Ranjit Barot: From Floating Point to Meeting Point
FROM FLOATING POINT TO MEETING POINT:
THE MAKING OF BADA BOOM
By Rod Sibley
The phrase World Music should suggest a wide-ranging music form that encompasses the music of cultures from around the planet. But it really depends on what part of the world you’re talkin’ about. In my opinion, the phrase is really a generic term used to easily label any music made outside of the U.S.A. or Europe that isn’t in 4/4 time or sung in English.
Let’s be honest: the majority of music listeners in the West have a problem counting beyond 4. This is quite the opposite with the music of India, where odd time signatures are played as naturally as breathing. But odd time feels very…well…odd in the West. So a rich, rhythmically-based musical language becomes pigeonholed and stereotyped merely on the almost fearful assumption that it’s too hard and cannot be easily assimilated into western popular music. Some one-off East meets West projects have had some success serving as Indian Music 101 primers. But an original music form that truly integrates East and West has yet to develop from these experiments.
Playing within the Indian raaga system requires some degree of study. But the prospect of a cultural reversal in the West that incorporates learning the Indian system along with western harmony is not going to happen any time soon. A true and lasting synthesis of North or South Indian forms with western harmony will have to originate from the East.
And it has.
The flower of a new generation of Indian musicians who are at home in both worlds is starting to bloom. And their music is slowly – yet surely – gaining a foothold in the West. Ranjit Barot is at the forefront of the musical evolution (revolution?) that is happening in India. And with the release of Bada Boom, his debut recording as a leader on Abstract Logix Records, the lines between East meets West are not merely blurred, they’re erased altogether.
Ranjit Barot employs his talents as drummer, composer, arranger and producer with maximum effect on Bada Boom. It is a work that is grand and sweeping in its scope and vision; yet at the same time focused and succinct in its execution and musicality.
My first interview with Ranjit, Duality On The Drums, was conducted after the release of John McLaughlin’s Floating Point, on which Ranjit’s drumming played a significant role. Although this interview was done in the wee hours of Bombay time shortly before the release of Bada Boom, Ranjit was again animated and engaging – much like his music. Additional biography, touring schedule, and equipment information is available at www.ranjitbarot.com.
Astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. Some believe this expansion was caused by The Big Bang. Today, our musical universe is expanding thanks to musicians like Ranjit Barot and his music on Bada Boom.
RS: Congratulations on Bada Boom , Ranjit. It is a beautiful work of Art.
RB: I’m glad you feel that way, because I feel like that. It’s been such a fantastic journey for me. It’s been wonderful. I think because of my association with Carnatic music and Indian classical music; the jazz and jazz-rock world; and my love for songs and songwriting which feature lyrics and melodic things – there had to be an element of storytelling in it. I wasn’t trying to write a jazz-rock/Indo-jazz rock chops-fest album. I wanted it to be a thing of beauty. I’m happy with the way it turned out.
RS: Well, it connected with me right away.
RB: Thank you. Thank you, man.
RS: I think Bada Boom has the potential to knock down some of the barriers that exist between eastern and western music.
RB: Souvik introduced me to a gentleman named Randy Allar, who runs a radio show, and I spoke to him recently. He downloaded a song that Souvik sent and he said, I listened to ‘Dark Matter’ and I have to say first off it wasn’t my kind of music.
RS: [incredulous] Whaaa?!
RB: He said, I had to listen to it a couple of times, and then it hit me. Then he said, Wow! The Indian vocals with the horn arrangements, it flattened me. Those were his exact words. So, I’m curious to see how people react to it. But I know that most people who have a good ear, and who have a good musical diet of the world, should come back loving it.
RS: So to the listener it becomes just music, rather than eastern music or western music?
RB: Right, absolutely. It’s funny, when I’m speaking to you and I’m getting this kind of reaction, it’s extremely – I’m happy and it’s gratifying – but I’m curious to see how the western world will receive something like this. You know, there’s good music and there’s bad music. Just like there’s good food and bad food. If somebody asks me What kind of food do you like? I like good food. I don’t care where it comes from.
RS: You have a great line-up of guest musicians on the album.
RB: We were joking in the studio the other day and I was saying if I ever have to open a record label, I would have to call it Greedy Bastard Productions [chuckle]. When you go through the album, the personnel is varied on every song. There’s no real core band. Every song has a different rhythm section and a different soloist on it. It was like a perfect casting; everyone was perfect for that song. I was really lucky – it’s not like I threw tens of thousands of dollars at people. Pretty much every musician that I casted on the album was available to play and wanted to play. They played because they love the music. And what everyone brought to the table was just incredibly, incredibly inspiring. It wouldn’t have happened without these guys, man.
RS: Yeah. But it’s your vision, though.
RB: It is. It is. That’s absolutely true. But they are the ingredients I needed. Having all these heavyweights on board was not just because they are heavyweights. Really, I don’t know anybody else who could have played and done justice to this music like this. I couldn’t have done it without these musicians. Yeah, I was really lucky.
New Universe Festival DVD Trailer (Releasing Sep 2011)
RS: We last talked in 2008 after you did Floating Point with John McLaughlin. What were you doing prior to creating Bada Boom?
RB: Umm, really simple things. Like picking which school is my daughter going to go to? She was in this small little international school, and we had to move her. You know, living life, man.
The germ of an idea started in my mind because Floating Point got me some recognition and got me exposed to a larger audience than just my hometown. Souvik visited India a couple of times with Wayne Krantz. We spoke on both occasions of the possibility of me doing something with Abstract Logix. We all met at my studio in Bombay. One of the first tunes I did was T=0. It was a sketch and I had just put my drum part down. I played it – I mean, just the drum take and the melody, man – and Souvik said, Yeah! This sounds like the record!
It gave me a little confidence to know that if I took this up; got the personnel on the record that I wanted; and I spent the money that it would end up getting released with someone who knows what he’s doing. As opposed to me just doing it and then shopping it, and trying to look for people who would release it. I knew Souvik was pretty much on board. Souvik also introduced me to Matt Garrison and Scott Kinsey. I kind of started the process from there. I just did one song at a time.
Ranjit, Arto, Kinsey, Garrison, Krantz, Bala @ New Universe Music Fest
RS: After working in India’s music industry as a musician and producer, you would think it would have been easier to get your music released there.
RB: India is a rough place on a commercial level, man. It’s going through this whole economic industrial upswing. Which is okay, it’s fine. But it comes with such baggage and such narrow parameters. It’s hard for me to find a voice in that space; it’s really hard. Indian music has become closely associated with Bollywood. There’s kind of a power struggle with the producers. It’s almost like they sort of narrowed the playing field – let’s really make music so dumbed-down that everyone can participate. And then if everyone can participate we can pick and choose who the players are. You don’t need giants any more. You don’t need people who are making big grandiose arrangements and symphonic things.
So when you’re working in a commercial world waiting to be commissioned, you’re almost never allowed to express the full bandwidth of what is possible. It’s either you’re scoring to a film or you’re producing a song; or you’re doing something within strict parameters that are allowed – that are sort of imposed – on your creative process. There’s a bunch of stuff that you want to do, but there’s no outlet for it. And what happens is it sort of percolates and it stays there. It’s waiting to be released in some form or the other. I think when I did this album there were some residual things left over from that which manifested itself in the arrangements of some of the songs.
RS: So you needed a way to express yourself musically outside of the establishment?
RB: Yeah. And also, I just decided because of that little momentum I got from being on John ji’s [pronounced like gee, ji is used as a sign of respect] album I had some sort of, how shall I say, one foot into the western world. Souvik was being so supportive; you had done that interview with me; there was a little bit in Modern Drummer. And suddenly, it’s not like people knew me; but at least I wasn’t a complete stranger. I used that opportunity to say, Well you know there’s all these other people in the world that I can speak to and why don’t I do that? If people in my city don’t want to hear it, too bad, you know. And it’s not like they don’t. All the musicians and all the people who are in the know here, whoever I shared it with in the studio and stuff, I mean they’re all loving it.
RS: So how did creating Bada Boom come about?
RB: It started with a couple of ideas that were running around in my head. I did a one week writing session at the studio with my friends Amit Heri, Harmeet Manseta, and Palakkad Sreeram; a wonderful musician in South India who sang on Dark Matter and played flute on T=0. I threw every one down, just chucked a couple of ideas, and we played. Two or three songs were born out of that session.
RB: Yeah. Like T=0, that flute opening is a traditional sort of lullaby around India that a mother sings to her child. In fact, the song was called Lullaby first, and then it changed to T=0 because of the whole concept of The Big Bang. We’ll get into how I got into the titling, later. Once that flute melody was down and we harmonized it, we took a rhythmic structure and extrapolated on that. That song was born in that session. And a couple of little ideas for Dark Matter came from there; just rhythmic things.
It was just a way for me to try not to write in a vacuum. To try and bounce ideas off people; musicians that I respected and liked. When you’re trying to do an album like this which takes a western harmonic approach to coloring Indian melodies, some you can compose straight off. But there’s a lot of music in India which is contrived of in an urban setting. There’s no access to a radio station – everything pretty much on the air waves has gotten commercialized and urbanized. There’s no specialty station. It’s not like I can zero into something and just say I want to hear South Indian folk music. It’s just not there. It’s either film music, or film music; basically.
Some people, like Sreeram, are a huge reservoir of information. He’s archived all these incredible folk melodies and traditional melodies. And I wanted to expose myself to a lot of this information. After that week, I was kind of energized enough. I had a direction to follow. I knew where this album was going.
Zakir Hussain, Jimmy Herring, Ranjit Barot, Gary Husband | Ranjit Barot, Cliff Almond, Wayne Krantz, Bala Bhaskar
RS: You have electronic instruments mixed in with traditional instruments like the veena and nadaswarm, for example. Trying to decide the instrumentation must have been a challenge.
RB: True. I have to say that, again coming back to John ji, when we did Floating Point that was not just a big experience for me to play drums. Here was somebody from the western world verycomfortable with Indian instruments; he understood how they could fit into his arrangements. To see him work and to see the way he approached them – I learned a lot from that session, man. I learned a lot. Although I’m from this country and all those instruments are familiar to me, there was some information I took away from that session which enabled me to re-look at these instruments again. Though my approach was a little different.
Like if you take the first tune Singularity, the Indian solo at the top, the veena, which is like a big South Indian sitar. The lady playing is Punya Srinivas. I had seen her on another project years ago, on a gig. And I was blown away, man. She was playing veena, but at that particular gig she was phrasing like John Scofield, man! I couldn’t believe that this is an Indian woman sitting and playing this instrument because normally Indians – I was having this discussion with Charles Lloyd at a workshop that we did here with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. And I was mentioning how difficult it is for Indian people to play loose; without strict time.
Indians are very, very time defined. You can play with the rhythm; and you can play behind the beat; and you can kind of keep it lazy. But not completely loose like a drum set player would do. But this lady she was playing really like Scofield. That’s the closest comparison I can find to her phrasing. So I filed her away in my memory. And when it came to playing this song, I knew I had to call her. It’s stuff like that, when you go for a gig; when you go to a concert; or you hear something; or somewhere somebody plays you something; or a classical record; and you go, Well, I’d like to see them with a western rhythm section.
RB: A lot of the Indian music system is very modal. We wrote a set of changes, and I could see when she came into the studio that she was straining and listening to these changes. And I thought well maybe they were throwing her off and maybe I shouldn’t use that track. But she said, No, no, no. Leave it on. And she’s almost playing through changes, man. The Indian raga system is: you take a song, you take one rag, and you play it; you improvise on that scale. Well, she is playing about three or four different rags, and three or four different modes, to kind of connect to the changes that the piano player is playing. That was just absolutely fantastic for me, because that’s rare for an Indian musician to do that.
RS: Especially on a traditional instrument like the veena.
RB: Yeah. That’s a tough one. And she just…it was phenomenal!
RS: The production on Bada Boom is just amazing, Ranjit! No one will believe that most of the album was constructed from sound files sent as email attachments when they first hear it!
RB: I have to tell you – not to detract from anybody’s performance or anything – but man, it’s a testament to my editing ability. It sounds like everybody is in the room together. All the songs do not sound disjointed or sound like things that are just superimposed upon one another. I had to try and achieve that because there were days when I’d be waiting a week for a bass file to come in from the U.S. And I couldn’t work further on the track until I had that down – Oh, but that hasn’t come in. Or, I have to do this musician now because he or she will not be available next week. So it was a lot of juggling.
Then I was trying to see – Okay, I think this is what Dark Matter is going to go for, and based on that I’m going to make sure that I get this kind of performance out of this musician. There was also a lot of that. It was not like I could have all of the information available to me at the same time. There were some things that happened together in the studio. Like the drums and percussion section and the gospel choir in Revolutions.
RS: What about your drum parts? Did you send out the final takes, or did you re-do them when you got the files back?
RB: I was sending out sketches for them to play their part and send back. Some had my drum takes on it. Some just had a guide or shaker on some things. Because it was important for me, on some tracks, to play drums at the end. It was a tricky one!
RS: I can imagine! Normally you think of laying down drums as part of the basic tracks, first.
RB: Yeah. But again, I was lucky because I’ve done so much studio work that I’m not at all daunted by the process at all, man. I’m an old studio hand, you know. I’ve cut my teeth on that shit. I know exactly how everything works. I know how to make things fit. I can edit the shit out of a track! I’ve got that under my belt.
So doing an album of this nature, if you don’t have that aspect of it together, it will end up sounding completely different.
Available at abstractlogix.
RS: So you basically had to compose and arrange on the fly in some instances?
RB: I had to. I had to. And I actually kind of enjoyed that. I like the fact that I would start a song a particular way and then I’d receive a track from someone that would push me, and I would hear a new arrangement around that. Or a new production aspect or something that eviated from what I had pre-planned. And I kind of liked that. I like for things to be evolving continuously. Actually, until we mixed the tracks, it was kind of cooking until then. Because what happens is that the minute you become tired of what you’re doing and what you’re listening to, that fatigue will translate to the audience. And that kind of keeps it fresh, and keeps it still edgy.
RS: But doesn’t that interfere with your final vision of the music? You start off in a direction and have to keep changing things. How do you get to the point that you originally wanted to realize?
RB: I don’t think the core concept changes. I don’t think that changes. The core concept remains the same; the primary motifs that you’re building on; the melodic aspects; the improvisational aspects. The little, little things will change. Like Dark Matter when that horn section came. There was no horn section on that. That was arranged and was supposed to be a little different; I’d done that in the studio. I was playing with Tim Garland at a memorial concert for Zakir Hussain’s father at the Southside Center. Tim heard the song on my laptop, and he said, Man, this is screaming for a big band. And I said, Well, I have to head back to India. He said, Well, I’ve got a thirteen piece horn section that I work with. And we’d kill this. I said, Do it. I went back to India; and he sketched it and he raised a costing for me. This was the A-section of the whole horn arrangement before the sax solo. Then he extrapolated on that. And it’s a monster of a song.
So the core concept remained the same, but the whole dynamic changed completely. It became this roaring horn section song with an Indian melody. When I opened the file, it was like a slap in the face! That prompted me to have Sreeram sing in a particular way because of the dynamic range opening up from something that was not so ferocious.
That kind of change – the core concept remains the same. But I think little offshoots and little improvisational things creep into it that you may not have planned for, but which only further accentuate the beauty of the whole thing.
RB: I don’t remember where I read this: God is in the details.
Ranjit Barot-John McLaughlin-Zakir Hussain@ New Universe Music Fest
RS: That’s a beautiful line.
RB: Yeah, it is. When I listen to a piece of music, I listen very, very strongly. I can’t do music as a background thing. People put on music and start talking – I start shushing people, you know. My wife really gets pissed-off at me. For me, listening to music – it’s food. I’m actually eating at that time. It’s very important. It’s a big part of my diet. Listening to the masters: that’s my institution, that’s my academy. Because I’m self-taught, I don’t read and write. I’ve never been to music school. I had to teach myself some keyboards to work in the studio and pay the bills. So really, all of my inspiration comes from listening to great, great music. There’s nothing casual about it for me.
RS: You taught yourself keyboards as well as the drums!?
RB: Yeah. That came about in the late-’80s when in Bombay there was an electronic revolution and I just found myself unemployed. There was no work as a drummer. And all my friends were working in the studios doing advertising and jingles. The drum machine had replaced me, basically. After about six or eight months starving really – I wasn’t living at home, there wasn’t any money coming in. Then I got a break working with a friend of mine, jazz pianist Louis Banks, who was doing a lot of advertising. I didn’t even own a drum machine. He said, Well listen. Why don’t you work with me? Because I was going to leave, go to the U.S. and go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. So he said, Well you know, we can’t have you doing that. There are no drummers and we’d hate to lose you. Why don’t you come work in the studio? I have a drum machine and you’re a drummer; we’ll show you how it works. So at least when you program it, it will sound like a drummer playing instead of a keyboard player trying to make it work. I said, Fine. Yeah.
And the first month I made so much money, it was insane. I didn’t know how to spend it. It was a very novel experience. I don’t have anything like that now, man [chuckles].
RB: [still chuckling] You know? It was a unique experience.
RS: I say that to my wife, You know, I used to have money. Now…? [laughs]
RB: [laughing] I realized that, Wow. This is why everybody gets into the studio. I did that for a couple of years. But I got maxed out pushing buttons on the drum machine. So I saved up some money and bought a bunch of keyboards, and started to teach myself off records. I worked my own inversions out, started composing and writing. I branched out on my own and did that for a long time. Then I built my own studio. You know, a natural progression.
RS: You say in your liner notes that Bada Boom is a celebration of my Indian-ness. Do you feel that you had to dilute the Indian elements of the music to make them accessible to a western audience?
RB: Not really, actually. I think whatever Indian-ness is on the album – I aimed for most of the Indian stuff that’s off the beaten path. In the sense that, apart from a few great musicians – you know, like Ustad Zakir Hussain – Indian music is severely misrepresented in the world. Forget about the Indian film industry and Bollywood. Nobody here even likes it! I don’t know who they’re kidding. It’s just that in 6.5 billion people, 1.5 billion are Indian. It’s just the numbers sell themselves; the numbers make it work. They’re not kidding anybody. It’s not even hugely popular in India.
What I’m trying to say is that when I write for singers like Sreeram, and Vignesh Ishwar, who sang on the track Revolutions which has that Indian wind instrument at the top. On the album it’s song #3; it has this big gospel choir at the end…
RS: Awww, man. That’s a phenomenal piece! That choir on the coda? Geeez!
RB: …Yeah. Here’s the thing: when I meet most of the Indian musicians, I actually ask them, Sing me a raag that nobody ever asks you to sing. Sing me something that no concert would ever allow you to sing. There’s a wealth of information that is untapped because even Indians in the Indian classical circuit now have certain parameters imposed on them. Young musicians are having to – the elders are telling them what to do; what not to do; stay within the repertoire. Maybe the same thing happens in western classical music. Maybe you’re not allowed to play some of the more adventurous composers. You have to stay more traditional. And I think a lot of that is happening in Indian classical music.
What I’m trying to say is that on the contrary, there was no diluting. In fact, we were going for everything that was pretty unorthodox and cutting edge. And this will complement – I think – that sheer sort of limited exposure. Because it is such a rare and beautiful thing, this music that is in our land. Just by that ferocity, it complements the jazz-rock idiom. The energy of drums/bass/keyboards playing, then you have somebody from the Indian world coming with a mode or scale – which is really never heard of. In Dark Matter, what Sreeram sings just after the piano solo I told him, Sing me something which has a lot of chromatic in it. And I know that he’s not going to be singing those things in Indian classical concerts. He did this whole chromatic scale – where the whole orchestra goes into limbo just before the coda in Dark Matter. When you listen to it, it’s like it has the spirit of jazz man, you know.
So really, there’s just so much music here. I’m just getting started, man.
RB: Tim Garland, when we were in London and we were walking down the street, he was marveling at the Indian melodic system. And I have such respect for the western harmonic system. I said, Tim it is not an accident that the West has developed such a rich harmonic system over the last three/four/five hundred years. And Indians have such a strong melodic improvisational, melodic evolution, that has happened in Indian music. These two cultures are waiting to meet, man! It’s not a mystery. I don’t think it’s a mystery, at all. I think this is the Grand Design. And the more people that see the meeting point, the more beautiful music will be made. This is my viewpoint, you know. I think these two cultures will meet, and free expression will be born out of this.
In our first interview we talked about the drumming aspects on Floating Point. Basically, even the music has the same duality that the drumming has. The music that I’m trying to compose and arrange and put out is this multi-lingual sort of dialogue that’s happening internally in my mind. It’s having strong Indian roots, but having grown-up and listened to all the great bands that came out of the whole ’70s-’80s jazz-rock era. It comes from all the music that I’ve listened to and internalized on a very deep level. As I said it on my CD, John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, they’re really the biggest influences in my life; and my musical career, as well.
I think most of the successful writers – like John McLaughlin – have some clarity of sight. It’s an ability to be able to see the meeting point in a lot of things. What you’re left with is intent of spirit. And that is universal. It doesn’t matter what you play; whether you dance; if you paint; or whatever. Intent of spirit that comes when an artist is trying at that moment to create something bigger than himself or herself. It’s universal. And once you get to that place, then I think genre, and identity, and ethnicity; all these things are stripped away. It’s a very, very liberating space.
RS: But eastern musicians understand, and can play, western music more so than western musicians understand eastern music. It’s pretty one-sided in terms of which culture is looking for the meeting point.
RB: Hmmm. Maybe you’re right about that. There are very few people that have been able to pick up on the eastern system. I guess John ji is one of the few people that is comfortable with it.
I think a lot of musicians in the West, I think maybe they think there’s some mystique or something. We need to de-mystify this. That’s one of the things about this album that I think I’ve inadvertently done: is demystify this thing about India. If you listen to it also, I’m not composing like a drummer. I’m not trying to do a bunch of rhythmically intricate structures all the time and a lot of mouth percussion. It’s just a little here and there which is part of my identity and which I wanted in the song. But mostly, it’s just about writing good music.
Maybe a lot of western musicians when they look at India, they have preconceived ideas about what the music is about – Aww man, it’s too complex! – maybe? I’m not quite sure, actually. I haven’t spoken to enough people about it. Maybe that has stopped them from finding out more about Indian music or informing themselves more about it? I’m not quite sure. But like when John ji heard Indian music on BBC radio he just made it a point to come to India. He was excited about it. And he came here seeking that searching spirit that I think a lot of people hear.
You know it’s one thing to be in awe of a music, and it’s one thing to have deep respect. Awe sometimes distances you from your purpose of interaction with that entity. You know what I’m saying? Whereas a deep respect, is deep respect. You respect it, but you want to mess with it, too.
RB: Also, when I’m working with Indian musicians on this record I was sure to infuse into them some of what I was hearing in my mind, and what I was expecting from them. I didn’t want the western improvisation and the eastern improvisation to be very different, really. If you listen to T=0 when that first electric mandolin solo gets over and then hands it to the saxophone player; all that’s different is the choice of notes. The intent and the ferocity in dynamic level is exactly the same. They’re just two people talking to each other, but one has a South Indian accent and one is from London, you know [chuckles]. They’re just talking to each other; and they’re on the same subject. And they’re both well informed. They aren’t on two sides of the fence; they’re just across the coffee table from each other. You know what I’m saying?
RS: [taking it in] Ummm. Yeah. That’s a nice way of putting it.
RB: Yeah. I wanted to maintain that sameness through the whole album. Super Nova: U. Shrinivas ji played that mandolin solo and then handed it to Tim Garland on saxophone – and they complemented each other. Tim was just picking up what Shrinivas ji had finished playing and was taking it to the next chapter. And I wanted that seamless flow. It’s like you said, it’s an east/west record, but it not an east/west record. It’s not; it’s not really.
RS: Let’s talk in detail about the individual songs on Bada Boom. The first track, Singularity, features a rare guest appearance by John McLaughlin.
RB: John ji was the coup, really, for me. Because I was really keen that he play. And I know that John ji is also – you know, he’s a realist. He comes from Miles, man. And if he doesn’t like your writing he’ll tell you. He’ll tell you straight. He’ll say, Don’t waste my time.
But he has tremendous love for me and I’m blessed that he actually took time out, went back to his home studio, and he made it. He just killed that, man.
RS: Well, that’s just one of many killings that are on this record.
RB: Yeah. One of the many killings on this record [chuckles].
I remember Souvik was like, Ranjit, we gotta get the album out. If we don’t do it now, we’re gonna lose Japan and then it’s gonna go into next year. I said, Well, John ji’s solo hasn’t come in yet. So… And Souvik said, Well, we wait then.
RS: The strings on Singularity remind me of White Night from Narada Michael Walden’s Garden Of Love Light record. Actually, the string arrangements for the whole CD are incredible! And it’s even more amazing that you’re self-taught when it comes to orchestrating.
RB: Yeah. It’s all the years that I have been film scoring and stuff. A lot of the time you’re deprived of a budget to really get a real orchestra. So we used all these samples to mock-up an orchestra. I used the samples to mock the section in Singularity which basically happens underneath what Matt is soloing on for this break-down section. Also the strident motif at the top [sings the line]. Those are all staccato strings.
I found a nice little fifteen piece string section here in Bombay. It was a mixture of some of the local guys and some students from Europe that study at the classical performing arts society, here. We wrote all of the parts in one day. I sat with a violin player who wrote out all the parts for me. We got the orchestra into the studio and then we spent the whole day doing all the string parts for the various songs.
RS: Another thing that amazed me about Singularity is that although McLaughlin sent you his solo as a sound file, you’re matching his licks stroke for stroke on the drums! It sounds like a John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham guitar/drum battle.
RB: Yeees. You caught that, man! I actually had a drum take on when I sent it to John ji. And John ji listened to it. When he actually played the take and he sent it back he said, Here it is Ranjit. I hope you enjoy it. It was great to play with you again, although not in person. I heard what he played and – See, this is the thing with John ji: he’s a drummer’s delight, man! To play with him, his rhythmic thing is so impeccable.
RS: Well, you gave him a helluva track to play over, too.
RB: Here’s the thing, man. I’d grown up listening to Cobham go head-to-head with John. Also, that whole energy he had with Narada Michael Walden. And I said, Here’s my chance [chuckle] to immortalize on tape that I could duet with him. Actually, Matt Garrison had played that whole section. And what I did was I muted that; I killed that track.
RB: There was no space for it; between John ji and me. There was just no space for John ji and me to get a word in. I un-muted Matt just for the last eight bars before the end arrangement. Matt had finished playing on Singularity. He played the arrangement that had the little riff that happens in between John ji’s solo. I sent an email to Matt saying, Listen, John ji’s going to solo. It’s going to be a one chord thing with no changes. Do you think you could give me something? He said, Yeah, I’ll send you something. And of course I only ended up using the last eight bars. But it ended up with me and John ji going head-to-head, man. I know John ji got-off on it ‘cuz I sent him the finished track and he was like, Yeeah. I like this! [chuckle] I love that section.
RS: Again, for that to have been a constructed piece and have it sound like everyone is in the studio is amazing, man. Like you said, you certainly edited the shit outta that one!
RS: Speaking of playing with John McLaughlin: you’ll be joining his 4th Dimension band and playing in Europe with him this summer! You must be very excited.
RB: Well, it’s the high point of my career, really. John ji is not only a master of his instrument, but he is also a composer of some of the most path breaking and relevant music of the 20th century; most of which has been a roadmap for me, personally. To share the stage with him and to experience the joy that comes with making such immediate and spontaneous music together is a blessing.
Also, I see this opportunity to play with John ji as a step up in my quest for complete spiritual awareness. To be validated by not only one of the greatest composers of our time, but by someone who is supremely aware spiritually – someone who walks the talk – is surely a divine blessing. Nothing less.
RS: How did you find out you got the gig?
RB: I had just come back from Singapore, and as I turned my cell phone on I saw his mail asking me if I would join The 4th Dimension. I called him right back and he said, Well Ranjit, I was just wondering if you would be ‘interested’ in touring this summer? Well, is the Pope catholic!? Of course, I replied in the affirmative and we made plans to meet in Europe.
I’m invited every year to attend the Frankfurt Music Messe (Europe’s version of the NAMM show), where John ji graces the Godin guitar booth. We met there and at the end of the fair, he flew me to Nice where we had a two day rehearsal. John ji sent me about twenty-four songs a month or so ago. I remember I was travelling doing gigs in India, finishing recording sessions and film scores at the time. Any free time I had, I would put my headphones on and go through the songs.
The first day was just John ji and me, running through most of The 4th Dimension set – twice or thrice. The next day we did it again, but this time with Gary Husband and Etienne M’Bappe. I think everyone felt good about the musical fit, so to speak. I mean, I was entering into a band which was already a well oiled unit, you know? I had to make myself musically available in a way that added something to the mix and didn’t disrupt the equilibrium in any way. At that level, there is just no excuse. I knew my parts. And I think that helped in putting everyone at ease as well, knowing that I was affording the music and the musicians, due respect.
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension (2011)
RS: You described The 4th Dimension as a well oiled unit, but the band has gone through a few personnel changes. What do think John wants you to bring into the band?
RB: It would be presumptuous of me to know exactly what John ji was looking for. I can tell you what I need to be like. You have to have a combination of being incredibly focused, yet free to explore the immediacy of his music. I mean, it’s not the kind of gig that you can take a walk in your mind, you know? There are some gigs where you go, Hmmm, I wonder what’s for dinner tonight? Not this gig, for sure. And you have to be physically fit!
I think John ji chose me for my drumming capabilities as they are, and what I can bring to the music. I mean, even when I did Floating Point, it was my abilities as a western drum kit player who was infused with an Indian approach to the syncopation involved. I’m still playing in the same vein, so I think John ji knew that and chose me for those qualities.
RS: Have you ever played with the Gary or Etienne before?
RB: No, this is my first time with both maestros and it feels great to play with them. An absolute joy.
RS: Let’s talk about T=0, which has one of the loveliest string orchestrations I’ve ever heard. They’ll bring tears to your eyes, you know.
RB: Yeah, that’s a good one, that one. I’m glad you like it.
RS: You said the opening of T=0 was from a folk song. How do you go from there to your arrangement?
RB: It started with the flute melody and then we took an Indian rhythmic structure [sings the line]. Then it’s just some changes that we wrote like – it’s almost like Miles, those block chords [sings the phrase]. Just one motif there. I just needed enough of an arrangement there to take it from one soloist to the next and not get in the way of all the stuff they are playing. I wanted to keep it really simple. Then the soloist’s trade-off.
This tune – I was quite clear – was like a blowing song. I wanted it to feature the three soloists that are on it. It also became thematic in its own way because the changes that happen on top of the flute repeat themselves later in the song; over which that beautiful guitar solo that Marc Guillermont plays where the string section comes back in.
RS: It is a beautiful solo. This track was my first time hearing Marc Guillermont.
RB: I gave Marc such a hard time, [chuckles]. I mean, not in that sense. He played that section and I also got him to play at the opening. Where U. Rajesh’s solo is I said, Mute that mandolin part Marc and go head-to-head with me and with the drums. And send me that as well. He kind of sent me a couple of things, but he was like, Maaan, it’s not working. This is where I should be playing. So, he was right because where he comes in over those strings, it breaks your heart, man.
RS: Oh yeah. Just lovely!
RS: U. Rajesh’s mandolin solo on that tune is just stooopid!
RB: Awww, man! Yeah. He was so wound up because I had gone to Chennai and I recorded his older brother U. Shrinivas on Super Nova. U. Rajesh was there, and Shrinivas ji killed that song. When Shrinivas ji finished, he left; he went home. He said, Listen, come by for a coffee later. I’m going. And U. Rajesh plugged in for his part and he was like, What am I going to play, now? Because Shrinivas ji played the most beautiful solo. And I said, This song is a completely different animal. So you just do your thing, man. I think he was so wound up and so intent that he lived up to that moment that he killed it.
He was telling me how he spent some time with John ji learning some of that fast picking that he does at the end. He actually played it dry on the tape. I processed it later. I put some distortion on to it, because it had that kind of energy, you know. And it sat just fine. Emotionally, it lent something to the song.
RS: You create a different rhythm section on each of the songs. Did you have to adjust your playing for each bass player?
RB: No, not really. Like for T=0, I just felt that Dominique DiPiazza should play this song. I played with Dominique when John ji was in Bombay and we did a gig here. I also changed my tuning in my drums for each song. I’m not playing the same dimension drums for each tune. So, it was not only an exercise in composition, arrangement and everything. It was also important that I got the tonality’s right. I knew what kind of bass Dominique was going to play – I mean, I was familiar with his playing. So I chose drums that complement that.
And what happens is that when your drums – or for that matter, I guess all instruments seem like that – but when I change the dimensions of the drums with the tuning, they actually play me. I play a little different. It is me; it’s the same vocabulary. But some things change because the sound that’s coming back to you from the drum set is different. You try to complement that; you try to play to that sound. It’s a wonderful interactive process, man. So I didn’t really have to change much.
RS: There’s a section where you’re singing, and you have a jungle rhythm playing underneath the acoustic guitar part. I’m listening to this and I’m wondering, How does he mix all of these different things into one song?!
RB: It’s really just all this stuff that I’ve grown-up listening to and bits and pieces of stuff left over from God-knows-what internal dialogue, man. In the creative process, if the person creating is comfortable with all this stuff that is happening inside, when you externalize that you somehow convey to the listener that This is all okay. It’s meant to be like this. Nothing is by chance. It’s not out of whack, even if you may think so the first time around.
It wasn’t like I consciously tried to squeeze all of my experiences onto the album. I just externalized everything that had come to a boiling point in my musical consciousness. I just tried to find the quickest way from the canvas of my mind on to tape. So everything came into play: everything that I’ve been hearing in my head and all the stuff I’ve been working on.
It’s the conviction you have as a composer or as an arranger. If you’re convinced that it works, I think somehow that translates to the listener. But if you yourself are trying to force something, then I think people are going to pick up on it. It’s like Charlie Parker said, There are no bum notes. If you mean it, then it works. If you don’t mean it, then it’s bullshit, you know what I’m saying. You gotta mean it!
RS: So what’s the story behind the song titles?
RB: You know, it’s funny. I’ve always been fascinated about our Indian Vedic system, The Vedas. They’re usually connected with matters of the universe and deep space. The Vedas are basically the science of life. These are scriptures that are basically without an author. There is no mortal who is credited with having written it. Nobody knows where they came from. And the theory is that the entirety of the Vedas is as old as Time. And my wife had a book by one of the religious leaders of South India; he’s sort of the Indian Pontiff. This is a religious leader: he’s not related to Allan Ginsberg or anything. He’s not dropped acid or anything, man. He’s the caretaker of the Hindu faith and these are the facts; not speculation or theory. The philosophy is based on the belief that The Vedas are basically the sonic information that is contained in the outward motion from The Big Bang. He said the sonic information was decoded, like radio waves, and this contained the information that is the science of life. And I was completely blown away by this statement.
And I bought this book by a gentleman named Bill Bryson. Have you ever read him?
RB: He’s got a book called A Short History Of Nearly Everything.
RB: I bought that book. And Bill Bryson talks about the universe in the book. Bada Boom itself: Bada in Indian means big, Boom is bang. It’s not the New York badda-boom, badda-bing
RS: Yeah. The subtitle of my review for Bada Boom is The New Big Bang Theory.
RB: Singularity is basically that point at which the universe is compressed into less than a subatomic particle. The whole universe is condensed into something microscopic. Now this is something that scientists agree on! So anyway, to keep it real simple, I wanted the whole album to be a series of events from The Big Bang, onward. So Singularity is when the universe is still dormant.
RS: [bulb off…] Okay.
RB: T=0. This is what scientists refer to as time equals zero. That is the point of The Big Bang – the birth of Time. That is where T=0 comes from.
RS: […dim bulb…] Wow.
RB: Yeah. And the third song, Revolutions. I’m just trying to imagine in this whole outward chaos that must have happened after The Big Bang, the first time where the planets actually started experiencing orbits and some order. I wanted that song to reflect the serenity of that happening in such a volatile environment. Where suddenly you have something which is predictable – like an orbit – where planets actually started revolving around each other.
RS: […bulb getting brighter…] Hmmm.
RS: […bulb on] Uhhh, Ranjit, it just dawned on me. This is a concept album.
RB: Yeah. This is a concept album.
RS: [eyes adjusting to the light] Wow!
RB: So I wanted that song to express that.
The fourth song is Super Nova, which is dedicated to Zakir Hussain’s father Alla Rakha. The definition of super nova is when a sun or a star goes super nova – when it dies – it releases the energy of a billion suns and continues to illiminate. And basically when Alla Rakha ji died, he is continuously illuminating our lives, still. We are still feeling his wisdom and the light that came from his presence and his teachings. We’re still feeling that years after he’s gone. So I thought Super Nova was such an apt title for that dedication. And it’s still part of The Big Bang concept.
RB: The fifth song, we’re looking at all that unseen stuff in space: Dark Matter. And in fact with those big, brooding horn sections, it was just a perfect, perfect kind of sonic representation of the title.
And the last song is Origin. That was like a tribute to Joe Zawinul – which is why I wanted Scott Kinsey on the record because he’s carrying that tradition on from what Joe was doing. And origin is back to the creator, back where you came from; the origin.
So yeah, it is a concept album in that sense.
RS: Ranjit, you’ll have to forgive me while I take a moment to let that sink in ‘cuz it just hit me how deep it is from where you’re coming from on this recording!
RB: I wanted this concept because I wanted the title and energy of what they represented to influence the music. Super Nova and Dark Matter: when you hear these names – when you hear that – there’s an energy in the title itself. And I was feeding off that energy when I was doing the songs, also.
RS: [gobsmacked] I’m tongue-tied, man. That’s it.
RS: The third piece, Revolutions. This tune opens with a nadaswarm soloing over keyboards and is dedicated to sax great Charlie Mariano. Some people might not know that he also played nadaswarm.
RB: Yes. And I’ll tell you a really funny story about this tune. It’s based on this traditional composition played in South India called Mallari. On a particular day, they take the idols out of the temple and through the streets to all the disabled people that couldn’t make it to the temple. So the idols are taken out so that God can go meet them; the deities can go and meet them. It’s quite a unique concept in itself. And it’s such a beautiful tune.
I did one of my first European tours with Charlie. So I got to know him as a friend. He was somebody who was a big inspiration and dear human being – wonderful, wonderful guy. I wanted to dedicate this song to Charlie because I knew he played nadaswarm. And then my friend Amit, who helped me harmonize that flute melody on T=0 – who’s also a good friend of Charlie’s – he said, Hey, funny you should dedicate this song to Charlie because ‘Mallari’ was his favorite song. I never knew that.
Apparently he just loved this tune. I was so happy that I got to pick the right song to dedicate to him. I was happy that it worked out like that. It starts with the nadaswarm and a friend of mine from Istanbul, Aydin Essen – great, great piano player – put some keyboard parts down. And that prompted me to do that gospel thing at the end. It’s funny: it starts at the temple and ends at the church.
RS: Yeah, yeah [chuckles].
RB: I never knew that when I made it! The thing he was playing was faintly reminiscent of like a B-3 organ. It had this organ-ish quality to it and the lines he was playing were like this gospel kind of thing. So I sang a little line over the coda in my voice and I said, This would sound great with a little gospel choir. So I got some friends of mine to come into the studio and they just did a beautiful, beautiful arrangement of the melody that I had sung. I sang the lead notes on top, they harmonized it, and it became this huge gospel choir at the end. When I sat back and listened to the song, I said, Yeah! This is it!
RS: Suzanne D’Mello is really wailin’ on top of that choir!
RB: She’s a killer, man! She’s a killer! She arranged that whole section with her posse.
RS: The melody that the choir sings on the coda, is that a lyric or just vocalization?
RB: No, no. It’s just without words. It’s just something like Bobby McFerrin or somebody would do.
RS: That ending is just incredible! But another highlight of the piece is the percussion break in the middle!
RB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was trying to find a way to transit from the vocal solo and that melody, and to get to that end coda. I got an idea to do a little percussion break. My friend Sridhar, who’s the mridangam player on that, he arranged that whole section. And we all sat down and performed it together.
RS: There’s a lot going on in that percussion section. And it sounds like you’re playing konnokol lines on the drum set.
RB: Yeah. I’m playing traditional South Indian on the breaks. I did my drum take at like 5AM [chuckles]. I was like so fried, man! It was towards the end; just trying to make the deadline. I was the musical director for these Commonwealth Games that were happening here, and there was a big gig in Delhi. But luckily we got a window, like three or four weeks, where things were slow with the Commonwealth Games. And I said, Well, hunker down and get the album done, man. Because I didn’t want to miss the deadline. So we were pretty much working like eighteen hour days: editing; putting things down; conceiving things. I had raised the bar so high in my head that there was no way I was going to put out an album that fell short on any level.
So the last bit was really, really, really tiring and extremely satisfying. Because we knew somewhere we had left enough room for God. There was something divine-like working for sure.
RS: Definitely, definitely. I said in my review that there isn’t a dead note anywhere on Bada Boom. There’s absolutely no filler on this album, Ranjit. It’s just all there, man.
RB: I’m glad you think that way because that was intentional. I didn’t want any weak link on the album, man. You know, there’s so much great music that’s been made and you have to ask yourself before you put an album out, Why are you doing this? Really. Don’t take up space just because you can. If you have nothing to say, shut up. I tell myself that. If I don’t have anything valid to say, you would be best served to be silent. Because a lot of great music has been made. And we need to celebrate that and we need to respect that. That’s all I can say.
And because there was sort of a deadline to deliver, the album is lean. I kept it tight; six songs. It doesn’t have excess bullshit in it, you know. There are no weak moments. I made sure each moment on every track has some energy and momentum to carry it forward so that you’re always attentive when you’re listening to it. I could have put a seventh or an eighth song there, but they weren’t fully developed and it would have been not doing justice to these six. So I just kept it six songs that I know we could do well, and we’ll put those out. We’ll keep something for the next record.
RS: Let’s talk a little about Super Nova. It’s dedicated to table master Alla Rakha, and you have his sons Taufique Qureshi and Zakir Hussain playing on it.
RB: That was the first tune we actually – I think one of the first musicians to dub was Zakir bhai. I had spoken to him about it. He does something in Bombay on February 3rd every year as a commemoration to his father. The concert starts at 6AM, and in the evening there is a jam session. The last one that I did Zakir bhai said, Ranjit, why don’t you go out in the morning and play something. And I was like, Yeah. Okay. I had to play in front of him, anyway…
RB: …I’m being polite, here. I was actually petrified. But Sridhar, my friend the mridangam player, said, You know you’re going to play drums. Why don’t you write a song for Abba ji? I said, No, man. He hasn’t called me to sing, he’s called me to play drums. And Sridhar said, Well, yeah. We know you can sing. But what about writing a song? Write a song! He kept pushing me, man.
So I wrote that song and I played it the next morning.
RS: You wrote the song overnight?!
RB: I wrote the song overnight. Yeah, you know [chuckle]. Like for the better part of a day and one night I wrote it. And I performed it the next day with a keyboard player friend of mine and just drums. I sang a cappella because I hadn’t written the lyrics. It was just kind of half-scatted out, and harmonized. And it went down okay. I told Zakir bhai, This is something I’d like to develop for the album and I want to dedicate it to Abba ji. And he said, Yeah. Okay. I’ll do it. He came into the studio and he played against the song. I just had like a guide sort of keyboard part down. Then I started to edit his takes. And what I did effectively was I edited myself out of the track, man. I kept such beautiful parts of his tabla, that I had no place to play. It became like a tabla song. And I said, Shit! Because, you know, I have to play something.
In fact, Zakir bhai told me when I played him the rough cut, Listen, man. Where are you? There’s too much tabla on this. Where’s the drums? And I said, Well, I’m getting to that. I didn’t know what I was going to play, man. Then I really, really listened to it. I tried one or two takes, and then I left it. I came back the next day, and I nailed the song. We were having mix issues with the drums and the tabla; about how to blend them. And what I did was I just panned the tabla’s left, and I panned the whole drum set right. And that just opened the whole song up.
When Zakir bhai’s solo happened – I remember I asked U. Shrinivas ji, Why don’t you play a little motif underneath the solo that kind of acts like a sort of binding agent? Which he did. Then I got the string section to play that. It sounds like something out of the old George Martin stuff.
RS: Oh yeah, yeah! The strings definitely have that Within You Without You [by G. Harrison, on Sgt. Pepper] sound happenin’.
RB: Yeeeah. And I love that, man. I love that. And Chandana Bala sings a little sing-along with Zakir bhai’s solo. I wanted to keep it building. That was like a big moment in the song.
RS: It’s kind of difficult listening to Super Nova because you focus on the rhythmic interplay going on between you and Zakir, and you forget that there is a great tune happenin’ on top.
RB: There is a lot of information on the record. It’ll take a couple of listenings – more than a couple of listenings – to peel away all of the layers, you know. There’s a lot going on there.
RS: Dark Matter. Again, that mind blowing horn arrangement. I mean, whoa!
RB: That’s all my piano player Harmeet Manseta and Tim Garland, man. Tim’s the guy that arranged that horn section. And what about the bass player? You know the bass player is this 14-year-old girl?
RS: Mohini Dey?
RB: Mohini Dey. She’s 14-years-old, man!
RS: Yeeah! I saw a clip of her on YouTube.
RB: Talk about talent. This girl is just explosive, man! I met her when she was thirteen. Her father’s a bass player. One day he calls me up and he says, I’d like to come by and play you some music. So I thought he was going to come with like a CD or something, you know. And he comes to the studio with his daughter, man. I said, Okay. I wonder what this is all about?
She plays this groove from like an old Brothers Johnson record. I’m like, What the hell is this?! This is unreal, you know. The bass guitar is bigger than her! I mean, you close your eyes – that’s not a 13-year-old girl. And she played a piece she had written in 5/4. She played a little bit of Teen Town. And I was like, Maaan. This is something else!
We got to spend some time together. She did a couple of gigs with me at a club here. And she held her own, man; she played! When it came to Dark Matter I said, Mohini, are you able to play this song…? And in a couple of hours, she had played the song. She went off and I was working on the album. Once the song was fully developed with the horn section and everything I called her. I said, Do you want to come back and re-do your parts? Because that song had evolved, you know. There’s some new sections in there. She said, Fine. And it was her fourteenth birthday when she played the final take on that song. I remember, she came with another bass guitar. So I said, Listen. The tonality’s going to be different from your earlier take. She said, But I’m going to play the whole thing again. So she played the whole thing again with the new arrangements in place. And when I opened her previous track – just to give it some bottom-end – her bass take was in the same place! There was no flam. Her timing was impeccable; it was in exactly the same place. I didn’t have to edit anything.
RB: This is an extraordinary talent. She’s somebody I’d like to really, really do whatever I can to help her grow as a musician and nurture. You know Anthony Jackson heard about her – or heard her – through Souvik. And Anthony apparently said that If I’m ever coming there or she comes here, it will be my pleasure to teach her. For nothing, man.
RS: Coming from Anthony Jackson, that’s very high praise, indeed!
RB: This was something that Souvik told me.
RB: And Tim Garland introduced me to a wonderful piano player, Gwilym Symcock. He’s on the track as well. I think he was touring with Adam Nussbaum and Steve Swallow. He’s a good friend of Tim’s and they have a band together in London. So, that was Dark Matter. It’s an animal, that song, man. It is. Yeah, it is.
RS: That must have been an extremely difficult piece to conceive its final form with the arrangements coming in pieces?
RB: I’m telling you, all the years I’ve spent in the studio have helped. In fact, it would have been impossible without it. With me having the kind of head that I have, it wouldn’t have been possible to have done it otherwise.
RS: The last track is Origin with Scott Kinsey and Wayne Krantz. This song makes you want to go to the club and go dancing.
RB: Yeah, yeah. It was a groove song on the album and I wanted it to have like a Zawinul Syndicate kind of feel. The melody and that whole aspect is very sort of Sufi Qawali. Qawali comes out of the Sufi tradition, and it’s a very celebratory type of singing that the Muslim community here practices. It’s like their version of trance. It’s a spiritual song form which I love. It’s what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan used to do. You know, the great Pakistani singer?
RS: I’ve heard of him, yeah.
RB: Well Nusrat ji was a great exponent of Qawali. So that’s the tradition where that song writing sort of comes out of. Just like, I hear a great parallel between how Joe would use Africa as a springboard for the ethnicity within his jazz world. I think parts of India lend the same kind of vibe, you know. And Scott Kinsey was an obvious choice for that. Scott really set that song up. All that coloring and everything, that’s all him, man.
Wayne was in Japan and he came back. He had just one day in New York. I remember we spoke before and he said, Well listen. I’m gonna try and find a studio I can pop into and put something down for you. It was the last day of recording and we had pretty much mixed everything. Souvik was like, Where’s the album? I need it now! And Wayne just went and did his thing. An old friend of mine Nicolas Fiszman, a bass player from Belgium – he’s done a lot of work with Trilok Gurtu – he put his bass part down. It all came together in just a couple of days.
RS: What do you want people to get out of your music?
RB: Uhmm. I don’t really have an agenda in mind. It’s really a sense of – Like you said, it’s a work of Art. It’s something I’ve crafted. I want to convey a sense of beauty, really. Most of the people that I’ve found listening to the album, they’re uplifted, you know.
And in some way I think I’m a representative of my culture and this country. Through the music I’m representing my people. And I want [people] to be better informed about who we are and what our music is. Yes, it’s different. But listen to how much sameness there is. It’s still music. I want those boundaries to disappear forever. I think that’s the best that I can put it.
RB: One of the nicest things I’m seeing about this is that some of the younger musicians who have heard about what’s happening with Bada Boom are suddenly inspired to do their own thing. They’re saying, Well you know, everything’s not lost. Ranjit’s doing it, so we can too. Which is fantastic. Which is the point of the whole thing, you know. And if enough people do it, then we have a real sort of [music] movement on our hands. When young kids look up to some of us and they see, Yeah well, he’s doing it and he’s done it with all these people. And it was done over the Internet and it’s not impossible. And he managed to find a label that puts it out. – Suddenly they don’t feel alienated. They feel, Yes. It’s possible.
RS: Do you think western audiences are [getting] educated enough to accept more eastern elements in music?
RB: I would like to think so. I think America has a great history of a sort of searching spirit, and inquisitiveness if you’d like. I know that things like the spiritual aspects of India and things like yoga and stuff are already popular in your country. I think the music, too. A lot of Indian music has already been introduced into America and the West. I think this album is just an extremely sophisticated view of our music blending with the West. It is different, yeah. But I think in some ways because of the song element; and the orchestra; and the whole emphasis of creating something more beautiful than something daunting; I think that in itself has accessibility. You know what I’m saying?
I didn’t try to make the album with serious, really complicated rhythmic structures – we could have gone there. We could have gone there and made something fusiony which was really complicated with Carnatic rhythms/South Indian rhythms. But that wasn’t the goal at all. It’s just to make beautiful music and wonderful songs. That was it, really.
I think the biggest mistake we can make as musicians and artists is have preconceived ideas about peoples abilities. Because then you get into that whole realm of What? Are you specifically going to design something to make it more accessible? You can have production aspects that give it a commonality to listeners so that they associate it with other things that are more accessible.
But really: you write a song, you write it. Then it has a life of its own. And it goes and ends up with the people that it was meant to end up with.
RS: But as a creator of music, does acceptance of your music factor into the goal?
RB: No. Not really. See, in this genre thing, it’s not like we have millions of dollars riding on this, Rod. We’ve removed ourselves from that scenario. It’s not like a new Jay-Z or Beyoncé tune. I’ve yet to have a fan base to disappoint. I don’t have those things to worry about.
RS: So you have more freedom, in a sense?
RB: Absolutely. I mean, we’re making progressive music. You know, when you’re funding it yourself and you have a record label that’s willing to put some money in it – promote it, distribute it – we’re talking about numbers that are not crippling. Okay? Not that that even factors into it in the beginning. But we’re trying to realize the songs, and I’m trying to just make things that I really, really get-off on. And if I get-off on it, and I’m able to make that music to the best of my ability, I will find people that will get-off on it, too. I can’t predict those numbers, and I have no idea of factoring that into the objective of the record at all.
Normally when I’m writing, I become the listener. I become the audience. I try and see – better the conscious experiment – I try and see Would I like and would I buy something like this? And I would have to say with my record, Yeah. I would buy this! That’s all I can say, you know.
RS: There is a tendency for people to categorize. And music from the East gets labeled as Indo-Jazz or World Music. Don’t these labels stigmatize the music and limit the potential audience?
RB: Well, there’s not a whole lot you can do about labels and genres; and what people think; and where they’re going to position it. If you look at the cover, it just says Bada Boom featuring Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison and Wayne Krantz. Now, anybody in his right mind who buys music will be inquisitive enough to check this out. Right on the cover you have five of the biggest guns in the business. And we wanted it up front because, hey, you know me and maybe seventeen other people. Leaving my composition abilities and drumming abilities aside, I’m not someone that’s well-known in the West. This is my first record.
So I don’t know about the labels and stuff. People are going to look at the record and they’re going to see these names. Hopefully it’s going to be enough to get them to reach for it and give it a listen. And once they do that, then the songs have to speak for themselves. There’s not a whole lot you can do after that.
RS: You know, I was focusing so much on your composing and arranging that I forgot to mention that your drumming on Bada Boom is fantastic, as well!
RB: Yeah, yeah. The drummer’s not too bad [chuckles].
RS: Yeah, he’s all right [laughs].
RB: Thank you.
RS: What did you learn through this whole process of making your first album? From the writing, and recording, and producing; what did you come away with?
RB: You mean at the end of this album?
RB: Well, it was a great experience for me to learn what are my strengths and my weaknesses are; both as a composer and also as a drummer. You have to understand that when you write a song, it’s not always a given that you’re going to be able to play it. It’s a funny thing: you can write a song that’s really hard for you to play, yourself.
When I wrote Dark Matter I was working on all the other songs. And when it came time for me to play drums it was like an obscene hour in the morning. And I actually hadn’t learned that song. I was so busy doing everything else – I knew the song; it was my song. But I had no muscle memory of playing that song; I’d never played it. If you listen to that song, it’s almost like it’s a big band arrangement. Big band drumming is a whole other bag. And I’m not a big band drummer. I approached it like I approach it. And yeah, I mean, I can sell it. But I understood areas that I need to work on, personally.
I’m very, very objective and critical of my own work. I’m pretty clear. I know what my weaknesses are. But because I’ve been in the business of producing and making music long enough, I’ve also learned to play to my strengths. Which I think any sensible artist will learn to do in the course of their career.
Any deep process like this ends up with a lot of self-discovery. That’s really the most you can hope to take out of this. You learn a lot about yourself. What needs to get better; what you’re happy and content with; what you expect out of the music; how other people accept you as a composer.
RB: And that’s what I want to do. I want to keep writing and composing. I’m not a drummer, man. Drums is my primary instrument. Drums is one part of it. When it’s necessary to pull out some chops, that’s because the song needs it. And when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m a musician. I don’t want to be confined by – It’s like my wife told me; she says I hate to be told what I can’t do. I just hatethat. It’s just not acceptable.
I’m trying to tell a story. I’m trying to tell my life’s story. The stuff I’ve grown-up with in my country. I’m trying to write songs. I like to play drums, but I also like to sing. I have great respect for the written word. And I want to give vent to all facets of my creative personality. That’s what I want to do. I want to find the right co-conspirators who are willing to share that experience with me. I’m very lucky to have these musicians on this album supporting my story. And I want to continue doing that.
Yeah. It’s not a drummer’s album; it’s a musician’s album. I want to maintain that. I’m very clear about that.
RS: Well, we’re at the open mic part of the interview where I turn it over to you. Is there anything you want to talk about?
RB: I’d like to say that I’m really, really humbled that some of the people who are on this album have chose to play with me. That’s a big one for me. You know, I’m just getting started, man. And people like John ji, and Zakir bhai, U. Shrinivas ji, Wayne Krantz – guys who I have so much respect for – that acceptance that they gave me filled me with so much confidence. I could tread with a sure foot knowing that if it was all right with these guys, then maybe what I was doing was okay. That’s a very, very humbling experience.
I wish that for all composers: that they find such great people to support them. It gave me a lot of strength and a lot of confidence. It’s hard writing good songs! It really is. It’s nice to know that – Yeah, I have my own barometer; and I’m very self-critical; and I’m objective and stuff. But when it swings by all these great people and they say, What you’re doing is okay, and they’re so giving of their time and their talent; it was very, very crucial for me to be able to do the album. It allowed me to express myself completed unhindered. That was a big one for me.
RS: Well, you nailed it in spades, man.
RB: Thank you, man. I’m real happy. I am. I listen to it even now and it has a dream-like quality to me. Sometimes I’m amazed that, Wow, we got all this information down! I mean, some of the songs are so dense, and there’s so much happening there. And yet, it plays out without having any fatigue. It’s a rare thing. So yeah, all-in-all a very, very beautiful journey. And I’ll be sure the next time I do this we don’t slip and we don’t make anything which is in any way less beautiful than this. That’s for sure.
Playing music itself is a blessing. It’s an incredible gift, to live our lives the way we are allowed to do so. It also comes with a responsibility. I think it is not enough, just to be able to play a musical instrument. Merely doing that does not qualify you to be a musician. It comes with channeling that gift into something bigger than yourself and eventually bigger than playing music, too. Then, maybe, you get a glimpse of your place in this world and in the Grand Design.
To spend every moment immersed in a magical world that allows us to see beyond the obvious material world. Add to that the ability to put that into song and share it with other people, to convey your emotions and connect with other people; that’s a feeling like no other.
RS: Ranjit, thanks for the second opportunity to talk to you. I really wanted to be on the forefront of getting the word out on Bada Boom.
RB: My pleasure, Rod.
RS: No, no. The pleasure was all mine, man. Sorry that I kept you up so late.
RB: That’s all right.
RS: But it’s musician’s hours, anyway [chuckles].
RB: [chuckles] Yeah. Pretty much, pretty much.
RS: I wish you much success with Bada Boom, and I really hope it gives you the exposure and recognition that you deserve.
RB: Thank you, Rod.
RS: Best to your wife Maya, and daughter Mallika.
RB: Best to you and your wife, man. God bless.