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Melding fine jazz with Indian classical music
By Bivash Mukherjee

FUSION music is often described as the mixing of two different genres of music, but it can be much more than that.

In a world of possibilities, it also strives to find the perfect harmony by merging ideas from different continents, thereby introducing us to traditions and cultures that are not only alien to us, but are unique and different — even inspiring.

Chaiti, a local entity that has actively promoted music from the subcontinent, will be hoping to do just that when it hosts a group of classical Indian musicians who will seek to find a common ground with Shanghai-based jazz artists on June 13-14 at the Shanghai Center Theater. They will bring with them their own musical preferences and ideas in the hope of creating a symphony that blends tradition with high-energy eclectic beats.


“I have always been fascinated by Indian music,” says Alec Haavik, who moved to Shanghai from New York City in 2005. “As a jazz musician, I find a huge area of common ground between jazz music and Indian classical music — they are both a fully developed world of musical improvisation. The two systems have important differences, but the commonality is still much larger.

“The goal of all my musical study is always to bring elements together to create a new sound in new fusion music. In a way, this is staying true to one of the essential aspects of jazz, which was from the very beginning a music of cultural fusion,” he says.

There was a time when fusion music was frowned upon by the purists in India, but ironically, it had to be one of them, namely sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and noted sarod exponent Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who broke with tradition to jam with some of the big names from the West.


Shankar even played at the musical extravaganza, Woodstock, in 1969 that underlined his influence on western popular music. It kick started his long association with West during which he befriended names like violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Beatle George Harrison. Harrison even learnt to play the sitar and used it in the hit Beatle number “Norwegian Wood.”

Among other notable artists and bands to integrate Indian influences and develop the trend of fusion were Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones to name just a few.

There is an interesting anecdote which reportedly happened during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971. After Shankar tuned up his instrument on stage for over a minute, the crowd broke into applause. The bemused sitarist is said to have told the crowd: “If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more ...”

Interestingly, vocalist Sarathi Chatterjee, who is trained in Hindustani classical music, claims he can spot foreign influences even in traditional Chinese music.

“We can find Persian and Indian influence in some Chinese music. In fact, what we call “Raga Khamaj” in Hindustani music is used a lot in traditional Chinese music.”

Chatterjee plans to render some semi-classical composition for the Shanghai audience.

Alec Haavik-bass clarinet_副本.jpg

A learning process

“Some of them are actually extremely catchy tunes and represent regional and seasonal music which I feel would merge extremely well with traditional Chinese and jazz forms.

“I expect it to be an extremely enriching experience ... what can be more enlightening than learning a different genre of music while playing my own style? That is essentially what happens when musicians of completely different styles work together. It is a learning process during which something wonderful is created that incorporates elements of all the different styles.”

Chatterjee will pitch his vocal strength against Haavik and his team — Greg Smith, Fred Grenade, Pan Li and Li Daiguo — all familiar names in the local jazz scene, on June 14.

“I am particularly excited about our upcoming concert as I will have the opportunity to perform some of my original music which was inspired by Indian music,” says Haavik. “My piece ‘Mind Is a Time Machine’ is based on a 35-beat rhythmic pattern which I developed and have been performing for years. I have always felt it would be quite at home in the realm of Indian music. This piece even includes a vocal segment with English lyrics, which I wrote in the style of traditional Indian vocal music.”

On June 13, local fans will be introduced to Indian instrumental — sitar, tabla and flute — and classical music. The performance will also feature an interesting “jugalbandi,” or duet of musicians. In “jugalbandi,” both musicians act as lead players, and a playful competition exists between the two performers.

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