Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, Colorado to South Indian parents, and started playing saxophone in fourth grade in the jazz band at school. His musical interest in jazz progressed organically, started with, as he says, "more instrumental soul and R&B, like Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn, stuff that's unfortunately considered to be smooth jazz now, but I think back then it [...] had more bite to it. [...] Then I heard Charlie Parker when I was in sixth grade or seventh grade, and that, that was the end. I was hooked."
He went on to the Berklee College of Music to study composition and alto saxophone. But throughout all of the introductions to jazz, he never really explored Indian music until his brother jokingly gave him a CD called "Saxophone Indian Style," at one of his recitals in college. But Mahanthappa didn't find it so funny - "The album blew me away, you know? I couldn't believe that somebody was playing Indian music authentically on the saxophone." That somebody was Kadri Gopalnath, who Mahanthappa later recorded with. Gopalnath was the first Indian musician to pick up the saxophone and to play traditional Indian music, and therefore had to forge his own path, despite the lack of support in the larger Indian musical community at first.
Why was he the first? Well, as Mahanthappa talks throughout the rest of the program, you'll hear just how complicated Indian music is. So in order to make it easier to digest a lot of information quickly, I'll break it down for you.
-Indian music is very mathematical, and follows different standards than Western music.
-Indian scales aren't the same as the scales we think of here, because "they often have an ascending form that's different from the descending form, and the notes sometimes will come out of order. They won't go straight up. It might go up a little bit and down, and then up a little bit again."
-Indian music also doesn't refer to measures like Western music does, like 4/4 time, etc. Instead, in Indian music, it's all about the number of beats in a cycle. As Mahanthappa explained it, "You might have something that's a four-beat cycle or an eight-beat cycle, a seven-beat cycle. One that you see often is a 21-beat cycle. It's three groups of seven."
-A huge element of Indian music is ornamentation, which is a complex way to slide between notes by playing tones above or below the actual note. Therefore, there are hundreds of ways to ornament a single note. This is why Mahanthappa was so intrigued by Gopalnath, because he found a way to do this with a saxophone, that is, as Mahanthappa calls it, a "fixed-hole instrument."
And it's only natural that Mahanthappa was so compelled by the precise, mathematical music of his ancestry - as he says, "I see music and math and computation [...] as coming from a similar part of the brain and a similar part of human existence."
When asked if he was surprised at the influence Indian music has had on him since discovering it, Mahanthappa said "I think when I look back, I'm surprised, but Indian music was something that I felt like I had to discover on my own terms. [...]As a jazz musician, there's often this assumption that you know about Indian music because you're Indian or because you have brown skin or something like that. So I felt I had to discover that music myself instead of pretending like I was an expert on it. And I feel like I came into the music at the same time I was coming into understanding that I do have a hybrid background, that I don't feel entirely Indian, that I don't feel entirely American."
According to Mahanthappa, for many second-generation immigrants, this hybrid feeling sneaks up on them eventually. "Sometimes it's a gradual thing. Sometimes it hits you like a hammer. I think for me, it hit like a hammer."
And the complexity and breadth of knowledge that Mahanthappa has immersed himself in with Indian music hit me like a hammer. There is so much more depth to the interview than I could ever cram into one (long) blog post, so PLEASE, check it out, listen to the sound clips, and hear for yourself what this cultural and musical pioneer has to say.
- Melissa Wray