Saraswati Embodies Empowerment, Strength, Creativity and Openness: Biggi and Nema Vinkeloe

“I really like this image, the white associates for me - light or enlightenment and therefore knowledge, the instrument is an expression of creativity to me. Saraswati, a female deity, embodies empowerment, strength, creativity and openness. A very beautiful and loving image connected to the arts and music in particular” - Saxaphone and Flute player, Jazz Musician Biggi Vinkeloe

It’s both inspiring and beautiful that there is deity for art and knowledge, emphasising the importance of these aspects of life. I feel like there is a deeper appreciation and respect for the arts here - that it is seen as an equally important part of life as other aspects and that it should not be reduced to merely a hobby or entertainment. The spirituality of music is something that also speaks to me - I seek to create music that, to me, has a soul and connects to the spiritual” - Violinist Nema Vinkeloe

Jazz has always been associated with musical liberation and freedom, much like Carnatic music of South India. But truth be told, it is difficult for women musicians, especially composers and instrumentalists to break into the big league. At some point it was decided it was okay to have women pianists, cellists, flautists in jazz but no… women were not meant for the big brass instruments.

It was wonderful therefore to connect with Biggi Vinkeloe of Oakland, CA, who is a rarity in jazz. She plays the alto saxophone as well as flute as main instruments and is touring India with her violinist daughter Nema Vinkeloe, both of whom jammed with South Indian musicians recently, breaking several musical boundaries.

Speaking about her musical collaborations, Biggi says they have had “amazing experiences working with both men and women in India. We do feel that we share the same view on gender equality.”

Biggi and Nema are big on advocacy for gender equality, and are open about not liking to interact with musicians “who are not advocating for gender equality and who would treat people differently depending on gender. At the same time, we are very conscious (as are our colleagues) that the music business as a whole still has a long way to go before everyone is respected in his / her own right and paid accordingly,” Biggi told CSP.

 

Nema, a young violin player, has been working with her mother and South Indian musicians on an album. She says all the instrumentalists she has played with have been male. “In India, from my observation, the “female” instruments seem to mainly include tanpura, violin, veena and voice. It is rare to see women playing other instruments, especially percussion. This is not unique to India - the same can be observed in Europe.”

“Female musicians are still a minority, and there is also a limited number of instruments that are perceived as accessible for women. We know that this is (slowly) changing - there are female tabla and ghatam players, for example, but seen in proportion, women musicians are still a minority. As a result, we have often been the only women instrumentalists when playing with Indian musicians. That being said, we have always felt treated with respect and seen as equals to the other musicians. In the future, I would wish that we have the opportunity to play with more female musicians - as in every other aspect, diversity brings so much more joy and variety!”

Biggi says that today there are more and more women instrumentalists on stage in all genres of music because of the work of women musicians of the past. “In classical Symphony Orchestras the revolution started just thirty or forty years ago, when the conductor Karajan forced the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to play for the violinist Ann-Sophie Mutter in 1977. After that, in 1982, auditions were held behind a curtain and soft carpeting so you could not hear the shoes and high heels on the floor. Amazingly, this increased the number of women instrumentalists dramatically - since then, auctions behind curtain to prevent gender preference are the rule.”

She says that in New York, the best paid and most famous big band under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis had to except auditions behind curtain, “after he said that women were simply not good enough and not up to the task and he therefore was challenged in court by women advocates for more gender equality. This happened just one or two years ago - and there are currently now women in the big band.”

She holds Sukanya Ramgopal of Bangalore in high esteem. “Ghatam Sukanya Ramgopal, an internationally acclaimed musician, teacher, leader of an all-women percussion group is an advocate for a better gender balance. I once had the opportunity to meet her in music. Any woman on stage encourages girls to persevere in their dream of becoming a professional musician. We never give up fighting and hoping for gender equality so we can share and grow together,” says Biggi.

 

Jazz musician Biggi in Goa

One of the foremost and few women saxophone players in the world today, Biggi has worked hard on developing breathing techniques for playing a very demanding instrument. “I have worked for a long time on breathing techniques, because this is an essential part of being able to playing a wind instrument. Without proper control of your breath you cannot control the sound, the dynamic, the velocity and the articulation of your musical thought. I practice every day for at least a couple of hours, I have developed some kind of smart practicing, very focused, distilled and efficient to maintain and even develop my skills, on the instruments and in music in general. I also listen to a lot of music, all styles, I go to art exhibitions (visual art is like making music visible - and the art audible) for more inspiration. I am a curious person who always strives to learn something new every day.”

Composing has always seen men occupying the higher echelons. An accomplished composer, Biggi says, “Traditionally, women are maybe not encouraged enough to compose and to be proud of their compositions. So most of the known compositions are done by men. I seriously doubt that women compose less, but it seems evident that it is harder to persevere and get known as a composer when you are not a man. Even in classical Western music there are many examples for how women are ridiculed as composers and how their work was actively suppressed by ‘well-meaning’ men, relatives or not. It is difficult to break into a traditionally male domain, because it always proves difficult to share privileges.”

Ghatam player Sukanaya Ramgopal

Speaking for women worldwide, she says, “Women composers bring their creativity and their experiences - technical, musical, emotional - and contribute to the broadening and the development of this beautiful language and art form called music.”

Nema says like everywhere in society, representation is extremely important in music too. “Without giving everyone equal opportunities and possibilities to express themselves, we miss out on experiences, perspectives and ideas. Women are a hugely diverse and heterogeneous group; constituting half of mankind, it is impossible to say that there is a single or a few “female” perspectives or experiences. Given the limited number of women who have had the opportunity to express themselves in composing, I wish that the struggle for gender equality continues and ensures that all walks of life are open to everyone, regardless of gender, age, race, sex, sexuality or ability.”

 

Collaboration

Biggi says she loves listening to Carnatic music and she and Nema have made friends who they count among the top musicians in the world including - Dr Mysore Manjunath, B C Manjunath, Pramath Kiran, Sumanth Manjunath.

“The Carnatic sound ideal and the way of playing is very different from the way I think. When I play with Indian musicians I try to add my own flavour to the music, rooted in Western classical and American Jazz music.”

Nema talking about the album they recorded last year in Bangalore, says. “We are very eager for it to be released, since we think that the music is truly different and unique. It brings together musicians from different backgrounds and traditions, mixing South Indian and Hindustani classical music, traditional Swedish music and jazz improvisation. It creates a new kind of world music, where all of these expressions meet, interact and influence each other. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it!”

Biggi says the album features some ‘amazing’ musicians - Arun Shiva Ganesh, Pramath Kiran, Ramakrishna Shikaripuri, Mukesh Madikeri, Rumi Harish, Joe Anthony and Nema Vinkeloe. “We brought together Swedish traditional music with Hindustani traditional singing, jazz phrasing with Indian rhythm patterns, melodies composed for the vachanas with improvisations, with voices, harmonium, percussions, violin, flute and saxophone.” This music was performed last year at Alliance Française as part of the Bangalore School of Music Festival East West Music and Dance Encounter.

Biggi says they have started work on a new project entirely devoted to “bringing life to some of the amazing poetry from 1000 years ago, the Vachanas with texts by Basavanna, Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka. This is just another genre-bending project that I initiated and that I now share with my colleagues.” Three singers - Mukesh Madikeri, Sangeetha Ravindranath and Nema Vinkelo - from different perspectives and grounded in different cultures are accompanied by Ramakrishna Shikaripura on harmonium, Arun Shiva Ganesh on percussion, Nema Vinkeloe on the violin and Biggi on the flute and saxophone.

For Nema, Indian vocal music “is a truly special and inspiring form of music. The voice is used in such a different way and the technique varies so much from Western classical music or folk music, which makes the combination of these traditions so interesting. I am not attempting to sing like an Indian vocalist would sing, just like the Indian singers we worked with are not attempting to sing like Western vocalists. Instead, we use our different voices and styles to sing together. In this way, our project where we put music to the vachanas creates a mix of voices, vocal expressions and languages (they are sung in Kannada, English and Swedish) as well as instruments from different traditions (harmonium, violin, saxophone, flute and percussion).”

As with South Indian singing, the way of playing the violin differs greatly from the Western traditions. “What I enjoy most in Carnatic violin music is of course the gamakas - something that is not found at all in Western classical music. The fact that the violin is tuned differently (in Western music, the violin is tuned in fifths) gives the violin a different sound and expression. We have been to a number of concerts where Carnatic violin music is played, and one very appealing aspect to me is the joy of playing that comes across, and the great playfulness with regards to the instrument itself and the other musicians. Carnatic classical music, when performed by such masters as the Mysore brothers, is about celebrating the joys of music making, having fun with your fellow musicians, experimenting with ragas and with your instrument. All this joy is transferred to the audience, and that is something that I really enjoy!” says Nema.

Finally, all of us will agree with Nema, when she says that the more diverse the group of musicians on and off stage are, the richer the music is, since it opens up the possibilities to present more perspectives, experiences and expressions. “The other reason why it is so important to have representation is that the women that do play instruments are given the opportunity to be seen and heard on stages and recordings, so that young girls may recognise themselves in these musicians and are inspired to pursue music themselves.”