When it comes to the fusion-is-good versus fusion-is-evil debate (be it of music, dance, food, you name it), I am one of those with one foot firmly on either side of the issue. A bit of an awkward position, considering the size of the barrier between the two camps, but I have managed to keep my balance. No, I am not a wishy-washy, undecided, please-and-agree-with-everybody person, some freakish mishmash of clashing impulses, or a bizarre mutant born of a marriage of incompatibles. It’s just that I have heard (and seen/eaten) the best and worst of fusion. And so, I support both sides. It’s that simple.
Most people I know feel very strongly about one side or the
other of this matter. There are the
hermetically sealed types, safely and sanctimoniously cocooned from the horrors
of the strange, ugly, distorted world of fusion, exalting the glories of time-honored
conventions and practices. They like only
what they know well, and are comfortable with. And then there are the fusion
enthusiasts, indiscriminately waxing eloquent about the latest wonder fusion
product. Often, they are not really certain that they actually appreciate or
understand what is going on, but, confident that they stand for progress,
innovation, and broadmindedness, they trumpet the
glories of fusion.
Harsh words are hurled from one side to the other. No
respect for tradition and purity, mutter the tightly sealed ones, very likely
speaking words that are themselves a fusion of several languages. Narrow-minded
old fogies, sneer the wide-open-to-anything ones, not seeing the
narrow-mindedness in their own rigid thinking.
This argument can go on endlessly, with both sides, backs to
each other, shouting into the empty air beyond. Please, I tell them, turn
around and listen to each other. Because both of you are right. And both of you are wrong. If you think about
it, how old, really, are these ancient traditions? So much of what is passed
off as classical and long-established was regarded as – yes, innovative,
strange, ugly, and heretical – not so long ago.
A lot of the music of Mozart was considered newfangled and
difficult to digest by his often baffled and mystified audience. The stories of
his struggles and humiliations after the heady prodigy years, the frosty
indifference of those who could make or break his career, his having to eat his
meals with his employer’s servants - these are all the stuff of legend today. Ariyakudi
Ramanuja Iyengar, now worshipped as a doyen of Carnatic music, the über-traditionalist,
was in fact quite a radical in his day. He realized that the meandering,
hours-long concert format of the time was no longer suitable to an audience
which craved more variety, and which, with the changing times, no longer had
the entire night to spare listening to a concert. Ruthlessly, he cut and
slashed the length of both individual pieces and the concert as a whole,
earning him no small disapproval from some well-known critics, who sniffed that
he was “diluting classicism”. And how
can I not mention my very favorite, Balamurali? Such vitriol has been flung at
him – for venturing to stretch the boundaries of Carnatic music, for daring to
try and take something great and make it something greater. The day will come,
I know, (and I hope it will be in my lifetime) when Balamurali will be hailed
one of the great classical Carnatic musicians, a champion of its venerable
heritage. All it takes is a sufficient number of years, and the next radical to
Mozart, Ariyakudi, (and soon, for sure, Balamurali) - they are the anointed, the Chosen Ones of their
genre – haloed, shining with the glory of being the exemplars of the classical, the traditional
and the pure.
In reality, they are all fusion artists – fusing what was already there with the best of what inspired them, from within their minds, and their environments. Every single one of us humans on this planet is a
product of fusion. We would not exist
without it. And neither would, or should, any form of the arts.
And yet, I have eaten enough Penne a la Rasam, and seen enough Indo-Global-Bharatanatyam-Ballet,
heard enough really bad Carnatic Pop, that I know that merely blindly fusing
two or more things together is not enough. These are not simple mathematical
equations, but calculations gone horribly awry. They can make you have
nightmares for weeks on end.
Wait, don’t go away yet. If you are shaking your head and
wondering what got me going on this particular rant, I am about to tell you.
On Thursday, I had the wonderful fortune of going to a
concert at the Asia Society in New York.
I had only a fuzzy notion of what I was going for, which, sadly, seems to be
the way I operate most of the time – show up, and then desperately try to
figure out what’s going on. All I knew was there was some sort of fusion
What was going on was a concert by the Dakshina Ensemble, which consists of Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa, both playing the alto saxophone, along with A. Kanyakumari on the violin, Poovalur Sriji on the mridangam, Rez Abbasi on the electric guitar, Carlo de Rosa on the acoustic bass, and royal hartigan (written like that, with no capital letters) on the drums. They call their music Indian American music, or hybrid music. In fact, they eschew the word "fusion".
Kadri, who in the very act of playing Carnatic music on the
alto saxophone is committing an act of fusion (?), is a name any connoisseur of
Carnatic music has heard about. I had never heard him play – not live, not in
recordings – but had heard marvelous things about his music, so I had a
heightened sense of anticipation and excitement. And I had heard Kanyakumari
many, many times, accompanying M.L. Vasanthakumari, and Balamurali too. She was tremendously gifted, I knew, and
could make the violin sing with haunting beauty. About the rest of the
ensemble, I knew nothing.
Kadri, Kanyakumari and Sriji constituted the Carnatic music
part of the ensemble. Rudresh, Rez, Carlo and royal did the western jazz part.
It was my very first time listening to this particular kind of hybrid music. And
I have never heard anything like it before. It was amazing. Fabulous,
marvelous, beautiful, glorious, the best of everything music is meant to be and
meant to make you feel. This, to me, was
fusion music at its pinnacle, what all fusion music, what any music, should aspire
to sound like. It was sheer ecstasy listening to the glorious medley of notes
and rhythms – each style of music distinct, yet somehow, miraculously, merging
seamlessly and perfectly with the other. Nothing was compromised anywhere. And
yet, Kadri and Kanyakumari managed to produce just that hint of a bluesy, jazzy
sound, and Rudresh and Rez, just enough of a gamaka, to make this a marriage made in heaven, blessed by all the
gods of music.
(rhythms) were all from Carnatic music: Khandam
(5 beats), Khanda Chapu (7
beats), Adi (8 beats) and Rupakam (3 beats). Dear, familiar old talams, dinned into my rhythmic
consciousness from years of training. With royal hartigan’s feather-light
touch, these dear, familiar talams transformed
themselves into something extraordinarily beautiful, opening up these ancient
rhythms to a whole new dimension. It was completely magical. Kalyani,
Hamsadhwani and other ragams acquired
glittering new haloes with the jazz-infused harmonies woven through them. It
was an Alice in Wonderland
experience, Carnatic music dressed up in jazzy new clothes, bewitching and dazzling
in this new avataram.
And the King of it all was Kadri. The man has Presence. He
walked onto the stage, dressed in a glittering saffron kurta. He looked like a
mad professor of music, or like a new-age Sadhu who has made it big. And his
saxophone – it looked like it was studded with diamonds, so much did it twinkle
and sparkle in the light. He had an aura about him – smiling, bright, intense,
engaged, alert – and he connected with the audience right away. Kanyakumari, on
the other hand, glowered at the audience and looked like she had a bad
toothache. But once she started playing, none of that mattered.
And when Kadri started playing….right away, on the spot, he
found a place in my heart. He is brilliant, a genius. In that ensemble of
superbly gifted musicians, he was head and shoulders above everyone else (only
Kanyakumari came close – very close). I was in awe listening to him. He can do anything he wants with the
saxophone – the instrument is his to command. Rudresh, much younger, and full
of charm and energy, and the person responsible for forming this group – was
terrific on his saxophone, too, but in some of the musical exchanges between
him and Kadri – he distinctly came off sounding second best. These musical
“conversations” between the two saxophones were scintillating, and the closest
I have come to experiencing the truth of that old adage that all music is one
Every musician got a chance to perform solo, and every one
did brilliantly. It was an evening of outstanding music. Seven gifted,
hardworking and visionary musicians came together and gave the audience a taste of what a
musical match made in heaven looked and sounded like.
All fusion should be like this: intelligent, thoughtful,
recognizing what mixes and what does not, open-minded yet with firm roots in
the mother system. Not a patch-job, a union that was never meant to be, or
merely making two different streams run parallel to each other, noses up in the
air, not touching, not communicating, producing a discordant cacophony.
All this talk of fusion has me thinking…thoughts that would
curdle the blood of the traditionalists, and that would make even the
fusion-enthusiasts blanch. That would make my family, particularly my children,
recoil in horror. Which makes it all the more appealing.
What do you think of Carnatic Rap?!