Mind-blowing Encounters of Indian Classical Music With Canadian Jazz

For several decades, two different musical traditions from opposite sides of the World have come together to form a fusion that blends the innovative and the ancient while also creating space for the spiritual and the adventurous. The fusion of Indian music with jazz predated that of rock with jazz by some 20 years. Jazz musicians began to employ Indian melodic representations in the 1940s, and Indian artists have long featured jazz musicians in improvisatory roles. Indo Canadian Jazz has been a scene with infinite layers, of both musical sequence and historical consequence.

The unique melodic phrasing of both music styles has inspired musicians for over a century. The exciting rhythmic language of Indian music has given percussionists, instrumentalists, and even vocalists new resources. Its foundation in philosophy has allowed musicians to deepen their spirituality through music as well. For many Canadian jazz musicians, the exposure to Indian music has been personal, at times abstract; but not always in a manner overtly apparent to the listener. For a few however, the influence is so strong, it is immediately apparent in their performances.

Its history too, like the music it represents has seen the swinging of soft power from both continents at different time periods carving out the space we see today as the Indo Jazz Fusion genre. Canada got its first glimpse of Indian music from the Gurudwara assemblies and Shabad Kirtan sessions organized by its earliest Indian origin immigrants going as far back as 1905. The journey of musical confluence between Canada and India is one of historical marvel. Artists, production house pioneers, religious missions from both countries have left an almost permanent musical mark as they travelled each other’s lands. The 1920’s gave birth to the Jazz era in Canada, a time of flamboyance, prohibition, and new money. American Jazz icon Duke Ellington would both bring it north of the border and tour the Eastern world. Afghanistan and India were flourishing hotspots for an Eastern Jazz fan during this time. Unfortunately, records of Ellington’s performances in Afghanistan have since suffered destruction due to the Taliban, but the remnants of its swing and spirit are still noticeable in India. With him the roots of Indo jazz musical collaboration was born.

Pandit Uday Shankar in Canada

Most interestingly, it is in this exact time frame that Pandit Uday Shankar and his dance and music company toured Canada for the first time, giving the Canadian audience its first full-fledged show of Indian performing arts. The conveyor belt of culture did not, however, run in only one direction. Czech born Canadian Walter Kauffman was the director of All India Radio, Mumbai (then Bombay) for the period between 1938-1946. During his tenure in India, he became a specialist in Hindustani music and upon his return to Canada published works on Dhrupad and Kyal singing, bringing the first versions of western notation for Indian music in Canada. Kauffman is also the little known composer of the famous AIR signature tune. In the 1950’s he produced pieces like Madras Express, Six Indian miniatures and three dances to an Indian play becoming the first Canadian production to be heavily influenced by Indian scales and arrangements.

[caption id="attachment_6778" align="alignnone" width="1200"] This rare photo shows composer Walter Kaufmann conducting the Winnipeg Symphony in 1948. [/caption]

The jazz front in Canada, developed in this period partly due to extended musician tours from the USA, the silent film industry and greater racial harmony. A combination of these issues led musicians along with their cultures to establish and build Canada’s own jazz music identity, which made grounds for a generation of Canadian born musicians, led by Oscar Peterson, to rise in the forties.

Jazz also made its way to India in part due to the Cold War. The Americans were keen on making jazz the medium of connect with India while the Russians sent their Mariinsky ballet company on tours to India. Dave Brubeck was one of the first musicians to be chosen by the CIA to tour India in 1958 which resulted in the famous ‘improv’ session between his drummer Joe Morello and legendary mridangam artist Palani Subramania Pillai at the All India Radio, Chennai. Brubeck himself recorded with sitar exponent Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan while in Calcutta during this tour.

Subramania Pillai Mridangam with Joe Morello Jazz: https://youtu.be/hbqkQaspEWE

This interaction presented Indian musicians with the opportunity to experimenting with a different interpretation of a concept they were already familiar with: Improvisation or Manodharma. North Indian music or Hindustani music having its foundation in simple repeated compositions extended on improvisations, quickly found its equilibrium with jazz. Having already become popular with the global audience due to its artistic appeal and association with the 1960’s rock culture, its newfound association with Jazz augmented its audience pool. The 60’s also discovered a new household name in Pandit Ravishankar as not only the proficient Indian musician but also a name to reckon with in the Jazz world.

It is no exaggeration to say that Indian music became fully visible in the West only through the work of Pandit Ravishankar. Giving Ravishankar’s stage presence due credit, one cannot sidestep the significance of his instrument the sitar. Its rich overtones found natural synergy with the electric guitar sounds of that era, teleporting his music over several genres simultaneously. On the other side, John Coltrane’s connection to modal jazz provided an opening to integrate musical ideas that would not have worked in a complex set of chord changes. In the 60’s, it was apparent that a harmonically static approach to improvisation was becoming a crucial element in Coltrane’s inclination to adapting Carnatic ragas like Bairavi. Towards the end of the decade he seemed to abandon conventional concepts of harmonic structure entirely. During this time, his music expressed a kind of transcendent religious ecstasy, sometimes so far as incorporating chants.

Ellington Band gets tabla demo

While the 60’s represented the flourish of jazz in the Americas; the scene in India was something less exciting for jazz. As composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal had started to make waves in Bollywood, the reclamation of heavier electronic instruments was starting to take priority. After spanning two generations, Jazz was no longer the mover in Indian music. Indo Jazz, however, took a breath of fresh life through the collaboration that was born out of the music and the crafting of an understanding between the two cultures in Canada. What seems to be an almost unfathomable clash of cultures to those unfamiliar, is an insightful exploration into how music's malleability forms creative space.

India Pavillion at Expo '67

John Coltrane was at the forefront of many important directions in jazz in the 60’s. While it is clear that many jazz musicians before Coltrane looked to Indian music and thought for the formation and augmentation of their musical and spiritual conceptions, it was not still common to find verbatim uses of Indian musical ideas in compositions and improvisations until Coltrane made it happen first. In the 70’s, Indian rhythmic structure or the tala system seem to have become better understood. The post Coltrane era school of thought, used more commonly the unconventional time signatures derived from the tala scheme of both Carnatic and Hindustani music. This era marked the beginning of a whole new dimension of Indo Jazz confluences making space for names like John McLaughlin, Dave Liebman, and Jan Garbarek, and it remains an important part of the Coltrane legacy. This period also marks the entry of the Alap or the non-restrictive musical exploration into more jazz performances, a direct depiction of an Indian musical concept. Canada also saw the first official tour of Indian performing artists at the Indian pavilion during the Montreal Expo in 1967.

Joe Morello with Palani Subramania Pillai  at AIR Chennai

With the advent of the 70’s, the Indo-Canadian music scene was changed forever, with John Higgins and Trichy Sankaran embarking on a musical journey that would institutionalize the learning and understanding of Indian music with their tenure at the York University. The ready access to a systematized teaching methodology was grooming the next generation artists. Consequentially, the better understanding of technicalities of Indian music offered scope for more intentional exploration. This gave rise to a cohort of musicians that perhaps performed the first versions of the most structured version of Indo Jazz as we know it today.

Mridangam Vidwan Trichy Sankaran with Steve Smith: https://youtu.be/-W9zly7Lx0M

Trichy Sankaran carried the mantle the duo founded into the 80’s, 90’s, and onwards. He took collaboration of Indian music beyond Jazz, to Indonesian gamelan, symphony orchestra and latin and oriental ensembles. His flamboyant style of mridangam playing, which combined complex traditional Indian rhythmic patterns with the kind of pomp that was mostly associated with rock drummers. This was something fresh to the Canadian audience who were conventionally used to hearing more of the nimble sounding Tabla. As a composer, he experimented with several platforms, pushing the boundaries of possibility with every collaboration. He facilitated the reverse integration as well when founding the Tyagaraja Aradhana festival in Toronto. This serves as a performance platform for young aspiring musicians even today. The Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute's ongoing grant program of performing arts has contributed substantially to this development as well.

Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr Trichy Sankaran with a Gamelan ensemble

The 90’s and beyond saw the beginning of institutional propagation of music both in Canada and India. A Canadian Jesuit missionary, Ed McGuire founded a violin school for children in Darjeeling in 1980, producing a student orchestra which in 1989, frequented the theatres of Calcutta. By 1991 Indian Canadians had created numerous musical communities, differentiated mainly by language and regional origin, creatively defining their art space in the new Canadian context. Performance became a dominant model of articulation, bringing many Indian musicians to Canada almost annually on concert tours. This increased access to Indian musicians has boosted learning and interaction between Canadian and Indian artists making Canada a hub for artistic collaboration of all sorts.

The artist of 2020 is growing up in a world where everything is available to them. Indian artists explore technology western musicians are familiar with, they enjoy the bravado otherwise not permitted within the strict limits of performance in the classical context. They have relished the show-business and enjoyed the amplification, the guitar effects, and the crowds. They love the idea of magnifying their music into Western instruments, the energy on stage and being a part of the rock and jazz gig. On the other hand, jazz artists have long romanced the idea of slowing down a little bit. There is a timelessness in Indian classical music that one does not find elsewhere, the depth of drones and peacefulness. It has been a healthy and fulfilling exchange of culture and music between world of jazz and Indian music for a century. Western artists like going deep into the roots to help them be better musicians, and the Indian musicians like coming out into the forefront to magnify what they already have. The trick is, of course, trying to remain true to what jazz is and what Indian music is. When they meet, something good comes out of it. And occasionally, something great comes around.