Carnatic vocals meet spoken word in 'Manam' an album of reflections in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder
Last June, Carnatic vocalist and composer Rohith Jayaraman got a call from his mother and guru, Asha Ramesh. The recent murder of George Floyd all over the news had been weighing on her that week. And she told him, “I wrote something.” She read over the phone: “Pirakkumbodhu niram, jaadhi, madham thervu seivadhaar?” (When we are born, who decides our colour, caste, and religion?) Neither side knew it at the time, but this was the beginning of Manam (from the heart), a five-track Carnatic crossover album brimming with important questions around race, caste and religion — evolved into poetry and then later into song. While Rohith, an alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, who has shared the stage with greats like AR Rahman and Shankar Mahadevan and his mother, founder and artistic director of Ragamalika School of Music in San Jose, California, helm this one-of-a-kind music project — it features over 30 artistes across the globe. “The process of making this album brought our family even closer together, and we hope that the album may spark similar discussions in your own homes, with family and friends,” Rohith shares. Excerpts from an interview:
Take us behind the scenes to the making of the album.
My parents and I talked about her (Asha’s) poetry on the phone for maybe two hours. I was in Boston and they were in San Jose. We wanted to go deeper; to write more about each of these topics. I started writing in English in the hopes that my mom and I could work together from across the country to rewrite it in Tamil. Less than three weeks later, I was waiting at the San Francisco International Airport baggage claim. COVID-19 had brought me to my parents’ house, where we would finally be able to write together. The next day, Jayaraj and Bennicks were killed. Each of these events triggered us, as they did millions around the world. As cliché as it sounds, we could only process and express through the language we speak most comfortably: music. Within weeks, the poetry was finished, and a few weeks after that, the songs were composed. Then began the year-long laborious process of arranging, Zoom rehearsals, and home-recording.
Do you have any anecdotes to share, given this happened entirely during the lockdown?
From mid-June to mid-August 2020, my mom and I would convene in our family room every night after dinner to write. She would sit with loose leaf paper, an old binder, and a pen, while I had my iPad and Apple Pencil. My dad would be on the other side of the room — far enough away that his presence didn’t distract us, but close enough that we could ask (quite frequently) for his opinion. All the songs came about this way. There were no friends or collaborators to ask for feedback… or at least none we could hear back from quickly given time differences.
Recording this album was both the biggest joy and most difficult challenge of my life thus far. Since we were not bound by studio recordings or geography, I was able to ask artists I love, like mridangist Praveen Sparsh and ghatam maestro N Guruprasad, to feature on some of the pieces. However, with time differences and home recording, simple things we take for granted at a studio — mic positioning, setting up sessions, handling files — suddenly become huge skills to learn.
Given the importance of conversations like these, are you planning to make translations of the Tamil lyrics easily accessible?
We plan to make the translations available digitally, as a part of all our music videos, and hopefully on the digital streaming platforms themselves. It is very important to us that our listeners be able to understand the lyrics when they hear the album. We hope to release a translation through a ‘lyric style video’ for the song Vidudhalai (Freedom) soon after the release.
We are curious - would you know of other Carnatic albums that speak of caste, race, gender injustices and the like? Off the top of my head, I can only think of rap lyrics!
I will admit, as I have ventured into other cross-cultural collaborations in recent years, I have been less up to date with current trends in Carnatic music. That being said, I haven’t encountered much new, original, Carnatic content that explores these topics. I think Carnatic music needs more original compositions and what better subjects to write about than things in the real world today? The great Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna is one of the few artists who grounds his art in the world we live in, touching upon topics from birds and statues, to environmental conservation and manual scavenging. I also heard a beautiful piece called Manidan by Rithvik Raja a few months ago during Justice Rocks, a musical event in response to racism, casteism, and police brutality.
Manam releases today. Available on digital streaming platforms.