Percussionist, composer, and improviser Rajna Swaminathan is a trailblazer in the fields of South Indian traditional music and beyond. Not only is Swaminathan one of only a few female mrudangam players in the world, she has expanded her art to encompass diverse forms of improvisation. Over the past several years, Swaminathan has been exploring this netherworld between musical styles with her group RAJAS, which features a rotating cast of top New York improvisers. This week, Swaminathan and RAJAS will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, performing two sets of music. We caught up with her last week to hear about how she thinks about combining different musical traditions and the complex gender politics of her varied musical communities.
The Jazz Gallery: You have performed in classical South Indian concerts, with different jazz musicians, and with dance and theatre companies. How does your foundational background in South Indian Carnatic music affect the way you approach working with dance groups, and jazz and other creative improvisational settings?
Rajna Swaminathan: The dance company that I work with is called Ragamala, and they are a South Indian dance company. There is a branch of carnatic music that is used to accompany Bharatanatyam which is the South Indian dance style. So in that case it’s pretty much seamless, it is using the vocabulary that is traditionally used, but they also do a lot of collaborative projects with different genres of music. So for those productions, it involves some more creative thinking, using a foundation in Carnatic music. And depending on who’s the collaborator—like, we’ve worked with Taiko drummers before, there was one project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, so that was jazz, and the most recent one was with Amir ElSaffar composing, so he brought some stuff from the Maqam tradition. So it just involves months of trying to figure out musically what’s going to work. Also, dancers have a very specific relationship with my instrument, mrudangam, with the specific footwork in South Indian dance, so we have to try to work the music for that to match up and also to be musically somewhat seamless.
As far as the jazz scene, I’ve been a little more intensely involved over the past few years, since about 2011 I would say. I started working with Steve Coleman, so he was the first person to get me thinking outside of my perspective. There’s a kind of fusion that happens when people are just playing what they would normally play in their traditions, almost like autopilot, tracking against each other, but he was against that approach. He was like, you really have to learn how to think polyrhythmically if you’re going to be playing with jazz musicians. And there are some related concepts in South Indian music, but it involves some work and rewiring and it’s mostly been work on listening, and being able to hear.
South Indian music is so linear. There’s usually a singer, mrudangam player, and violinist, and you’re usually expected to match each other and mirror each other almost phrase for phrase, anticipating what the other person is going to do. So the emphasis isn’t really on this polyphonic sound at all. For me to even get into the jazz scene, I had to be able to hear multiple things going on that are complementary to each other, but not in one stream of musical thought. So it required some work, directly working with Steve, and some other folks on the scene, like Vijay Iyer. At first I was just curious about this music, and I spent my undergrad studying anthropology, so I got some research funding to actually spend a Summer in New York and do field work. During that summer I got together with several drummers and musicians all in this creative music scene, went out to listen to a lot of music—a lot at the Jazz Gallery actually—just to get this music in my body, because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, and I was very interested in learning more and being a part of the scene.
It’s really become like a home for me. I still do traditional Carnatic music gigs every once and a while, I travel to India and do that, and I’m obviously involved with the dance company, but this has been another way for me to feel at home in music, in the creative music scene. Of course, not everyone is looking for a mrudangam player, so at first it was hard to find work, and find situations where people were willing to spend the time and really write parts that made sense for me, or had the time to work on it, how would you fit a mrudangam into this context. So in 2013 I started this band, with the idea that I would write my own music, and I would try to curate my own group so that I could experiment with how I would carve out a space for myself in the creative music scene, like how would I structure things. It was just a way of running through different ideas and working with musicians that I really resonated with, and try to learn in the process. This ensemble that I have now has been three years of working with different configurations and learning the whole time, how to come from the foundation that I started with, and bring it into this completely different scene, with different sensibilities and aesthetics.
TJG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach composition with your group RAJAS, which is a very cross-cultural improvisation based group?
RS: So basically every time there has been a slightly different instrumentation, but this particular group, we’ve been playing together for the past year or so, and I find that it’s been a really solid group of people, and compositionally it ends up reflecting who’s in the band. I compose these sort of frameworks, more or less, melodic, and to some extent harmonic and rhythmic frameworks, and it’s not so much a traditional jazz composition to play through everything and have these set solo sections, but the whole thing is like this world that you can enter, and everyone is expected to collectively improvise. It’s highly textural and involves a lot of rehearsal and finding those spaces that work best for different instruments and different people. And as I’ve been doing more shows with the group, it influences how I write, and how I direct them, and get directed by them. And I’ve worked in the past with folks like Amir ElSaffar, and Miles and Stephan, who are in this group, and they’re all senior musicians that have a lot of experience not only in their field, but also collaborating outside their field. Miles actually has a lot of experience with South Indian rhythms, so that’s a great anchoring force in the group. I’ve been learning a lot in terms of not just composing but also curating improvisation within the group, which I think is where the focus is really at in my band.