What is so Jazzy about Carnatic music? Simbly tell-off here..

I have often quietly chuckled at the Indian idea of ‘Jass’.  The many famous Carnatic Jazz illusionists have neither heard Miles Davis or John Coltrane and often think Giant Steps is a bunch of just-like-that created rants of Saxophone with no clear grammar. Mostly because they have not bothered to learn about Jazz to explain it in a cohesive manner. I will be honest, I dont completely either, but then I dont claim that ‘Jass’ is like our music. I agree, I grew up in old Bengaluru, where Mysore Ananthaswamy was hip and looked demented when the hippie-looking folks made hullaboololoo about ‘how Indian classical is so much like Jazz’. I even heard that ‘Carnatic Jazz’ is as compatible as mosranna and uppinakayi! Back then, I decided I did not want to know more about Jazz until I know more about my music. Yes, yes, I am conservative and all.

Ten years later, back in Bengaluru and exploring the ‘cool music scene’ here, I am amused to see things haven’t changed much. It is quite evident that we do not know much about Jazz itself, but revel in labeling a range of non-Beethoven like western experiments in sound as Jazz. Sometimes anything with a drumset is Jazz. Sometimes, a keyboard crying out lame chords to a kriti with a drummer is Jazz. A year at the New England Conservatory and thrown into the company of many Jazz and blues playes, I felt I was more at home with a middle-eastern band than a Jazz band. Having a musical conversation with a band that is improvising on lets say, ‘Naima‘ – is hard and outright restrictive. You are at best an exotic singer, who squeals out an exotic sounding solo that sounds nothing like the rest of the song! What do you do with a Billie Holiday number? How are your skills as a Carnatic musician useful in such a dialogue? and most importantly is such an exploration meaningful?  Very few musicians are able to effectively improvise with Raagas can be used against certain chord progressions, because we dont change Raagas ‘like that’. We sing garlands of Raagas, that we did not piece together in real-time. All our raagamalika pallavis are rehearsed 50 times at home with some grim-looking mridangist.  The opposite is however true, most Jazz players can create some decent solos when you throw a Carnatic scale at them.

Of course, I am human and prone to intellectual blindspots, so I thought I will throw this blog open to folks with the question- how is Jazz similar to Carnatic music? Keep it focused to melody, not rhythm. I want to hear about how Jazz melodic theory, performance and practices are similar and how they can be used to forge musical conversations. Be specific, I dont want amorphous explanations, feel free to pick a known Jazz piece and tell me how Carnatic ideas can be incorporated. Send me good examples of such an attempt. Looking forward to hearing from you! Please use the comments box, I am willing to be contested and preached to!


One thought on “What is so Jazzy about Carnatic music? Simbly tell-off here..

  1. Conceptual problem, Deepti. The single most salient characteristic of jazz music is the rapid stylistic evolution which has regularly transformed the state of the music in many ways. A casual listener with no prior experience in the music would not believe that the music of, say, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers (1920s-30s) and the electric music of Ornette Coleman (1980s-90s) could possibly be subsumed under the same category. By contrast, there is essentially no difference between Carnatic performance practices of a century ago and those of today.

    So the question at hand is, “which jazz?” There are many forms of jazz, some of which are easily compatible with South Indian melodic practice (any style with a minimum of harmonic activity).

    Now, with that out of the way, let me say this.

    Both Hindustani and Carnatic musicians tend to approach jazz in ways that are strongly conditioned by the Ethnocentric Fallacy (q.v.) — as if it is some mutant form of Indian music that can be understood using essentially the same vocabulary and conceptual set with only a few adjustments (“ahhh, I see. I will use ragam ________ for the first part, then ragam _________ for the second part!”). Some part of this attitude is attributable to a deeply embedded cultural hubris (“Indian music is the most complicated and evolved in the world, therefore Indian musical training equips me to deal successfully with all other idioms”) which may not be articulated consciously but which lurks below the surface and provides a comfortable platform for a refusal to engage intellectually and artistically with the other idiom on its own terms.

    Genuine engagement is much more work; it takes longer, has more false starts, more misunderstandings to be resolved, more blind alleys, more failures along the way, more studying and practice — and more humility in the face of an idiom. Jazz musicians studying Indian music don’t generally have this problem — perhaps because one of the outstanding characteristics of successful jazz players is a high level of familiarity with the experience of not-knowing-what-the-hell-is-going-on (hence greater humility, hence greater willingness to do the actual donkey work of adjusting to the idiom).

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