Innerviews, music without borders

Transformative Potential
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

Indian guitarist Prasanna’s career has focused on extending and expanding the possibilities of the electric guitar. He’s renowned for his singular ability to perform traditional Indian classical Carnatic music on the instrument, including the complex intervallic elements demanded by its microtonal nature. To date, he’s released 11 albums of Carnatic material, as well as three albums of original compositions, including 2006’s highly-acclaimed Electric Ganesha Land, a unique homage to Jimi Hendrix. The album combines rock, blues, metal and fusion with Carnatic percussion, including mridangam, ghatam and kanjira to impressive effect. His 2009 DVD Live in Sedona captures him performing selections from the album, as well as his more traditional side.

Prasanna’s latest project is a trio with drummer Steve Smith and saxophonist George Brooks, which is about to release its debut album Raga Bop Trio on the Abstract Logix label. It’s a jazz-oriented release with a deep groove that integrates all three musicians’ considerable experiences in the Indian classical and fusion universes.

When he’s not working on his own projects, Prasanna is in high demand as a Bollywood soundtrack performer and composer. His output has been featured in dozens of Indian movies, and he has also collaborated with the legendary film score master A.R. Rahman on several occasions.

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking Prasanna has pursued to date is the recent establishment of the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Chennai, India. The school is the first of its kind in the country, bringing together world class faculty to offer leading edge Indian and Western programs, as well promote cross-genre exploration.

Describe your drive to establish Swarnabhoomi and why it's an important step for music education in India.

I didn’t have a place like this in India to go to when I badly wanted a formal education in jazz, classical and other contemporary music. I went to Berklee College of Music and it was a big struggle for someone like me to make that possible, coming from a middle class family in India. I always dreamed of having a place like that in India and imagined what a difference that could make to the musician community in India. The dream eventually transformed into a focused drive to make this a reality.

Education is given great importance in India. The country has several world class engineering, medicine and business schools, but does not have a college of international caliber in music. Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM) fills that big gap.

SAM is an important step for music education in India because it opens doors for Indian and international students to study with top professionals in a stimulating residential environment in natural surroundings. It also exponentially opens up opportunities for brilliant musicians and music teachers all over the world to come to India to teach, play and interact with Indian musicians, thereby creating access to meaningful cross-cultural collaborations. It fuels connectivity in the process.

When did you first consider creating a school and why was now the right time to launch it?

I have been toying with this idea for years. I had to map out the whole thing in my head first. I asked myself “Am I going for a small set-up or am I going to think bigger? And if so, how am I going to get support for a project like this?” These are questions that have been in my head for a while and I got some terrific input from my family and friends. Like any ambitious project, it takes time, commitment and good vibrations from people all around to make it happen.

I had a chance meeting with Mr. G.R.K. Reddy, Chairman and Managing Director of Marg Limited, one of India’s top infrastructure companies, and talked about my dream and he instantly offered his support to accomplish this. Mr. Reddy is a visionary and I am fortunate to have found a friend in this mission.

The timing was just right. Marg is currently building a 1,000-acre township called Marg Swarnabhoomi about 80 kilometers from Chennai and this place will have lots of educational institutions, IT companies, hospitals, shopping malls and more. It’s a great place to have a music college and Marg is a prestigious company for me to partner with. SAM is the first major educational institution coming up at Marg Swarnabhoomi. Virginia Tech is going to set up an international campus there very soon and a lot more exciting things are going to happen there.

Why did you choose to locate SAM in Chennai?

Marg Swarnabhoomi is located near Chennai and the college is a key component of the Swarnabhoomi project. In any case, Chennai is the place where I would have wanted to have my music school. It is my hometown. It is sun-drenched, has great beaches, an incredibly long coastline and some truly amazing cuisine. Chennai is one of the most culturally vibrant cities in India. It’s the home of Tamil culture, Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam, and more. Even Bollywood and Hollywood today has a strong connection to Chennai thanks to A.R. Rahman and his international success following Slumdog Millionaire.

Describe the school's overall mission.

To focus on excellence and innovation in music education at an affordable cost. We want to give our students a top-flight international faculty, an integrated curriculum that utilizes the best of Indian and Western learning methodologies, terrific infrastructure, and above all, a creatively-fulfilling learning experience forged by students and faculty living together in a serene four-acre campus, away from the noise of the city. SAM is a 29,000 square-foot facility with top-of-the-line equipment including Mesa Boogie guitar amps, Orange bass amps, Kawai grand, upright and digital pianos, and more. We have partnered with the world’s biggest music print publishers Hal Leonard Publishing to deliver quality instructional material for our library and media center.

We set the bar high for ourselves right from the beginning. Barely two months after conceptualization, SAM conducted a one-week residential workshop in August 2009 with guitarists David Gilmore (Wayne Shorter, Joss Stone, Trilok Gurtu) and myself, bassist Mike Pope (Chick Corea Elektric Band, Al Di Meola, David Sanborn) and drummer Rodney Holmes (Santana, Brecker Brothers, Joe Zawinul) as faculty. The workshop was attended by 19 musicians from India and England. In April 2010, SAM brought in legendary bassist Victor Wooten to do a series of workshops and concerts in four cities in India. Victor also launched the admissions process for the six-month diploma program that starts in July 2010. I am deeply grateful for the encouragement and support we have been getting from the international music community.

What are the key, unique opportunities the school offers its students—for those residing in India, as well as those abroad?

There are five important ones I’d like to highlight:

1. SAM gives the thousands of musicians in India who play everything from metal to jazz to jam band and beyond, a place to study and refine their musicianship, and prepare them to step into a career path in music with confidence and self-assurance.

2. It opens doors for the first time in India to Indian classical musicians who wish to study Western music in a focused and integrated manner, and level the playing field.

3. It is a fantastic training ground for musicians from India and other countries who want to pursue university-level studies in music colleges in the U.S. and elsewhere.

4. SAM not only provides musicians from other countries what they would like to come to India for—a culturally unique Indian learning and living experience—but also integrates that with a top-class learning environment for Western music as well, giving them a well-rounded global music perspective.

5. It provides a chance for students to come back and enroll multiple times as each program will be different. The rotating faculty and a fluid curriculum will ensure a totally new experience each time for students. Best of all, the low tuition can be a great motivating factor to go again. The model is similar to the Banff Center for the Arts summer Jazz program in Canada, in that sense.

You've described the school as having "life-transforming" potential for students. Tell us what you mean.

For Indian students, it is life-transforming because they have never had a chance to see so much incredible talent coming to their doorstep, living with them and teaching them. Until now, they only had access to YouTube videos, books and instructional DVDs. Now, they can learn with the masters one-on-one. For international students, just the idea of living in India for that long and soaking in its culture, humanity and all its indescribable riches will be a life-transforming experience, not to mention the fun musical part of it.

How did your personal experiences as you emerged on the music scene influence the school's structure and curriculum?

My personal musical journey has been a combination of some beautiful accidents and some instinctive decisions. For someone who grew up in a traditional South Indian Hindu middle class family, it was unusual that my first exposure at the age of five was to the guitar and not a traditional Indian instrument. I was living in a small town called Ranipet and had a neighbor who used to play guitar in church. The first song I ever learned to sing was Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday.” I was into Tamil film music and Western pop. When I stared playing Carnatic music on the guitar, I was considered a rebel and to add to it, I started playing heavy metal and rock at the same time.

Passion has always been my guiding force, but what kept me grounded through my journey is education. I had a great schooling experience in Chennai and graduated from two prestigious institutions with a degree in Naval Architecture from the Indian Institute of Technology and a degree in music from Berklee. Apart from the Western system of education, I also had the traditional Indian music education of learning Carnatic music one-on-one from a guru. I have been studying Carnatic music with my guru, the eminent violinist A. Kanyakumari, for over 22 years.

I have also taught guitar players, bass players, drummers, trombone players, vocalists, pianists, and others privately. I have taught residencies, workshops and classes at MIT, Berklee, and the Banff Center for the Arts. I feel I have learned a lot as a student, teacher, player, and composer and this has helped me immensely in designing the structure and curriculum for SAM.  I consider it a great privilege to be able to do my bit in promoting the cause of music education.

India's prominence on the world stage continues to expand exponentially. How does SAM reflect this?

This is exactly why there couldn’t have been a better time to start SAM. For a long time, people in the West were only aware of Indian classical music, but now Bollywood has claimed a huge stake in the world. With the success of Slumdog Millionaire and international awareness of A.R. Rahman’s music, people in the Wsest now know that there are other things happening musically in India. There is a lot of potential for India to contribute outside of classical music and Bollywood in contemporary music settings like jazz, rock and other genres. Imagine if more people like George Harrison, John McLaughlin and John Coltrane come out from the other side—India—and refracted their Indian-ness on to the West. SAM is a prism through which some of that refraction can happen.

For those unaware, describe the prevalence of Western rock, jazz and fusion in India.

Western rock, jazz and fusion styles have always been popular and influential in India. Unlike what some in the West may think, most people in India don’t necessarily play sitar or tabla or listen to Indian classical music. In fact, just like any other place in the world, most people play guitar in India—rock guitar at that. India is a place where you might even see the first “temple” built for Steve Vai or John Petrucci. I myself played Santana, Van Halen, Metallica, and Deep Purple covers with countless bands in India in the early eighties before I did my first Carnatic concert.

Thanks to the Internet explosion, the iPod generation of India have an eclectic taste in music—Shakti rubbing shoulders with Medeski Martin and Wood, Chick Corea, Godsmack, Whitesnake, Miles Davis, Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbalakshmi, and Shakira. Artists from The Rolling Stones to Iron Maiden to Frank Gambale to Victor Wooten to Kenny Garrett tour India these days. So, Western music in all forms continues to gain huge popularity and influence in India.

Give us an overview of key faculty members and what makes them ideally suited to deliver on the school's mission.

I believe having a rotating faculty is a great concept. For our first diploma program in July, we have an incredible line-up of musicians with expertise and professional experience across so many genres of music. To maximize the learning experience for students, we have two sets of faculty for the first and second term of the program. I personally handpicked these wonderful musicians and we are blessed to have a faculty line-up of this kind for our very first program. These musicians hail from nine different countries and bring with them an astounding cultural diversity and range of music. The experience the students will get studying with them is very much in sync with the school’s mission of excellence and innovation. The performance and recording credits of the faculty reads like a who’s who of contemporary music.

For Indian percussion we have Dr. S. Karthick (M.S. Subbalakshmi, Victor Wooten, U. Srinivas, D.K. Jayaraman); for drums: Atma Anur (Journey, Joe Satriani, Greg Howe), David Anderson (Chaka Khan, Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton), Jovol ‘Bam Bam’ Bell (Screaming Headless Torsos, David Fiuczynski), and Harvey Wirht (Leni Stern, Fareed Haque, Babatunde Olatunji, Maria Schneider); for guitar: Rubens De La Corte (Angelique Kidjo, Eliane Elias, Carlos Santana, Peter Gabriel), Ed Degenaro (Dave Weckl, Chuck Rainey, Henry Kaiser), and Andro Biswane (Fra Fra Sound, Basekou Kouyate, Karadara); for bass: Steve Jenkins (Vernon Reid, John Scofield, David Fiuczynski, Wayne Krantz) and Steve Zerlin (Dennis Chambers, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Loggins, Facing East); for vocals: Sarah Jerrom (Mike Murley, Dave Young, Melissa Stylianou, Kelly Jefferson) and Natalie John (Ingrid Jensen, Rachel Z, Bjorkestra); and for piano: Manu Koch (Sekouba Bambino, Roy Hargrove, David Binney, Miguel Zenon) and Vardan Ovsepian (Mick Goodrick, Peter Erskine, Jerry Bergonzi).

I will also be on the faculty for guitar. Between Karthick and I, we plan to not only bring Indian classical Carnatic music integrated into the curriculum but also give students a good overview of Indian philosophy, musical thought and the oral tradition of learning to complement the Western methodologies.

Tell us about the effort and people that came together to make this school a reality.

As I mentioned before, Mr. G.R.K. Reddy has been the pillar of support for the whole project for me. Marg Limited is loaning us the land and are building the entire infrastructure for us. They have also given us generous manpower support to move this project along until we can recruit our own team to manage SAM independently.

I am thrilled to have my long-time friend and a well known drummer from Chennai, Shyam Rao as the Vice-President of SAM. Shyam, a top-level project management guy with major multinational experience, quit his job as Vice-President of Melstar Technologies and joined SAM. He has been a blessing.

Mr. Oscar Braganza, who is the Executive Director of the Swarnabhoomi Project, has been of great help and guidance too. I also have to thank Shriram Bharathan for handling a lot of duties for SAM from the start. Bimal Payyan has joined us as the head of operations and he is great to work with.

SAM is a non-profit organization and we are counting on a lot of support from people financially and otherwise to make this college grow. So there will be a lot more people to thank very soon.

Describe the vision behind the Raga Bop Trio CD and how the line-up came together.

I had Steve Smith, George Brooks and Kai Eckhardt play with me for a concert in California a few years back and of course everyone had fun. All of them have a passion for Indian classical music. I have since played some concerts in the U.S. with Steve in which we played a set of traditional Carnatic music and another set of my originals.

Steve’s ability to adapt concepts of Carnatic rhythm to his drum set provided a new dimension to those performances and it was only a matter of time before we explored that connection more deeply. Since he and George have been working together for years in Summit and other settings, it all converged and the three of us thought it would be great to put together this trio. Within a couple of months, we started writing music, rehearsing and worked out dates for a recording session. The upcoming CD is named Raga Bop Trio. “Ragabop” is the name of a composition I wrote for my record Be the Change. Since Steve and George felt the term “Raga Bop” also defines the music this trio is doing, we decided to go with it as a title.

Tell us about the group’s creative process.

It was focused on letting the diversity of the music come out as naturally as possible. We ended up with a pleasant cocktail of Carnatic music, calypso, jazz, rock, funk, ambient music, and more. To me, the compositional aspect of this trio’s music is strong, compared to the common head-and-solo jams that happen a lot when three diverse musicians come together for a session. The material consists mostly of compositions by George Brooks and I, and although these were fully arranged when they came to the table, Steve was the glue that held all this together from a production standpoint. He suggested changes here and there and sometimes even radically restructured some of the material. So, the arranging process eventually turned out to be a nice group effort. There were a couple of compositions like “Moonlanding” and “Geometry of Rap” in which all of us contributed to the writing process.

What makes the chemistry among the three of you unique?

All three of us are basically eclectic in our music and have experience playing across many styles of music. Over the years we have defined a certain sound and signature for ourselves individually. We just wanted to let that come across honestly in a group format. We spent a few relaxed days at Steve’s home in Oregon going over the music and it was a great way to open up to each other and develop not just a musical connection, but a personal one as well.

Another key group of yours is Tirtha with Vijay Iyer and Nitin Mitta. Describe the objective of this group and the influences at work.

Tirtha is yet another creative trio project. The Tirtha sound is hypnotic and evocative. Vijay and I share composing duties for Tirtha, but again, these compositions take on a different life with Nitin’s interpretation on the tabla. Vijay always says the soul of the band lies in its improvisation, but then the compositions are quite involved too and provide an elegant base, so group improvisations can go to new places. With Tirtha, I have been able to bring out some of my classical influences like Bartok, Messiaen and Ravel in my writing, since it gave me a vehicle for writing some specific piano parts, knowing I have a strong player like Vijay. Vijay’s compositions tend to center around Carnatic melakartha ragas as source material with a cyclical harmonic and rhythmic framework, and they contrast nicely with mine, which mixes up various ragas and meters against harmonic dissonance. Nitin brings both a North and South Indian sensibility to his tabla playing and also adds a folk element to his tabla grooves.

We recorded our debut album a while back and it will be released by the progressive German label ACT in Spring 2011. We did a short tour of the East coast at the end of April and we have some exciting European and US tours in 2011 to support the record.

Describe how your Live in Sedona DVD represents an extension and evolution of your Electric Ganesha Land recording.

Live in Sedona is a very special performance DVD. It was shot live in the beautiful Future Studios in Arizona in an intimate setting and captures the band of Poongulam Subramanian (mridangam), Dr. S. Karthick (ghatam, morsing, konnakol), Bangalore Amrit (kanjira, konnakol), and myself at our best. The music we play is a mix of some traditional Carnatic music, some Carnatic-ish compositions of mine, and some all-out rock and roll party material from Electric Ganesha Land.

Electric Ganesha Land, my last record, was a tribute to Jimi Hendrix with traditional Indian Carnatic percussionists playing with me on mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, thavil, and morsing. Except for Karthick, the musicians on the album are different from the ones in the live DVD. With Electric Ganesha Land, I wanted to do something that showed me in a place and time that reflected both my musical and my instrument roots—the musical root is certainly Carnatic music, but the roots of my guitar explorations come from Jimi Hendrix. Although I don’t imitate him or try to play like him—well, I can’t play like him anyway, because he was so unique—he is a big inspiration to me to continue to seek my own voice as a guitar player.

Performing Electric Ganesha Land material live is challenging and rewarding and the DVD captures the intensity. The other point behind both Electric Ganesha Land and Live in Sedona was to use a traditional Carnatic percussion ensemble like a rock band complementing the guitar. Sonically, that is unique and was what I was going for. Poongulam, Karthick and Amrit are just incredible players and their amazing virtuosity and musicianship are on full display here.

It’s been awhile since your last solo album. What are your plans in that regard?

My next solo album is fully recorded and mixed. This is my most ambitious project with a stellar line-up of musicians that include Dave Douglas on trumpet, Rudresh Mahanthappa and David Binney on saxophones, Vijay Iyer on piano, Shalini and Natalie John on vocals, Mike Pope on acoustic and electric bass, Bill Urmson on electric bass, and Rodney Holmes and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. On this record, I wanted to retain the rock abandon of Electric Ganesha Land but blend it with the more jazz compositional approach of Be the Change. I am also experimenting with drum and bass, electronica and other interesting grooves on it. The new record also features a lot of vocal tracks, which bring a different quality to the aesthetic of the record. All the musicians brought in their incredible playing and energy to this.

I was going to release it earlier this year, but then with the Raga Bop Trio record, SAM, the Tirtha tour, and everything else, I decided to wait for a better time to put the record out and tour with these incredible musicians.