Rod Sibley Interviews Ranjit Barot on CHINGARI’s new album BOMBAY MAKOSSA
RANJIT BAROT – ETIENNE MBAPPE – U. SHRINIVAS
By Rod Sibley
The old saying goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. But you can’t have a fire without a spark. In Hindi, the word for “spark” is “chingari”. Chingari is also the name of the new group comprised of drummer/composer Ranjit Barot; bassist/vocalist Etienne MBappe; and mandolin virtuoso Uppalapu Shrinivas.
Their debut recording, Bombay Makossa on Abstract Logix Records, is a unique mix of Indian and African rhythms, Duala and konnokol vocals, underpinned with serious funk and fusion played with monster chops.
Barot and MBappe are no strangers to intricate compositions and complex time signatures as the rhythm section of John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension. They ground the music with body shaking grooves and soulful vocals sung in Cameroonian MBappe’s native language of Duala. The addition of Shrinivas gives Chingari a Carnatic voice that expands and refines the power trio format with his raaga styled improvisations.
Although a trio, Chingari makes a loud noise. The production on Bombay Makossa allows the arrangements to have the sonorous sound of a larger group without sacrificing the clarity and openness of a smaller one. The material allows the trio to stretch not only their musicianship, but music genres. Fusion-style instrumental breaks are interwoven with pop-style melodic vocal harmonies; all smothered in infectious R&B and funk.
I spoke to Ranjit Barot – who also produced Bombay Makossa – shortly before he and Etienne were to join John McLaughlin and drummer/keyboard player Gary Husband for a 4th Dimension tour of Europe. The familiarity of two previous interviews and the pleasure of having met him in person removes any stiff formality; and allows a loose conversation. My goal is to not only capture his words, but convey his humor and depth of thought through them.
Tragically, Mandolin Shrinivas (“Shrinivasji”) passed away shortly after the release of Bombay Makossa due to liver failure. Not only a supreme musician, he was a supreme human being whose loss is deeply felt among those he touched. But the music is not filled with the doubt of what could have been. It is filled with the joy and spirit that was within Shrinivasji, and is a lasting testament to his greatness and musical legacy.
Let’s hope that Ranjit and Etienne continue Chingari in some form, and kindle the musical spark ignited on Bombay Makossa.
Rod Sibley: First of all, congratulations on Bombay Makossa. I really love it and it’s definitely another winner for you. Johnji should be pissed at you guys for holding back on him in the 4th Dimension [chuckles]. Because you and Etienne are really knocking this one out, man!
Ranjit Barot : Well, Johnji has the blame for that. Because really, after playing with him which guitar player are you gonna play with? Who you gonna ask, man? Where do you go? I’ve always been excited about the guitar power trio format – guitar-bass-drums – like Jimi Hendrix had. And Eric Clapton with Cream.
And I thought to myself, well I’d like to have John McLaughlin on guitar – that’s not gonna happen [chuckles]. You’re spoiled for guitar players when you play with Johnji. When I say that it’s more from a perspective of not just the way Johnji plays, but as he very rightly puts it, I need a guitar player that’s gonna kick my ass. You need that all the time.
Western improvisational music is still at a very nascent stage in India. There are some fine young players. And I think they would morph into some very, very fine players if they got the opportunity to play with good people from the west; like I got the opportunity. But unfortunately, there are not many venues to play.
So in-between tours with 4th Dimension, as a drummer/composer in India it becomes quite challenging for me to keep myself occupied on the drum set; for me to stay in shape. The only way I can do that is by playing with Indian classical musicians who are very, very highly trained, skillful, imaginative, and at the top of their game. Because they have the discipline, the attitude, and the mental make-up that they get onstage, and everyone kicks each other’s ass. Everyone is trying to elevate the music to a very high level. They challenge you; push you to the place where you do actually start performing. Because it’s only when we’re pushed that we get to be who we really are. You understand? Those are the situations you want to find yourself in.
My playing with Johnji has been a perfect training ground for me to explore those dynamics of what it takes to play properly on stage.
RS: So how did the project take shape?
RB: I’m fascinated by a lot of things that are similar to Africa and India. I know there’s a tribe that sings the 12-bar blues in Africa. And there’s a tribe in India that sings the blues. I mean, really a tribe; they’re like village people. I think the whole rhythmic aspect of Africa – the swing married with the Indian Carnatic – I really wanted to explore. I wanted to see what it would sound like. Really, it was just curiosity.
Spending time with Etienne on the road, seeing Etienne with his band Su La Také; he has such an incredible voice. And then I started hearing all these melodies and I thought it would be great if Etienne would sing it. He’s an incredible musician. He’s so intuitive. And he grooves like such a bad ass. But he’s rhythmically and melodically so sound. For me, he’s probably my favorite bass player. I was blown away when me and Etienne started playing and we started recording.
Me and Shrinivasji have done quite a few concerts together, and we were always talking about doing something. So I threw Shrinivasji into the mix. I knew that there would be a great vibe between this Africa and India connection with a western harmonic approach, and improvisational aspects of jazz and jazz-rock. And it really turned out far greater than I imagined.
It wasn’t that I was totally convinced of the marriage of cultures. But I knew when you have consummate musicians like these two, that something like this is possible. ’Cuz they will bring some unique sensibilities into the music. I know both of them. I know their awareness and capabilities; how they approach music. And more importantly, I know them as human beings.
Even with Bada Boom I said I like to go where all cultures meet – where music meets. And I think there’s a place where it doesn’t matter who you are or what culture you represent. But when you have that spirit to search and find the unknown, we all become the same thing. We all are looking for the same thing. When you meet the right people, they not only chase it down, they elevate the music. You know then that there’s some real chemistry going on and there was some magic to the thought process.
And eventually, what are we doing? It’s a meeting of the minds. It’s us having a conversation. All three of us are fond of each other and want to have a dialogue. So it’s gonna be some good shit that comes out that. It has to be.
RS: Most of Bada Boom was produced by you crafting sound files sent to you by musicians from various countries of the world. Were the three of you able to play together in the studio for Bombay Makossa?
RB: Etienne was visiting Bombay with his band, so I got him to stay on for a couple of days so I could track with him. And I flew to Chennai and tracked with Shrinivasji. I had to do Shrinivasji separately because he was on tour with Remember Shakti. It was hard to get everyone in the same room, at the same time. I’ve sort of developed my production skills to a point where really it sounds we’re all together playing at the same time.
RS: Shrinivasji overdubbed his parts later? That’s incredible!
RB: What Shrinivasji recorded, I put drums off. It was nice to have a blank canvas from him, and let him dictate the dynamics. After recording him, I went back and did some drum tracks. It kind of made sense for me to interpret what everyone was doing so that it sounded more organic; sounded more like what you’re listening to now.
RB: And Shrinivasji finished all seven songs in one day!
RB: I booked the studio for two days. And it’s not even like we started in the morning. It was just after lunch, like two o’clock or something. He had never heard the songs – I never mailed him anything – and he just burned through the whole session. Like nine o’clock at night. Like an hour a song, he just went straight through. And I said, “Shrinivasji, we’ve got the studio tomorrow. Why don’t we go grab a bite?” And he was like, “No, no. I’m really in the zone. I’m enjoying this. Let’s just do it. I don’t wanna stop now.”
So one afternoon to late evening, he finished everything. And that gave me a couple of options on solos. I did a little editing. I did my drum tracks. And that was the album basically.
RB: It was insane. His level of focus was really insane. But this is again a testament to his genius. He wasn’t just coming in as “the mandolin player”. I think he had more sense of what I was imagining, or what my intent was, than even I did. Because being a trio – you see when he starts his solos – he leaves so much space. He takes so much time for the idea to develop. I mean, that’s a very, very deep understanding of music and compositional structure; and how to build a conversation. I learned a lot just listening to him play on this record.
RS: When did you write the songs? Were any of these pieces gonna be used for the follow-up to Bada Boom, or were they specifically for this project?
RB: I started writing all of this after Bada Boom. They were melodies, little riffs I had. Melodic vocal lines. I kept putting it down; and I would play it. I remember Johnji saying in an interview once – much like him, I have to wait for melodies to come into my head. I don’t write at the keyboard. I like for it to come from somewhere. I don’t know, it sort of parks itself in my head, and then that seed then allows me to imagine what else could go around with it.
RS: My research tells me that “makossa” is a Cameroonian music style?
RB: I got a lot of information from Etienne. While he was writing lyrics in Duala, his native language, I would ask him things. I would say, “This section here, what do you want to do? Is there some intrinsic groove from where you come from that I could…?” He says, “Yeah. We should do the makossa, man.” And he sang it out for me. You know the snare drum rhythm [sings a pattern]. And I said, “Okay. That’s what we’re gonna lay down.” All his other parts, I just let him loose on the mic. I said, “These are the melodies.” But beyond that; I mean, he brought so much to the table, man.
RS: Did you have any lyric sketches for him to translate into Duala? Or did he just write lyrics of his own?
RB: I had the idea of what I thought the song would be like. Like “Sona Inon”. I had called the song “Song Bird”. And he related to it instantly. He said, “Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. This wonderful bird that travels through the jungle carrying a song on its lips.” And he wrote something in Duala. He just sat – ten, fifteen minutes. He’s very, very intuitive.
Etienne hadn’t really heard much of the tunes before he came to the studio. And he just nailed it. Like one and a half, two days. He nailed everything [chuckles]. I said, “Etienne. That’s far out, man.” He said, “Yeah man, brother. [sniffing] I just smelt where it’s happening [sniffing], and I just played.” [laughs]
RS: [laughing] Playing together in 4th Dimension, you already have some sort of telepathy and intuition going on with each other.
RB: When you listen to the album, there’s such great connectivity between me and Etienne. But it’s very different from what we do with Johnji. That’s apparent. Straight up. I think the album plays to each one of our strengths; but really to Etienne’s strengths. It really does. I mean, this is his turf, man. He’s really, really killing it on this record.
RS: Where his parts written out, or did he make up his bass lines?
RB: Just the melody and the arrangements were written. But everything in-between was his.
RS: Before you mentioned that they recorded separately, I imagined you giving Etienne charts since he reads, and doing konnokol vocals for Shrinivasji for the sessions. I was trying to figure out where the meeting point to get everyone on the same page was?
RB: You know, I went through great pains to write everything out for Etienne, and he didn’t even look at it [chuckles]. Man, I was like [shakes head]. He said, “No, no. I can’t read it. It’d be really faster if you just play it.” And really, that’s true for me, as well. When Johnji sends me stuff, it would take me forever to read that shit, man. I would just listen to it four or five times, and let it become part of your thinking and absorb it into your body. Then I think you get to play it with a lot more conviction than if you’re reading off paper.
RS: With the mandolin not being a chord playing instrument, the arrangements are wide open for the bass and drums. And you guys really take advantage of the space. You and Etienne could have just made this a duet record. Was that an intended goal, or was it something that happened and you just went with it?
RB: I had no idea, really, how it would pan out. I suppose I wanted to go so differently from Bada Boom, which was so expansive in nature – which was such a big soundscape. When you listen, Etienne is also the chordal element. And I wanted that very much. I knew the trio format itself lends itself to a lot of space and for a lot of room to improvise; and really share the intimacy. The dialogue is immediate. And it’s relying mostly on the synergy between the three of us.
I wasted some time trying to tinker with it and impose some other silly elements which I thought would enhance the thing; but which really was only spoiling things. Like, “Okay there’s three of us, and then I’m gonna trigger a laptop or something to bring some other harmonic textures in.” I wasted three or four months with that bullshit.
RS: I don’t think the production is overdone.
RB: There was this thing of “How much I can push it?” And then I just backed off. I knew that there was no question of crowding anything with anything else. I said, “I’m just gonna let it be.” It eventually turned out just how I wanted it to, yeah. But it took a long time for the album to come out. By that time, Souvik had a couple of other releases. You know how it is. It’s a tough time for the record industry. And I really have to thank Souvik for even wanting to put it out. Because it’s so hard today to put anything out. He’s a real brother in that sense of the word. He’s truly committed and he shared the vision; and I’m very thankful to him.
RS: Let’s talk a little bit about the songs. The first track “Pack Up Your Bags” starts off with a bass and konnokol vocals pattern which turns into the main theme of the song. But it sounds like Etienne re-harmonized it again and plays it as a separate theme with Shrinivasji.
RB: Yes. I sat with a young keyboard player friend of mine in the studio and I said, “Hey man. Instead of him just playing unison, why doesn’t he play a harmony with Shrinivasji?” And we sketched something, and it sounded great as a harmony to the main melody line. And it ends on two chords that he plays.
It’s coming from “How do we explore the full potential of the trio?” What is it that we can all do together that adds some value to the trio format; as opposed to just the three of us jamming and playing together? Yeah, it would sound fine. But start paying attention to little things in detail that give the trio some more value; some more focus and direction. Bring in certain arrangements and orchestration that pushes all of us to be cohesive as a single unit. And when you look at each person independently there’s all this stuff going on.
So yeah, that’s a harmony line there. Yeah.
RS: You mentioned that the next track “Sona Inon” means “song bird”. Etienne’s vocals in Duala are very soulful and expressive. Even though you both sing in 4th Dimension, I’ve never heard you guys sing like you do on this record.
RB: Well you know, Johnji wants to add more vocals in the band. I think he’s planning things that we don’t know about yet? I don’t know. Etienne I’ve seen with his own band, and I wrote these melodies for him. I wrote them in a key which would show off the full timbre of his voice. He’s got such an incredible voice that I really, really wanted to explore that.
Bobby McFerrin has been a big influence in my life compositionally and vocally. I’m a big fan of his work. So I wrote some things. And when Etienne sang, it just transformed into this wonderful, wonderful sound. His voice is such a wonderful instrument, man. Sounds killer.
RS: You added effects to Shrinivasji’s mandolin, just like his brother U. Rajesh on Bada Boom. Did you tell him you were going to do it, or did you surprise him?
RB: I love him and respect him so much that I said, “I gonna mess with the sound later. I really want to make you sound like a rock instrument.” He said, “Yeah, yeah. Please, Sir. Do whatever you feel like. No problem.” And I sent it to him the files once I processed his mandolin, and he loved it.
I think all of the participants were very, very happily surprised on hearing the final product.
RS: It seems like Shrinivasji took on the role of a guitar player in a trio on this recording, as opposed to being a soloist in a Carnatic context. Did he do that consciously?
RB: I think so. I think he kind of connected with what I was trying to go for. He brought such a sensibility to the record that far exceeded anything I’d imagine. We all know he was wise, way beyond his years. So I think he had assimilated every kind of music there is. And playing with Johnji in Remember Shakti. You have to also remember that when you’re playing with Johnji on stage – playing with one of the greatest guitar players ever – a lot of that must have rubbed off on Shrinivasji as well.
RS: The ending of that song is sweeeet. It could have been a separate song on its own.
RB: Yeah. When he goes into that double-time thing at the end.
RS: Did he play that part, or did you create a loop and pitch shift it?
RB: No, no.
RS: He played both parts?!
RB: And that was his idea.
RS: That’s some wicked shit!
RB: It’s killing, man. And it’s all one take. Just sick.
RS: Just amazing, man.
RS: The third piece, “Fireflight”, is one of my favorite tracks.
RB: “Fireflight” is a traditional piece that Carnatic musicians play. And I really like the melody. A friend of mine, Palakkad Sreeram from Chennai, he helped me a lot. He’s there on Bada Boom as well. He’s my “Go To Guy” for Carnatic information and finding those rare melodies that you don’t get to hear so much.
RS: I think there is a song on a record Shrinivasji did called “Flight Of The Fire Bird”. Is there any connection?
RB: No, no. I would just listen to the song and it would prompt a title in my mind.
RS: This one took me out because of the funk break that Etienne and Shrinivasji riff over. With the different melodies and the merging vocals-mandolin-bass parts, you wouldn’t think it could come together. But it’s all so seamless.
RB: Yeah, yeah.
RS: Is that distorted bass, synth, or both in the middle section?
RB: Both. It’s a synth underneath Etienne’s distortion bass – for me to blow over a little bit.
RS: There’s another wicked riff going back to the funk break after the vocal section. I know that it’s Johnji’s gig, but I would love to hear 4th Dimension do this song “live”.
RS: On the fourth track “Longue Lami”, the intro sounds like a short alap section for Shrinivasji. Is that you playing keyboards?
RS: And Etienne’s vocals have reverse echo on them?
RS: It has a slow march feel before it goes into the break with a count of 2-3-3-3 with 4-5 at the end. But the main thing that surprised me was the tabla sound. Was that you playing tabla, or was that the Wavedrum?
RB: That’s Wavedrum.
RS: ’Cuz I’m like, “Ranjit never told me he played tabla!”
RB: It’s a Wavedrum. I’ve had it for a while and I use it sparingly. But I like to use it in this context and take it on tour with me.
RS: The next one, “Tempest”, is my other favorite track. In my review for Bombay Makossa, I wrote that this tune was “a straight-up bitch”. It starts with various counts of 15, and then you guys double it to 30!
RB: Yeah [chuckles].
RS: How did you come up with that one? It’s insane!
RB: Actually, it’s a Carnatic rhythm concept that even Remember Shakti has used. I think when you grow up with South Indian music, especially the rhythmic structure, you get very familiar with numbers and how to use them in a musical context. I’ve always liked that 5 can become 6, played five times. And 15 and 30, and 2-1/2…
RS: You do something like that on the next track, “Third World”; throwing in an even count at the end of an odd one.
RB: Yeah, yeah. So it’s 13 and then you got a little bit in 6 in the middle. It’s just part of Carnatic rhythmic culture.
RS: The part that’s killer to me is when you guys hit it and go to 30, the “one” seems to disappear. It sounds like there’s nothing to ground you. I had to count it by dividing Etienne’s phrasing; something ridiculous like 5-7-3-7-8.
RB: He’s holding it down. Actually, what’s the guideline is the chordal element; the harmonic structure.
RS: Really?! I kept trying to feel for the pulse when I listened to it, and I kept getting lost.
RB: [sings the chord progression] So the way the chords are moving, those are the anchors that let us know where we are at the improvisational thing. So then me and Shrinivasji take off on that little flight where we’re really going neck-to-neck. But it’s Etienne’s chordal structure, and the set of changes that I gave him, that is the anchor.
RB: And the interesting thing about this song is when I first joined 4th Dimension – that’s 2011, my first tour – we were in Cordoba in the south of Spain. I remember we had a couple of days extra because we were supposed to go from there to Morocco to play; and that got cancelled. And Johnji had a guitar workshop. That’s all flamenco country, the south of Spain. Johnji’s very big in that part of the world, even in the flamenco circuit, because of his own contribution to flamenco music.
So we were at breakfast and Johnji says, “I’m gonna do this guitar workshop.” I said, “Listen, I’ll come along.” And basically he spoke about life and being a human being; and what it takes play the music that we play.
But he also mentioned an interesting thing about how a lot of the chords he writes, the melodic changes, comes from combinations of notes in the scale. Okay? So that scale in “Tempest” is a C-diminished scale. And every chord change you hear in that – all the notes in the chords – are from notes in that scale. I didn’t take one note outside of the scale. I kinda learned that from that workshop going with Johnji.
And you see that the first part of that section, the changes underneath Shrinivasji are quite angular. They’re dark and they’re a little hazy. It’s the same scale for which the chords come later for Etienne’s bass solo; which is so beautiful and sweet, and soulful. But it’s still chord tones from the same scale.
RS: Another highlight is Shrinivasji’s solo on this track. It’s bad ass enough when you guys take off as a trio. But he just ripped it!
RB: Yeah, yeah. He’s flying in that one, man.
RS: The fifth track “Third World” is in 13. It’s a very light pop tune, and quite a change following “Tempest”. I was surprised to hear your drums with a “gated drums” effect. RB: Yeah. I don’t know. I was just hearing this weird kind of throwback to the ’80s kinda thing. And that bass line is the first thing that came into my mind.
RS: Did you find yourself thinking more like a bass player for this project?
RB: Yeah, yeah. It was like, “What would the Brothers Johnson do in 13?” [sings the bass line] Like a funky kind of thing. You can get down on that. You put a horn section and a guitar player there – that will kill, man. That’s like a funky tune.
RS: The whole CD is funky! I say in my review that you and Etienne are laying down some “phat grooves”.
RB: I wanted one kind of funk thing on the record, so that was it.
RS: You also wrote the lyrics and sing lead on “Third World”.
RB: Yeah. I enjoy singing. In a playing context, I haven’t had much opportunity. Now with Johnji, I do a couple of songs: “Abbaji” and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” by Pharoah Sanders. And I’m singing harmony with Etienne in “Sona Inon” and in “Fireflight”.
Vocals are an important part of this band. I think people love to hear singing. They like to hear songs. And I try to dig deeper into a playing context intelligently. It’s not really pop – it could be – but it’s not. And there’s a lot of intense playing to support the other stuff.
RS: The title track “Bombay Makossa” is a reworking of “Origin” from Bada Boom. Shrinivasji is playing what was a synth part as the melody.
RS: And Etienne is singing your original vocal part from “Origin” in Duala.
RB: Yes. Yeah. I wanted that.
RS: You can dance to this sing. I also wrote in my review that Bombay Makossa is “not just for Fusionheads.”
RB: It’s very accessible. It’s very accessible on a lot of levels. I really think if we just try and have fun – everything doesn’t have to be so serious. We’re happy…not preachy – or anything. Just having fun. We’re like little kids; unbiased and really enjoying ourselves. See, it’s good to be child-like, not childish. There’s a difference between the two. When you’re child-like, it’s an innocent state-of-mind. But being childish is like being a little petulant and a little self-absorbed. Child-like is a wonderful state-of-mind.
I just wanted to make a record that was fun for me to make, represented our strengths, and share it with people. Its got all our DNA’s there. It’s got all our identity and our ability to blow and stretch; that’s evident in quite a few of the songs. And then it has all this groove and vocals which give it a very, very accessible kind of vibe.
Even Shrinivasji was very vocal about that. He said, “This is one album I’ve done with somebody that I think a wide range of people are going to appreciate. Because I think it’s gonna translate through a lot of genres.”
RS: Did you have any goals for Chingari as a group? I mean, did you want it to do something?
RB: Well, I’ll be honest with you. I wanted to develop properties that I could tour and travel with. Because the reality is I don’t know how long… What will I do outside of the 4th Dimension? It’s a band, led by a gentleman that has affected all our lives. I owe Johnji such a debt of gratitude that I think it will be many lifetimes before I can ever, ever thank him properly. He changed my life. I mean, he changed it with his music way before I met him. And then by including me as part of his musical vision, he’s given me the biggest gift that I could expect from this life. Outside of my immediate family and my daughter, seeing those wonderful things in my life, I think this is the biggest, biggest gift I’ve got.
But all things must pass. All things come to an end. What would I do without the 4th Dimension? What would I do if I was not playing with Johnji? So really the biggest motivating part was I gotta make some music. I have to take the blessings that Johnji has given me, and all this validation that he has given me as a musician, as a composer, as a human being; I have to do something with those blessings. ’Cuz part of Johnji is in this music, too. He’s shown me the way – The Path. He’s made things very clear for me.
So really it was that. I must create something. I don’t think I’m a gun for hire. And I also know that any band has to have love. I need to play with people I love and respect. Etienne is my brother from another life, for sure. And what we share with the 4th Dimension is something I am carrying into Chingari.
It’s not even a conscious thing. I’m just being true to my nature. Music comes in my head and I want to do it. I’m already planning a big band project. I want to do some songs from Bada Boom. I would like a 20-30 piece orchestra: strings, choir, horns, keyboards. I’ve already written the music. What else are we going to do? We’re gonna write music and find ways to play it, [and] find collaborators to play it with. That’s all we can do.
RS: Was there anything that you wanted to do, but weren’t able to do on this project?
RB: No, no. It was logistically very simple; just the three of us. It was just a matter of getting the right dates. Had it not been for Shrinivasji – his involvement in it – and Souvik’s desire to do something, it would have been very hard to put this project out. You know how it is, Rod. It’s becoming almost impossible to put good music out. Because it’s the nature of the business, now. Of course we can do it digitally, and upload it, and iTunes, and blah-blah-blah. But to actually get a record label behind it…just to get the machinery working to try and reach people about the product; I mean that just doesn’t happen anymore.
So I’m very lucky that Abstract Logix and Souvik are still fighting the good fight. Allowing us to make this music and reach out to people with it. Once I wrote the music I spoke to Souvik about it. And he was instantly on board. And that gave me great strength to pursue it wholeheartedly; and not vacillate and think, “Wow. What’s gonna happen?” Souvik’s been incredible like that. Like Bada Boom, I just played him the drum track for “T=0”. I just played him the head of the drum track and he said, “You’re on.”
So I would imagine that would be the biggest hurdle for any musician: how to get it out and reach people. More and more you’re forced to work – nothing wrong with working with big names and people. But there are so many talented, killing, young composers and soloists that are dying to be heard. And unless they collaborate with some big artist or a big name; they’re not even gonna get looked at.
So once Souvik agreed, there was no real challenge because I knew that the musicians would all be more than happy to do it.
RS: I asked you this during our last interview, so I’ll ask you again. What did you learn about yourself from this project? What did you come away with?
RB: I feel more confident about my – not compositional abilities – but more confident about my communicative abilities. You know we have to kill this big giant that lives inside us: it’s our ego. That’s the big monster – which is necessary also – but it’s a two-edged sword. You can enter a very self-gratifying process when you start to write. The mind is this incredible playground where anything is possible. And more and more it forces you into a world where you want to share everything you’ve learned. And what we have to understand is that in wanting to communicate with people, we have to take into account that everyone is at different points in their spiritual journey.
The first responsibility that comes with knowledge and wisdom is that you must share it. And for us to share this magic we have in our minds, we have to create things that audiences can [take] – sugar-coated pills. We gotta share this wisdom, and this wonderful gift we have, in a form which they like. And we can elevate their consciousness with it.
That’s what the old books and great works of literature were enlightening people about: deep truths through very simple parables and very simple tales in which were hidden very deep messages. I think some songwriting is like that. And I feel with Chingari I achieved some degree of giving some very very deep and meaningful music, but through a very accessible structure. Does that make sense?
RS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
RB: People love Stevie Wonder; and there’s a reason. Because Stevie is a consummate genius. He can write songs that you could play for a maestro connoisseur of music; and a young couple in the third row both will be equally smitten by something. Because Stevie has the gift. All the doors are open for Stevie. Stevie can see everything clearly.
That’s conquering the ego and it’s being able to communicate in the truest sense of the word. So if anything, that’s what I learned from this project. And having said that, I wouldn’t have walked away with this sense of achievement had it not been for Etienne and Shrinivasji. Because without them, there is no concept.
RS: How about your drumming? Are you in a comfortable place with your drumming?
RB: Yes and no. I just want to get better and better at what I do.
RS: I think you’re playing some monster shit on this recording.
RB: I think what I really like about my playing on this record is…like take songs like “Longue Lami”. That’s like one of my favorite tracks of drumming; and I’m not doing anything on it. And I really like that. I really like that I was able to serve the song succinctly; and yet love to listen to what I did.
Normally, we have to do one song like “Tempest” where we breakout. I have to do it because I love doing that with Johnji. And I’m always chasing that feeling. I like serving the music and just supporting what incredible stuff is going on with the rest of the guys.
So I’m in a happy place with my playing. But having said that, it’s a process. We’re continuously growing – as with any musician that has dedicated their lives to music. You are always a student. And we will always stay students. Learn from each other. Keep growing. And that’s it. Like I said before, I’m just trying to be a little child in my sandbox. Have fun, that’s all. That’s all.
RS: You’ll be on tour with Johnji and the 4th Dimension in Europe in early November 2014?
RB: Yes! I spoke to Gary last night. And I think as much as we miss the music and the playing, we miss each other a lot. We’re all very deeply connected spiritually and musically. So I’m really looking forward to seeing Johnji and being on the road with the boys again.
RS: Was there anything personal you’d like to say about Shrinivasji?
RB: Shrinivasji has always been a mentor for me. He was a consummate musician when he was 8-years-old. So it’s a really big honor and blessing that he actually wanted to be part of the project and blessed it.
He’s not with us anymore. Of course, the human being in us misses him. And I think it’s such a shame that he went with an illness that could have been treated had it been caught in time. Jaundice and liver failure are not things that we cannot handle. It was just something that was…I don’t know how it came to be…and it was so sudden. I think that’s what freaked everyone out. Within a month it was already terminal.
But he’s in our hearts forever. He’s in this music. And I will always carry his vibe inside me. He was an angel. I don’t think he was a regular human being. I think he was already a big messenger. And he’s gone home now. What are you gonna do, man? He’s sitting in some beautiful light-filled place, sending his love and blessings to us. We have to celebrate his life and carry on.
I don’t think there’s enough that can be said about Shrinivasji. I’ve never, never met anybody with such keen insight into what is possible in an ensemble. It’s a level of musician and humanity that really is unparalleled. Shrinivasji, Johnji, Zakir bhai: these are people that stand out. Their insight into music and how to get the best out of other people around them is incredible.
But for Shrinivasji to have all that ability at such an early part of his life. We carry gifts from one lifetime into the next. I mean, he was playing classical concerts when he was 6 and 8. How much practice are you – even if you start in your Mother’s stomach, 6 years is not enough, man? [chuckles] And he was playing at a very, very high Carnatic concert level. Where he was sharing the stage with U. Sivaramanji and A. K. Palanivelji – drummers who are like 3-4 times his age.
There was a very popular incident at a concert that I saw here, where at the end of the gig Sivaramanji touched Shrinivasji’s feet! [a sign of reverence and respect, as it is the elder’s feet that are always touched – RS] And Shrinivasji was 10! Sivaramanji at that time would have 40. And he touched Shrinivasji’s feet! So what are you going to say about somebody like that? This is the thing: we get touched by such great people. We have no excuse to sit around lamenting more than is necessary. Because when they touch you, you are given a responsibility to do something with that blessing. And share that music; and that spirit of humanity with people. And that’s what I want to do. I’ve been touched by Johnji, by Ustad Zakir Hussain, by Shrinivasji; and so many other great musicians. I just feel that…okay, there must be something in me that they saw. And I must do something with this music.
RS: It’s open mic time, where I turn it over to you. Is there anything you want to talk about?
RB: I’m very lucky to do this music in Chingari. And sharing space with the greatest musicians alive today. Etienne is, for me, one of the greats today. Electric bass playing, musician, his sense of time and harmony. Everyone knows him, and everyone thinks that he’s great, blah-blah-blah; all that. But I think he’s still under-rated.
RS: Well, you can really hear what he’s doing on Bombay Makossa. That’s one of the great things about the production on this recording.
RB: That’s another reason I wanted the trio. Because I know when you hear him – his intonation; and his instrument is such an incredible instrument. But the way he plays, it fills the whole spectrum; the whole record.
Johnji sent me an email the other day saying, “I really love it, Ranjit. But is it just me, or could the drums be louder?” [chuckles] You listen to The Boston Record, and I’m the loudest thing on the record; as loud as his guitar, if not more. So he’s very supportive of the drummer in the band [laughs].
RS: [laughing] That’s for sure.
RB: I wanted the bass to fill the record, you know. And it does. The way Etienne makes use of that space – see that’s the thing. Somebody can give you room to roam around. But what are you gonna do with all that space? And Etienne knows what to do with that space. There are great bass players out there, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think they have what Etienne has. It’s groovy, it’s melodic, it’s funky, it’s big; it’s beautiful, bold. I like it, I love it. That’s the kind of music I want to hear.
RS: Anything else you’d like to add?
RB: Just I thank the people that played on the record with me. And Souvik for having faith. And as always, Johnji and Zakir bhai for their guidance. Really, that’s it.
RB: Oh! When Shrinivasji woke up in the hospital, before he went into the downward spiral, he asked for Chingari to be played in the room. He loved the project, man.
RS: That’s very touching.
RB: Very touching. He wanted to listen to it. And he looked at his brother [U. Rajesh], and he told his brother, “See. I told you. Ranjitji writes some very tricky shit, man.” [chuckles] And he looked at his brother – his brother was standing – he looked at him and said, “Do you like it? How am I playing? What do you think about my playing?”
RS: [quiet pause] Nothing I can say after that, man.
RS: Well, I think we got it covered, Ranjit. Thank you very much, man. As always I had a great time talking with you. I really hope Bombay Makossa gets the exposure it deserves.
RB: Thank you, Rod.