'Acoustic music will hold its own': Talking jazz with Roger Hanschel and Ramesh Shotham
Roger, a composer and saxophone player, and Ramesh, a drummer and percussionist, have vast personal oeuvres of critically acclaimed releases with notable projects such as Trio Benares and Madras Special.
One among their most popular projects yet is the South Asian Music Residency (SAMUR), currently in its third edition.
This year, co-directed by Dr James Bunch, the well-known composer, performer, conductor, educator and concert organiser from KMMC Chennai, the SAMUR III 2019 residency hosted a select batch of 12 musicians, composers, improvisers and performers from Germany and South Asia, working together for two weeks in Chennai.
The end result of the effort was a special concert held in the city.
We got to chat with both Roger and Ramesh to get a few insights into the remarkable collaborations that they’ve been fostering over the years...
Welcome back to Chennai! Could we begin by first taking a look back at the previous editions of the SAMUR residencies? What were the highlights from the previous residencies?
Roger: I was only involved with the second SAMUR, so I can’t say anything about the first edition. Without singling out any particular musician, I felt that the unique mixture of the ensemble was the actual highlight.
Of course, each musician had their solo spot, but again, it’s the whole ensemble that stayed in the audience’s memory even until today, as we heard from some listeners.
Give us a sense of the musical exchanges that one might expect at the residency, given the diverse backgrounds of the participants. How complex are the exchanges, in terms of musical and verbal idioms and preferences — all working together at the same time. How exciting is all of this for you, as a musical director?
Roger & Ramesh: It is definitely very exciting to work with these young musicians from various genres and cultures!
After the experience of SAMUR II and with this background information, we decided this time around to focus on choosing artistes with a view to a more result-oriented process, without losing the ability to experiment. For us musical directors, this is a very satisfying process to experience.
Both of you have long, well-documented histories in the sphere of world fusion music. Give us a sense of the power in music, to bring about positive social change? How important are these cross-cultural exchanges, to bring about a greater sense of understanding and respect for other musical and cultural traditions?
Roger & Ramesh: In the current world situation, both politically and culturally, it is more important than ever to be open to influences from other traditions.
Understanding and respecting other’s musical and cultural traditions is a step in the right direction of overall social understanding. In this sense, music has great power. Make dialogue great again!
If we could take a step back for a moment, to speak about your preferred instruments — the saxophone and drums/percussion. For reference, we often go back to Roger’s concerts with Sandhya Sanjana, and the Trio Benares, while Ramesh’s Madras Special project (also with Sandhya) is on many of our personal playlists. Tell us how you saw things evolving with your chosen instruments — from being a player, and a composer to a musical director. How did the instruments themselves evolve as tools for cultural exchange, in your hands, in your eyes and in your minds?
Roger: Starting as a jazz saxophone player, my musical heart was also beating for Indian classical since the early-1980s.
Playing concerts with Sandhya Sanjana about 20 years ago, the group Planet Blow was adding Sandhya’s vocal style to a rather pre-fixed band situation.
Compared to this, the Trio Benares presents a deeper intercultural exchange, in the sense that both musical worlds have to leave their cultural comfort zone, to create new and original music that meets in the middle.
Ramesh: I was always involved with combining Indian percussion instruments with the drumset. A lot of my music is usually conceived using rhythmic patterns as a springboard for compositions.
I am open to influences from all over the world and have spent time familiarising myself with music from various parts of the world.
Could you explain the description, ‘non-classical jazz mix’? What does this informal genre imply in terms of musical structures, free-form ensembles, improv and contemporary ideas? Is it necessary for us to understand this genre as something new, and perhaps, groundbreaking?
Roger & Ramesh: As musicians, we dislike putting labels to our music. We would interpret ‘non-classical jazz mix’ as music that is neither Indian classical nor classical jazz, but uses elements from both these genres to create our special sound.
Give us a sense of how you went about assembling such a magnificent arrangement involving the bass, guitars, violins, the flute, tabla and even electronic elements, apart from unusual instruments such as the shree-tar? How did you piece all this together?
Roger & Ramesh: The overall aim of SAMUR is to gather musicians from South Asian countries to come together in Chennai for a two-week residency, to open musical horizons, create new music and interact.
Besides this, it is important for us to have a good mix of artistes from both genders. During the process of choosing these 12 artistes from a huge roster of applications, we thought that it would be a great idea to have an equal mix of instruments and vocalists.
Instead of looking for 12 entirely different instruments, we decided to build groups of instrumentation: three singers, two guitars along with the shree-tar, three-string instruments like violin, viola and bass, two woodwinds like the bansuri and saxophone, three percussionists and electronics.
In a general context, when it comes to Indian music, there’s always a strong focus on vocals, which tend to play an all-important role. Is this important for you to keep in mind?
Roger & Ramesh: No, not at all. Choosing three singers was a coincidence.
Give us a sense of the ideation process, experience and guidance that you gain from the association with KNMC, and someone as respected as James Bunch. What manner of dynamics are you looking at, when it comes to bringing so much talent together, all at once on one stage?
Roger & Ramesh: For both of us, it is fantastic to have Jimmy Bunch as a co-director. Jimmy Bunch, a specialist in western contemporary music, brings a whole new aspect to our sound. We are very happy to have the spaces available at the KMMC to work and create over the two week period.
Would you have any plans to release segments from these residencies on digital platforms — such as on YouTube, or on SoundCloud? Can we expect music videos, records or new album releases?
Roger & Ramesh: Of course, we are documenting both the rehearsals and performances and these videos will be posted on the platforms you’ve mentioned. The SAMUR residencies have definitely inspired musicians to continue and nurture their individual developments as artistes.
Looking ahead, at the way things are changing in popular, contemporary music circles — do you envision a greater presence of electronic and even dance music elements in your future residency efforts? How do you believe EDM can potentially change the game, and perhaps needs to be taken seriously?
Roger & Ramesh: Electronic music has been around since at least the 1960s. We’ve been through various styles and genres of electronic music over the decades, but one thing is sure — acoustic music will hold its own!
The technology used in all forms of music is, of course, always improving and changing — and there will be artistes who are always experimenting.
The 3rd SAMUR — South Asian Music Residency hosted along with AR Rahman’s KMMC was held from August 18 to September 1, 2019 in Chennai. The grand finale concert was held on August 31 at the Goethe-Institut Auditorium.
— Jaideep Sen