 Magudi



The Tangled Roots of Islam and Jazz: Sachal Orchestra



A couple of years ago, one of minor YouTube sensations, was the improbable rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five performed by an orchestra of middle aged Pakistani men decked out in white shalwar qamiz (traditional Pakistani attire).  When I saw it, my immediate reaction was to giggle.  I didn’t really listen that closely, figuring it was some sort of joke.  But being a lover of Positive Stories from Pakistan, I stashed it away in the back of my mind.


Recently, I came across another video, with the same group of pot bellied, moustachioed men, accompanying Wynton Marsalis at an European jazz festival.  The group, Sachal Orchestra, played South Asian instruments like sitar, sarangi and tabla, as well as western orchestral instruments and seemed completely comfortable with the surroundings.  And this time, I listened. The sound was very cool.  The tabla, especially, played with gusto, by a Lahori ustad, added a bubbly and lively foundation to the proceedings.


A short time after that I came across this article in the Pakistani magazine, The Herald. Read it!


In short order, I was ordering the Sachal Orchestra’s CD of jazz covers, which I must say is thoroughly enjoyable and fresh. What could so easily have gone way off the tracks, in fact rumbles along very nicely thankyou.  Another gorgeous thread in the tangled web of Islam and Jazz!


This article from The Guardian is another nice introduce to the Sachal phenomenon.

Sachal Studio Orchestra Sachal Studio Orchestra_0001

Track Listing:

01 Take Five

02 Desafinado

03 Mountain Dance (Raga)

04 Garota De Ipanema

05 Misty

06 Samba De Verao

07 This Guy’s In Love With You

08 Garota De Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema) (Raga)


Pilgrimage: Vijay Iyer



Tirtha is a Sanskrit word that literally means ‘ford’ or ‘river crossing’. In the Hindu sacred space a tirtha is holy place of pilgrimage, which as it so happens, often are on the banks of rivers, lakes or seas.  One visits a tirtha, a place where you can cross a river or other body of water, so that you can absorb the sacred energy and cross from the human to the spiritual world.  Varanasi, one of the world’s most hoary cities, is the most important tirtha in India but there are countless others: Prayag, Puri, Kedarnath, Tirupathi, Dwarkanath.

Vijay Iyer, is generally regarded as among the very best of a growing horde of very exciting, contemporary jazz musicians working in the USA of South Asian origin.

Born to south Indian immigrant parents Iyer started off with music a passion but with a career as a physicist firmly in his eyes. But as these things go, the heart won out and the world of quantum and string theory was left behind.

Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer

Born in Albany, New York in 1971 and raised in Rochester, New York, Vijay Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the US. He received 15 years of Western classical training on violin beginning at the age of 3. He began playing the piano by ear in his childhood, and is mostly self-taught on that instrument. Vijay was also exposed to some Carnatic classical and religious music in his youth. His high school years saw a growing interest in jazz. After completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics at Yale University when he was 20, Iyer then went to the University of California, Berkeley initially to pursue a doctorate in physics. Iyer continued to pursue his musical interests, serving as the house pianist in jam sessions at the Bird Kage (a club in North Oakland) and playing in ensembles led by drummers E. W. Wainwright and Donald Bailey. In 1994 he started working with Steve Coleman and George E. Lewis and became associated with the musicians’ collective Asian Improv. In 1995 he left the physics department and assembled an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition. His 1998 dissertation, titled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics, applied the dual frameworks of embodied cognition and situated cognition to music.

Now an acclaimed New York-based jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and producer, he performs around the world with his ensembles and collaborations, including his Grammy-nominated trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore; the experimental collective Fieldwork, featuring Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey; the new South Asian chamber trio Tirtha, featuring guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta; his large-scale works with poet-performer Mike Ladd; and Raw Materials, his longstanding duo with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. His trio album Historicity was nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and was named #1 album of the year in many publications, including the Downbeat Magazine International Critics Poll, the Village Voice Annual Jazz Critics Poll, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Metro Times, PopMatters, and others. His trio won the 2010 Jazz Echo Award (aka the “German Grammy”) for best international ensemble. Iyer was named the 2010 Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. (Read More)

While Iyer has, and continues to perform with a wide range of fellow artists, most of whom have no connection or affinity with his Indian roots, and while he would not want to be typecast as a musician confined by the label ‘South Asian’, some of his most outstanding and interesting work is with fellow Indo-Pakistani-American musicians.

Tirtha (2011) is one such, the focus of tonight’s post. My relationship to music is intuitive rather than technical, historic or analytical.  I respond to a piece or an artist or an album from the heart.  If it speaks to me I listen.  I know jazz lovers who are acute and insightful critics of the music from a mechanistic point of view. They can identify the changes and structures and sub-rhythms and seem to find pleasure in that.  And why not?  But it’s not me.

What intrigues me and draws me to this music, among other things, is the concept of tirtha.  A place to which one travels to cross over to another realm. The titles of the tracks all lend themselves to pilgrim concerns and as such are explorations of the spirit world and the human relationship to it.

Duality.  One of the basic debates in Indian philosophy is that of the nature of reality. Some hold that there does in fact, exist a duality between self and Self, even though the most profound and wide spread view is non-duality: we are all part of the One.   One cannot avoid such debates when on pilgrimage.

A longing for Abundance, whether of wealth, wisdom or love is what drives all pilgrims to tirtha. But equally, the devotee is confronted with Falsehood at the same time. Am I worthy? Are my motives untrue? Indeed, are the gods dealing with me falsely?

As anyone who has been on pilgrimage, or even just observed the faithful, knows, the essence of the journey is about throwing down a Gauntlet before the Divine. If you provide me this, I’ll do that. If you show me your face, I’ll correct my ways.  But back home the urgency is lost as Entropy and Time take their toll.  The pilgrimage becomes but a Remembrance.

Each track on this enchanting album acts like a ‘station’ along the pilgrim’s path. Focusing the attention of the supplicant, causing his mind to reflect and his spirit to take comfort, even if That Which is Sought remains far off, illusive or unclear.

Iyer’s subtle and suggestive piano playing is supported by sinewy guitar picking by another Indian-American, Prasanna and flowing taals from Nitin Mitta, a young north Indian percussionist.



Nitin Mitta

Nitin Mitta

Peace and joy!

Tirtha Tirtha_0001

Track Listing:

01 Duality

02 Tribal Wisdom

03 Tirtha

04 Abundance

05 Falsehood

06 Gauntlet

07 Polytheism

08 Remembrance

09 Entropy And Time


ScandIndia Jazz: The Indian Core

India Norway


Let’s turn our attention for a while to some contemporary South Asian music.  Tonight we highlight the Norwegian-Indian jazz combo Indian Core.  Kind of a strange name in that it is rather lifeless. What is an Indian core as opposed to a Norwegian or Polish or Punjabi core? Isn’t a core the part of the apple you throw out?


So it was with some reluctance that I bought this CD on a recent trip to India.  But I can assure you my hesitancy was not needed. This is a very nice record indeed.  The bansuri (bamboo flute) is a prominent feature of the band, which rather unexpectedly is able to maintain its own in the unfamiliar context.

The Indian Core

The Indian Core


There’s an affinity between Indian classical music and jazz in the musics’ inventiveness, subtlety and sensitivity to tone colour. John Mayer’s Indo-Jazz Fusions showed the way, followed by John McLaughlin, Trilok Gurtu, French band Mukti and many others. Now we have Norwegian quartet the Core, collaborating with guests Kanchman Babbar (flutes), Fateh Ali (sitar) and Prasenjit Mitra (tabla) to make The Indian Core. The CD is drawn from live recordings made during a tour of Norway. Founder-drummer Espen Aalberg drives the ensemble along with an even, flowing style that leaves plenty of space for Mitra’s polyrhythms, and the band generates plenty of heat on stretched-out numbers such as Agra and Ull Raga. The Indian musicians sound at home in this defiantly acoustic nu-jazz, and Babbar’s flute solos are a constant source of pleasure, combining Indian inflections and melodies with a jazzy “sound of surprise”, and a vocalised timbre that springs from both cultures.


Indian Core Indian Core_0001

Track Listing:

01 Slo’Fox

02 Punjab Blues

03 Autumn

04 Ull-Raga

05 Agra

06 Tarana